Once upon a time this was called “Judgment Sunday.”
This is the last Sunday of the Church year, and “Judgment Sunday” was intended to focus our attention on what we confess at the last part of the Apostle’s Creed, how Jesus will come “to judge the living and the dead.”
I doubt anyone here remembers that.
I certainly don’t, and I’ve been around the church for over half a century now as either a worshiper or a pastor.
“Christ the King Sunday” as it is called now came into existence after the second Vatican Council in the 1960’s, with an emphasis in the Roman Catholic tradition on the majesty of Christ.
But Protestants, who tend to be more attuned to a theology of the Cross than to a theology of glory have always been a little uneasy about this celebration. Indeed, it’s hard to call it a “celebration” when the Gospel lessons chosen for it all center around the events of the Passion narrative. Today it is this vibrant story of Jesus words of forgiveness and the interchange between the thieves crucified with him.
There is an insistence in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus is the King, is the Messiah. Everyone in the story is looking up at him wanting that verified. The problem is that the proof that they insist upon would be for him to save himself.
Verse 35 “And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
The sign posted above Jesus’ head read “The King of the Jews.” It was put there mockingly by Pontius Pilate. The sign was meant to convey the hopelessness of engaging in any kind of uprising against Roman authority. This Jesus talked about a Kingdom other than Rome’s authority and l this is what we do to those who lead such insurrections. Behold your king, is it another broken body and another empty promise.
The sign of kingship that everyone seems to be looking for is one connected to power and self-preservation. People are absolutely mystified at how Jesus can claim to be the Son of God and a King if he will not verify his power at this crucial moment.
Amid all the clangor and clamor of demand and mocking words however, there is this conversation recorded between those crucified, a detail important but almost overlooked.
On one side the criminal hurling the same demands. Do something to show your power! “Save yourself and us!”
On the other side, a criminal who acknowledges that he is getting what he deserves. We are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.
And then this criminal does something unexpected in the conversation. You need to get this picture firmly in your mind to catch it. The three and hanging, dying, life dripping out of them, and in resignation it is the thief who has acknowledged his guilt who looks at Jesus and asks something of him.
Not a demand.
Not a show of power.
No, it is a request.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom….”
And it is to that request that Jesus pays attention and grants a word!
Jesus has had absolutely nothing to say to the shouts and clamor from below to save himself or to show his power.
He has nothing to say to the thief spitting demands at him.
But he does have something to say to the one who makes the request, the one who knows he is getting just what he deserves.
“Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Now, I have always heard this as a future promise. Here Jesus is offering the repentant one the place prepared, the end of suffering, heaven, paradise…however you picture it.
In the bible that word “paradise” often has a connotation of the Garden, and the state of things in Genesis before the story of Adam and Eve unfolded. It was from “paradise” that they had been expelled, out of the presence of all that God had hoped for.
I think I’ve always heard this as Jesus turning to the repentant one and giving him an assurance that if you can hold on just a little longer today, something better will be coming. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
But what if what Jesus is saying isn’t a future event.
What if this promise is now?
It is Judgment Day, and here is the judgment: you are with me now.
It may not look and feel much like paradise at the moment, but there is in this exchange a moment of grace and peace and comfort even amidst of all the dying, the clamor, the noise and the demands all around.
This is the judgment. “Today, you will be with me…..right now.”
I think that stands in stark contrast to what the world wanted to see, what it still wants to see, and too often what we want to see from Jesus as well.
This world is a place of struggle and pain and difficulty. A struggle that never ends. A promise that never seems to begin.A sorrow that never seems to subside. For all its good moments there seems to be another hundred disappointments looming just around the corner.
I’d really like some assurances from Jesus, some concrete actions on a few messy things, some guarantees to depend upon. At very least I would like some sign that God is working still in this world. Truth be told, what I too often expect Jesus if he’s really King to do is to waltz in, sit down opposite all the forces at work in this world that are evil and destructive, and wrestle them down for me. And, that puts me squarely in the camp of everyone at the foot of the cross shouting their expectations to God. “Show me!” “Show Us!”
When it seems that Jesus is silent to our demands our default is often to is this: “Someday.”
We look at the cross and Jesus’ promise as a future event.
Someday the wars will cease. Someday justice will prevail. Someday the world will be set right, creation restored. And in all this hoping for “someday” we find ourselves forever milling around the foot of the cross not hearing what Jesus says from it:
“Today you will be with me in paradise”….with that heavy emphasis on the here and now.
I never expected this.
I still don’t know exactly what to do with this vision of a King, who somehow reigns supreme from a cross, and who announces victory in his own suffering and death, and that when I turn to him in utter defeat he has the word to say to me.
I don’t get it at all, until that moment when in the midst of all the demands laid upon me, and the clamor for proof that people want, and all the demands that are hurled up at me, I remember that what Jesus listens for, and listens to, is the request.
“Jesus, Remember me…”
And in that moment, everything else falls away, and quiets, and there is a sudden clarity that the Kingdom is not just some promised “Someday” event but it is here and now and I am a part of it, even in the midst of all the things happening to me that I cannot control.
It comes not because I demand it, or even really because I asked for it, but it is coming of its own accord and all that was required of me is that I acknowledge who I am, and who Jesus is.
“Just, remember me.”
I’m getting what I deserve, and Jesus is meeting me in the midst of that with a promise that is not just future, it is now.
The Judgment has been made about me, about you, and in that look that comes from the cross Jesus says “you are with me, and I am with you.” — and that is paradise. That is everything being put back the way God intended for it to be, this relationship where no matter what else happens in this world, nothing takes us away from the love of God found in Christ Jesus.
It may not look like paradise at the moment for you, but that is what it is. Amen.