The vision of the other crucified convict is the vision we need to see God’s work in the world: to look at the dying Jesus of Nazareth and see the Christ, ruler of all things and the image of the invisible God.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Christ the King, Lectionary 34, year C; texts: Luke 23:33-43; Colossians 1:11-20
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The sign was, in the end, unnecessary. Everybody knew who the man in the middle was. Still, it was the custom to hang a sign over each crucifixion, naming the convict and the charges against him. So Pilate, the governor and judge of this case, had one made for Jesus. “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” John tells us that the religious authorities protested that the charge should be “he claimed to be the King of the Jews.” But all four evangelists agree that the crime, the charge laid against Jesus by the Romans, was that he was actually the King of the Jews. A little bit of gallows humor, with the added bonus to the oppressor that the oppressed are offended by it.
But everyone knew who he was. Jesus of Nazareth. An itinerant rabbi from Galilee who’d been drawing big crowds for a couple years. Rumors of healings and miracles were breathed, but most of his work was in the north country, where you can get hicks to believe anything, even that water can be changed into wine. Those in the city, the sophisticates, likely doubted he was anything real. But they knew of him. Everybody did. Every generation it seemed there was someone stirring up the people and raising hopes for freedom and restoration to Israel. At the very least, he was the latest news. And here he was, ending the way the rest of them always ended, on a Roman cross.
The title “king” was never really in question, except as a Roman joke, not to the crowds. Even to those who might have heard him teach, might even have found hope in some of his words, this execution, this death was probably not a surprise. No one really thought that he was a king of anything. And who ever could be king in a world ruled by Caesar?
Except there is this: one man, strangely enough one hanging on a cross next to him, with his own name and crime above his head, one man looked at this dying teacher, this failed hope, and saw a king. A real King, one who was somehow yet to inherit his kingdom, his reign. Dying himself, this convict asked only one thing, to be remembered when this King entered his kingdom.
Look, everybody knew he was Jesus of Nazareth. Everybody knew that the title King was either a big joke or an offense.
So answer this: how in the world did this convict see the Christ, the ruler of all things, when he looked at the dying Jesus?
That is the truth we must grasp, above everything else in this world, because until we see how this convict sees, we understand nothing about God.
In some ways we have made a wall of separation between what we know and think happened at the cross and what we consider about God in our world today.
There’s no question we believe that Jesus, the Son of God, died on the cross, and was raised. We debate about how this saves us, what needed to be made right that only Jesus’ death could do. But we know that he died and he rose.
Yet, when we consider what the Triune God is doing in the world today, when we seek signs of God’s hand, of God’s will, somehow we separate this death of Jesus from that. We ask where God is in suffering and death. We ask what God wants of us and of the world. We blame God for things we ourselves have caused, we abandon faith when challenges come.
We believe that Jesus died and rose, but we have segregated that event to having something to do only with what happens after we die. We don’t consider that it might have something to do with everything in this world.
But the apostle Paul sees with the convict’s eyes. He looks at the cross, at the dying Jesus, and sees Christ. He looks at the cross and sees God’s ongoing action in the world.
This paean of praise at the entrance to Colossians is majestic in its beauty. Paul claims that Christ is the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;” “in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,” through him and for him. And on top of it all, Christ is “before all things and in him all things hold together.”
This is a cosmic view of the lordship of Christ Jesus, the eternal Son of God, the ruler of all things. But that’s only part of the hymn. Paul also claims that in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Not only the image of the invisible God, Christ Jesus is the fullness of God, fully God. Now we are into Trinitarian lands, speaking of whom we know as the Second Person of the Trinity, very God of very God.
But then Paul adds: “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” Thump. This exalted Christ, God from God, Light from Light, bled on a cross? This fullness of God, this image of the invisible God, ruler of all, bled on a cross? And through that bleeding, reconciliation with all things in heaven and on earth happened? Peace with God happened?
This is the vision of the convict: to look at the bleeding, dying Jesus and see the eternal Christ and believe that he is, in dying, acting his kingship, beginning his reign. This is a death and resurrection that is not for a single moment segregated from the rest of our theology, held in reserve for our hope in life after death.
