Luke 23:33-43 – Jesus, remember me
This Sunday marks the end of one year in the church calendar and the beginning of another. Known as Christ the King Sunday it is a time to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s kingship before we again, through the season of Advent, begin the waiting and hoping and preparing for the birth of the Messiah, Immanuel, God-with-us.
And yet knowing that today is Christ the King Sunday we might be expecting something a bit different than today’s reading from Luke – something a bit more triumphant – something a bit kinglier. Writer Debie Thomas puts it, “Something glorious from the Book of Revelation, perhaps, about Jesus sitting on his throne, decked out in glorious robes and a jewelled crown. Or something majestic from Isaiah, “A son shall be given to us, and the government shall rest upon his shoulders.” Or at least a shiny moment from one of the gospels: Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop. Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus emerging from the waters of baptism, heaven thundering in his ears.”
But no. We find none of these. Instead we have this ‘bare bones’ account of the crucifixion of Jesus, “When they came to the place that is called The Skull they crucified Jesus there…” Where what is emphasised, over the physical torment of crucifixion, is the phycological torment of the religious leaders and the soldiers, and the company that Jesus keeps even in crucifixion and death, “…they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.”
But here the writer of Luke departs from the other gospels. In Matthew and Mark both men hanging beside Jesus mock him, and in John they are silent, but the writer of Luke has one deride Jesus while the other rebukes him and reaches out to Jesus in his final hours.
According to tradition the criminal who mocked Jesus, hung on the cross to his left and is given the name Gestas. “Are you not the Messiah?” he says, “Save yourself and us!” In other words, “What kind of Messiah can you possibly be – to be helpless and dying here with us?”
It is so tempting to distance ourselves from this voice. And Christian tradition makes it very easy as well, calling Gestas the ‘bad’ or the ‘impenitent thief’ – you’ll note that in our Hans von Tubingen painting he is portrayed as having a devil above him! And yet I think that most of us – all of us – can identify with the voice of Gestas. We have all looked to Jesus, at different points in our lives, expecting him to act in ways that we can understand, only to have him appal us with his strangeness. We have all asked for particular kinds of deliverance in particular situations and experienced silence in return. Just like Gestas, we have faced disillusionment and said similar words, “Are you for us or against us? What kind of God are you anyway?”
And yet there are times when the only answers to our questions and our suffering – if answers they are – is to cry out the words of the second criminal, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
According to tradition again this man is called Dismas, and Dismas does not use any of the sarcastic titles to mock Jesus that the leaders and soldiers, and the other criminal have used. He does not refer to him as Messiah or ‘chosen one’ or ‘king of the Jews’, but simply and intimately calls him by name. And he does not ask Jesus to save him, to take him out of the situation he is in, but he asks that Jesus remembers him, “Hold my story in your heart, “ he says, “so it will not be lost. Allow me to live on in you.” And in response Jesus reaches out to him with a promise of connection – of communion – that transforms our suffering and changes our lives. “Truly I tell you, “ Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
You will be with me and I will be with you.
The Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, writes about this same promise of connection, of communion. Around Good Friday 1373 she lay dying of the plague, but she recovered and recorded a series of visions she’d had while she was ill – The Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love – the first English-language book written by a woman.
Reflecting on the suffering of those around Jesus – those who loved him most – and expanding that circle to include “all his disciples and all his true lovers [who] suffer pain at this death” Julian expressed one of her great theological insights: “Here saw I a great ONEING betwixt Christ and us: for when he was in pain, we were in pain.” This ONEING, for Julian, expressed the unity of God with us and us with God; and not only human beings, but “all creatures that suffer pain, suffer with him…and the firmament, the earth, failed in sorrow”.
Julian’s insight was that in Jesus’ crucifixion and death and burial, Jesus not only suffers for us, but also suffers with us – for, she says, the sake of ‘kinship and love’ with human beings.
Diana Butler Bass, the author of the book we focused on a few years ago, Christianity for the Rest of Us, speaks about the significance of the choice of the preposition with – rather than for. For, she says, is a preposition of distance, of exchange, of transaction. I do something for you. You do something for me. Or as Gestas is saying, “What are you good for if you cannot do anything for me or for yourself!” With, however, is a preposition of relationship. It implies accompaniment, sympathy, moving in the same direction. “Jesus, remember me. Let my life stay with you…” To which Jesus responds, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
I was particularly struck by Diana Butler Bass’s comments about the significance of with and for because she goes on to peak about the reality of life in a public service town. “In the suburbs of Washington D.C.,” she writes, “we live in a world that glories in the for: you work for a political party or [for] a policy or [for] a cause….” With is harder to use, she says, a much harder reality to live. “Much of what we do in the world,” she says, “makes us ridicule, doubt and ever fear with.”
When we come to the place of The Skull, the time of crucifixion, to the voices of the two criminals, there on either side of Jesus is it easier for us to use the language of for? To say Christ died for me, so I might exchange hell for heaven; that Jesus dies for us, so that we might live for him?
Or have we had experiences where for seems to fall short; where perhaps we too reach for the language of with? To know in the cross God’s definitive expression of ‘kinship and love’: a kinship that describes our experience, our suffering, that invites our devotion, our connection with Jesus on the cross; and a love that took Jesus to the cross to be with us, in all our messy and broken humanity.
Here on Christ the King Sunday we see the dread and marvellous with of God. Here we experience in full what we will anticipate again in Advent. God coming to be with us.
Can I invite you, before we sing the next song, to take a moment to respond in prayer to Jesus. Perhaps to pray a heart prayer – as I mentioned in the pastors note – using the words of the second man on the cross.
As you take a deep breath in – call Jesus by name, “Jesus…” And as you breathe a long breath out, pray, “Remember me…” Let’s take a moment to pray now.