| Luke 23:33-43
|Sun, November 22, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
|We stand at the end of the year ... the end of the Christian Year. Next Sunday will mark New Year's Day for us. Today we stand at an end, looking back ... and looking ahead. You know how it is at the end of the year. News stories abound encapsulating the past year's events. Prognosticators predict what will occur in the year ahead. It is no different for us today. We look back at the enthronement of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. We look ahead to his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Looking back, one image is seared into our Christian memory more than any other. It is that Friday noon. It is that place called 'The Skull'. It is that cruciform gallows. The Christ ... crucified. As Paul well knows, this is inevitably and always "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (I Corinthians 1:23). Still today the execution of "the image of the invisible God", the one in whom "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" (Clossians 1:15 & 19) 'trips up' Christians and seems 'sheer folly' to reasonable people. Yet we become numb to the scandal of it all. One hundred generations later we have become used to the cross. It has become jewelry ... the corporate logo of the church ... a sacred symbol. No longer does the cross carry the voltage of an electric chair ... or the tightness of a hangman's noose. Perhaps this is because we rarely tell the tale. Notice this. We read the story of Good Friday once a year. On Good Friday. But not on a Sunday. No, not on a Sunday ... except for this Sunday, this Sunday when we sum up what has gone before ... and dream of what lies ahead.
Notice ... notice how the story of that Friday noon itself sums up what has gone before ... and dreams of what lies ahead. Jesus is murdered as he lived, in the company of sinners. There they hang, on his right and on his left. Remember James and John bargaining for the places of honour on the Messiah's right and left in his kingdom. Look at who is seated on the right and left of Jesus now. Two convicts. Some king. Some cabinet. That is why the Romans nail the sign above his head: "The King of the Jews". They intend to teach the people a lesson. They know how to quell rebellion. This is what happens to anyone who fosters an insurgency, they say. This is what lies in store for anyone who preaches good news for the poor and liberation of the oppressed. The Romans know what they are doing ... or so they think. But Jesus forgives them ... he forgives them because they have no idea what they are doing ... they have no clue that here, on this cross, they are killing the very One who brings life.
Do you see what they are doing? Do you see how the last moments of Jesus' life take him back to the beginning of his journey? Listen to what he hears as he hangs there ... condemned and convicted. The people stand in numbed silence ... but the leaders scoff out loud: "He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, the chosen one!" The soldiers doing their grisly duty also mock him, giving him sour wine and saying "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!". Do you hear what Jesus hears? "Save yourself ... save yourself ... save yourself". That is what one of the convicts keeps saying with his dying breaths. As Luke tells it: "One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying: 'Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!'". "Save yourself ... and us". Jesus hears it from the leaders ...from the soldiers ... from a criminal. Where have we heard this before? Where has Jesus heard this before? Remember. "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread ... if you worship me I will give you all glory and authority ... if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the Temple and the angels will protect you". Temptations. Threefold temptations. They have been with Jesus since his baptism. Temptations to save by following the formula of the world: power and might and control. Perhaps you've forgotten what Luke said about those temptations in the wilderness. Let me refresh your memory: "When the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time" (Luke 4:13). Until an opportune time. There is no more opportune time than this ... mocked, scoffed and derided ... Jesus is ripe for another threefold temptation: "save yourself ... save yourself ... save yourself and us".
The people watch ... and wait. They remember Jesus' words: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:23-24). Will he practice what he has preached? Will he resist temptation? Or will he inevitably give in and save himself? This is the great drama that is played out in Jesus' life ... the great drama which reaches its climax in this scene on the cross ... and on this last day of the Christian Year.
See how the drama is resolved. Look at how Jesus saves himself and us. A lone voice does not scoff or mock or deride. One pair of eyes glimpses who he is and what is happening at the place called 'The Skull'. One lone criminal sees Jesus' innocence and more. He sees one who, in his dying, has the power to save: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom". 'Remember me. Me, guilty as charged. Remember me.' We have heard this cry before. The prodigal son returning home: 'Remember me, father, remember me'. Zacchaeus - traitor Zacchaeus - climbing down out of the tree: 'Remember me, Jesus, remember me'. Blind beggar Bartimeaus sitting by the roadside: 'Jesus, have mercy on me ... remember me'. The tax-collector in the Temple beating his breast and saying 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner ... remember me'. Children brought to Jesus against the disciples' orders. Shepherds brought by an angel chorus to the babe in the manger. A woman haemorrhaging and a 'bent over' woman and Mary sitting at Jesus' feet. All of them saying 'Kyrie eleison ... Lord, have mercy ... Jesus, remember me'.
