Today is Christ the King Sunday, with white the color of the day, as are most all major feasts. We mark the end of the liturgical church year with the Gospel story of crucifixion. Now, isn't that odd, a story of death at the same time we celebrate Christ as our King? This story today gives us a powerful image. Three men dying, each nailed to a wooden cross. Jesus in the center, a criminal on either side of him.
Barbara Brown Taylor says, " One cross makes a crucifix; three crosses make a church." As I first read that statement I was startled. What was that? What had I just read? One cross makes a crucifix; three crosses make a church. Let's hold that image as we hear the story again.
A crowd had gathered around this place of pain and dying as Jesus prayed, "Father forgive them they don't know what they are doing," as soldiers mocked and taunted him. The Hebrew people had for so long dreamed of a Messiah, a King raised up for them so they might again be a strong, flourishing nation as it had been when David was King. In Jesus' death their dreams died. They saw the sign hanging above his head, "This is the King of the Jews." They shouted to him, "If you are the King of the Jews why don't you save yourself, you saved others." One of the criminals challenged him, "Are you the Messiah?" "Well then save yourself and save us." But the other one defended Jesus, "We indeed have been condemned justly for we're getting what we deserve, this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom." And Jesus responds, "Truly, today you will be with me in Paradise."
Only Luke tells the story this way; Mark and Matthew tell it slightly differently. Think of what happened as these three hung on the crosses. Speech would have been extremely painful for the weight of their suspended bodies pressed on their chest and lungs. The conversation is brief--only a few statements exchanged between the three dying men.
Those first words from Jesus, "Father forgive them," was a prayer for those in the crowd. He sought nothing for himself; these words affirm all we believe of Jesus our King. His mission was always for others, he loved all, he served all, he gave himself completely to others. His last words, "Today you will be with me in Paradise" offered compassion to the two beside him. Whatever offense the criminals had been charged with, Jesus looked past it. He saw the men for the goodness they carried in their heart.
One cross makes a crucifix, three crosses make a church. In this brief conversation between Jesus and the two men we are reminded of his life of ministry. Jesus prays to God the Father. Did he pray for the Romans or the Jews or to all those in the crowd of onlookers? Jesus repeatedly prayed throughout his time of ministry. From the cross he offers the grace of forgiveness. He taught his followers to forgive, his mission was all about reconciliation.
He taught a message of servanthood. "Be a servant to others, put your own needs last." "Those who lose or give up their own lives will save them," he said. Now he must give up everything, even his life, so that others might be saved. Jesus died beside outcasts with whom he spent much of his ministry, he served the lost, the last and the least.
Jesus final words to another human being was an assurance of salvation. Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming Good News to the poor and release to the captives; he ends it by extending a blessing to the wretched.
Here is good news for today, this scene is the gospel in miniature. Pray, serve, forgive, and love. As Christians we are followers of Christ our King charged with being the church in the world.
And we too, receive the blessing, "Today you will be with me in Paradise." AMEN