Proper 29 / C
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
24 November 2019
Whoa! What just happened here? It feels like we have been caught in some sort of time warp! Here it is, the 24th of November, and most of us are still in the midst of making preparations for Thanksgiving. One holiday at a time, please! I get upset when the retail establishment rushes too soon into the Christmas season with decorations appearing before Halloween – and then I find that the Church appoints a Gospel reading that zips right past Christmas and fast forwards us into Good Friday, dumping us headlong into the Crucifixion.
This is the final Sunday of the church year, and you may have noticed that the bulletin lists two names for today. Officially, it bears the title, “the last Sunday after Pentecost”; but unofficially, it is often called “Christ the King Sunday”.
For the past few Sundays, the Gospel lessons have focused on the coming and establishment of God’s Kingdom, encouraging us to look forward in hope and expectation. But this morning’s Gospel breaks the pattern and the rhythm set over these past few weeks. The Gospel we read on this final Sunday of the church year compels us to look back into the distant past, before we run ahead into the unknown future.
After being condemned and sentenced by Pilate, Jesus’ execution would have followed a pattern that would have been quite familiar to the citizens of First Century Jerusalem. Following his audience before the Roman governor, Jesus would be handed over to the Roman soldiers. Under armed escort, he was then led away to be humiliated, spit upon, and scourged – whipped almost to death in a display of power by the guards, who then mocked him and dressed him up as a parody for his crime – a reed for a kingly scepter, an old purple robe for a garment of state, a crown of thorns to announce his “regal” status. “Hail, King of the Jews! Hail, you impotent king of a conquered and oppressed people!”
With Jesus’ conviction and sentencing, the cogs of the imperial legal system were set in motion, and Jesus’ execution would follow the same pattern as any other condemned enemy of the Roman state. Stripped of his mocking finery, the macabre procession would be assembled. Surrounded by four armed soldiers, the death walk would begin to make its way toward Calvary. Leading this procession, a herald would walk, carrying a sign upon which the criminal’s charge would be painted in bold, black letters. In this case, the board would read, “This is Jesus, King of the Jews.” And in this case, the Gospels specifically note that Jesus’ charge was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek – make sure everyone knows the charge of sedition that condemns this man to death. Carrying his own cross, whipped and goaded by the soldiers and passers-by along the way, the criminal’s march toward the crucifixion site wound its way through the streets of Jerusalem, through the congested and narrow streets of the crowded marketplace, at the busiest time of day, to ensure that as many people as possible would witness the event. Let this be a warning to any others who might be contemplating this same crime. Let this procession stand as a testimony to the power of the Roman occupiers.
Having done it many times before, Pilate knew exactly what he was doing when he ordered the sign that led Jesus through the market and was nailed above his head. It announced the crime to the community: “This is the King of the Jews.” “King” – that title – a title Jesus never used for himself – that title of “King” was Jesus’ crime, a crime of sedition, a crime that undermined the imperial power of Rome. All of Jerusalem could see this sign and read this charge – considered a sacrilege to some, more likely a ridiculous and laughable claim to the majority.
As governor, Pilate did what he had to do. And yet, there was no way that he could possibly have known what he was really doing when he had that sign prepared, carried in that grisly procession, and nailed to that cross. Pilate did not know what he was really doing, for he was not merely announcing a crime . . . he was crowning the King of kings! Pilate was setting in motion the strangest coronation ceremony that the world had ever witnessed, a coronation of a heavenly king orchestrated and choreographed by none other than God himself. Pilate did not know, but the statement he ordered written on that sign nailed above Jesus’ head was a gross understatement; for this Jesus was not simply King of the Jews, but more . . . so much more! Pilate had no way of knowing, but the sign should have read: “This is Jesus, King of not only the Jews, but King of all! King of heaven and earth! King of kings! King of all Creation!”
In spite of all his power, all his authority, all his knowledge, Pilate did not know that he had set in motion the breaking of the pattern of human life and death forever. And oddly enough, it was not Pilate, the governor, but another condemned criminal, who recognized the true nature of Jesus’ reign and the real dimension of his Kingdom.
Two criminals hung on either side of this crucified king. One of these condemned men looked at Jesus and saw only another man, helpless like himself, nailed to a cross. Pinned to a tree, what could this powerless “king” do now? Like most of the others gathered to witness the spectacle, he cursed and mocked Jesus: “If you are the Christ, the Messiah, act like it! Prove it! Save yourself from this slow and agonizing death. And while you’re at it, save me, too!”
On Jesus’ other side, another criminal – also in desperate pain as the cross continued its slow, agonizing and inevitable work; shifting his weight as his limbs, no longer able to bear their weight against the pull of gravity, begin to separate; his lungs screaming for air, struggling against the slow strangulation which would take so very long, but ultimately claim the crucified victim’s life. A criminal, condemned to die for a crime no longer remembered by history; just another Hebrew criminal, but this man of crime was also a man of faith. This man, in these last minutes before death, looked at Jesus, and unlike Pilate or the other criminal, unlike the Roman guards or the crowd jeering and making cat-calls at his feet – unlike all these others, this criminal knew what the sign really meant. “This is Jesus, King of the Jews” – and all mankind! Ruler of the Kingdom to come! His last request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” “Jesus, Christ the King – rule over me in your kingdom, and allow me to serve you in that kingdom to come.”
Answered with a promise: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
In the crucifixion of Jesus, the pattern of human life and the finality of death is shattered. And this rather predictable criminal execution stands apart from all others. This crowning of the heavenly king is unlike any other coronation the world has ever known. And the pattern is, once and for all time, forever broken! Pilate, invested with the power of life and death, does not realize that the cross upon which he condemns this Galilean rabble-rouser to death will become – for those who will believe - the gateway to everlasting life. But a common criminal, realizing what all the people of knowledge and learning could not understand, sees on that cross the opening to paradise and humbly asks for entry. Unwilling to save himself from a painful and disgraceful death, following his Father’s will, Jesus is crowned King of kings as he hangs - and struggles – and dies.
On that cross the pattern of life and death is forever shattered!
Through that cross, the Kingdom of God begins!
And Jesus, the crucified Christ, is crowned as King!
As this liturgical year ends and a new Advent awaits:
May we have the vision of that criminal who saw a new pattern, a new way. May we, like him, see the cross of Jesus as the gateway to eternal life.
May we recognize and proclaim the whole truth of Pilate’s understatement: “Jesus is King!”
And may we join with the countless throngs throughout the ages and throughout the world who have known the joy of worshiping and serving Christ, the King of kings! And Lord of lords!