Thanks Be To God
Good morning! Or, I suppose I should say, Happy New Year! Today marks the end of another liturgical year. Our church calendar begins with Advent and ends today, with Christ the King Sunday. Can you believe that Advent is already upon us?!
In this congregation, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a whole, we follow the ‘lectionary’. The lectionary is a calendar of Scriptural passages – each day, and specifically each Sunday, a selection of passages is assigned from the various writings of the Bible – the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles and so on. We have come full circle this lectionary year – we have spent another year learning about the birth, life, death, resurrection and ministry of Jesus Christ. We have learned more about who God is and what God is doing in the world.
The lectionary also celebrates the seasons – Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary time. The last Sunday of the lectionary year is Christ the King Sunday – today. And each year, new experiences are encountered, new reflections arise and you might experience, as I do, that there is something new the text has to say each time you hear it. If today is your first Sunday worshipping with us, then welcome, we are thankful that you’re here as we reflect on the culmination of another year spent in the Scripture.
Over the past several months, we have journeyed through the Gospel of Luke and today, we will hear another passage from Luke that describes a portion of the crucifixion of Jesus. I don’t know about you but I have always struggled with the violence of the cross – but, this week, I am grateful that I have been able to hear this passage not through the blood soaked words eeked out from the cross but rather, through the forgiving heart of God as expressed throughout the Gospel of Luke.
You see – there is a strong theme that weaves throughout the Gospel of Luke and it is a theme of the kingdom of God. Through parables and teachings, Jesus speaks of the nature of the kingdom of God – a kingdom which is characterized by the grace of God, which is celebrated and practiced.
So, on this Christ the King Sunday, this Sunday before Thanksgiving, let us turn to the text, revisit some of the parables in Luke that we have studied this lectionary year, and listen for a Word that God has for us to hear. May we be attentive to that for which we give thanks to God. Let us pray:
Loving and Creating God, surprise us with your love. Break through the difficult words, the difficult images and transform us with your grace. Amen.
Luke 23: 33-43
33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Before we get into the passage for today, I want to take a walk through the Gospel of Luke again, to help us understand more about these final moments upon the cross. I think it can be easy for us to hear the story of the crucifixion – or any portion of Scripture, really – in a vacuum. And, on this Christ the King Sunday, this culmination of a year of exploration, I think it is appropriate for us to take a moment to appreciate the complexity and mystery of the love and grace of God.
Luke’s intention is articulated in the very beginning of Gospel – the Gospel writer, having investigated all of the eye-witness accounts of the events that had been fulfilled, is compelled to paint a comprehensive picture of Jesus’s ministry – one that is more dynamic than just one person’s perspective. And, Luke tells us that this account was created for the benefit of Theophilus. Now, the identity of Theophilus is unknown – scholars only provide conjecture – but the name translated from the Greek means ‘friend of God’ or ‘one who loves God’. Perhaps you could imagine yourself as Theophilus.
Following the birth narrative, we skip ahead about 30 years in his life and in the fifth chapter, Jesus makes his purpose known when he declares, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to change their hearts and lives.”
And, a theme of what the kingdom of God is like begins to emerge. The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are told. The lost sheep parable tells of a shepherd whose herd is 100 sheep large and 1 sheep goes missing. So, he leaves the 99 and searches for the 1 lost sheep. The story of the lost coin is of a woman who owns 10 silver coins and loses one of them. Upon finding the sheep and the coin, the parables conclude similarly – “When he arrives home, [or, when she found the coin], they call together friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Celebrate with me because I have found my lost sheep. [I have found my lost coin.] In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.”
And, there’s the familiar parable of the prodigal son, which is told and also concludes with celebration of the lost being found: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But, the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”
And, as Jesus hangs from the cross, as he prays over the din of those casting lots and deriding him from below, he hears the voice of the criminal asking Jesus to remember him. This criminal did not deny his wrongdoing – he was honest with himself and with Jesus in admitting the wrongdoing he had committed. And, in doing so, his heart was changed and he understood himself to be worthy of being remembered, worthy of being celebrated. And, with the inscription of ‘King’ above him, Jesus speaks of Paradise.
Throughout the Gospel of Luke, we see story after story of the delighted and celebrating heart of God – and this delighted heart seems to be expressed in those places where we would least expect. God freely and joyfully gifts God’s people with forgiveness and delights in our ability to receive this forgiveness. And, our text for today is another example of God’s depth and desire to change hearts and lives with love.
Jesus spent much of his ministry describing the kingdom of God as having different rules and different expectations from the rules and penalties of humanity. Jesus encounters the lived experiences of those around him and his response is consistently different from that which is normative. He heals and he teaches and he walks upon the earth experiencing that which we do – the conflict between wanting to forgive, and not wanting to be taken advantage of – and he shows a new path for which we can strive. Even to the end, as he draws final breaths upon the cross, he does not choose the path suggested to him by the crowds. Instead, he speaks of God’s forgiveness and he hears the cry of the one whose heart has been changed and he delights in that.
God’s love and forgiveness is for all and it is truly transformative. And it is something that we can all participate in as well. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in Denver, CO and she recently published her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful, Faith of a Sinner and Saint. In it, she says this of her understanding of forgiveness: “Jesus always seems to be pairing God’s forgiveness of us with our forgiveness of others. But why?” She goes on to say, “Growing up, I thought it was a way of guilting us into forgiving others, like Jesus was saying, Hey, I died for you and you can’t even be nice to your little brother? As though God can get us to do the right thing if God can just make us feel bad about how much we owe God. But that is not the God I see in Jesus Christ. That is a manipulative mother.” (says Bolz-Weber)
The forgiveness of which Luke speaks, the happily given to us forgiveness, is one that we are free to accept and to share with one another. We do not need to be restricted to a simple understanding of forgiveness which is abused to the point of being permission to lay waste to the land or to abuse one another; it is not a ‘get out of jail free card’. Neither is forgiveness meant to be wielded as a weapon – as Nadia initially thought. The forgiveness that Jesus teaches is much greater than that. It is a mysterious gift that when experienced has the power to change hearts and lives and is meant to be celebrated. It is a mark of the kingdom that is, that was, and forever will be and it is something that we can practice, even though we will never master it.
Forgiveness has the power to break cycles of violence within one’s own self and among communities. It has the power to free oneself from the bonds of ‘I’m too (insert your own reason for a sense of unworthiness)’ and can change your heart to know that you are, in fact, worthy of God’s love. And, in a world that suffers from wars and arrogance, we would be wise to see the strength and power that forgiveness might have to put an end to death and destruction in a way that violence, or ‘standing up for oneself’ in the traditional sense, never has. What if we accepted God’s forgiveness, and forgave ourselves for that thing we regret? What if we admitted to feeling hurt by what someone else did to us and with confidence and honesty forgave them, not returning violence for violence? It is sometimes difficult work for us, and we pray for God’s patience in those times, but for God, God delights in loving us well.
You don’t have to look long or hard within the Gospel of Luke to pick up on the fact that the Kingdom of God is not your run-of-the-mill, empire-type kingdom. And, the use of the repeated theme through different stories helps us, the readers of the Scripture, to discover that the kingdom of God, the one that those around him declared Jesus king of, is of an entirely different order – a kingdom that is characterized by new life, hope and grace and, above all, love – the kind of love that never wearies, even through practicing forgiveness. And, what a gift this new kingdom is! Indeed, thanks be to God for that.