St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
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. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; 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 hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you 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 justly, 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."
This last Wednesday, I made it to Ashland Coffee and Tea late for our usual post-communion hang-out over breakfast. And because I was delayed, I stayed later than normal and had a wonderful conversation. The Holy Spirit can take you to amazing places, and in the conversation we pondered the two hanging next to Jesus and how they saw the world through how they spoke with him.
One, expecting little, mocked him. He did not have any hope left. He showed no respect. He showed no love. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” I do NOT hear this as being a request, as Luke clearly says that he “kept deriding” Jesus. He chose to tear down, even with his dying breath.
And then we have the other criminal, who defended Jesus, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” I hear the resignation in his voice. I hear the honesty. I hear someone who is stretched naked, both literally and figuratively, in plain view of the whole world, knowing that he is where he should be, and that Jesus is not.
And in the final act of his life, he still holds on to hope. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That simple prayer says so much. The criminal is saying that Jesus is who he claimed to be, and despite this outcome, he held onto the idea that God gets the last word. As a priest friend of mine always says, “God bats last.” The criminal also realizes the reality that so many of Jesus’ followers seem to have missed. This Kingdom of God that is so prevalent in Jesus’ teachings, ripples into this world but also moves steadily into the world to come. The Kingdom of God is both Now and Later. Jesus, the crucified man is claiming, is going into his true Kingdom where corrupt officials and occupying armies do not exist. He is saying, in his own small way, I believe in you. Will you, if even for a second, think on me?
I can think of no greater prayer of Hope in who Jesus is and in the God who sent him than this man’s, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
When we behold Jesus on the cross, when we see him high and lifted up, what appears on the outside to be the most abysmal of failures is the greatest triumph. It is the epitome of the nature of God. Deep abiding, sacrificial love, the love that knits and holds the Universe together, the love that dreamt of you before you were born, and the love that will welcome you with open arms when you die. When we see Jesus on the cross we see, as C.S. Lewis called it in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when we see Jesus on the cross we see the Deep Magic from “the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned…” Often in classic portraits of it, we hear the Latin Ecce Homo “Behold, the man!” The Quintessential Human. The one who is so like the way we were born to be they called him the New Adam. In him, especially so vulnerable, and still so loving, we see the Immortal Law behind the very nature of the Universe, Grace Unleashed.
When we look to Jesus on the cross, and his interaction with the confessing thief, we see the miracle of the Incarnation. Now, the miracle of the Incarnation is not that Jesus looks like God, in fact that is what he calls all of us to do and be, but rather, the miracle of the Incarnation is that we see what God is really like when we look at Jesus. There are so many competing views and ideas out there, even amongst us who claim to be following this poor man from Nazareth, and yet in his final moments he is still pouring out Grace, not crying for vengeance. “Today you will be with me in Paradise!” “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they are doing!” “John, look at your mother, now; Mother, look to your son.” “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” This is what God looks like, and we look on in awe. He who could command the legions of angels, he who can calm the storm, he who can call forth the lifeless corpse back to life, he pronounces pardon, he declares Grace.
When we see Jesus in his final moments we see him so true, so loving, that even a hardened man like the Roman Centurion supervising his death even declares, “Surely this Man is the Son of God!”
I think of Jesus on the cross and I cringe. He is there for me. I say he is my King of Kings, and my Lord of Lords. When I am at my best he truly is. And his sacrifice is what I pray I live up to.
I go to the New Testament reading last, because it is chronologically after the Gospel. St. Paul is writing to the Church in Colossae, and giving them an image called the Cosmic Christ by many scholars. It is the pre-incarnate Word at work in the universe, and the litany of attributes are beautiful and daunting to comprehend.
Hear again this love letter to the highest and best St. Paul knows:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.There is an old joke about the right answer to any question in Sunday School being Jesus. But here Paul is saying almost that. Before, during, and after Jesus was, is, and will be. He was there to shape the Cosmos. He is the cruxpoint of history, and will be there at the end. Like the Centurion he affirms, “Surely this is the Son of God.” And this from a man who organized the murder of those who followed Jesus. Jesus can transform anyone. Even you. Even me.
Today is the last Sunday in the Christian year, and we finish the year looking at the fullness, the culmination, the lordship of Jesus. Next Sunday, we begin again. We walk through the awaiting of the Christ to his birth, from the Epiphany (the realization of who he is) to Lent (the preparation for his crucifixion), to Easter and the glories of his resurrection to his Ascension, to the Pentecost when we take his role on us through the power of the Holy Spirit. And the culmination of the Pentecost, our acknowledging the Lordship of Christ, today. We wait for Christ, and we wait for Christ to come again.
One more image to ponder, seeing this is the end of the year, the Christian year anyway. If you knew that you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do? Most of us would feast and soak in the best within our reach. Jesus knew he was going to die, and with one day left what did he do? Wash his students’ feet, reminded them to love one another and not to fight amongst themselves, and then he prayed that God would forgive us because we did not know what we were doing. If that is not holy, if that is not godly, if that is not beautiful, I do not know what is.
As we come to his table of Thanksgiving (for that is what Eucharist means), let this day be one of feasting. May our prayer today and always be, “Jesus, remember me…” And on Thursday, when we feast again, pause, and say thank you for the Great Thanksgiving at this table, at your Table, and one day, at Christ’s Table where we, too, will be welcomed home in Paradise. Amen