I wanted us to read that gospel together for two reasons, first, because we always read the Passion like this, and second because it is so valuable to really try to find ourselves at that place called the Skull, on that hill with Jesus hanging on the cross. It’s valuable to try to imagine how that really felt for all concerned.
So, how did it feel to be those soldiers jeering at Jesus, offering him sour wine? Or how was it when you read the words of the thief who cursed him, challenging him to act like a messiah and save himself? What do you think it meant when Jesus comforted the good thief, saying, “Don’t worry, today you will join me in Paradise”?
Most of the characters in this story are mocking our poor Jesus, calling him King of the Jews, while they strip him and nail him to a cross. They mock his powerlessness to save himself. It seems that the only voice of compassion on that hill is his neighbor, the good thief who declares that he deserves to die but Jesus has done nothing wrong.
Let’s stop here for a minute and think of the actions Jesus has taken during his brief time of ministry. Just how innocent was he?
The Reverend Linda Pepe writes: “Jesus, in the three years before his death did plenty-- and he did it intentionally. Jesus was a man who was intentional in his actions from day one, intentional about challenging corruption in authority, intentional about exposing systems that were oppressive, intentional in the telling of his stories and parables-- knowing full well they would antagonize the religious rulers. Intentional in healing, casting out demons, raising the dead, picking grain on the Sabbath just in view of the Pharisees. Intentional in turning over the tables at the temple, infuriating the vendors, interrupting business as usual. Intentional in his message ‘free the oppressed, give to the poor, include instead of exclude, love instead of judge’, knowing full well that his message of shalom building, peace building, would lead him intentionally to the cross.”
So maybe he’s not so innocent of any crime--he’s been prodding and pushing against those in authority all along. And he’s not alone; he urges others to follow him as they bring about the kingdom of God, as they bring paradise to their world.
We often think of paradise as heaven, a place we go after we die, but the Greek word for paradise; ‘paradisio’ refers to the Garden of Eden, a place where things are fair and just. So maybe he’s not telling this thief that when he dies he’ll go to heaven, maybe he is saying, as he says over and over, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Paradise is at hand.” We, you and I, bring this kingdom, bring this paradise where things are fair and just to life around us through our actions. Maybe he is saying to the thief; “You get it. You’re with me today. You see me with compassion and love. That, that is paradise. That is the kingdom of heaven”.
Jesus dies on that cross knowing that he has witnessed to God’s truth throughout his life and through his radical challenging of the conventions of society and now he is dying in the same way. David Lose writes: “I also think this is one of the key themes of Jesus’ death and resurrection: not simply that we have a second and final chance but rather that we always have available to us another opportunity for life, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.”
Listen to the urgency in the last words of this gospel: “Today you will join me in paradise”. The gospel of Luke insists on the “today" of salvation. At Christmas, we’ll hear these words: “For today in the city of David a savior has been born". When Jesus preaches for the first time in his hometown, he reads from the prophet Isaiah the passage that announces a year of favor from the Lord, he proclaims: “today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing”. At the house of Zacchaeus, who promises to give half his belongings to the poor, Jesus declares: “Today salvation has come to this house”.
Jesus calls us, today, to stand with him fighting hatred, racism, discrimination, fighting societal injustice in all ways. Today.
But, on a very different note, why are we reading this Gospel today? Does anyone else find it jarring, that just as we start thinking about Christmas and the birth of baby Jesus, we have to read about him suffering and dying on the cross?
Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar and next week we start a new year and a new cycle. Let’s explore what that means.
The liturgical cycle divides the year into seasons which can be signified by different ways of decorating our church, colors of vestments for clergy, and scriptural readings. Our scripture passages for each Sunday are specified in a lectionary. The lectionary follows a three year cycle, year A, B and C. We’ve just completed the readings for year C and will start up next week with year A readings.
Please look at your handouts: can you find where we are today? We’ve just completed 28 Sundays in the season of Pentecost and next Sunday we enter Advent. We spend 4 weeks in Advent preparing for the miracle of Christmas. We celebrate Epiphany in early January, when the world realizes that Jesus is God. That’s so big we need a few Sundays to think about it.
Next comes Septuagesima, which, for us, really means we’re getting close to Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day! Then we start Lent, where we need 6 long weeks to prepare for Jesus to die and rise from the dead on Easter. Easter is such a big miracle that it takes us 8 Sundays to think about it. On Pentecost Sunday we thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit, who helps us do God’s work in the world. Then we go into the very long season of Ordinary Time, all those Sundays after Pentecost, which ends today with Christ the King Sunday.
The real purpose of the liturgical calendar is not really for marking the passage of time. Its purpose is to glorify, celebrate and understand the mystery of Christ. But I love the rhythms of this calendar. I love that our readings and preaching vary as we live within these seasons. I love the times spent preparing for the great mysteries of Easter and Christmas.
And here we are today, Christ the King Sunday, a sad day as we picture Jesus on the cross, a joyous day when we recognize the truth of Christ’s kingship. Today we remember who rules the world. Our Christ is the King of Love, as we sing:
"The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness fails me never.
I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.”