Scripture Luke 23:33-43
This week we are all gearing up for a festive holiday. Families across America are going to gather around their tables expressing what they are thankful for. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Thanksgiving is the one holiday that my mom’s side of the family would all attend, so it was the only holiday that was fully celebrated. Thanksgiving is such an ingrained holiday in our nation that we sometimes forget that it is not observed worldwide. It would probably surprise us that Thanksgiving was not a holiday started by the church. Sure it was created to mimic or mirror festivals in scripture but Thanksgiving, as we know it was a creation of the United States government. It is a holiday that people around the world are curious about, because it does not follow the same ideas of most secular holidays. Memorial day, originally called Decoration Day, celebrates those who died in service to their country. Veterans day, originally Armistice Day, celebrated the end of World War 1 and those that served in the war to end all wars, and later honored all those who have served in the military. Labor Day celebrates the working class and the efforts of those that worked so hard to bring better working conditions to all people that work in our nation. Independence Day celebrates the declaration of our independence from the tyrannical rule of England. Each holiday celebrates something about our nation in some way, but Thanksgiving is a secular holiday that differs from the rest. Its roots emerge from the celebration of survival. It celebrates the preservation of a nation as well as its people. It is religious as well as political. It emerged out of the wedded Church and State of England, but took on a different tone in the colonies.
We know the historical tradition of the Pilgrims celebrating a day of thanksgiving with the Native people of the area, celebrating the harvest and preservation of them as a people. But it was not until the reuniting of the union after the civil war that Thanksgiving became a national holy day celebrating the preservation and continuation of the American way of life. We often see this day as a religious holiday, as we should, the Anglican and puritan traditions of faith along with the government of England began using days of thanksgiving, mimicking the ancient feast of Israel, to remind us that God is involved in all things. People and nations all survive not by will alone, but by the word of God and His grace. I mention Thanksgiving today, because the history of this holiday has represented vastly different things throughout history. Though it gives credit to God, it largely celebrates the nation.
Church and State, or the sacred and secular, do not always work well together. One always seems to dominate the other, and through the power struggle the point is often lost. Thanksgiving and its predecessors have often celebrated one side or the other which ever is more dominate at that time. Today we see football and holiday shopping dominating so many thanksgiving celebrations where in the past it was dominated by religious dedication. There is a continuous struggle between the sacred and the secular but there is a thankfulness that we survive.
Today’s passage illustrates that struggle, as well as the call of those in Christ. It is not exactly the type of scripture we would like to read prior the entrance into the holiday season, but as I have meditated on it this week I have found that it is a blessing.
Jesus is taken to the place of the skull to be crucified. On top of the pain of this inhumane form of capital punishment Jesus also faces jeers on all sides. Luke mentions first that the religious leaders scoff at him. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, His chosen one!” The mocking soldiers quickly followed saying, “If you are the king save yourself!”
This week these two statements have weighed heavy in my thoughts. Each of these statements comes from the same spirit, the spirit of control and power. Save yourself. One comes from the sacred arena the other from the secular, but both speak the same message if you are whom you claim save yourself.
Both sides of the issue have failed to see the truth of Jesus’ testimony; both have failed to hear the gospel in which he spoke. The Gospel of Jesus is that the Kingdom of God is here. But what is the kingdom of God? The religious leaders have an expectation that if Jesus were the Messiah then the temple would control the people. The secular believe that the kingdom is a political force with military backing so if Jesus in the king then he should call out his army to over power them and remove him from the tree. Then the criminals hung beside Jesus begin to join the conversation. One demands Jesus to prove his kingship by saving him and them. All three groups fail to understand what Jesus was meaning, because all are being lead by a human idea of kingdom.
The idea of kingdom in many of our minds is that of power, it is to have influence over other in order to control them. When Jesus is questioned about his kingdom, he said it is not of this world. We quickly interpret this to mean that Jesus’ kingdom is in heaven only, but that seems to negate the Gospel Jesus preached. He said that the Kingdom of God is here. Even the end of this passage seems to point in to a heavenly interpretation of the message. But could there be more to it? Is all that matters just getting a ticket punched and getting to heaven?
