When 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. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And 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!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were handed there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you the not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned just, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“Jesus for President.”
That’s what the sign said. I saw it when I was going for a run during a particularly contentious election season (aren’t they all?). In just about every yard there was a red sign or a blue sign, with one name or the other.
I’ve always found political yard signs to be problematic.
I mean, why do we put them up? Do we honestly think anyone has ever changed their vote because of a yard sign?
I think we put those signs up in our yards, and attach them to our bumpers, and post them on Facebook, not because we want to change anyone, but because we want everyone to know where we stand.
We want everyone to know what side we’re on.
And so seeing yard signs is fairly normative. In fact, its the houses without signs that seem strange. Until I saw, “Jesus for President.”
It was so shocking I remember stumbling over my feet and nearly wiping out on the sidewalk.
Jesus for President?
Perhaps someone thought it fitting to cut through the political paraphernalia that year with some sort of prophetic pronouncement. Maybe they really thought Jesus presiding in the Oval Office would be a good idea.
Except, “take up your cross” doesn’t poll well. Turn the other cheek is a strange campaign slogan. And that’s not even mentioning the first will be last, and the last will be first. That doesn’t sound like a milk toast soundbite from a politician, it sounds like a threat.
Jesus for President. It could never work. Particularly since Jesus is already our King – Jesus is Lord.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. A remarkable offering on the liturgical calendar. With Advent hovering on the horizon, churches across the globe gather today with proclamations about the Lordship of Christ. And yet, this is a recent addition to our liturgical observances, as far as those things are concerned. We’ve celebrated Christmas for centuries and marked Easter for millennia, but Christ The King only started in 1925.
Why? Nearly 100 years ago, Pope Pius XI looked out at a world in which Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for 3 years, Hitler had just published his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, and the economic frivolity the led to the Great Depression was in full effect. And bearing witness to the world at that moment led the Pope to announce a new liturgical holiday – Christ the King Sunday would round out the year to remind Christians across the globe that we have our own King, and it is to him alone we owe our allegiance.
Over the last year we’ve read from Genesis to Revelation, we’ve encountered the living God who encounters us, we’ve been transformed by the Lord who transforms bread and cup, and all of it, all of the Sundays all of the studies all of the sacraments, they all pointed to one thing: Jesus Christ is Lord.
That’s the thing about us Christians, everything starts and ends with Jesus. He is the first word and the last word.
And yet, we do well to remember that this King of ours is strange…
Listen, there was a man named Jesus who hailed from the town of Nazareth. He was poor and had no real standing in the world but he preached about the kingdom of God, and he usually drew a pretty good crowd. For centuries the people Israel had suffered hardship after hardship, persecution after persecution, and they waited for the One who was promised. And Jesus said, “I am he.”
Many signs and wonders were done, healings happened, bellies were filled, and the crowds grew until they didn’t. The more he talked the more he was rejected. The more he did the more people grumbled. And he was betrayed, arrested, and condemned to death.
Those two words are tough to admit, or even fathom. But they’re true. At the heart of the Christian witness is the fact that, when push comes to shove, we nail the Son of God to the cross. And, incidentally, it’s why we sing, every Good Friday, “I crucified thee.” The strange new world of the Bible refuses to let us walk away with our hands clean.
The soldiers place a purple robe on his shoulders, a crown of thorns upon his head, a cross on his back, and they force him to march to The Skull.
Jesus is painfully quiet in this moment. The gifted preacher and parable teller has no words left to share. The crowds, of course, are loud. Sick with anticipation. Hungry for blood.
And he’s nailed to the cross.
Only here, hung high for all to see, does Jesus speak his first words as king. Make no mistake, this is when Jesus is crowned our king and Lord. And what is his first decree?
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
How odd of God.
With all the possible words of recrimination, condemnation, accusation, the first thing Jesus says is, “Father, forgive.”
Earlier he commanded us to forgive our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Easy to preach, hard to practice.
On the cross, Jesus dares to pray for his worst enemies. Us.
It’s rather strange that God units ignorance with forgiveness. We usually act and behave as if ignorance is the enemy of forgiveness. We want people to know they’re wrong before we forgive them. We want repentance before mercy.
And yet, for God in Christ, it is always preemptive forgiveness. Forgiveness is the first word.
