This Sunday we come to the culmination of the liturgical year, as well as the end of our fall season looking at faithfulness and reconciliation. The liturgical name for this Sunday is Christ the King and the story that we have this cycle is a familiar story, but almost seems out of place, being that next week we start the advent season. The story is one of the most powerful stories in the Bible. Every time I read it I get a little emotional.
This is the story of Jesus on the cross. But that is really not the main point of the story. The most important part of this pericope is what is going on with the two criminals that are on either side of Christ.
While there is a lot we do not know about the two, even the crimes they committed, we do know some very important facts. First, they were guilty, and second, they were facing the same death as Christ. On the one side there is a man who is deriding Christ, joining in on the mockery that the crowd and soldiers are engaged. There is a lot of speculation as to why this criminal would do this, but we will get to that later. On the other side is a man who is looking at his life and while we do not know if he is a true believer or not, we know that in the end of his life he asks a very pertinent question: do you fear God?
The two men that are hanging on the cross represent two ways in which we approach one another. The criminal that is deriding Christ, even in his pain, chooses to join with the crowd. When he does this in a literary sense he represents our human nature to reject God. Just like we reject one another when we choose to belittle or tear one another apart with words or deeds. Think how even when we are at our weakest it is often still easier for some to reject than accept.
Interestingly, while also looking at his eminent demise the other criminal asks of the other man if he fears God. This is not only unexpected, but not sought after. This is recognition of certain strength not to save himself but to show compassion. In fact, this represents a sign that he chooses to walk alongside Christ. This criminal shows strength to overcome the crowd and show compassion, just as we are called not to join in with the crowd causing derision and descent but to lift one another up as Christ lifts us up.
This is very important, since both of the criminals represent two different sides of our humanity, compassion on one side and contempt on the other. At the end, the judgment comes from Christ, and it is the compassion side that he chooses.
I often think that Christ the King Sunday is lost in modern culture because we lose the understanding of King being the head and final arbitrator for our lives. Because of this loss, we often do not take seriously the grace and promise that Jesus gives to the criminal that shows compassion and the disregard he gives to the other criminal.
When we look to our heart and think of how we reconcile our lives with Christ, we have to ask if we err on the side of compassion or contempt, if we err on the side of love or saving ourselves, if we err on the side of human nature or overcome that to be the people Christ calls us to be.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen