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. [[ Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (NRSV).
This reading marks the pinnacle of the church’s year. It remembers, and urges us to respond to, the declaration that Christ is King.
There is, however, and unavoidable paradox here. This is an account of an execution – and that of the one declaring the ‘good news’ of God’s kingdom.
All the power is out of kilter. Jesus, our hero, is ‘scoffed’ and derided. He is dying and those in authority respond with a shallow mocking. The victors celebrate. The losers die. It is sickening.
Why choose such a passage for ‘Christ the King’ Sunday? After all, the winners and losers are in the wrong places. They are the wrong way around.
Of course, there is evidence of a deeper narrative. Jesus is here named, on two occasions, ‘Messiah’. He is called the ‘chosen one’. Another two times he is identified as the ‘King of the Jews’. And then Jesus calls God ‘Father’. Is Luke trying to point to a reality easily missed among the blood and agony of Jesus’ torture and death? Could this dying one still be the ‘chosen one of God’?
Even if not intentional, the cumulative effect of this sprinkling of divine names points to something more. We look at one who appears to be losing, yet, are reminded throughout of his divinity. It forces us to look deeper.
And as we do, we notice the divided response of even those who die with Jesus. Their words are alarmingly similar: both criminals recognise divinity in Jesus; both ask to be saved.
But one speaks with derision; the other genuinely. One joins the mockers; the other opposes them. The first accuses; the second asks.
And all this while they both observe, and respond to, exactly the same person.
We might be prone to seek out a more triumphal passage as the summit of the Christian calendar. Perhaps one of Revelation’s visions of heaven or one of the gospel accounts of the resurrected Christ.
But instead we find ourselves contemplating the sacrifice, suffering, and grace of Jesus.
Of course, all this does not to suggest that a dead Christ is the end of the story. After all, were that our proclamation – our story of God – we could never name it ‘good news’. It would be history’s most disastrous news. The resurrection is imperative.
But here we see what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was all about. It was about the trinity’s response to our unworthy request to be remembered by the God.
Yes, this scene is – shockingly – the very glory of God.