Today you will be with me in Paradise

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, The Feast of Christ the King, November 20, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”

Today is the last Sunday of the Church year. Next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the new year, our expectation of the coming of Christ into the world. This Sunday is often called the Feast of Christ the King and on it we celebrate the kingship of Christ.

Christ the King.

“When they came to the place that is called the Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals.”

crucifixionA somewhat different kind of coronation than one might get at Westminster Abbey. He was picked up and tied to the cross by soldiers, and was helpless as they lifted him up to die of torture and suffocation. The sign said, “This is the King of the Jews.” I’m sure the Romans got a laugh out of that. And they taunted him, because he did not have the power that went with what they meant when they talked about a king.

Jesus was indeed in control, but his kingship was never like that. He never looked to the power of the sword, or yet to some divine magic power to overcome the power of the world. The robber said, “Save yourself and us!” Like the rest, for him it was all about us and what we can seize, how we can use power and escape the consequences of how we have lived our lives.

But Jesus, as soon as he was crucified, prayed: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He died as he lived, bringing the mercy of God to all people, including those who did not realize that in seeking comfort with the powerful and security in their violence, they were killing the King of Glory, the true king who can bring comfort and security. Jesus was praying for the soldiers, the politicians, the religious leaders, the mob, and for the two criminals who died with him, on either side of him.  Even for the one who wallowed in self-pity, the one who lashed out at Jesus, “Are you not the Messiah?” … “Father forgive them.” The king is the king of mercy, whose courage allowed him to not save himself, but to be there to bring God’s mercy. The other criminal had the courage to face the truth—“Do you not fear God?” “We indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds…”  The pain of crucifixion did not make the first one repent, I doubt that it made the second one either more courageous or honest; yet right there he did recognize the blamelessness and truth of Jesus.

Our reading from Colossians says of Jesus: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things…” Reconciliation is often used as a cheap word. As if it simply means being nice and accepting whatever will avoid conflict. Reconciliation requires trust on both sides, and to achieve that requires both honesty and humility in all parties. For Jesus, reconciliation is anything but cheap—he faced the violence and the hatred, and he was killed, tortured to death—there is no reconciliation without facing that truth, there is nothing cheap in accepting the truth and courageously owning up to it.

St. Paul continues: “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death…”  The mercy of God and reconciliation in Christ are not cheap, both require repentance and courage to accept the truth. And the criminal who had the courage to accept the truth about himself also had the courage to say to the King: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It is in no way cheap to acknowledge deeply your own place in the violence and injustice in this world, as this man did. It takes courage to be humble enough to accept those hard realities about yourself. But reconciliation requires a further step—the man turned toward Jesus and his Kingdom—the Kingdom of life, of justice, of costly reconciliation—the Kingdom of the God who resurrected Jesus Christ from the dead.

And Jesus said to that man: “Amen, I tell you. Today you will be with me in Paradise.” In Paradise—the image is of a garden. God’s garden. The garden as it was before the humans seized a fruit before it was ready, thinking that they would have the power of gods, the power that is only God’s. The image of Paradise is an image of life as it should be, as it might be from the point of view of God, in Jesus who was a man from God’s own point of view. Jesus extends a welcome into that garden, to that man beside him on the cross, and to all of us who seek his Kingdom. The cost is high, but it is within the grasp of each of us. The cost is mercy, honesty, repentance, love and the courage to persist in following Christ when the temptation is high to join the scoffers.

Last Thursday night, one of our own passed from this life. Jacqueline Johnson was a gentle and quiet person. One who always sought the good of others. She was over one-hundred-and-two years old, but her mind was sharp until she went into unconsciousness about a week ago. She was one of those people who practiced graciousness as a way of life. The last time I had a good conversation with her, though she really didn’t feel like eating, she still assured me she had two cans of Ensure each day and ate whatever was given her. “I just eat very slowly,” she said. She was beginning to depart this life, but she was still more concerned about others’ feelings than her own needs. A faithful person, she has passed through her struggles, from death to life. Please join me in remembering her and turn to page 499 in the Book of Common Prayer. The congregation’s words are in italics.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,

Where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

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