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Sermon – “Under the SameSentence” – November 24, 2013

Sunday, November 24, 2013    First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Under the Same Sentence

Jeremiah 23: 1-6; Colossians 1: 11- 20; Luke 23: 33-43

The story of those being crucified alongside Jesus, one contemptuous of Christ and the other defending him and seeking a blessing from him, is told only in Lukeʼs gospel. That makes me realize something about Luke.

Luke likes to include traditions in his gospel which permit him to step aside as narrator and let the characters carry the message. Of gospel stories which appear only in Luke, at least a couple include dialogues between two minor characters in the presence of Christ. After the resurrection, Luke gives us the two disciples who are met by Christ on the road to Emmaus, allowing us to hear from the mouth of a fellow disciple, regarding what it meant to be in the presence of a Christ not quite recognized, “Did not our hearts burn within us!” In the story of Jesusʼ crucifixion, Luke includes the two thieves, permitting us to contrast the reaction to Jesus of those hostile to him with someone able to assert Jesusʼ innocence and express faith in the kingdom about which Jesus has preached.

Although none of the gospels is journalism–reportage of the type to which we once were accustomed, unbiased accounting of facts, with pertinent who, what, where, when and how information provided–Luke crafts a gospel nearest to that approach. Assigning speaking roles to various witnesses conveys more authenticity and has more drama than simply writing, for instance, “ a soldier who saw Jesus die was moved to proclaim his innocence.” Instead Luke has the soldier exclaim “Surely this man was innocent!”.

What is Luke telling us in his version of the crucifixion? that Jesus rightly is regarded as a king. He does possess a kingdom. Those who havenʼt believed he represents the kingdom of God have, in their mockery of his claim, unwittingly testified to his true nature. Their intention to insult is subverted by what the faithful know. The irony of their calling him “king” as a joke waits to be revealed at the resurrection.

By putting on the crosses flanking that of Jesus these two thieves with their opposite responses to Jesus, Luke achieves several things. The first is to heighten the degree of insult and contempt with which the dying Jesus is treated. It is not enough for Jesusʼ identified enemies from the religious establishment to mock him. Passersby also ridicule his identity as a would-be leader and savior. That doesnʼt suffice to show the vindictive nature of his doubters. Even one of those condemned to die with him joins in, deriding Jesusʼ ability to be anything but a helpless victim.

This little drama among the condemned also gives a chance for Jesus to be believed in and affirmed, and for a faithful confession of Christ to be promised a reward. When the second thief reproves the first for speaking harshly to Jesus, he reminds him that he ought to be especially careful about what he says with the hour of death upon them all–and who hears or reads this without recognizing himself or herself likewise among those who are under a sentence of death? Our own mortality is brought to mind, and the crisis of how we respond to Jesusʼ claims is offered us by the example of the thieves. Luke is saying, through this story, that every one who must die has to face the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth and decide whether he has been a fraud–perhaps self-deluded instead of deliberately deceiving others, but in either case a sham–or if he has been sent by God to reveal Godʼs will to the world.

Everyone who hears or reads this passage is invited to put himself or herself in the position of one thief or the other. A person may join the rejection of Jesusʼ appeal to the world, or a person may accept that Jesus is not the wrongdoer his execution suggests, and instead is someone who, in a place beyond this world, has a kingdom where the humble confessor of Jesusʼ merit will be welcome, whatever they have deserved in worldly terms.

This is not a parable. This is a not a story created to illustrate deep truths about life. This is whatʼs happening to Jesus, a matter of life and death. We are not, with this dialogue among the crucified before us, asked to consider whether some lesson about loyalty or honesty or persistence is true, or how to apply it. We are, instead, invited to join the discussion, and find whether we are on Jesusʼ side or against him. Thereʼs no fourth cross, to make an option out of being undecided. Thereʼs Jesus and either disbelief or belief.

I want to say something about disbelief, because itʼs a very easy place to end up. Whether itʼs a matter of temperament, or the result of an inner debate, or a gift from God, being able to believe clearly isnʼt in the possession of everyone. In fact, and the minority population of Christians who first heard this gospel certainly would have gotten the point, faith that God is revealed through Jesus of Nazareth is not a common thing to have. Only this last speaker–the one who gets the last word–stands up for Jesus, in the midst of all the doubt and derision directed at Christ. He, in turn, is the only one to whom Jesus responds, and the response is something else that the first hearers of the gospel would recognize as part of the substance of their identity as believers: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

That Jesus has nothing to say to those who donʼt believe in him is consistent with most of the story of the trial and crucifixion. He is described, using words from scripture, as being “like a sheep who before its shearers is dumb.” Whether we ascribe his lack of reply to his recognizing that nothing will be changed, or that it will invite only additional abuse, or we think it a kind of dignity, or we see it as letting the power of God speak for itself through resurrection, the fact remains that Jesus is mostly silent in the face of doubters.

This makes me think of the song from the musical “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” in which, I believe, Herod is curious about the famed miracle worker and asks Jesus, doing an Elvis impression, “walk across my swimming pool.” Jesus is silent then, too. To those who doubt no special revelations are forthcoming, and this is part of the reason that so much of the world effectively is stuck when it comes to the choice Luke is dramatizing. Many donʼt want to go so far as to charge Jesus with having no power to vindicate himself or anyone else, but they hesitate either to stick up for Jesus or to ask him to be their security. It is rarely active antagonism which results in expressions of disbelief. There are

some who, because of their own certainty of being right about the way to please God and to live wisely in the world, will reject what Jesus tells them. They despise forgiveness, and so they think Jesus a fool; or they think that killing people solves problems, so they regard Jesus as naive; or they think God blesses them because they are somehow better than others, so they think Jesus misunderstands God. Those people are Jesusʼ enemies by conviction.

Many, however, like the first crucified thief who speaks, are those whom Jesus has disappointed. At some point they were open enough to believing that Jesus might do them some good that they felt their hopes lifted, and they were freed for a time from the despair and cynicism that the hard knocks of life had given them. Then something went wrong– a prayer wasnʼt answered, something inexplicably bad happened, the way they thought Jesus was supposed to work didnʼt turn out to be the way Jesus does work.

It is harder to be disappointed than we care to admit. We donʼt want to think weʼve been made fools of, so we may not admit to ourselves that we had put our trust in someone who eventually failed us. It is bitter, however, to have hoped and then had hope snuffed out, and it is common to be harsher with those who have raised our expectations than with those who have deliberately wounded us. Enemies people understand, and simply hate; persons who gain our hearts, in any sense, and then fail us, hurt us more deeply, and our feelings for them are correspondingly more negative.

This, I think, is what lies behind most of the scorn shown Jesus when he is crucified. People are offended that someone who was hailed as a deliverer, as a great man, as a man of God, is revealed to be so helpless. They are angry with him for it. They may even–this is certainly true of his opponents in the religious establishment–feel that they are demonstrating their love of God by expressing their contempt of Jesus.

Is this really where Godʼs salvation lies? in candor, kindness, caring for others and vulnerability? Is God so wedded to the turn-the-other-cheek approach that his spokesperson must consistently be humiliated and finally killed? Is there something about what Jesus has insisted on saying, insisted on doing, which has to do with reality, even though it appears to be on the losing side? Does God have a realm in which Christ is king in which we may serve, even before we die, and trust the same promise of joining him beyond the constraints and conundrums of mortality?

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