Preacher: Jen Houser – Guest Preacher
Scripture : Luke 23:33-43
Date: November 20, 2022
For those of you who don’t know me, I am currently the Director of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives located at the Church of the Brethren General Offices in Elgin, IL. My work largely includes answering research questions for patrons, completing administrative tasks, and processing materials to add to our collection. One of the recent collections I processed were letters from the Church of the Brethren sponsored project “Death Row Support Project”. This project allows folks from around the world to write letters or emails to inmates who are on death row in the United States. This collection donated to us were physical letters written by people who were on death row. When I typically process a collection that arrives to us in an orderly fashion, I usually don’t take too much time to read through each material. Yet, when I sat down with this collection, I couldn’t help but to start reading through these tragic letters. Many folks wrote about the horrific things they experienced while in death row and how they got there. Some stated they were wrongly accused, others stated they were not in their right mind when they committed their crimes. Others wrote about the relationship they found with Christ and their struggle to forgive themselves or the folks or circumstances that put them where they are. Some letters contained had notes written on top stating the writer’s date of death and occasionally the cause of death. Picking up each piece of paper, my heart ached for these people who are forced to spend their days locked behind bars until the state decides their time is over. Yet I struggled with the tension of knowing that some of these folks had done horrible things. Part of me wants to see justice served, whatever that means now days, while the other part of me wants to believe that a person can change their ways and not commit those harmful acts again. This tension between justice and mercy may be familiar to some of us. Perhaps you feel the same way, you wish to see a person pay for their mistakes while also wishing to grant them forgiveness and allow them to change their ways.
Across the world, and throughout time, punishment has looked vastly different. In Jesus’ day, folks were sometimes crucified on wooden planks that stood upright in the ground. They were nailed by their hands and feet to two wooden planks, fixed in the shape of a cross. This was punishment for certain crimes and this punishment was chosen to encourage others not to commit the same crimes. Jesus was not the first person to be crucified, and he was not the last. According to Wikipedia, the traditional form of crucifixion was used as recently as the twentieth century, however other countries practice a different form of crucifixion which is a bit too gruesome to describe in this setting.
Now, if you’re wondering why we are using a text typically meant for Good Friday on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, it’s because the lectionary has told us to. In many traditions that are more “High-Church” than our own, today is known as Christ the King Sunday, or the last Sunday of the church calendar. It is the last Sunday before advent starts where we celebrate Christ’s reign as king over the heavens and earth. Before we wait for Jesus to be born, this year we reflect on his death. We are met with our Savior already on the cross with two other criminals facing the same punishment on either side of him. This portion of text does not tell us their crimes, but their punishment means the Roman government did not want others to commit the same crimes. Other passages or books of the synoptic gospels tell us they were thieves, but this passage in Luke leaves us to wonder. The Greek is not helpful in this case either. Matthew and Mark use the term lestes, or thieves while Luke uses the term kakourgos, or literally “bad guys”. For whatever reason, the crimes of these criminals are not important to Luke like they are to Matthew and Mark. In Luke’s eyes, what is important is that all three human beings are facing the same painful and humiliating punishment.
The audience knows who Jesus is and why he is hanging on the cross. They know him as the Messiah of God, the chosen One, and the King of the Jews. His mockers challenge Jesus to demonstrate his power based on his identity as Christ the King. They have seen the miracles he has performed and the people he has saved. They know he has the power to save himself, yet here he is choosing not to. So, they begin to mock him. The leaders saying, “let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, the chosen One!” The soldiers badgering him, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Even one of the criminals next to him, in the same position Jesus is in, asks him, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Aren’t you going to save yourself and us?” Perhaps if Jesus shared the mindset of some of our current earthly rulers, he would have. He would have zapped himself off of that cross and continued living out his days wherever he would choose. And I don’t know that I would have blamed him. If I found myself in Jesus’ naked feet, I would probably have chosen to save myself instead of generations of people to come after me.
But luckily for all of us here, Jesus does not give in to those temptations. Instead of choosing selfishness, he chooses to continue his calling for the greater good. The other criminal on the other side of Jesus notices this and commends Jesus for using his title and his power for good. The other criminal even recognizes Jesus has done nothing wrong. Jesus likely did not commit the same crimes that he did and should not be facing the same punishment in his eyes. In this vein, Jesus recognizes that the second criminal sees him as the Messiah, as Christ the King, not just in an earthly sense. The second criminal recognizes Jesus as Christ the King over the heavens and earth. Jesus continues not to use his power for his own selfish gain by telling the second criminal that they will meet in heaven together, that he is saved, if you will. Jesus grants him immediate amnesty without even having to verbally confess his crimes to him, only recognizing that he has done wrong. The criminal is not redeemed in his earthly body from his crimes, but his salvation will be experienced in the afterlife. Though no longer considered acceptable in the eyes of the government, the criminal is accepted into Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus claims through his words that the kingdom of heaven is big enough for everyone.
Could you imagine if Jesus was physically present in today’s court cases for death row inmates? What would he think? How would he react? Would he agree that these people should be condemned for their crimes? Would he agree that these people should be punished on earth, but receive their heavenly reward if they ask for forgiveness? Would he say that the criminal should be let go if they show the ability to participate in society again? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to these complicated and sensitive questions. But in this text, we see Jesus extend mercy on multiple occasions. He extends mercy to the people mocking him, asking God to forgive them because he didn’t believe they knew what they were doing. He extends mercy to the criminal that understands Jesus’ reason for hanging on the cross next to him. Would he extend mercy to criminals on death row or folks sitting in jails for drug possession? How would Christ the King view these offenses?
How often do we find ourselves judging the people who commit these crimes? How often do we find ourselves judging people who are different than us? Do we extend mercy and grace to those who make different choices than we do? Or do we close ourselves off and not make room for relationship with people we don’t like? Whether you find yourself compelled to contact the Death Row Support Project to write letters to an inmate, or contact legislators to ask them to repeal the death penalty where it is still active, or you want to make connections with people who you don’t agree with, I encourage you to do so, especially as we near the holidays. As we gather with our loved ones, may we remember those who don’t have that same opportunity. May it be so, amen.