They also led two other criminals to be executed with Jesus. When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing. The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one.” The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him, offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.” One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”
“Face to face with Christ my Savior, face to face what will it be when with rapture I behold him, Jesus Christ who died for me? Face to face I shall behold him, for beyond the starry sky; face to face in all his glory, I shall see him by and by.” [Face to Face by Breck/Tullar]
Today is “Reign of Christ” Sunday, often referred to as Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the Christian Year. Next Sunday we begin the cycle all over with the first Sunday of Advent, preparing for the celebration of the birth of Christ. Let me share with you a passage that sets the reign of Christ in light.
18 He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning,
the one who is firstborn from among the dead
so that he might occupy the first place in everything.
19 Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him, 20 and he reconciled all things to himself through him--
whether things on earth or in the heavens.
He brought peace through the blood of his cross.
Today awe renew our commitment to let Christ reign in our hearts and minds and actions.
This morning’s scripture seems a very odd placement for this Sunday. It is the crucifixion scene. Yet, in this powerful passage, we are impacted both in who was willing to let Christ reign and those who would scoff.
As we come face to face with Jesus, his first “words” were not to us, but to God on our behalf. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” His statement reminds me of the Prodigal. He was one who didn’t seem to know what he was doing. As he is in the pig pens, eating what the pigs were eating, the scripture says, “…when he came to himself…”. He realized that he had lost the connection with his father and wanted to be in the place again. Jesus said, “… they don’t know what they are doing.” The “they” is ambiguous, giving us room to realize that it includes all. There is a broken relationship between God and the people of the world he created. Jesus came into this world to help us repair that relationship.
Ponder the broken relationships, represented by the scoffers. They “didn’t know what they were doing.” There were at least three groups represented at the cross that day: There were the Romans. They were clueless about the identity of this man they were crucifying, much less aware that they even needed a relationship with the God that was in their midst. They were far more interested in maintaining power while keeping the peace in their realm. Then there were the criminals crucified with Jesus. They were not quite clueless, but they were stuck in the own situation. We’ll talk more about them later. Finally, there was the crowd and the religious leaders of the people. Many of those in the crowd were those who had listened day to day to Jesus. They may have been in the crowd that hailed him with “hosannas” days earlier. And there were the religious leaders. They had likewise heard the words of Jesus and had seen his mighty acts. They seemed to be the ones who heard and rejected the one before them now. All three groups were scoffers on a hill.
In this curious and varied crowd Jesus could have walked away from the scoffers. (He could have chosen not to suffer, not to give his life for the many. He could have chosen instead to save himself in a grand show of power. More importantly, he could have spoken judgement on scoffers and refused to listen – call down fire on their heads. Instead, he engaged with them. His Word, forgiveness, was a powerful beginning to this scene. We realize that his word had an impact. Not but a few verses later the centurion (the one in charge of the crucifixion detail) stated in verse 47, “It’s really true: this man was righteous.” Maybe there were the beginnings of a relationship in those hours of the crucifixion.
In Colossians 1:13-14 the words could be applied to this very scene. It says, “13 He rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. 14 He set us free through the Son and forgave our sins.” Notice the “past tense” of rescued, transferred, set us free, forgave! These are things accomplished on our behalf by Jesus. He has indeed healed our relationship with God if we but respond.
It is poignant to notice that Jesus’ mission continued even to the cross. Luke 19:10 says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” The very purpose of the cross and his sacrifice was to reach out to humanity and bring healing into their relationship with God.
Let’s look at the two criminals. The first one joins in the scoffing with an added selfish twist. “…save yourself and us.” ‘Show your power Jesus so we can get out of the mess we have made for ourselves.’ It was self-focused and even self indulgent. In an odd way, the criminals were asking, ‘Jesus walk away from us, show your power by saving your own skin. Instead, he engaged them. The second criminal maybe was affected by Jesus’ word of forgiveness. He was definitely aware of his own mistakes (sinfulness), and even defends Jesus to his companion. In a very real way, it was the first Christian “sermon” preached. It was very short. It was to the point. Never the less it followed in Jesus’ footsteps. He gave testimony to the presence of God in their midst. ‘Jesus remember me’ – it was not a plea for rescue. He accepted his deserved punishment. Instead, he seemed to be saying ‘Jesus, don’t let my life be summed up by this death. I am more than the sum of my sins.’ He understood what he had done and what he was doing. ‘Remember me, Jesus.’ He got a whole lot more that day! There are several pieces to Jesus’ response. “Today” – he begins with an immediate, right now kind of context. Not, ‘sometime in the future’ or eventually,’ but today! As Jesus continues, he really puts the fine point on it. “Today, you will be with ME…” There is the key, healed relationship with Jesus. We, the prodigals, are welcomed back into a wonderful and dynamic relationship with God through the saving acts of Jesus.
Christian artist Sara Groves, in the song “What Do I Know” on her Conversations CD, reveals that she has a friend, 88 yr. old, who is afraid of dying. What’s out there? What will it be like? All of the images of years of faith are swirling around in her mind. IN the refrain of the song she says, “I don’t know that there are harps in heaven, or the process for earning your wings. I don’t know of bright lights at the ends of tunnels, or any of those things.” What we don’t know is profound. Jesus didn’t give us the 12 steps to a better life! What he offered, however, was relationship. “Follow me.” “Today you will be with me in paradise.” “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there.” “And lo, I will be with you always until the end of the age.” “Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden.”
Sara Groves resolves her dilemma this way: ”But I know to absent from this body is to be present with the Lord, and from what I know of him, that must be pretty good.” In the tag to the song she says, “… that must be very good!”
Through this crucifixion scene, we find healing in the “king” who went to the cross for us, healing our relationship with an amazing God. We also find purpose. We are to speak and live and show that very Jesus to the world. We are to continue His mission. Jesus had that effect on the penitent criminal. Later, in verses 47-49, as I said earlier, the centurion was affected, the crowds were affected. They went home beating their chests over the horrendous scene they had watched. The disciples took it to heart, receiving forgiveness, and sharing the wonder of relationship with God to everyone they could. Jesus truly became “king” in their lives, and they let him reign in life supreme. There is probably a little of the scoffer in us as we live day to day. Those places where our relationship with God is either weak or broken. Will we let Jesus engage us, receiving the fullness of relationship with God through Him? Will we engage the scoffers around us, not judging but inviting them to meet this Jesus who gave his all. What will we do – in practical terms – to show this Jesus to the world around us? Today … with Him …!
Pastor Paul Grossman