Thursday, November 21, 2013

November 24, Reign of Christ: Contradictions 12: Executions in Paradise

Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43

What did Jesus mean by “the paradise”? Why did he use this specific word, for the only time in the gospels? Why didn’t he just say ‘heaven”? Because he didn’t mean “heaven”. When he said “paradise,” the term was more specific than it is today. A paradise was a royal park, a palace garden and menagerie, like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, like the Garden of Eden, a private park for an emperor’s enjoyment, where he might take his special guests to walk and talk with him, and where to be invited was a privilege of honor.

Which means (if we respect the metaphor) that Jesus was giving this criminal more than he had asked for. He only dared ask to be remembered in the kingdom, but Jesus brings him into the royal garden. The criminal had asked for some carnations on his grave, but Jesus puts a rose in his tuxedo.

What a strange exchange these two have upon their crosses. What things to be saying when you are dying in defeat. Has their pain made them delirious? “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” What possible kingdom? The Kingdom of Judea? What does the inscription say above his head? “This Guy is the King of the Judeans”? But that is meant for mockery. What it really meant was, “This is what we Romans do to Jewish royalty!” To prevent his kingdom is precisely why he was being killed.

Does this criminal believe that Jesus could die his death and still get his kingdom in the future, that God will bring him back alive for some new liberation beyond the miracles of the Maccabees? If so, then what he’s asking is this: “When that time comes, pardon me; I was with you; don't forget me; don’t let my name be blotted out.”

The answer is unexpected: “Today.” Not in the future, but today. That is, “I am remembering you now, I am already acting as the king. The inscription above me is right. I am the king, today, and when I say, “Amen, today,” this is my royal proclamation. I am doing what kings do in giving you a pardon. But even more I invite you to my royal garden for you to be with me. You are in my kingdom now.”

Jesus has done him better. The criminal believed that Jesus’ kingdom would come after the crucifixion, but Jesus believed that his kingdom was established by the crucifixion; that when the soldiers put him on the cross, they put him on his throne; that in crucifying him, his enemies were giving him his kingdom; and that Pontius Pilate, in mocking him with that inscription, was actually nominating him, which was his official duty anyway. The prophecy of Jeremiah has come true. The Son of David has begun to reign upon the cross, and the pardoning of this criminal is the first act of the new administration.

So Jesus’ kingship doesn’t wait till after his ascension into heaven. He is already executing justice and righteousness. He’s already gathering the lost sheep of Israel, as Jeremiah had prophesied. And the criminal, in the words of Colossians, has been “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of the beloved Son, in whom he has redemption, the forgiveness of his sins.”

All the other characters are in his kingdom too, all the other watchers and mockers, but they don’t know it. They are bound within the guilt and fear and hostility which are normal in the world. Jesus has asked his Father to pardon them as well. But it’s only this one thief who has welcomed it. Not only by putting his trust in Jesus, but also by acknowledging the truth about his guilt and his predicament. He is the only one in this whole scene who has a good sense of himself, who is open about himself, and therefore open to the Lord.

Unlike Adam hiding in the Garden, unlike Eve hiding in the trees. So yes, this is a paradise, a second Garden of Eden, the beginning of the new creation, and Jesus is the firstborn of the new humanity, and the criminal is with him.

The gospel writer Luke is remarkably silent on Jesus’ suffering and agony. What Luke has given us is another painting, a moment made eternal extending into time and space, let’s say in the style of Breugel or Velazquez. In the foreground are ranged the watchers and the witnesses. On the right, the leaders of the people. They represent religion. They taunt Jesus for his inability to see his reformation through; he is unconvincing and uncompelling and he cannot save a thing. On the left, the soldiers represent the world. They mock him for his folly and his failure and for his being a Jew. Up on that one cross is the criminal who represents our guilt. He is deriding Jesus for the hopelessness of grace. All of these are trapped in bondage to the powers of the world.

Only Jesus and the second criminal are free. Jesus is free from anger and reprisal and from his burden of the past three years. The criminal is freed from his past and freed from his guilt and free to offer honor and respect and hospitality. He has the freedom of the Kingdom of God.

This painting is God’s message to you today. It is your invitation; you are invited to this freedom. He died like a slave so that you might be free from the guilt of your sins and free from bondage to the jealous powers of the world. God wants you to be free. Again: free from your guilt, and free from the compulsions of the world. It is God’s gift to you. Freedom to construct your life. Freedom to develop your character. Freedom to be open to others and free to love. Freedom to be creative and experiment and make mistakes and fall and fail, but without the burden of your guilt. The freedom of the Kingdom of God. But we know that freedom is a problem, too.

Last Sunday I said that the grand strategy of God’s sovereignty was to go through communities of Jesus. Okay. But it’s from the constrictions of communities that we so often feel the need to free ourselves. You had to leave home in order to be free, you had to leave your home town or your family. The contradiction of freedom and community finds a constant reconciliation in a church. Our mission is to practice the constant pardoning of each other’s trespasses against us, and also to practice hospitality to each other’s strengths and weaknesses and warts and goiters and gifts and talents. The hospitality follows on the pardoning, just as Jesus gave both to the criminal.

A second contradiction is between your freedom and the sovereignty of God. If God is in control, if God chooses and predestines, then how can you be free? God has a plan, God has a goal in mind and an end in sight, so what choice do you have? Well, the sovereignty of God is not a pushy one. God does not push God’s plan from the start and forward into time. It’s rather that God is already at the end and gathering us all home. God is gathering all our freely chosen creativities and God is making good out of all of our mistakes and converting our failures and carrying our sufferings and shaping salvation out of it all of it. Let your life flow as you want it, and God gathers the stream of your life into God’s great river. Or as Jeremiah says, God is the shepherd who gathers your wandering on the mountains so wonderfully that you arrive at home.

Amen, Today, says Jesus from the cross. It’s not just a man talking, it is God talking, for as Colossians says, “in him all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell, and through him God is pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether in heaven and on earth, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” So here is reconciliation of all our contradictions. It is the fullness of this holy and eternal love which is exposed upon the cross. The reconciliation of God’s righteousness and God’s mercy. The reconciliation of our judgment and our peace. The reconciliation of God’s power and your freedom, the reconciliation of God’s sovereignty and your freedom, all of this is gathered into that great hospitality of God’s love. God is doing the gathering. It is for you to let God gather you and for you to love God back.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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