Saturday, November 23, 2013

King of Losers

Luke 23:33-43
Christ the King Sunday
November 24, 2013
William G. Carter

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him... 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.”

Today is a difficult day to hold together. We celebrate the sign above Jesus’ head (“This is the King…”) and we note his location (on the cross). The King of the Jews is condemned as a Jewish prophet. The Ruler over all wears a crown of thorns. The Sovereign who is enthroned on the praises of heaven is subject to the insults and jeers of earth. The One who rules over heaven and earth is lifted a few feet off the earth to survey his dominion with wounds in his hands and feet.

We try to hold all of this together. At very least, it is a curiosity.

Our hymns sing of this unusual sight. “Lift High the Cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all the world adore his sacred name.” “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus . .  here on earth both priest and victim.” It is an odd affirmation: the central figure of our faith is crucified and exalted.”

And if that weren’t difficult enough, today the church gives a story from the cross. Jesus is put between two criminals, one on his right, one on his left. They have committed significant enough crimes as to be condemned to death. None of these three men will get out of this Friday alive. So they began to talk among themselves.

One of them takes a cue from the crowd and mocks Jesus. The other one says, “Are you clueless? Don’t you notice where we are?”

The first one says, “Why can’t he who raised the dead do something to help us out? He has the power. He should help us out.” The other one says, “Have you no shame? We are getting what we deserve, but he has done nothing wrong.” It is a strange conversation and I am surprised that somebody wrote it down. Why would the church want to hang on to these words for centuries?

Then the second criminal calls the man in the middle by name: “Jesus.” That doesn’t happen much in the Gospel of Luke. Only the very sick or those possessed by evil call Jesus by name; others call him “Master” or “Lord.” He says “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.” Jesus says directly, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Of course, they are not in the Garden of Eden, but subject to pain, wretchedness, and cruelty. What kind of king gives access to a thief who is dying beside him?

It is a curious conversation, none other like it in all the Gospels. In a season when we have heard a lot from the Gospel of Luke, we have one final story where the Gospel writer pushes the grace of God as far as it can go. A condemned criminal, judged and executed, is remembered – and presumably received – by Christ. He cannot save himself; and Jesus, who refuses to save himself, offers him access into paradise. It is a free gift for a man who is losing everything, given by a Savor who is giving himself away.

A lot of people find this confusing. Can you blame them? They want a religion that makes sense. They want a step-by-step plan for improving their lives. They want guidance for helping their children to turn out well. They want assurance that they are doing it right, that they are approved by a higher power. They want the promise that they will be forgiven for the little things that they do, and they promise in return to avoid the really big mistakes that could ruin their lives and the lives of others.

And then we get a story of a man on a cross, talking to another man on a cross, and offering him free paradise. How does this happen? Well, take note of three things.

First, the criminal defends Jesus and tells the greater truth that Luke has insisted upon since page one: Jesus has done nothing wrong; ergo, he has done everything right. He has done the will of God.

Second, whether the criminal knows it or not, he himself is on the side of God’s kingdom. Back in the desert, Jesus was tempted to save himself, to think of himself first, to turn stones into bread, to impress the crowds and win them over with self-serving miracles. Jesus seems to chase away the devil, but then Luke says, “The devil departed until an opportune time” (4:13).

Listen, here is the opportune time: when everybody turns against you, when people laugh at you, when the officials condemn you, where religious leaders spit on you, when another condemned man says in the tempter’s voice, “If you are the Messiah of God, save yourself . . .” And the second criminal interrupts, “Wait, don’t you fear God? He is getting worse than he deserves.”

But third, and listen to this: Jesus refuses to save himself. He has come to save the world. And how does he save the world? By dying. In the words of the first Christ followers, “Through him, God was pleased to reconciled to himself all things . . . by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). Jesus prays for the Father to forgive the foolishness of the human race, and the prayer is granted. Jesus is urged by his peers to save himself, but he refuses.

This is the mystery of the Gospel. Jesus rescues us by dying. He dies and he invites us to die with him. That is the only way we will ever live with him . . . by dying to ourselves and dying to him. He said as much on the way to the cross. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)  Only in the kingdom of God do we get ahead by losing, by losing ourselves and dying with Christ. The king in the kingdom is Jesus, regarded by almost everybody in Jerusalem as the king of losers.

So how does this play in the suburbs? Probably about the same as it played in the time of Jesus. Where we live, there are some criminals who get caught. They get condemned, sentenced, and sent away. Back patio wisdom is that they get what they deserve.  Nobody wants them forgiven, turned loose, or let off the hook. Please notice if you will that the second criminal is paying for his crimes. Nobody lets him off the cross after his little chat with Jesus, because nobody is letting Jesus off the cross either, least of all Jesus himself.

