Last Sunday of the Church Year

November 24, 2019


And there followed [Jesus] a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ 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 railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? 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 justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:27–43 ESV)

The election is in full swing. You might know the candidates in your electorate but you definitely know the political party leaders because they’re supposed to be the best, the pinnacle, of the people in the party to secure the political party’s goals – which invariable is to win or to be able to influence. So what happens when you hear that Labour people ‘hate’ Jeremy Corbin or life long Conservative voters are saying they will not vote Conservative because of Boris Johnson? I’m sure such sentiments have been expressed in the past but, to me at least, they are noticeable now. The a skewed world continues when these political leaders have their supporters from non traditional constituencies. For those voters perhaps the person is more important than the party. In politics at the moment, it seems to me, that we have person, party and perception and each of us claims that our view is the correct one. The linkages of truth and trust that bind a society are loosening more and more so people are creating their own worlds and there is no common or agreed story about what is going on. We live in interesting times.

Nearly 2,000 years ago in the run up to the Passover, the Roman authorities accepted pragmatically the Jewish religious leaders’ request to get a troublemaker out of the way. Initially reluctant to be involved, Pontius Pilate is swayed by the political threat of the people reporting to Rome that Pilate was not ‘a friend of Caesar’ and so he orders Jesus of Narareth to be crucified. Who was this Jesus? Well that depends on whom you asked!

Blasphemer. Trouble maker. Messiah. Healer. Rabbi. A pusher of boundaries. Miracle worker. The religious leaders were against and aghast at Jesus’ subtle and not so subtle links with God – the I AM hint he claimed – the forgiveness he bestowed – the intimacy with which he called God ‘his Father’ – required a strong response. And there’s nothing stronger than crucifixion in the ancient world! And so Jesus is crucified and on this final journey we find Jesus lamenting the world and predicting serious judgement as well as offering comfort to a fellow crucified criminal who somehow saw more than a fellow unfortunate on another cross. This is at the heart of Christianity – person and this death. But how do we still hear the words?

If we were to ask people today ‘Who is Jesus?’ what do you think we’d hear? I think the answers will boil down to three basic messages.
1.That Jesus is kind and caring –gentle Jesus meek and mild sort of person –a cosmic teddy bear.
2.That Jesus is irrelevant or fictional or a good idea gone astray because his followers, the Church in all their denominations, have made him and ‘the brand’ pretty toxic with rules and judgements and are out of step with much of the world today.
3.That Jesus is the Son of God, Saviour of the world, crucified and risen –and here there is general agreement – but then they tend to disagree among themselves about what this all means for day to day living and can give ammunition for the second message.
In all this discussion humanity both wants God – wants help – and yet it rails against the God who helps. In all these discussions about religion, spirituality, the meaning of life there is a deep desire to remain in control, to shape God to our image but what do you do when God is not what you expect? Well, today we find out that we will squash and execute what challenges and threatens us.
Luke’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus – of which our text is a small section –makes for uncomfortable reading. People are shocked at Jesus’ words of warning and judgement to the women of Jerusalem. People are uneasy at observing attacks and violence on another person – and maybe some are thinking that at least it’s not me. And people can be stunned at the arrogance of Jesus in claiming divinity even on the cross and offering Paradise to a person –g ranted in extreme circumstances. And then there is the whole thing that troubles people that if Jesus is truly the Son of God, then what sort of God, what sort of Father does this to his child? Seriously.
So again we have person, party, and perception with this traumatic scene, with Jesus, and with our own view of things. Where do we look? On what do we focus? Can we pick and choose and make Jesus what we want him to be? People are doing it all the time! In fact the denominations do it as well in the way they teach Jesus and talk about him, talk to him, and how they live. We do it, too, as Lutherans when we talk about Jesus using Law and Gospel, the theology of the cross, and emphasising the masks of God – words, water, bread and wine – and the lifestyle of repentance and service.
This is not a pretty story. When the world rejects Jesus, he says that will cost you dearly. It’s not a threat but a consequence. But that depends on your perception. When the world has power it ridicules and punishes and Jesus bears it. Again what are the perceptions? Criminals and evil people should be punished for the good of others – I think most people agree with that sentiment while differing in application. Jesus offers forgiveness and Paradise but that clearly means that we need it! Who is to judge me to say that I need it? Or perhaps I’ll acknowledge some flaws, after all no one is perfect, but what if this judgement targets me in a way I don’t want targeted, where I don’t want to change? Then Jesus can stick his forgiveness and Paradise!
This is not a pretty story. It is an uncomfortable one because wherever we look Jesus doesn’t fit neatly as we want to perceive him and he challenges us about ourselves!
The Last Sunday of the Church Year has almost subliminally the idea of the last day of the world and the reappearance of Jesus for all the world to see. The themes of this scene will again reappear – judgement, violence, forgiveness, and Paradise – and humanity struggles where to look, on what to focus, and often just hopes that if Jesus has a cut off point for the evil ones that they’re on the right side of the line! Often there is a knowing about Jesus or thinking one knows Jesus but there can be little knowing Jesus and understanding him, who he is and what he does – better still, is doing. The people who know Jesus have heard not just about our text but the message that comes on the following Sunday – Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!) This is where history becomes news and Jesus appears and draws us to him. The wayward, the afraid, the sinner is welcomed into God’s loving arms – yes, we noticed pierced hands and we are given life, a new life, a new perspective, a new perception that Jesus, no matter where we look and what we hear, is for us not against us. And yet he is not a butler or genie and instead calls us to follow him and that can take us to places we don’t wish to go –on the inside as we face our attitudes and behaviours – and on the outside as we face the world and work out how to serve it. But it is Jesus and who he is that gives us meaning and purpose and this takes away the fear and the anxiety – lessens it when it arises – and calms the storms that can rage.
And this is what the humanity needs, what the Church needs to do, what the disciples need to do when appropriate – simply point to Jesus – any aspect, any scene, any words – and share that this Jesus is for us, not against us and his life means following him and discovering ourselves and life in all its fullness. This the message the world needs to hear now more than ever.

Bible References

  • Luke 23:27 - 43