Last Sunday after Pentecost
November 25, 2001
The Gospel: Luke 23:35-43
Sermon: "Why We Remember the Cross on Last Pentecost"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
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."
Why We Remember the Cross on Last Pentecost
Last Sunday after Pentecost - November 25, 2001
Today's Gospel selection may seem to be a bit odd. After all, here we are at the end of November and yet we hear a Gospel concerning the Crucifixion. For the last four months we have heard the stories, parables, and teachings of Jesus. All of a sudden we are brought to the cross. In fact, we are brought to the foot of the cross of Jesus listening to the condemnation of the leaders of the people, the mocking of the soldiers, and the scoffing of one of the two thieves. We are also present to hear the conversation between Jesus and the other thief. We probably find ourselves asking why now? Why do we hear this reading now?
In response I would like to offer three reasons why this reading is heard now. The first reason is where we are in the church calendar year. The second reason we have this lesson now is to remind us of the various responses to the Good News. The third reason we have this reading is to remind us of the incredible love of God. These three reasons call us to remember who we are and where our hope lies.
The first reason this lesson is heard at this time has to do with the church calendar. This Sunday is the last Sunday of the church calendar year. Since the first Sunday after Pentecost we have heard many stories about Jesus. We have heard stories of his travels, his teachings, his parables, and stories about the disciples with him. Now, we are at the last Sunday after Pentecost. Next Sunday we start the year anew with the first Sunday of Advent. The stories will shift to ones of preparation of the coming of the Messiah. We will begin to hear lessons concerning Jesus' birth. So, today we hear a lesson concerning his death. We hear today a lesson of the end of his earthly ministry.
The church is wise in closing the church year with this lesson. Suddenly we are reminded of the cross. Suddenly we are reminded of the Jesus' offering of his own life for our salvation. Now we are called to remember that as Christians we believe Jesus is the Messiah. The Messiah has come. Advent is not only a season of remembrance of Jesus' birth. Advent is a season of preparation for His coming again. Without this lesson, at this time, we are easily caught in the trap of just seeing Advent and Christmas as seasons where we think of Jesus as the little baby in the manger. So, the calendar of the church is designed for us to remember the cross before we begin the church year anew.
The second reason for this lesson at this time is to remind us of the various responses we have to the Good News in Jesus Christ. In this very short story of the cross we see the leaders scoffing Jesus as the Messiah. We see the soldiers mocking Him as King of the Jews. We see one of the thieves joining in with the leaders and the soldiers scoffing Jesus and yet wanting to be freed from his agony. We are reminded of this story that some people do not believe and will not believe in Jesus Christ. For various reasons these people chose not to believe in Jesus. The leaders chose not to believe because he threatened their way of life. The soldiers did not believe because they understood power and kingship in earthly terms. After all who could believe in a king dying on a cross? Finally, the thief does not believe. The thief cannot believe in a Messiah who dies at the hands of the Romans. Furthermore he is interested more in his own fate than the fate of others. He is not sorry for what he has done to others. He cannot even show compassion for someone who is suffering his same fate.
Yet, there is one other response. Even though Jesus has been beaten and whipped. Even though Jesus is bloodied and dying, the second thief recognizes Jesus. He has compassion for Jesus. He recognizes his own sinfulness. He asks for Jesus to remember him. He asks for forgiveness. In these few verses we see the possibility of the responses to Jesus. We can turn against Him and claim Him to be false like the leaders of the Jews. Like the soldiers we can believe He is crazy to think He is King. Finally, like the second thief we can believe in Him and ask for forgiveness.
Finally, we have the third reason for having this lesson at this time of year. This reason is tied to the conversation between Jesus and the second thief. For in this conversation we see the incredible love of God. The second thief recognizes Jesus for who He is, the Messiah. Just as important, he recognizes and understands his own identity. He understands he is a sinner before God. He knows without God he has no hope. He understands deep down in his bowels that Jesus is the source of salvation. Jesus' reply, "Today, you will be with me in paradise", confirms his hope in the incredible mercy and love of God. Through this conversation we are reminded of the identity of Jesus Christ as the Messiah. We are reminded that we are sinners. We are reminded of the incredible mercy and love of God for all of us. This lesson shows us that there is nothing we can do to separate us from the love of God. There is no point in our lives when it is too late to call on God for redemption. God is always ready for us. God's mercy never fails.
As we continue through this service and when we leave to go out into the world, I hope we remember this Gospel lesson. I hope we remember where we are. I hope we reflect on our own response to the identity of Jesus as the Messiah. Finally, I hope we remember who and what we are, and where our hope lies. Our hope lies in a crucified and risen Lord, who on the cross, turned to one next to him and said, "Today, you will be with me in paradise."