"The King of Grace"
Advent is just around the corner. The season that prepares we Christians for our Christmas holiday - that day when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the recognition that God is one with us and lives among us - is not far behind. The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new year on the church calendar. The Sunday before is the last Sunday of the Christian year and on this Sunday we ponder and reaffirm our understanding of Jesus Christ as King. One of the scripture passages on which we base our idea of Jesus as King is the text according to Luke 23:33-43.
There were three of them there - hanging on crosses - charged with breaking the law and being found guilty. They were considered criminals - convicts - that's what their crucifixions were meant to declare to all who watched that day and those who heard about it in that day or would hear about it down through the centuries.
Leaders of the community scoffed at Jesus - soldiers mocked him - there was a sign above his head declaring the charge of treason leveled against him because the phrase "King of the Jews" had been used by some who followed him. And then, there was the apparent insult spoken by one of those hanging on one of the crosses beside him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
We're not really sure why he said what he said - whether he was trying to win sympathy from Jesus or the authorities, or whether he was just that mean and callous. What we do know is that the other convict wasn't on the same page as he rebuked his cross-mate by querying: “Don’t you fear God since we are under the same sentence? We are being punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” And then, perhaps pleadingly, perhaps even sure he didn't merit what he was requesting, he affirmed his faith by stating that he wanted to be with Jesus from then on wherever that was going to be: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And the King - the ruler of eternity - the one who holds the keys to the kingdom - answered the man's simple confession and statement of faith with: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” And with those words, he asserted even in the closing moments of his physical life who he was and what he was about - the King of Grace!
Now, there are several things in this story about the exchange between a couple of real criminals and Jesus that reveal some significant truths about the Christian journey of faith. The first one is: there’s a life-changing quality involved on the journey. When we face the reality of who we are and then encounter the grace of God, there's a rush that flows through us that turns us around - that changes the negative attitudes we feel about ourselves into these hopeful, life-giving ones. When we become aware, as the repentant criminal on the cross did, it's like being birthed again - being given a new lease, a new perspective on life. Some even refer to what happens as being born again.
Another important tenet of the Christian journey of faith experience that this closing vignette of Jesus and the criminals should awaken in us is that Jesus cares about us - about all of us sinners. Although, it probably was done as a sick joke or was intended to be insulting or was an accident of fate, Jesus being hung on a cross between two criminals/sinners couldn’t be a better witness of the message he’d lived his life proclaiming both with his words and deeds: sinners are worthy of my time - my attention - forgiveness - grace - we are important. Wherever Jesus went he sought sinners/outcasts/disadvantaged/sick out and ate with them - and talked with them. He who was dying for sinners was also dying with them. The persons chosen to die with Jesus that day were criminals - were like those to whom Jesus came to minister/like those with whom he was often observed - the outcasts - the prostitutes - the thieves - the tax collectors.
Another significant idea this encounter between Jesus and the criminals invites us to ponder is that it’s never too late. While hanging from a cross - with life oozing out of him - while drawing closer to death with every breath - a thief’s future was changed from hell to heaven - from death to eternal life - from a life of sin to a life in God’s kingdom with Jesus - all in the length of time it took the man to make the simple request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” As long as a person’s heart beats, Christ’s invitation stands and his arms remain ready to welcome us home. Even when all of life’s opportunities seem to have been used up, salvation is still available.
Salvation is available even for those who have no time left to lead a new and better life - even the robber while he hung on the cross - even the drug addict after he has plunged the needle of death into his arm - even those who rise from their beds of adultery. It is never too late to turn to the avenue of God offered by Jesus Christ. It is indeed one of the most important messages we should remember from this story near the end of Jesus’ life. Jesus is the king of grace.
And then there’s the idea captured by popular seminary executive, Leonard Sweet, in this excerpt from one of his sermons: “This criminal delivers what is arguably Christianity’s first sermon, a speech from the cross in which this outcast understands things the disciples could not yet comprehend.
“The disciples never could figure out how a messiah could be rejected and executed. This outcast gets it: the bandit understands that precisely because Jesus is on the cross, he is the messiah. It wasn’t the disciples who ‘got it.’ It wasn’t Jesus’ family who ‘got it.’ It was this ‘criminal’, this outsider, who ‘got it’ and gave witness to whom Jesus was when everyone else had deserted, double-crossed, and derided him, and then gone into hiding.” (1)
The kingdom of God includes those who have been excluded in this world - it includes people most of us religious types don’t expect to see around God’s throne - it includes the most unlikely among us, and yeah, there’s a good chance they are even better able to hear the message - more ready, more willing than many of us more religious types.
