Jeremiah 23:1-6+Psalm 46+Colossians 1:11-20+Luke 23:33-43
Here on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, as we prepare to launch into Advent and Christmas just beyond, it is jarring to have a gospel reading of Jesus on the cross. We’ve been hearing texts about end-times and gloom and doom over the past few weeks, but that’s to be expected here at this time of the year. But today, we get a surprisingly tender moment, if that’s the word, between Jesus and one of the bandits crucified with him.
The first thing I would have you understand is that all three of these men were considered criminals. It isn’t as if the bandits are necessarily worse offenders than Jesus. Perhaps they were stealing some of the ill-gotten goods of the Romans and their puppet Judean authorities so that their families could survive. Jesus was a threat because people called him king or the messiah or the son of God, and there was only one of those allowed in the empire, and that was Caesar.
One of these bandits taunts Jesus, just as the soldiers who arrested him did. “If you’re so great, save yourself and save us while you’re at it.” But the other one, motivated by fear or a sudden deathbed conversion or who knows what, has a simple request, “Remember me. Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus makes him a promise. “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
A lot of folks focus on that paradise part. They imagine these two heading off to a New Eden as soon as their breath has stopped. Yet we know, according to our Creeds, that Jesus descended to the dead before rising on the third day. We believe that he smashed the gates of hell and brought out all of those in Satan’s grasp.
So, I think rather than focusing on paradise, maybe we out to look at the “you will be with me” part. Because what a breathtaking promise that is. Jesus is promising relationship, no matter where we end up or where we are, Jesus is saying “I am with you.” We might think this bandit deserved some kind of eternal torment, but not Jesus. Because Jesus is promising his presence. In truth, Jesus makes the same promise to all of us.
This last Sunday of the church year is known as Christ the King Sunday. Many who object to the language of kingship, with all of the patriarchy and power it implies, prefer to call this day the Reign of Christ. But I’m going to stick with Christ the King today, because I believe that our concept of kingship needs to be rehabilitated just a bit.
Do you remember the sign that Pilate had put on the cross saying “The King of the Jews?” And some of the religious leaders objected, telling Pilate that it should say that Jesus only claimed to be the King of the Jews (John 19). Pilate, being Pilate, won that argument, so King of the Jews it was.
And what kind of king was this? A poor itinerant preacher who wandered around Palestine with a ragtag bunch of followers, healing the sick and loving the poor and saying that God did not will that the world be as it was. That God had a different idea of what a kingdom ought to look like.
This was not a new idea with Jesus. Psalm 72, which has a subtitle “Of Solomon” lists the attributes of a king who has been anointed by God.
“Give your king justice,” the psalmist writes.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor. (74:2-4)
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight. (74:11-14)
Does that sound like any king you know? Or any leader or ruler? Those in authority are charged with caring for those in their realms. If the poor are hungry, they are to be fed. Widows and orphans are not left to defend themselves. Immigrants are not turned away. Benefits are not cut. Identifications are not examined. Jails are not filled with those who just can’t afford a proper defense.
God’s reign, God’s kingdom, is not like ours. But God’s reign is what we should aspire to be and to do. When people say that the church should stay out of politics and justice issues, I would point out to them the disparity between what the Reign of Christ ought to be and what our world truly is.
It’s quite an end to another year in the church, to be reminded of what our work is. Until the king’s justice is done, we care for the poor and the weak and the needy, and we lift our voices to demand that our leaders do the same.
And we remember that Jesus said, “Today, I will be with you in paradise.” At the end of Matthew’s gospel, his words are, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20).
No matter where you are, Jesus is with you.
No matter what you’ve done or not done, Jesus is with you.
This is the Good News with which we end our year and launch into a new one. Christ our King came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey to claim his kingship. Our power and our authority as followers of Jesus is not in how much we have or how much power we wield but in how much we love those in need of love.
Ride on, King Jesus.