I don’t know how many of you have seen the old 1990s movie The American President, with Michael Douglas and Anette Bening. In one scene from the movie, Douglas’ character, President Andy Shepherd, has to respond to a terrorist attack on American troops by retaliating against a Libyan command building. He’s obviously uncomfortable with this action, and one of his aides reassures him that this will be very good for him because he’ll be seen to be ‘acting presidentially’. Shepherd then comments on the tragedy of the fact that ordering a strike that will kill innocent janitors and deprive their families of husbands and fathers is seen as ‘acting presidentially’.
The question behind our Gospel for today is not about ‘acting like a president’ but ‘acting like a king’. How does a king act? In this Gospel reading Jesus is referred to four times in kingly language - and we need to remember that the words ‘King’, ‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’ all mean essentially the same thing. Three of these references have a question mark beside them; the speaker is questioning whether Jesus is in fact a king after all. In verse 35 the leaders scoff and say “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one”. In verse 37 the Roman soldiers mock Jesus: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself”. And in verse 39 one of the criminals crucified with Jesus joins in: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us”. But in the fourth reference to Jesus as King the penitent criminal expresses his faith in Jesus’ kingship: “Jesus, remember me when” -not ‘if’ - “you come into your kingdom” (v.42).
How can a man hanging on a cross be God’s Messiah, the chosen king of God’s people Israel? After all, the generally accepted model for the Messiah was King David, the great warrior king from a thousand years before the time of Christ, the one who defeated the Philistines and established Israel as a great power. During the reign of David Israel finally got some respect from her neighbours! David was ruthless toward his enemies; we’re told that on one occasion he lined up the Moabite men and put to death every third one of them, just to put the fear of Israel into them. On the ‘David’ model, the king’s victories over his enemies are signs that God is with him, but only a false Messiah would be executed by his enemies!
But there was another voice in the scriptures of Israel, and the leaders allude to it in today’s reading when they speak about ‘the Messiah of God, his chosen one’. This is a reference to Isaiah chapter 42: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights’ (v.1). This is the first of four ‘Servant Songs’, in Isaiah in which we read about a mysterious figure who not only acts as God’s messenger to the nations but also willingly goes through suffering and offers his life on their behalf. In chapter 50 the Servant says ‘I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting’ (v.6). And in a famous verse from chapter 53 Isaiah says of the Servant, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’ (v.5).
This is the model that Jesus accepted for his ministry. He is the King who willingly goes through suffering, rather than inflicting it on God’s enemies, and he gives his life on behalf of his people. This has major implications for followers of Jesus. Not only does the King suffer for us; he also offers us a pattern of faithfulness in suffering.
The King suffers for us. The New Testament teaches us that through the Cross of Jesus we are reconciled to God, and the various writers come up with several different ways to help us understand this. They see Jesus’ death as a sacrifice, just like the Old Testament sacrifices in which the animals were seen as taking the place of the guilty one and dying on his or her behalf. Again, they see his death as a ransom price paid to set the slaves free. These are just two of the many pictures of Jesus’ death in the New Testament.
Luke, the author of today’s Gospel passage, offers us no theory of how the Cross ‘saves’ us; instead, he shows its power by pointing to the things Jesus does while he is hanging there. Firstly, Jesus offers forgiveness from the Cross. In verse 34 he prays for his persecutors, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”. What’s the big picture that Luke wants us to see here? It’s the picture of how our Creator comes and lives among us in Jesus, but we turn against him and nail him to a Cross. This is a picture of our human rebellion against God. But what is God’s response to our rebellion? Instead of taking out his vengeance and wrath on us, he responds with mercy and forgiveness. In effect, he says to us ‘You can kill me, but the one thing you can never kill is my love for you’.
Secondly, Jesus promises paradise from the Cross. The dying criminal says to him “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”, and Jesus replies “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v.43). Of course, all humans are searching for paradise. Singer-songwriters sing about how they’ve found it in the arms of the person they love; politicians promise it to us if we only vote for them. But Jesus guarantees it to the dying criminal as he hangs on the Cross; in the original language he says ‘Amen I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’. When Jesus says ‘Amen I tell you’, it is the most solemn promise he can make.
So these two pictures - Jesus offering forgiveness and promising paradise - tell us that blessedness, reconciliation with God, the life that God planned for us - these things come to us, not through the King’s strength and power, but through his weakness and death. Somehow the second criminal was able to see this. Like him, we’re invited to come and experience the power of the Cross for ourselves.
But there’s more for us yet in this Gospel. We’ve discovered that the King suffers for us, but it’s also true that in this passage the King gives us a pattern of suffering. In the writings of Luke - that is, the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts - Jesus is seen as the model Christian, the one whose example we are to follow. What model does Jesus give us here of how we advance the cause of God’s kingdom? It’s a model of responding to hatred, not with violence and anger, but with love and forgiveness. When Jesus does this, his suffering is not pointless but very fruitful; it results in salvation for the whole world!