So many people seem to believe that life is about building, and increasing, and multiplying, and having everything turn out well. They dream that life starts down here, moves increasingly higher, and gets better and better. Isn’t that what everybody would like? But then something happens.

She sat in a wheelchair and told me about her circles of friends. “We played croquet at the club, ate cucumber sandwiches, and had our share of mimosas,” she said. “Every month we went shopping in New York, sometimes hiring a driver. Then I had a stroke at 42 and the pretty women disappeared. They dropped me. At first, a couple of them sent me flowers with the note, ‘Wishing for a full recovery.’ The full recovery didn’t happen and all those so-called friends disappeared. They didn’t like the reminder that they were mere mortals.”

There are hundreds of variations on that story. The medical emergency, the crumbled marriage, the sudden termination, the kids in trouble, the horrible phone call, the unexpected betrayal, the rotten business partner – at any moment, we may reminded that all of us are mere mortals. The pretty women and the golden men will evaporate quicker than you can say “The Great Gatsby.” If honest, we confess how much we have lost.

But the mystery of the Gospel is that this can be the beginning of wisdom, the beginning of holy wisdom.

Look at Jesus. When God sends Jesus on the mission to our world, he does not show up like a super hero or a rock star. He doesn’t have flowing blond hair or rippled muscles or perfect teeth. No, he grows up as a small town carpenter, gets splinters in his hands, and stays home until he is thirty. Jesus blends in, until it is time to teach, to heal, to feed, to confront, to be condemned, and as far as the powerful were concerned, to be removed. And when he is revealed, all the Gospels say, there is revelation on the cross.

I remember when I was a kid. My favorite baseball team was the New York Mets. In 1962, their very first year, they were the worst team in baseball – won 40 games out of 160. They were horrible, worst record of any modern major league team ever. Why did I like them, probably for the same reason I didn’t like the slick and successful Yankees: I could understand losers. I was a clumsy kid, last to get chosen for a team in gym class, never ran very fast. When I threw a baseball, it didn’t go where I wanted it to go. I loved the New York Mets.

And then we went to church, and my teachers had us memorize a Bible passage called “The Beatitudes.” The very first one says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:3). Can you believe it? The kingdom belongs to them. Really? For the people who have lost their hope, lost their energy, lost their way. The kingdom is for them? What kind of kingdom is that? My teacher said, “That is God’s kingdom.”

Every one of Christ’s beatitudes is addressed to the world’s losers: the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the kind-hearted, the simple, the downtrodden. What kind of kingdom is this? It is God’s kingdom.

Throughout the centuries, outsiders have looked upon the people of the church and considered them losers. A lot of people are looking upon us that way now. Nothing new about that! The apostle Paul looked at the congregation in the Greek city of Corinth, some fifty or sixty souls we think.

He writes to them and says, “Consider who you are. Look at your membership roster. You’re not much to look at. There isn’t much to commend you. Not much in terms of worldly stature or wealth or celebrity significance. Corinthian church, if we were to size up those who are the winners of the world, you’re not even on the list.”

But that seems to be the plan, he says. “God chose those who are foolish to shame the wise. God chose those who are weak to shame the strong. God chose all the nobodies to bring honest judgment to the somebodies. If anybody boasts, let them boast about God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

It is so hard for so many people to understand this, especially if they are concerned about power and riches, and increase and popularity, stature and good looks, and all the world’s markers of success. They don’t know what to do with Jesus, the real Jesus, the Jesus who refuses to save himself so that he can save those who die with him. Until people receive this truth in their hearts, it will confuse and confound them.

Sometimes it is people in the church who don’t understand.  They are doing just fine. Go to church to worship the king. Dress up and look good. But when trouble comes their way, they drop out or stop going. Wait, don’t do that: the king and the kingdom are precisely for you, when you’re in trouble, when you risk losing everything. We will recognize him if we were paying attention. Gathered on a hill, he speaks to the broken ones, to the poor in spirit. Crucified on a hill, he still gathers those who need him more than anything else. This is the truth of Christ the King.

So we return to the conversation between thieves on their crosses. Two of them are there, one on either side of Jesus. As far as we know, one of them is bitter to the end, the other open to the possibility that the man in the middle has the authority over every death sentence. “Remember me, Lord,” he says. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

   Remember me because I am not going anywhere right now.
   Remember me because I need you more than anything or anybody else.
   Remember me because I am a criminal, and the society wants me out of sight.        
   Remember me because everybody else is going to forget my name.
   Remember me when you come into your kingdom.

His prayer is answered by Jesus Christ, the King of Losers, the King of All.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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