Preached by the Revd Pete Gunstone, Interim Precentor
Introduce self. Pray.
[Opening prayer drawn from:]
Col. 1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 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. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 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. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 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
As has already been said, today is the feast of Christ the King. In today’s gospel, Luke portrays Jesus as King, but not in a way that we might expect.
Luke 23:33 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.
Luke sets the scene in the preceding passage and records quite a procession: Jesus and the soldiers (23.36); Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross either with or for Jesus (23.26); the two criminals (literally, “bad-doers”); “a great number of people”, including “women beating their breasts and wailing for him” (23.27); and the leaders of the people (23.35), probably including the chief priests and scribes (23.10).
It is in front of this great assembly that Jesus’ crucifixion takes place. Whilst Luke simply states the crucifixion, he describes the location using the more graphic Greek term – “The Skull” – and depicts the crucified one as being hung between two criminals. This crucifixion tableau depicts some sort of coronation – perhaps a mock one in the circumstances.
34 [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing.
Who is Jesus praying for? Pilate and the Roman soldiers? The Jewish leaders? Whilst the immediate context suggests that Jesus was praying for those involved in the physical action of circumcision, the wider Lukan context has emphasised the role not just of the Jewish leaders but, also, of the people in the events that paved the way to Jesus’ actual crucifixion. Thus, Jesus’ prayer should be understood as asking forgiveness for all who were involved in his death.
Jesus’ prayer is consistent with his style of prayer in Luke: Jesus repeatedly prays to God as “Father” and teaches his followers to forgive others; Jesus’ model prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, is likewise addressed to God as Father and includes a petition for forgiveness coupled with the charge to forgive others. Indeed, Jesus’ prayer on the cross here and his death becomes a model for all martyrs: Stephen utters these words as he becomes the first martyr (Acts 7.60).
Yet there is more to this prayer than Jesus’ pattern and his desire for mercy. “For they do now know what they are doing.” Whereas it may have seemed to all those involved in Jesus’ crucifixion that they were in command, here is a hint that they are somehow actors on a broader stage, that their intentional actions are unintentionally carrying out the actions of another. Here is a suggestive turning of the tables: could it be that the apparently active, crucifying ones, are passive, and the apparently passive, crucified one, is active?
The events that take place seem to confirm this. The soldiers, in the division of the spoils of the soon to be dead Jesus, are unaware that their very actions enact the words of the Psalmist: “they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (Psalm 22.18)
35 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!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” Luke
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The tirade of verbal humiliation of Jesus as Saviour that then begins in v.35 becomes a triptych of proclamation. With each insult, the stakes are raised as Luke’s assessment of their verbal abuse intensifies: whilst the leaders “look down their noses” and the soldiers “mock” him like school children, the slight of the criminal is described as “blasphemy”.
Yet, this attempt at temporal humiliation becomes a moment of eschatological revelation. It has already been claimed that Jesus is the Saviour. At his birth, he was proclaimed as such (2.11). In Zacchaeus’ house, he described himself and as the Son of Man who seeks and saves the lost (19.10). And just as he taught his disciples that those who lost their lives for his sake would save them (9.24), he now loses his life that they might be saved. Thus, the mockery of these actors witnesses not to a contradiction of claims that Jesus is the Saviour, but to the confirmation of their fulfilment.
Make no mistake – this is no pushover for the named Saviour: there is a battle between two kingdoms. Luke offers an echo of the threefold temptation in the wilderness: the taunts of the devil are echoed in the taunts of the leaders, soldiers, and malefactor: “if you are…then…”. With each taunt comes a temptation to save himself. Indeed, Jesus could have saved himself. Instead, Jesus pins himself to the cross to fulfil the purposes of God and save others, thus transforming their taunts into unwitting proclamations. Instead of humiliation, here is a coronation; in his actions, Jesus is revealed as the Chosen One, the Messiah, the Christ of God, the King of the Jews
But what of the crowd? Luke reports no speech from their mouths, only that they watched and waited. Why? Perhaps their silent, observant presence reflects our watching and waiting as Luke’s readers. Perhaps their silence leaves open the possibility of a response. Perhaps we Luke is offering us the opportunity to stand in their shoes, to watch, and to weigh the significance of the unfolding spectacle.
The second criminal crucified with Jesus offers a way to respond. Instead of joining in with the ironic derision of his fellow criminal, who derides Jesus for not saving himself and them, this one utters words that acknowledge both the justice of their own fate as criminals and yet the possibility of Jesus’ saving power. With the simple words, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” that condemned man not only evokes the powerful OT idiom of God “remembering” various forerunners of the faith, but also confesses that the one who hangs at the behest of the Jewish leaders and the whim of the Roman empire is one whose kingdom extends beyond life into death, the one who has power to save on the immediate and infinite stage of the seen and the unseen.
To him, Jesus responds: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Today is a powerful word in the gospel of Luke, associated with the promise of salvation. Setting aside the complexities of cosmic geography, the simplicity of the penitent criminal’s petition and Jesus’ answer models the simplicity and universality of the gospel: that any, all and everyone who call upon the name will be saved.
So, what of the significance of this spectacle that we have encountered in Luke’s gospel this morning? What of the significance of this unexpected King, whose pagentry, pomp and circumstance was been paraded before us as if it were a sham?
One commentator has written: [Ian Paul, see below]
[Jesus’] kingship is not demonstrated in his saving himself, but in him saving others—not in an exercise of power, but in acts of service. Despite the mockery and humiliation, he appears to remain confident that this is all within the purposes of God, as he has done since he set out resolutely for Jerusalem [in Luke 9.51]. Even on the cross Jesus addresses God as his Father; even on the cross he promises forgiveness; even on the cross he holds on to the hope of Paradise and offers this hope to others.
This is our king.
I encourage you, this week, to read today’s epistle, Colossians 1.11-20, in the light of today’s gospel. If Jesus is the image of the invisible God to whom all things are subject, the head of the church, the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, how does that change our notions of who God is, and how does that impact our response to him?
I close with the words of Pope Pius XI, who introduced this festival of Christ the King into the Church’s year in order to encourage the whole people of God to consider the importance of obedience to Christ. He wrote this:
If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all [men], purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all [men], it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire.
He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ.
He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God.
He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone.
He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.
Let us pray:
Col. 1:11 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 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins
Collect for Christ the King
whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven
that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit
and in the bond of peace,
and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
God the Father,
help us to hear the call of Christ the King
and to follow in his service,
whose kingdom has no end;
for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, one glory.
Post Communion (The collect for the Sunday next before Advent, BCP, updated)
Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (2015)