In Luke’s second book, Acts, a man called Stephen follows this pattern. His story is told for us in Acts chapters six, seven and eight. He has a powerful ministry as a preacher and eventually is arrested by the Jewish ruling council. At his trial his words make the leaders so angry that they eventually mob Stephen, take him out of the city and stone him to death. As Stephen is dying he prays for his murderers, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”, and then he dies.
But Stephen’s death is not a waste. Two things happen as a result. First of all, that day a great persecution breaks out against the Church, and many Christians are forced to leave Jerusalem. But this is not a disaster, because Luke tells us ‘Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word’ (Acts 8:4). The Jewish ruling council wanted to stamp out the movement, but what they actually did was to take a dandelion and blow on it, scattering seeds everywhere. But even more significantly, Luke gives us the little detail that when Stephen was stoned ‘the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul’. This is our first introduction to the man who became the great apostle Paul. Why does Luke mention him here? Surely because he wants us to see that Stephen’s death was significant in the journey that eventually led Saul to become a Christian himself.
In Acts 14:22 this same Paul, now a Christian, tells his new converts a basic truth about the Christian life: ‘it is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God’. So you see - in Luke’s vision of Christianity suffering is an inevitable part of Christian discipleship and Christian mission, and it is also enormously fruitful.
The Church has often forgotten the example of Jesus and Stephen. In its history the Church has often punished heretics and those of other faiths, and these actions have caused untold harm to the cause of the Gospel.
But this is not the whole story. Let me give you a fairly recent account of a group of Christian missionaries who understood the way of Jesus. In the early 1950s, five missionaries living in Ecuador sensed the call of God to proclaim the Gospel to the Auca people. The Auca were totally isolated and were feared by all of the neighbouring tribes; there were many stories of the savagery with which they had killed people who tried to enter their territory. Nonetheless, these five friends decided that the time had come to attempt to spread the Gospel among them. One of the five, Nate Saint, was a pilot, and he began flying over the Auca villages in his little mission plane, dropping gifts and sending messages. The five also encountered a young Auca woman who had left her tribe and through her they learned a few words of the Auca language.
Eventually, in late 1955, the five missionaries decided that the time had come to attempt physical contact. Nate had found a sandbar on the Cururay River, close to one of the Auca villages, which seemed suitable as a landing site. On January 6th 1956 they did one more flight over the village, shouting to the people to come and meet them on the Cururay, and then landed on that sandbar and set up camp. The next day three Aucas came to meet them and visited with them for several hours. All seemed to be going well, but on Sunday January 8th radio contact with the five missionaries was lost. Their wives and children waited anxiously, but eventually it became clear that the Aucas had killed them all.
However, this is not the end of the story. There isn’t time to tell the full tale of three family members of the five dead missionaries - Rachel Saint, Betty Elliot and her young, suddenly fatherless daughter Valerie - who, with the help of the young Auca woman Dayuma, continued the efforts to reach these people with the Gospel. Instead of leaving in anger, they continued to exercise the love of Christ in forgiving those who had murdered their loved ones. And their mission was successful; through their witness many Aucas eventually accepted the Gospel.
Let’s sum up what Luke’s story of the Cross is saying to us today on Reign of Christ Sunday:
First, let’s remember that Jesus our King provides for the needs of his people through his death. All of our deadliest enemies - our guilt, our fear, our slavery to sin, even death itself, ‘the final enemy’ - all of them are utterly defeated at the Cross. And we are given the opportunity to imitate the penitent criminal. Like him, we are invited to recognize our own guilt. Like him, we’re invited to recognize that it was not for any crimes he had committed that Jesus was dying, but rather that he was dying for us. Like him, we’re invited to cast ourselves on the mercy and grace of Jesus, in the assurance that our prayer will be heard, just as his prayer was heard.
Secondly, as followers of Jesus, let’s remember how his kingdom advances. It doesn’t go forward with glory and trumpets. It doesn’t advance by enforcing Christian morality by government legislation. It doesn’t go forward by our building the biggest and most impressive church in the city with the latest sound system and the flashiest advertising.
No, the most powerful way for us to help in the advancement of God’s kingdom is to do as Jesus did, as Stephen did, and as the five missionaries to the Auca and their families did - to respond to hatred with love and forgiveness. This may seem like foolishness to us, but Paul said ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (1 Corinthians 1:25). Let me remind you of some more words of Paul:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them...Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14, 17-19a, 21).
As we think on these things today - on what Jesus has done for us through his Cross, and on what his example tells us about how we can best work for the spread of his kingdom - I think the best way for us to conclude is simply to sing along with the dying criminal ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom’.