Important/significant as all the things I’ve just mentioned are, over the years this text has created within my heart and mind other thoughts and questions. And one of the things I’ve come to believe about questions that pop into my heart and mind is that I should pay attention to them because God just might have some other things to say to me through them.
In an article in a former church’s newsletter several years ago there was an article by a couple of United Methodist missionary friends serving in one of the former USSR countries. Two children from the neighborhood around the church they were serving showed up at the church’s door. The adults sitting around the makeshift communion table looked up when the twelve-year-old boy wearing a wrinkled baseball cap and his nine-year-old sister made their entrance.
One of the women recognized them as two of the children who had been at the previous week’s craft and story time. She greeted them by name and went up to them and said, “I’m really sorry but the next children’s time isn’t until next week.” It wasn’t until she’d spoken the words that she noticed the dirty tears in the eyes of the boy. And so she quickly queried, “What’s wrong?” As she gently felt his forehead with the back of her hand, she added, “Aren’t you feeling well?”
And then the boy’s little sister began to cry also. Another woman got up from her place at the table and offered her a tissue and caressed her back. The two children said nothing. When they were invited to have some cookies they took off their dark, oversized coats. The rest of the church’s people made a place at the table for them and then offered them some lukewarm tea and biscuits to go with the cookies they were already enjoying.
Finally, the brother quietly said to the woman, “My mother said she might send us to a children’s home.” With that, they both began to cry again. And then the brother continued with, “She says we’re bad children.”
The woman who knew him quickly said, “You are good children. Why, just last week you helped some of the younger children here learn how to use scissors, remember?” Another woman added, “You made that little paper dog for my daughter last month.” The boy smiled appreciatively. One of the men brought over a margarine container with some bits of crayon in it and turned over his sheets of paper. The two children colored several of the pages and seemed unfazed when the meeting gradually returned to other issues. They sat there for over an hour, coloring quietly.
As the tea cups were being wiped out, one of the women turned to the children and said, “Maybe we could come visit you and your mother?” The boy gave the group an unsure look. “It’s all right,” the woman reassured him, “we visit other children in their homes. It’s part of what we do as a church.” The boy said, “All right. That will be O.K. I’ll tell my mother that the church people want to come over.” (2)
The questions that keep coming into my mind when I read Luke’s account of the exchange between the thief and Jesus are ones like: “Are there persons who want or need to ask Jesus to remember them around me, around us?” “Are there ways I/we/ churches can help persons believe it’s alright for them to ask Jesus to remember them?” “How can we help one another and others ask Jesus to remember us in the midst of feelings of hopelessness, in the midst of pain?” “Are there persons crying to be remembered? - Persons in need of knowing they are loved by God, by Jesus the Christ?” “Are there ways we can help persons cry out to be remembered?” “Are there ways we can help others know the good news of Christ’s response?” “How about the times when I know I need to be reminded by Jesus that I’m apart of his kingdom?” “And what about those times when I know I’m messing up and I need to, with the confidence of the thief on the cross, cry out for Jesus to remember me?” “Do I let people know often enough and do I hear it often enough in my own heart and soul - that Jesus Christ is the King of grace.”
Friends, the church is the living, physical body of Christ - the resurrected body of Christ. We are Jesus Christ for one another and for those in need of him beyond our local, community fellowships. Those children went to the building and to the people because of what they already knew about the place and the people. Their coming to the door of that church was their way of asking Jesus if he would remember them - of their sense of need for what he offered - of their sense that the church would understand their pain and help them. The people who made up that missional body of Christ shared with the children with their gentle touches and their cookies and the crayons and the paper and their words of affirmation and their offer to come to their homes, the good news that they were accepted, loved, a part of God’s kingdom. The people around the table witnessed of the presence of the kingdom by their desire - their willingness - to be with those in need of being heard.
We, as the present physical body of Christ, are the ones who are equipped to hear the cries of those who need to be remembered - we are the ones who are equipped to offer the good news of God’s unconditional love, God’s grace. We witness of the openness of God’s kingdom by our acceptance of those who come to our doors. When we United Methodists say that we have "Open doors, open minds and open hearts" it has to be more than a catchy PR campaign slogan. As we minister to one another - so must we minister to others. And as we minister and offer grace we will help persons experience the king of grace, our Savior, Jesus Christ.
1. Leonard Sweet, "Homiletics."
2. Worthington United Methodist Church Newsletter, 1998.