A Crucified King’s Kingdom

Luke 23:33-43

Let’s gain our bearings.  Today in the church calendar we encounter what some of us call Proper 29, or the last Sunday after Pentecost.  It is also known as Christ the King Sunday.  It is the last Sunday of the church’s calendar year.  Next Sunday we enter into Advent.  Today, then, we are standing on a threshold, about to pass through a sort of doorway from one year to the next.

The church’s calendar tells the story of Christ, year after year.  Advent is a time of great hope and expectation, like when a family is waiting for a new member to arrive.  Mom is pregnant; we all know that there is an anticipated date of the new baby’s arrival, the due date, but that’s often just a best guess.  That hope, that expectation, that anticipation of the new baby’s arrival—that is like Advent.  During this season, we eagerly anticipate Jesus’s birth.

Then Christmas comes.  O joy!  We rightly celebrate the season with carols, festivals, presents, lights and decorations—for the savior of the world is born on this day.

Next, during and following Epiphany, we remember the visit of the wise men from the east and God’s hand upon the child Jesus.

In Lent we recall Christ’s baptism and his time of fasting in the wilderness.  But more than this, we remember his earthly ministry to the sick, the downcast, the brokenhearted—to the meek, who shall inherit the earth.

Next comes Holy Week.  Yes!  The busiest week of the year for the church, in which we recall Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on the donkey’s colt over a road covered with palm branches; in which we participate in a footwashing service, tangibly putting others first in an act of loving service; in which we conduct prayer walks, vigils, and baptisms for Christ’s glory; and in which light takes a prominent place—both the candlelight of vigils and the tomb-opening light of the rising sun.  Alleluia, He is risen!

Then there’s the Easter season: fifty days in which we remember the resurrected Christ who walks the earth among his friends, family, and disciples; until the Day of Pentecost, when he ascends into the clouds in the presence of many witnesses.

Finally there’s that season after Pentecost.  It starts with Trinity Sunday, a day when we rightly dwell on the Trinity reigning from heaven above.  After that, the length of the season varies from year to year.  Some years there are twenty-nine Sundays until today, Christ the King Sunday.  Most of the time it’s shorter: next year, for instance, there will be twenty-three.

Anyway (a question), what happens during this season after Pentecost, this season of Propers?  If the church year is all about remembering Christ, then he has died, risen, and ascended by May or June.  What are we remembering about him for the other six months of the year?

Well, the gist is this: during this season we remember the work Christ is doing on earth now, from where he is seated in heaven at the right hand of the Father.

When Christ ascended, something amazing happened.  Remember?  Something like tongues of fire descended from the sky and came to rest on Christ’s disciples.  This was a sign of the Holy Spirit, sometimes called the Paraclete—a fancy word for advocate, or helper.  Christ rules from heaven; but he has left us a helper to guide us all along the way as we do Christ’s work in his church.  That’s what we remember during this season after Pentecost: Christ’s kingdom already but not yet.

Ultimately then—at the end of this season after Pentecost—what is supposed to happen?  The answer is in the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

And I don’t care, by the way, what your ideal kingdom is, whether monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, democracy, a republic, socialism, or monogamy (okay, just kidding about that last one)—I don’t care what your ideal kingdom is: Christ’s is unlike them all, and better than them all!

Which brings us back full circle.  Here we stand today at the end of the church year, peering through a doorway where we see Advent on the other side.  And today of all days we remember that Jesus, who now reigns in heaven at God’s right hand, will come again, when his kingdom will be already and yet!

So, that said, why do we have this passage from Luke today?

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.

It’s about the crucifixion.  But if we look at this passage in the context of what we know about the church’s calendar—in the context of knowing already that Christ is King—we can make some helpful inferences about his kingdom.  I offer three:

  1. Proper Knowledge will be Returned.  “Father, forgive them,” Jesus prays; “for they do not know what they are doing.”  The they here is the soldiers, and what they are doing is crucifying three men.  In other words, the soldiers here are in fact doing what they know: they are obeying their orders to crucify three men.  But they really don’t know what they are doing, says Jesus.  They really don’t know that they are crucifying the King of kings and Lord of lords.  More than this, though, they are also crucifying two other men—humans who have been created in God’s image.  This taking of another person’s life—whether the lord of all creation or a criminal—is wrong.  We might not know this here, now, in our world.  But in the kingdom, we will know better.
  2. Righteous Justice will be Reinstated.  A look at the verbs here is revealing.  The soldiers cast lots for Jesus’s clothing.  The leaders scoffed at Jesus.  The soldiers mocked Jesus.  One of the criminals kept deriding Jesus.  And the people stood by, certainly helpless to do anything about it.  Do you feel the injustice here?  Yet, what are the verbs used of Jesus?  Forgive them, he says.  And to the criminal, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  That phrase, truly I tell you, is an oath, as if to say “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”  Jesus promises the thief next to him that he will enter Paradise.  This, by the way, is righteous justice.
  3. Protected Paradise will be Restored.  Jesus answers the thief on the cross next to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Paradise!  You know what the Greek word is for paradise?  Paradeisos.  And you know what it means?  Paradise.  Christ’s kingdom is, simply, paradise.  But let me give you a little more insight.  This word paradeisos appears in only one passage of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament—which was published roughly a century before Jesus was born.  But it appears in the passage several times.  Here’s the first occurrence, Gen. 2:8: “And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.”  You know which word it is?  Garden.  The Greek word paradeisos was used repeatedly in the Septuagint to refer to the Garden of Eden—the Paradise of Eden.  You want to know what Christ’s kingdom is like?  There, in the Paradise of Eden, God created humanity in his image.  There God walked with Adam and Eve.  There they were protected from the unknown and unfamiliar world outside.

So too here.  Today, Jesus says to the thief, you will be with me in Paradise.  There is a place protected from injustice and disorder; protected from the harshness of this world where we are so often treated poorly, derisively, and without love; protected from incomplete knowledge put to cruel use.  There proper knowledge will be returned; righteous justice will be reinstated; and protected paradise will be restored.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

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