Christ the King C. 24 November 2013.
As I read the Gospel lesson, just now, it may have seemed a bit abrupt that we would find ourselves at the Cross. In the Episcopal Church we are not accustomed to reading the story of the crucifixion of Jesus outside of the full story of his trial and the events leading up to the Cross.
So often we have encountered it as one long "Passion reading" on Palm Sunday or Good Friday—with so much for the listener to hear that it feels like drinking from a fire hydrant. Any little bits of the story that intrigue you, or move you, as you listen become lost as the narrative carries you ceaselessly to the Cross. You think, "what was that about?" But before you can reflect, we're on to the next.
One such part of the narrative is the part we read today, the conversation between Jesus and the two criminals who were hanged beside Jesus. When we see the image of the Cross—like on the Altar, or around someone's neck—it is usually a solitary cross. If the Cross also bears a likeness of Jesus on it, it's called a crucifix. Either way, we remember Jesus being crucified, but rarely does that image encompass the two criminals. Even more rarely do we remember that there was a discussion between them.
It is likely that we don't remember it that way because this discussion is only recorded in Luke's gospel. Matthew mentions that two bandits were also hanged with Jesus—but no dialog. John records Jesus' conversation with the disciples and Mary, and simply writes that "two others" were crucified with him. Mark doesn't mention anyone at all.
I want to try to talk about this interaction between Jesus and the two criminals, but there is an over-arching context to this text that gives it a power we could easily overlook.
The power of these sentences can be eclipsed by reading ahead too quickly to the Resurrection. And we do that. We do that quite naturally, because the Gospel of Christ is the Resurrection. It is our "Alleluia" that Christ triumphed over the powers of sin and sickness and hell, and rose again from the dead, giving life to all who want it. That is our story, but you cannot have the Resurrection without the Cross. He has to die. He has to be utterly and completely dead, or the story isn't the story.
The pathos of the part we read is that these three men—Jesus and the two criminals—are dying. They are dying a very painful and embarrassing death in front of who knows how many people. It was painful. The word we use to describe pain of this magnitude is what? Excruciating.
The word excruciating is derived from the Latin word ex-cruciare, which means to crucify. The word carries in its full meaning the total horror of crucifixion. That it is embarrassing, torturous, and agonizing—all three of those words combined. Humiliating emotionally. Mentally torturous—meaning, not knowing when it will end or how bad it is going to get. And agonizing—painful to the body.
When people say they felt "excruciating pain," God bless them, but typically they are describing agony. Excruciating is a complete assault on every faculty of one's being for who knows how long before death. You and I cannot imagine it, unless we live it. And if we lived it, we could not live to explain it. Do you see what I'm trying to say?
Here are three men who are being excruciated. If they were only dying it would still be horrific, but do you understand that they are not only dying?
It is one thing to know you are dying, and another thing entirely to know when. We all know that we are dying. I remember very clearly when I was a little boy finding out that in time we all die. I don't remember exactly how old I was, but I was probably about Peter's age, and I was sitting on the front steps of our house. The girl who lived across the street was also sitting on the front steps of her house and we were talking across the street at each other. She was a little older, and I don't remember how it came up or exactly what she said, but I remember her saying, "Everyone dies. You will die one day."
It was like Eve giving me the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. And I ate the apple. And I looked down and realized that we were both naked. Not really, of course, but that's what it feels like when you realize that you are not as safe as you thought you were.
It happens in little bits over the course of your early years. And when you are a child you can't always accommodate new information. You go to your room and play with your toys, but your mind creates these little tangled thoughts and questions that lie around on the floor. Sometimes they can actually form coherent thoughts, like "Grandma got sick and died. If I catch a cold, will I also die?" "My mother takes medicine. If she stops taking it, will she die?"
Children ponder these sorts of things long before parents know, and sometimes there is a breakdown in their ability to express the anxiety that those early thoughts produce. They don't know what to do with their thoughts. No one can get inside their heads with them to see what they are thinking and to gauge the limits of their mind's ability to put things together.
When we are very very young and we first encounter the concept of death, it is like opening a door to a room with no windows and no light switch. The light from the hallway only goes so far. We can see the floor leading in, and we're able to put our head inside just to see what we can see, but it isn't much.
We spend most of our days walking past that room. We know it is there, but we don't really like to think about it. Occasionally someone opens that door and walks through it into the room, and they don't walk out. And we gather around the door frame in our "Sunday best" and the priest tells the story about a man named Jesus who once walked into that room and came out again.
That's our story, you see? That's God's answer to the many little tangled questions we started asking when we were kids—and continue to ask, even now. (Pause.)
Three men were up there, excruciating. Slowly, painfully, dying. Two of them were criminals, being executed for crimes they committed. One of them offered no defense at his trial, and did nothing worthy of execution. What was passing through their minds? We have no real idea. Trying to look into their minds is like trying to look into the dark room, and only being able see but so far.
As they hung there, they were mocked and derided by the crowds, especially Jesus. As the criminals heard the epithets being flung at him, one of them joined in. I want you to look at him with great compassion. He's desperate. He doesn't know what else to do. He's in pain that we cannot imagine. He said, "Are you not the Messiah? Save us and save yourself."
Luke writes that the other criminal fired back at him, "We deserve this. We were condemned for what we did, but this man did nothing at all." And then he said, "Jesus.."
Did you catch that? Not Rabbi. Not Teacher. Do you remember the first chapter of Luke, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary? He said, "You shall call him Jesus." The name Jesus is the common form of the name Joshua. The name Joshua… Can anyone tell me what the name Joshua means? It means, Salvation…Deliverer.
The other criminal is not showing any disrespect by using Jesus's name. Quite the contrary. The criminal is saying, "You are the One who delivers. You are the One who brings salvation." And he says, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Now, don't fast forward to the end, or you will miss this! They are dying. This is it. They are walking into the dark room together. And from the cross of a desperate, dying man comes this prayer of faith. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." The second criminal does not believe that this is the end. More than that. The second criminal believes that the man beside him is a king. And in death, this king will be bringing in a whole new kingdom.
This is the Coronation of Jesus—the climax of his ministry. Offering himself to be excruciated: tortured, humiliated, agonized for as long as it takes to kill him. He does nothing to bring himself down. As he dies, humanity, hanging there dying beside him—in the form of a convict—finally recognizes who he is.
Humanity, facing death finally sees Jesus for who he is. He's a King. He is the One. He is the Messiah. He is the Son of God. He is the Lamb that has been slain. He is the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end.
The criminal and the Savior join hands and walk through the door of the dark room together. But before they do, Jesus says to him—and by extension to all of us: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
At the point of death—the final words from Jesus are not a reproach, a criticism, a parable, a thought, a meditation, or even a verse of Scripture. They are a reassurance. We will see him there, and there will be no cross, and no excruciating. The dark room that has scared us since we were children will be bright, and we will never have to peer into the darkness again.
That's our story, you see? That's what makes us Christians.
When time takes our hand, and the shadows lengthen, and the unbearable is borne, we are not alone. From the Cross, humanity had the grace to see the King and his coming kingdom. And as we finally tried to give him the robe and crown, he meekly, but beautifully, took our hands and walked into the darkness with us.
Our gospel, our joy, our song is that he will also take our hands and walk us out.
Please give of your time, talent, and treasure to support the Kingdom of God.
Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel
 Adapted from Christ the King C. 21 November 2010.