The Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding
Jeremiah 23:1-6Psalm 46Colossians 1:11-20Luke 23:33-43
When an activist is humiliated, where do we stand? What do we do in the face of injustice? Where is God’s hope in times of humiliation, violence and injustice?
On Palm Sunday last April, we processed from the outside altar into the Church carrying palms. We talked then about how this procession into Jerusalem was a counter-cultural procession. Jesus was mocking the royal procession of the Emperor. This was a staged parody, Jesus riding a donkey, the people waving palms. Jesus had been speaking out against the Roman authorities, calling for a new way, a new government that would include all people and provide for the “least” that community—the widows and orphans, the sick, the poor, elderly. Jesus was an activist, and his ministry, challenging the authorities was reaching its pinnacle. Jesus knew that he would be punished, that he would be crucified. But he believed that this sacrifice was God’s call to him.
Today, we see Jesus on the cross. The predictions of his final hour have come to pass. Pilate has sentenced him, and the soldiers have hung him on the cross. I want to look at the attitudes and words of the people who are present with Jesus. Remembering that he is an activist, an opponent of the government, we can imagine ourselves in this community. Where do we stand when an activist is being humiliated, attacked, (crucified)? I invite you to think about the activists today—the Native peoples at Standing Rock, the Black Lives Matter movement, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, the Million Women March. We have many activists in our community. The voices of the media, the individual voices on social media—how are they treating those who speak out against oppression or injustice?
I am not suggesting that all activists are like Jesus. Not all activists are speaking out against oppression. But I think it’s important to listen to Scripture today as a way to discern our attitude towards the activists and to hear what God’s response is in this situation.
First, we remember that Pilate in an earlier chapter of Luke’s Gospel, found Jesus not guilty of a capital crime. He would have flogged Jesus and released him. But the people were adamant that he must be crucified and Pilate complied with the will of the crowd. So in the first group, we hear the voices of people who are so threatened by Jesus and his message that they want him killed.
Then as he walks towards Golgotha, he is surrounded by the women who weep and lament. And we remember Simon of Cyrene who carries Jesus’ cross. So while there were voices who sided with the establishment, there were others who stayed with Jesus throughout his persecution. When it had become clear that Jesus was going to die, there were those walked with him, and mourned what they believed was his failure. We can see that there are some who have no power to change the outcome, but they continue to support the activist even when he is being ridiculed and punished.
Then in this passage we see King Herod’s soldiers. They have put Jesus on the Cross between two common criminals. They are obeying orders, keeping their jobs. We don’t know what they really think about Jesus’ message, but they have a pretty callous attitude towards his suffering—they want his clothes and cast lots to see who will get them. They mock him and offer him sour wine. They ridicule him with the taunt, “Let him save himself if he is King of Jews.” And the leaders of the crowd join them, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" I think about the taunting that I hear about some groups of protestors.
After the election last Tuesday, groups of students walked out of Berkeley High. Some of the media criticized them. And another local high school decided to stay in class. Their rationale was—in this time of turmoil why would we want to step away from school? That’s just hurting ourselves when we should be getting the education we need. Sometimes I hear people saying, “I get it that they are angry, but shutting down the freeway, or blocking a building does nothing to help their cause.” These voices ridiculing the activists—maybe aren’t really opposed to what the activists are complaining about, but they reject the method of the protest, or they think it’s ineffective, or they resent the way that the activists disrupt their lives.
Jesus’ response to the soldiers is so powerful. Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus is praying for those who don’t understand him. Jesus is not lashing out at his opponents, he is praying for them. He is praying that that they will be forgiven. And in his prayer, we might hear him praying that they might come to understand his message.
After this dialogue with the soldiers and the crowd, Jesus also has a dialogue with the other two criminals condemned to die with him. One joins the soldiers and the crowd in deriding him. But the other speaks with humility. He recognizes that he has done a crime worthy of punishment and that Jesus has done nothing wrong. He calls out his fellow criminal, naming their sins, and he praises Jesus. But then he also prays, “Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus is honoring the humble man and lifting him up with hope. Jesus is promising him that they will be together in paradise. On this Christ the King Sunday, we see Jesus at his weakest moment—hanging on the cross preparing to die. This is the moment when Jesus has failed in his earthly fight. The Roman oppressors have not been overthrown. The poor, the widows, the elderly, the sick—collectively, none of them are better off than they used to be. It might be easy to simply say that Jesus failed in his attempts to emancipate God’s people by preaching his message of love and healing. If we view Jesus’ ministry through human eyes, it may be easy to criticize and mock him because objectively, he has not effective change.
We can think about those who have attempted change in our society recently. In every political discussion--there are those who fought for change, and those who opposed it. Good people, seeking to do justice--some successful, and some who are not heard or respected, or who don't have the power to change the status quo.
But instead of mocking those who have tried to change things and failed, let us hear Jesus' message. "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Jesus doesn't say, you will get your reward in heaven. He promises paradise today from the Cross.
What does that mean, that paradise is today as he is dying? Jesus is telling us that while by human standards, he has failed to beat the oppression of the Roman rulers, he has not really failed. Jesus has lived the life that God has called him to. The oppression of civil society has not killed the hope that he holds for all of humanity. In spite of torture to the point of death, Jesus is King.
And now two thousand years later, we can look back and see that his death was not in vain. Our hope continues in him. We are with Jesus on that cross--suffering to the point of death, but in paradise because we have God's promises, Jesus' example, and faith that will carry on to the grave and beyond. This promise of paradise is not about resurrection. Today, we hear this promise as the reality that Christ reigns here among us.
"Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise," is the promise that through our faith we know a freedom, a fullness, a paradise that is greater than any of the sufferings that we experience.
We are called to know this realm, God's realm here. We are called to work with Christ bringing the Kingdom here. We are called to suffer as humans for the sake of God's way--the way of truth and righteousness. But this suffering is not too much for us, because we are participants in the paradise that Jesus has brought to every people and nation throughout time.