Grace Church, Utica
Among the ways that people try to understand life and the world, and their own place in it, some have occasionally seen it as a continuing series of actions and reactions. For example, a young man asks a young woman for a date. Then he waits for her response: will she say “yes” or “no?” A politician campaigns for public office. How will the voters respond? Will he win or lose?
In reading the Gospels, we find that the reaction to Jesus, the response of people to his preaching and teaching, was always mixed: some positive, and some negative. On the positive side were the crowds, the common folk who were inspired by his words and often spellbound by his miracles. On the negative side were many of the religious leaders who saw Jesus as a threat to their own prestige and authority. They tried to publicly discredit Jesus with trick questions about the scriptures. Failing in that effort, they turned to a level of hatred and violence that resulted in the Lord’s crucifixion.
Right up to the very end, even in the Passion narratives, we have a story of mixed reaction. Pilate’s wife is apprehensive and fearful. She has a dream about Jesus and urges her husband to have nothing to do with these efforts to have him executed. Pilate’s own reaction is that of a coward. He listens to all the evidence and then washes his hands of the whole thing in an effort to absolved himself of any guilt. He believes that Jesus is the victim of jealousy and trumped-up charges, but he’s afraid of the Temple leaders and their ability to cause him trouble.
On that hill called Golgotha, the reaction continues to be mixed. Some people are just curious— they’ve come to watch what’s going on. Others make fun of Jesus and mock him. According to his followers he’s supposed to be a king. But what kind of king looks like such a failure? And if he really is a king, then why doesn’t he use some of his royal power? If he’s God’s son, then why doesn’t God do something?
One of the two thieves crucified along with Jesus is just plain angry. If Jesus is the Savior, then why doesn’t he save all three of them from this inhumane death? It’s quite different with the second thief; he responds with that plea of faith: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Times really haven’t changed very much. Human responses to the life and ministry of Jesus are still mixed. Some respond with fear and apprehension, some with cowardice, and some with anger and cynicism. Some people say that it doesn’t really matter what you believe about Jesus— or if you believe anything at all.
There are still those who mock, because they think faith in anything or anyone is silly. And the anger can be very real too. If Jesus is the Savior he claims to be, then why doesn’t he save us— save us from cancer and heart attacks, from poverty and prejudice? Why doesn’t Jesus do something about the mess that the world is in? How can he be aware of it and not act?
At the beginning of his ministry Jesus was confronted with temptation. Following his baptism he went off alone, into the wilderness, to grapple with the temptation to use his power and authority in ways that would give him huge crowds and notoriety, but which did not represent the Father’s plan or will for his life. That temptation returns, with the force of a thousand demons, in those taunts from soldiers, echoed by that first thief: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself [and us as well]”
But the kingship of Jesus is not reflected in grandstand plays and the flexing of muscle. It is reflected in his willingness to share and experience human life in all its fullness— the good, the bad and the ugly. Jesus’ kingship is shown in taking upon himself all the evil, humiliation and suffering of this world, and then, by his resurrection, destroying their power. In the end his regal pronouncements are words of mercy and compassion: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
It was this compassion that was seen and felt by the repentant thief. There was no jeering or railing from this man, only a simple request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Think about that request: Jesus, remember me. If Jesus's death was to be just that— his death, the end of everything— then it would have been pointless to ask him to remember anything. Dead men have short memories. But the repentant thief caught a glimpse of this king. He could see the divine nature of Jesus reflected in those words of mercy and compassion— a prayer uttered on behalf of all those responsible for his agony. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And that same divine love and mercy are extended to this repentant thief, as Jesus says to him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“You will be with me”— words spoken originally to a condemned man minutes before his death, but words that convey the promise intended for all who would become Jesus’ followers. It’s a promise that can bring hope to situations in our own lives that might otherwise seem hopeless. “You will be with me.” How can Jesus make such a promise?
In this morning’s second lesson from the letter to the Colossians, St. Paul wrote:
[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created.... He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven....Jesus is not just a good man and a great teacher. He is the Christ, the Messiah, the one who can save because he is the embodiment of God’s very being. And that means he is both Lord and King. He guarantees that no evil can have any ultimate power over us; his promise is that we will always be with him— today, tomorrow, and for eternity. That promise is renewed each and every time we come to this altar to receive him under the sacramental forms of Bread and Wine.
Leave your uncertainties and suspicions behind, and come to the King’s table. Receive in your hands the Bread of Life; and touch the Cup of Salvation to your lips. Live in confidence and in peace, knowing that his reign has only just begun, and that we will be with him and he with us— today, tomorrow, and for ever.
© James M. Jensen