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Through the Eyes of A Thief
November 24, 2013
Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday of the church’s liturgical year. It may also be the most problematic Sunday of the church year. For one thing, we Americans don’t resonate with kings. In fact, our country was founded in rebellion against a king. Further, the very concept of royalty seems antithetical to the person and ministry of Jesus. Images of power, invincibility, wealth, and privilege cling to the term king like filings to a magnet. For these and other reasons, proclaiming Christ the King is fraught with problems. But as our reading this morning makes clear, these problems do not originate with us. No, they were first articulated at a place called the Skull where Jesus was crucified. Everything that transpired on that Friday seemed to contradict the claim that Jesus is some kind of king.
Observe how our reading began. “Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.” You’d think a king would at least merit his own execution. But Jesus was not even given the courtesy of a solo martyrdom. He was simply a last-minute addition to the scheduled crucifixion of two criminals. Actually, Jesus’ whole life was without distinction. He was born in an animal stable. He lived among the outcasts, the poor, and the despised. True to form, his death was ignominious. Wouldn’t a king stand out, rule from on high. Yet even in death, Jesus was surrounded by the least and the lost, and that’s the last place you’d expect to find a king.
And tell me, what king forgives his enemies and prays for those who abuse him? Yet as the soldiers led him to his death, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus had taught that we should forgive our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. Now, even on the cross, Jesus practiced what he preached. Not surprisingly, the soldiers who were standing around the cross found such behavior totally un-king like. From a soldier’s perspective, a ruler’s legitimacy is in direct proportion to the power he is able to command. Kings dispatch armies. Kings retaliate when attacked. Kings defend themselves and their country. Yet when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, he offered no resistance. When they beat him, he lifted not a hand in self-defense. Now he hung on a cross, utterly powerless. No wonder the soldiers mocked Jesus. In their view, the suggestion that this crucified peasant could be a king was ludicrous.
Of course, the soldiers weren’t the only ones who were having a problem accepting Jesus as a new kind of king. Their shouts of derision were joined to those of the religious leaders and one of the criminals on the cross. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” shouted the leaders. “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!” cried the soldiers. And one of the criminals who was crucified with Jesus likewise derided him, saying, ”Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” These three taunts at the end of Jesus’ life echo the three temptations by Satan at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In both cases, the complaint is basically the same: If you are the Messiah, do something! Prove it!
The problem all along has been that Jesus doesn’t act like the Messiah is expected to act. All the questions, the doubts, and outright rejections that accompanied him during his life are only magnified at his death. Most of those gathered around the cross were full of derision and scorn. Everything his disciples had claimed about Jesus seemed now to be refuted by the cross. They had followed a savior who could not save himself or others, a king who was powerless to rule. God’s chosen one who was left to die alone in agony and defeat.
But inexplicably, there was one man present who saw something more. The second thief countered the prevailing ridicule and disbelief with penitence and faith. In one sense, this second thief only saw what others saw—a dying man on a cross. He had no information others lacked. His situation was as hopeless as that of the other thief, and yet he prayed, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Without a shred of evidence to confirm his faith, he nonetheless saw in Jesus one who could save him.
What was it that this dying thief saw that so many others could not? I suppose that answer will be forever shrouded in mystery. Yet he must have seen in Jesus a love so profound, so palpable, that he wanted only to be included in it. He didn’t ask for Jesus to rescue him from suffering and death. He asked only to be remembered. To be remembered in this sense doesn’t mean merely “to think about” or “call to mind.” Rather, the thief wanted to be re-membered, re-made, re-formed by the love of God that he glimpsed in the bruised and bloodied face of Jesus.
Most of us tend to see God in the successes of life—when the cancer is cured, the war won, danger avoided. We see the hand of God in times of prosperity, when we’re well-off and well fed. But the thief saw something more fundamentally essential: He saw the love and power of God in human weakness and limitation.
Contemporary American poet Christian Wiman writes about this theme in his recent book: My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Wiman is a believer, but his faith in God has been hammered out on the anvil of suffering. He has an incurable cancer, and thus articulates a faith that is rooted in pain and uncertainty. At one point the poet uses the phrase: “Christ is contingency.” What he’s saying is that his perception of God’s love came to him at a most unexpected time, a time when his personal well-being was the most uncertain. Like the thief, Wiman’s prayer was not release from the reality of his situation, but rather to glimpse God in his suffering. He writes, “What a relief it can be to befriend contingency, to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck.”
Surely that second thief experienced such enduring love and thus was moved to utter a prayer that echoes the words of the Psalm: “According to your steadfast love, remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” (Psalm 25)
And hearing this prayer, Jesus lifted his wounded head and replied, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Evoking paradise on a cross seems as far-fetched as looking for the ocean in the middle of the desert. Paradise originally meant “garden,” “park,” or “forest.” It evokes the idyllic place in the beginning where humans walked in oneness with God and each other. But more than a place—paradise is a restored relationship with God. And this is what happened to the thief on the cross. Just before he died, he experienced forgiveness, love, and the deepest possible peace with God.
Friends, today, on the Sunday that brings our church year to an end, we make the audacious claim that the crucified Jesus reigns, and the love he revealed on the cross endures and ultimately triumphs. Such a claim is as outlandish to us today as it was to those who first gathered under the cross. Yet when, by God’s grace, we look at Jesus through the lens of the second thief, we see one who looks back at us with love—a love so deep and enduring that there’s only one word that can begin to describe it, and that word is: Paradise!