This is not an image of a superhero disguised in rags who sheds them at the last moment and reveals his power and glory: this Son of God wears the rags into death. This is a Christ ruling over the universe through his bleeding and dying, a Christ who is only recognizable to the world in that dying rabbi from Nazareth. A Christ who cannot be understood or known apart from this death on the cross.
What the convict sees is that this is how God answers human evil and how God will continue to answer human evil: by entering it and dying to it in order to rule over all things.
We know from what Paul says here and elsewhere that the center of all of this is to see that this death is God’s way of bringing reconciliation to all things. “Reconciling” is the key word, isn’t it? Somehow, by the Son of God, existing with the Father and the Spirit before all time and now living in our flesh, somehow by God entering suffering and death, God breaks through our evil and hate.
We do not love God with our whole lives and our neighbors as ourselves. God, since the Flood, has committed not to use power against us when we sin like that. So the Triune God sets aside all power and lets us kill the Incarnate Son. And somehow that reconciles all things, that God is willing to be killed by us.
This is mystery, but this is the truth that the Triune God shows us consistently throughout the Scriptures: the only way to win is to lose all; the only way to be free is to be a slave; the only way to live is to die. The Son of God, in dying, shows forever God’s answer to the brokenness and pain of the world.
If we can look at the dying Jesus and see the Christ, the ruler of all, and say “remember me when you come into your kingdom,” only then will the world begin to make sense.
This is the path we find when we see like this and follow our Lord Christ: a path through death into life.
Looking for ways in the world for us to protect our rights, secure our safety, ensure our sense that we are right and others not, to find gain at whatever expense, this is not a path of Christ.
If we think that Jesus’ death and resurrection are only important because they get us to heaven we deny that they are in fact the path we are all called to walk.
God’s biggest problem with humanity wasn’t that we die. God could stop that with a word. The Son of God didn’t need to die and rise to stop death. God’s biggest problem with humanity wasn’t that we sin and need forgiveness. God could forgive us with a word – look at what Jesus says about those who crucify him. The Son of God didn’t need to die and rise to forgive us.
The witness of Scripture is that the Son of God needed to die and rise because he was willing to make himself completely vulnerable to us, to reveal God’s love by setting aside all power. Even if we killed him. And he did this, he said, to show us the path to real life, the path God needs us to walk, the way he invited his disciples to walk. That’s how we’re reconciled to God: we return to our created path.
Forgiven, yes. Given eternal life, yes. But the important thing was that God needed to die to show us the way to life. True life, Jesus’ death tells us, is found in letting go of our need to control, of our need to win, of our need to be the center of our lives, of our need to grasp for power.
We will love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength when we let go of putting ourselves in the center of our hearts and lives. We will love our neighbor as ourselves when we put our neighbor before us, before our needs.
We will find God’s answer to suffering in this world to continue to be in the suffering and death of Jesus as we take it on ourselves; in other words, God’s answer is that we enter the suffering of others and hold them in it, taking it on ourselves. That we learn to suffer so others might find life, that we stand firmly in love in a world of evil and hold on to the good and the gracious, even if it costs us everything.
Our willingness to be Christ means our willingness to lose like Jesus of Nazareth. That’s the fulfilling of the reconciliation God works on the cross: in our lives, our voices, our bodies, our hearts, laid out in the world. In our willingness to lose ourselves, like Jesus, that we might be found in the heart of God and in the resurrection life God makes happen only in death.
To see the eternal Christ the way the convict sees is to see the life God is making in the death of this world, and the path we are invited to walk.
It means becoming comfortable with paradox and mystery. That power is truly exercised when it is released and let go. That weakness is the true strength. That death – daily death – is the gateway to life. This was not only true of Jesus, the Son. It is the path he holds out before us now.
And in repeating the words of that convict, we are committing ourselves to walk that path with our Lord Christ, seeking only the grace of his remembering us, that he might turn to us and strengthen our hearts and our faith, and transform us in our dying and losing, that we, and all things in heaven and on earth, might faithfully walk this path which ultimately ends in life.
In the name of Jesus. Amen