a personal reflection, based on Luke 23.33-43, for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 20, 2016.
(Note: Tomorrow, November 16, 2016, I will undergo a long overdue, much needed surgery. I’ll not be up and around on Sunday, November 20, to preach with my dear folk of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC. Oh, how I’ll miss seeing and being with them! Nevertheless, this personal reflection is something akin to what I might have said were I able to be up and about this coming Sunday!)
The Last Sunday after Pentecost ends the half-year trek from the Day of Pentecost (this year, May 15, 2016); a period set aside to review and reflect more deeply on the Christian story told from Advent through the Easter season that will begin to be retold starting next Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent.
The Last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday, bids the contemplation anew of who Jesus is as Lord, how Jesus reveals his Lordship, and, in that revelation, how to follow him.
Jesus, hanging on the cross, said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”, repeating this word of pardon throughout his dying…
As “the people stood by watching.” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
As “the leaders scoffed at him, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
As “the soldiers mocked him, offering him sour wine, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
As “one of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
The leaders scoffing, the soldiers mocking, and the criminal deriding, sarcastically address Jesus with honorific titles, “God’s chosen one”, “the King of the Jews”, “the Messiah”, for they, beholding him die and believing the only demonstration or proof of his identity is that he saves himself, doubt him.
The second criminal, in contrast, speaks to his fellow sufferer with the intimacy of his name, “Jesus,” then in his request, an astonishing statement of faith, acknowledges who Jesus is, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answering, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”, promises salvation in that eternal realm of God’s nearest, dearest presence.
That Jesus’ kingly throne is a cross, that his crucifixion and his dying are his demonstrations, his proofs of his kingly identity, that his last will and testament are words of forgiveness to those who witness and will his death and of salvation to a criminal who confesses that he deserves to die (“I have been condemned justly”), cause me, call me, command me to believe that all receive God’s mercy.
In truth, I do believe that the universality of God’s forgiveness is precisely what Jesus, in his life and ministry, death and resurrection, reveals. Yet I, a self-interested and biased person, am not as unconditionally inclusive as Jesus. Not even close! If I was in Jesus’ place, it would be difficult, no, well-nigh impossible for me to forgive those who were watching me die and willing my death or, more truth to tell, to forgive even an honest criminal or, most truth to tell, to forgive anyone who judges another as unequal and lacking in human dignity based on gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, religion and spirituality, class and ability/disability or anyone who harms another creature or the creation.
In writing this, my soul shudders. For it means nothing more or less than that my will is so unaligned with Jesus, that my way of being and doing is so far removed from his, that he, in his way of being and doing, challenges, confronts how I think and feel, believe and act. This means that had I been there, as that haunting spiritual inquires, “when they crucified my Lord?”, I would have crucified him, too. This means, thanks be to God, that as the people watching, the leaders scoffing, the soldiers mocking and the criminal deriding Jesus, he would have forgiven me, verily, today, in my willful human sinfulness, he does forgive me! This means that what I am given, I am to give to others.
What? To anyone who judges another as unequal and lacking human dignity, who harms another creature or the creation, forgive them? Though, in following Jesus, I believe that I am to live and labor to challenge and confront those who, for any reason or cause, would demean others and destroy the creation, yes, I am to forgive them for they, I also believe, in relation to the way and will of God, know not what they are doing.
Jesus, my crucified Lord, crucify my prejudices that they may die that I may live to be as you are. Amen.
Illustration: A view from the cross (aka What Our Lord Saw from the Cross) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum, New York. Note: Many gather at the feet of Jesus, including Mary, his mother, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, John, his disciple, Roman soldiers and a centurion robed in red, and Jewish leaders on horseback. In the background is a tomb where Jesus’ body is to be interred.
 Here, I define mercy as God’s compassionate forbearance in withholding the condemnation that sinful humankind deserves; as opposed to grace being God’s unconditional benevolence in granting salvation that sinful humankind does not deserve.