On the one hand, Jesus hears: "save yourself ". On the other hand, Jesus hears: "remember me". Which is it to be? What kind of a Messiah is this King? The crowd and the leaders and the soldiers and the criminals wait for him to answer. Then Jesus says: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise ... I will remember you". It is the same answer he gives whenever he is asked for mercy. It is the reason that the shepherds go home from the manger rejoicing and glorifying God. It is the answer that he gives the children when he holds them in his arms and blesses them. It is the answer that causes so many women to find in Jesus that most unexpected of Messiahs ... one who actually remembers them. It is the answer that continually perplexes his disciples down through time ... just as it does when he answers Bartimeaus' pitiful cry from the sidewalk and Zacchaeus' longing looks from the tree. It is the answer that dumbfounds the prodigal sons' elder brother, not to mention pharisees in their self-assured religiosity then and now ... the answer that Jesus gives to any who name their need of salvation, who know that they cannot possibly save themselves. To all of these he answers: "you will be with me".
Here is the great irony ... the paradox that lies at the heart of the cross. Here is the thing that trips up religious folk of every stripe and sounds crazy to reasonable people and their rational philosophers. Jesus cannot save himself if he is to save others. In losing his own life Jesus saves the lives of all who call upon him. What appears to be death-dealing is, in truth, life-giving. The One who is judged on earth to be the lowest of the low is, in God's kingdom, the highest of the high. God - who, by definition, is 'all-powerful' - is revealed on earth in One who relinquishes the power to save himself. This is a strange kind of power. This is a peculiar kind of king ... and Jesus' reign is unlike any we have seen before. For this king's throne room is inhabited by the lost and lowly. This king's 'right hand men' are criminals and tax-collectors, prostitutes and beggars, women and children. His is an inverted kingship ... and Jesus reigns over an 'upside-down kingdom'.
Friends, I tell you a great mystery. We belong to that kingdom. In our baptism we have become citizens in Jesus' upside-down world. Imagine - us - with passports in the kingdom of heaven. Not because of our sound theology. Not because of our good works. Not because of our solid character and moral virtue. No! We have been given citizenship in the kingdom because of our cry: "Jesus, have mercy ... Lord, have mercy ... Jesus, remember me". In that cry we name our inability to save ourselves. In that cry we die to the 'way of the world' and are given life in the Way of Christ. It is the reason that we dare say today that beautiful little Georgia Cabral Hall has been baptised into the death and resurrection of Jesus. With us, she becomes a participant in letting go of the self-righteous task of saving ourselves. With us, she is swept up into the resurrected life of Jesus who continues to remember the cries of earth's wounded, stranded people.
A month ago, at Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, the preacher for the day recalled an elderly couple whom he had known early in his ministry. Each time he had visited them, he was greeted by a frail man who asked the young preacher: "How you carrying it today, pastor?". Not knowing what on earth the man meant by this he simply answered: "Fine ... it's fine". Eventually, though, curiosity got the better of the preacher. One day he quietly asked the man's wife what this strange greeting might mean. "Oh", she said, "he's wondering how you are carrying the cross ... he wonders how heavy your burden is today." In that culture ... in the culture of Ebenezer Baptist church ... talk of bearing the burden of the cross is not new. Remember how Martin Luther King, Jr. would say: "The cross we bear precedes the crown we wear". By that cross he doesn't mean the problems that come along with our own life on this earth. He doesn't mean the problems of parenting ... or the troubles with arthritis ... as difficult as these may be. These are not 'the crosses we have to bear'. They are simply our responsibilities, our struggles, our life's challenges. Everyone has burdens like these. There is nothing particularly 'Christian' about them. When he says "the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear", Martin Luther King means the cross we choose to bear. He means someone else's burden that we offer to share. He means laying down our own problems in order to pick up someone else's pain.
This is what it means to be baptised into the Body of Christ. It means to embody the Crucified Christ in the world. With Jesus, we hear conflicting voices. On the one hand, the refrain is constant, repetitious, endless: "Church ... save yourself. Protect your assets. Nation ... save yourself. Secure your borders. People ... save yourself. Look out for number one". The tempter keeps at us. Little wonder that we keep praying "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil"! For, on the other hand, the refrain is impassioned, desperate, longing: "Christ, have mercy upon us ... Lord, have mercy upon us ... Jesus, remember me". It is the cry of the orphaned and homeless. It is the plea of the addicted and guilt-ridden. It is the hope of the lost and the lonely and the grief-stricken and the wounded and the oppressed and the forgotten of the earth. It is the burden that Christ calls his disciples to pick up and to carry. Jesus has shown us the 'Way of Life' in God's kingdom. All our attempts to come out on top now come to an end. The way ahead is foretold in the story which lies behind. In saying 'yes' to the ones who cry for mercy ... in saying 'yes' to those who only ask to be remembered ... we say 'no' to saving ourselves. In picking up the cross of Christ's suffering we put down our own grasping after life. And the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.