No, there is much more to the kingdom of God and much more to this passage. It begins with Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” They do not know what they are doing? Have you ever really thought about what that one statement meant? This came before the mocking leaders and soldiers, and before the discourse between the condemned in Luke’s telling. Is this just saying forgive them because they don’t know whom they are killing? I do not believe so, because it is clear through the writings of Paul that Jesus had to be put to death in that way to provide total redemption for mankind. It was actually not wrong to kill Jesus then but the most right thing to do, that act was not the one that needed forgiveness. But there is an action involved that did. They were killing Jesus because they wanted to control the people, and eliminate the competition to their power.
Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing. Forgive us for we do not know what we are doing. Sin we often explain as missing the mark, falling short, or breaking the law. Could it be that sin is actually the desire to control? Adam and Eve sinned by eating from the tree God told them not to eat from, they were tempted by the idea of gaining wisdom and being able to control their lives with the knowledge. They sinned and were separated from God because of the desire to have knowledge so they could then control, instead of relying on God to direct them through life. Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.
According to the law of both man and God, these people knew exactly what they were doing. The Romans wanted Jesus removed just as much as the Religious leaders, because of the claims of kingship. They knew that as Jesus taught they were losing the control over the common people. And they needed that control to maintain the status quo. These men knew what they were doing, but they did not know that they were in their legality were falling short.
Sin is control where forgiveness is restoration. We control with rules and regulations, we pile them on both on both sides of our humanity, both the secular and the sacred. But we do not often know what we are doing. We can study, we can plan, we can do all sorts of things but in the long run we do not know what the final results will be. We bind and loosen our human rules, and sacred interpretations and in the binding and loosening we fail and fall short, as individuals and as cultures. Forgive them, Jesus says, because they do not know what they are doing.
The leaders of the secular, the leaders of the sacred, and the common men all fell short we are all included we are all ignorant of what damage and or good we are doing to the community and world around us. Some of our greatest advancements have become some of our biggest sins as a culture. Some of our greatest failures have opened doors to our greatest accomplishments. All along we have been clueless to the lasting ramifications of our current actions. Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.
We try to control but we fail. We try to regulate others and ourselves and end up worse off then before, but there is forgiveness and hope. The one criminal realized that he was getting what was deserved and asked Jesus to remember him. We do not know what the crime was that these men committed, though he did say that he was condemned justly, but not Jesus. Jesus did not do things to control people but to free them.
I said that this passage illustrated the struggle between the sacred and secular, and also the call for those in Christ. That is the struggle between control and freedom. We often think of the golden age of Israel as being the time under the kings, but God warned them about the dangers of kings. It is almost as if God preferred that the lifestyle under the ancient judges even though so often look upon as negative from our point of view. Under the judges people followed the desires of their hearts, and at times it got them into trouble. But when Israel demanded a king God said that they rejected Him as their king. God’s kingdom is found where we strive to live out our heart’s desires in relationship to Him and our community. That is the freedom of Christ, which is the influence of Christ. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, we already did that and continue to condemn ourselves, but he came to set us free. That freedom is only found in recognizing our sin, turning from that sin, and striving to something better with Christ.
The last statement Jesus makes in this passage is directed to the repentant criminal. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” In all the pain of the situation I picture a smile on Jesus’ face, I can almost hear laughter in his voice through the pain. I hear it because there is joy. This one man realized that Jesus was speaking of him when He said forgive them. This man realized that he did not know what he was doing but now he did, and he accepted the consequences of his actions. And there is joy because there is reconciliation beginning. We do not have to control those around us, only to encourage. That is what the church is here for. We as a church exist to encourage one another to walk with Jesus and to live according to our callings.
Forgive them, Jesus pleads. Forgive them. For far too long we have lived in a world of condemnation and not one of forgiveness. That is what thanksgiving is truly about. God preserved us even though we do not know what we do. This is a time where we can step back and just be thankful that we have another day to try again. God allowed us to make a profit this year even though we made countless mistakes, God gave us a harvest even though we failed so many times, and we are thankful. We come together as friends and family and we share the bounty that God has graciously allowed us to have even though we do not deserve it, and we are thankful. But it is only enjoyable if we forgive those around us, to let go of our vain attempts to control and to be free to love. Forgive Jesus says. And encourage people to look toward him, and today you can experience just a glimpse of paradise.