Jesus doesn’t hang up on the cross until we realize we made a mistake. He doesn’t wait until someone from the crowds shouts, “Um, maybe we went a little too far this time. Sorry Jesus.” Jesus doesn’t forgive after we come to our senses, but right in the thick of our badness, Jesus’ offers his goodness.
Oddly enough, forgiveness is what it costs God to be with people like us who, every time God reaches out in love, beat God away.
Perfection in the Garden – We reject it for the taste of a little knowledge dangling from a tree.
Unified Community – We reject for selfish desires of power.
Covenanted Relationship – We reject it in favor of other hopes and dreams.
The story of the Bible is the story of our rebellion and foolishness. We worship at the altars of other gods, moving from one bit of idolatry to the next, over and over and over again.
And then, in the midst of our muck and mire, God arrives in the flesh.
Jesus Christ, the incarnate One, fully God and fully human, comes to make all things new, with promises of hope and peace and grace and mercy.
God looks at our miserable estate and condescends to our pitiful existence, God’s attaches God’s self to us sinners, and what happens? We nail God to the cross!
And look at us, with all the means at our disposal, with power and prestige, with sin and selfishness, what happens? We are forgiven.
The first word from the cross, from the throne, is forgiveness.
It’s strange! But then again, it should come as no surprise even though its the most surprising thing in the history of the cosmos. Jesus was forever walking up to people and, without warning, saying to those whom he met, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Have you ever noticed that almost none of them ever asked to be forgiven?
I’ve heard it said, and perhaps you have too, that this moment, when Jesus hangs on the cross, is when God is in total solidarity with humanity. The suffering crucified God.
And yet, that forgiveness is the first word is completely contrary to us. For us, if we forgive, it is almost always with conditions.
We wait around for an apology, we wait for amends to be made, and then (and only then) will we forgive.
Forgiveness is the currency of God’s kingdom. Forgiveness, as Dolly Parton notes, is all there is.
And it’s also the the hardest thing to do.
St. Augustine, theologian and preacher from the 4th century, once preached a sermon on forgiveness, and in the sermon he admonished his congregation because some of them, if not all of them, were omitting the phrase from the Lord’s prayer that said, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespasses us.”
They would let those words remain silent every time they came around, and they would just skip to the next phrase. They refused to say those words, according to Augustine, because they knew they’d be lying if they said them out loud.
Forgiveness is hard, and it always has been.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus preached about it so much, told so many stories about grace, and tossed around forgiveness every where he went. Even on the cross! With nails in his hands, with thieves at his sides, abandoned by his closest friends and disciples, before asking anything for himself, he asks something for us, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Our King rules not with an iron fist, but with an open hand. The first word of the kingdom is forgiveness.
And if that were all, it would be enough to pop every circuit breaker in our minds, it would leave us scratching our heads bewildered at the outcome. We don’t deserve it one bit. Frankly, we deserve nothing. And instead we get everything.
But the story isn’t over!
The first word is forgiveness, a prayer within the Trinity, and then Jesus speaks to the criminal on his side.
The One who was forever accused of consorting with sinners now hangs next to one. The One who ate with sinners now dies with them.
One of the criminals looks at Jesus and says, “C’mon King of the Jews, it’s miracle time! Save yourself and us!”
But the other replies, “Are you not afraid? We deserve what we’re getting, but this guy has done nothing wrong.” And then he looks over to Jesus and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Is the thief confessing his sin? Perhaps. At the very least, he owns up to getting what he deserves. But confession has nothing to do with getting forgiven. It is not a transaction, it is not a negotiation. Confession is nothing more than the after-the-last gasp we offer when we know the truth of who we are and whose we are.
We don’t confess to get forgiven. We confess because we are forgiven.
Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon our lives constantly. Preachers proclaim it. We sing about it. We pray for it. And, miracle of miracles, we receive it.
When we confess, we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have.
Perhaps the thief is bold to ask Jesus to remember him because he was the first person to hear Jesus’ first word from the cross, “Father, forgive.”
It was almost 100 years ago when Christians across the globe needed the first Christ the King Sunday. They needed a day set apart to reflect on how the Lordship of Christ outshines even the most powerful of dictators and the most devastating of depressions.
Today, we need it just as much. We need Christ the King Sunday because it reminds us, beats upon us, that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It forces us to confront the strange reality that our King rules from a cross. It compels us to hear the Good News, the very best news, the strangest news of all: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! Amen.