A SERMON FOR CHRIST THE KING SUNDAY
“Two others also, who were criminals, were led away
to be put to death with him.” (Luke 23:32)
We don’t know their names. We don’t know exactly what they did. We don’t know who they were. We don’t know where they came from. They are faceless nonentities sucked into an event that will transform the world. They hung on either side of a man who wore a crown of thorns and whose cross bore the hasty inscription, “This is the King of the Jews.” There was no inscription over their heads. They were simply two criminals, locked into a scene by happenstance. Had they ever heard of Jesus before? Had they ever been near him before? We don’t know and never will.
But on this day they were near enough to hear Jesus’ breath. They were near enough to smell the sweat mixed with dirt and crusted blood on his body? With the same vantage point from their wooden crosses they watched and listened as Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers derided Jesus, taunted him – mocking Jesus to snap into miracle man and come down from the cross. “You’ve saved others, why not yourself,” they jeer.
And then one of the criminals speaks. He joins the jeering and the mockery and shouts out to Jesus, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself – and us.”
The second criminal turns on the first, “Don’t you fear God? We’ve been condemned justly, we’re getting what we deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong.” And then, in an astonishing confirmation, offering a startling revelation of who Jesus is and what’s really happening here, the second criminal says to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Two criminals, one on Jesus’ left and one on his right; one sees a dying man in the middle; one sees his savior. Two criminals, one demands physical life, one hopes for eternal life. Two criminals, one a breath away from the kingdom, one so far away that he can’t see the doorway to life right in front of him. Both men are in the presence of salvation, but one can’t see it. Two men go to their death; one receives life.
Only in the Gospel of Luke do we find this story of the two criminals interacting with Jesus. Mark and Matthew mention them, but only as being crucified with Jesus. In Mark and Matthew they have no speaking parts. There’s no interaction, with each other or with Jesus. They’re only a backdrop in the crucifixion scene. So, what is Luke, the evangelist, trying to show us?
Some say Luke likes to use parallels like this – two people in the same story, one modeling the negative and one the positive, in their understanding about Jesus. It’s a way of teaching us disciples to distinguish between attitudes and orientations that lead us toward or that lead us away from our King and the Kingdom.
Luke does the same thing in another story unique to his Gospel. At the end of the story of the prodigal son and his brother, the two sons are both close, at least in proximity, to their Father. The prodigal has returned home. He’s rushed into the waiting arms of the Father. He’s feasting at the banquet table. The other has stayed home all along, close to the Father. But he now turns his back on the Father’s open arms and open heart and refuses to enter the feast. Both sons are in the presence of abundant Love, but one can’t feel it. A feast was waiting for both, but only one is at the table.
How many times have we, you and I, been in the presence of our Lord, the one who holds up salvation before our eyes and beckons us to be with Him? And yet we’ve ignored what He had to offer. How consistently do we set our sights only on our physical life, our eyes closed to the spiritually abundant life that Christ, ever at our side, holds out to us? Are we, like so many of those in Gospel miracle stories, blind? Or are we sighted from birth, but simply closing our eyes to and turning our backs now on the One who can and does want, desperately, to transform us.
I discovered a beautiful book during the past year. It’s titled, “The Twelve Gifts of Birth.” (1) It is a gift to give to a new baby and the baby’s parents, or to a Godchild or grandchild or to any child who’s important in your life. It’s a gift to give to an adult who maybe needs to remember, recapture, reopen, the gifts, forgotten or abandoned now, but which are ours at birth. The twelfth and final gift is the gift of faith – a gift to open and cherish and honor, as the story recites, so you may believe.
I believe that we are sighted from birth, sighted with a faith that enables us to believe. But, as we grow up, we lose trust and, in fear and protectiveness, we close the eyes of our hearts to the fullness of faith with which we were born. And our will, ever trying to protect us from the unknown, shuts us off from access to the spiritual strength which faith nourishes. Salvation is the way back to living in the fullness of the birth gifts.
Salvation is scary. It means I have to change – to give up my will and my ways to become, again, a part of God’s will and God’s ways. Transformation can be terrifying – because I’m going from a life that I know, no matter how difficult and painful it may be, to a new life – one I don’t know, unless I remember who I was and whose I was at birth.
I remember Barbara Brown Taylor describing the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly. Curious as to what happens in the cocoon stage, she reports. If you take a knife and cut through the cocoon in the early stage you find only mush – nothing concrete, nothing discernible. Transformation from crawling caterpillar to soaring butterfly involves becoming unidentifiable mush. No wonder you or I, at times, may close our eyes and turn our backs on that which calls us to transformation.
A couple of weeks ago I was asked to give, yet again, my life story, my spiritual autobiography, as it is sometimes called. It was for one of the ECW (Episcopal Church Women) chapters here at St. James’s. They were, as I remember, a group of women, all of whom were older than I am. They are wise women, wise with a wisdom and a nurturing presence born out of many years of life.
When I concluded my story, I remember ending with an observation that has been something of a hallmark of my life stories. It’s something that I figure explains the relatively advanced age at which I experienced my call to the ordained ministry and ultimately became a priest. My conclusion goes something like this: that God simply needed to take longer with someone like me to shape me towards that which he ultimately had in mind for me to do. I have held on to the thought (not expressed that day) that the world had just toughened me up and events dried me out, so the clay of my heart and soul just took a long time to become workable – even for God.
In the question and discussion period which came next, one woman quietly but clearly remarked, “Torrence, I think God was knocking on your door for a long time – a long, long time.”
I was surprised, startled. I tried not to show it at the time. The remark caught me off guard. As I considered it later I realized how I had so conveniently configured my world, my way in the end of the story. How I had twisted my lens, just a tweak, to make the story more comfortable for me.
The remark has worked on and in me this past couple of weeks. And I have come to see, with new eyes, that for a long time Christ was right beside me and I didn’t see Him – not really. That for a long time Christ was calling me and knocking at my door, holding out new life to me, but I wasn’t answering the door. I was, figuratively, squeezing my eyes shut and putting my fingers in my ears.
Yes, I wanted to see Christ; I wanted to hear him, but I was afraid of change, I was afraid to open myself to his image on the cross and his words saying, “Come, come through me, through this, and you will have life more abundant.” That’s why it took so long with me. Because I just couldn’t let go of the limitations that I suppose I thought kept me safe. I was tough and I was dry, because it protected me.
But in the face of this disturbing revelation I try to remember that I am, after all, like each of us, never out of God’s presence. God’s not going to have it any other way. Christ says to all of us, “I am with you always.”
Christ doesn’t ask us to be perfect. But he does want us, ultimately, to be available. Even if that only happens in our last words, with our last breath, hanging as a sinner, a few feet away from our salvation – seeing it – seeing our salvation for the first time and whispering, “Jesus, Jesus remember me.”
(1) Costanzo, Charlene; HarperResource, 1999.