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.”
Today, the last Sunday in the Church Year, is known as Christ the King Sunday. We follow the Christian calendar in order to frame the rhythm of our lives around the rhythm of Christ’s life. In Advent we await God’s birth in the world. For the twelve days of Christmas we celebrate the gift of God’s self to the world. During Epiphany we mark the gradual revealing of God’s light manifested in Christ. In Lent we acknowledge the darkness of our lives and in our world; a darkness which seeks to overshadow God’s light. Throughout Holy Week we observe the rejection and destruction of God’s light. On Easter Day we rejoice that neither the worst we can do nor the most awful forces of this life can conquer the life which God offers to us. At Pentecost we recognize how the power which fueled the light of Christ falls upon each one of us and upon God’s Church. Over the many weeks that follow – through ‘Ordinary Time’ – we learn what it means to manifest God’s life and love in ordinary ways. We live into what it means to be the light of Christ in the world.
And after fifty-one weeks we come to the end of this cycle to recognize how Christ the King, the Light of the world, reigns in us and in our world and over all creation. The strange thing is that the Gospel reading does not give us a particularly compelling image of a reigning king, just as our world does not exactly evidence that God is its sovereign. And yet for those brief hours at the place called The Skull, we see the diverse and complex aspects of humanity brought together in one place and we see how God is present in the midst of it.
Consider who is gathered around the Cross:
There are some who cast lots for Jesus’ clothing; reminding us that there are now (as there always has been) those who seek to benefit from the misfortune of others; scavengers who seek to turn every situation to their advantage.
There are on-lookers; people who feel so disenfranchised they believe they have no power to affect the outcome of events around them. And most likely they believe they have no share in the responsibility of events beyond their control.
There are religious leaders; misguided figures whose thinking about God and perception of God’s ways has become so calcified that when God’s light comes into the world they believe it their sacred duty to snuff it out.
There are soldiers, people empowered to enforce the edicts of rulers who abuse what is entrusted to them by mocking and deriding and dehumanizing at every possible turn.
Of the two criminals, there is one who looks at the beaten, battered crucified figure of Jesus and says, “Some God you are! Is this the best you can do for us and for yourself? If so, it is not very impressive!” And let’s be honest, who has not responded to an unanswered prayer or a numbing heartache or natural disaster or any other number of possible, legitimate complaints, and not said to God in some form or fashion, “Really God? Is this the best you can do?”
And then there is the other criminal who looks at the mess he has made of his life and ponders the brokenness he has created and shadowy darkness he has cast throughout his days and begs for mercy.
It is quite a scene, isn’t it! And as I said, it is a pretty broad, fairly full representation of humanity. And in all its diversity I see aspects of myself. There is a facet of me in each of these people. Can you see aspects of yourself in each of them as well?
Each of the Gospel writers is at pains to portray Jesus, even at His crucifixion, as being in control of all that is unfolding. Each writer highlights that Jesus chooses to be on the Cross, that at any time throughout these events He could have stepped away. This tells us something very profound about the Kingship of Christ. It tells us that Jesus chooses to reign from the costly place where all these voices intersect. His throne is the Cross and it is positioned squarely in the center of life’s widely divergent demands; demands which are often in diametric opposition to one another.
There is within me, as I assume there is within you, a voice of consternation that wonders why God has not done more to effect good in our world. There is another voice which begs for mercy for all that I have done to damage God’s work in the world. There is a part of me that feels completely powerless in the face of life’s demands and there is a part of me that acknowledges I abuse what power I do have. I know how I can be an opportunist, a voice of ridicule, and a roadblock on the pathway to the kingdom. In all of this Christ chooses – chooses – to reign in my life from the place where all these competing interests intersect. And of all that you can say about the Church – universal and in its local manifestation here at St. Paul’s – Jesus Christ chooses to reign in our midst from the very center of all that we are.
It is from this position at The Skull that God’s triumphant reign is seen most clearly. So if we, the body of Christ, want to emulate this reign in today’s world and in the lives of our people, we will seek to position ourselves at the great intersection of the world’s contempt and complaint and corruption and cry for pity.
Jesus, as He reigns from the most unlikely of thrones, makes only two kingly pronouncements: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do,” and “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” One recognizes the consequences of our limitations, but does not withdraw the radical graciousness of God’s love. The other suggests that even when we are caught up in life’s agony and misfortune we stand squarely in the kingdom of God; side by side with Christ as He reigns on the Cross.
We have come through the course of a year to learn again that we are loved in and through all things, even when we are at our worst, and that no matter what God is still God, reigning from the intersection of all that life has to offer.