Thursday, November 17, 2016

November 20, Ingathering Sunday; Prayer and Action #8: The Today of the Lord

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

Today,” says Jesus. What did Jesus mean by “today” when he said it to the criminal? “Today you will go with me to heaven?” But the Lord Jesus did not go to heaven that day. He descended to the dead that day, and he stayed dead for two more days. So what Jesus was promising this criminal must have been something other than his going to heaven when he died.

Let me translate what Jesus said more literally: “Amen, I’m telling you, today you’ll be with me in the paradise.” What is “the paradise,” why that specific word, the only time in all the gospels?

The word back then was not a synonym for “heaven.” It had specific worldly meaning. A paradise was a royal park, a palace garden, 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. Like the White House Rose Garden.

If we respect the metaphor, this means that Jesus was giving this criminal more than he’d asked for. He’d only dared ask to be remembered in the Kingdom, but Jesus brings him into the royal garden. He’d only asked for some carnations on his grave, but Jesus puts a rose in his tuxedo.

What a strange exchange between these two 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? It was precisely to prevent his Kingdom that Jesus was being killed. There’s an inscription above the head of Jesus which reads, “The King of the Judeans is this guy,” but that is meant for mockery. It means, “This is what we Romans do to Jewish kings!”

But this criminal somehow believes that Jesus could die his death and still get his kingdom in the end, that God will bring him back alive for some miraculous liberation. “So Jesus, when that day comes, grant me a pardon; I was with you; don’t forget me; don’t let my name be blotted out.”

The answer is unexpected: “Amen, today.” That is a royal proclamation. Jesus is already acting the king, right now. He does what kings do in granting him a royal pardon, and he invites him to his royal garden. Jesus has made a Garden of Eden upon this ugly hill they called The Skull, Golgotha.

The criminal assumed 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 killing him, his enemies were giving him his kingdom; and that Pontius Pilate, in mocking him with that inscription, was doing his official duty of proclaiming him.

The prophecy of Jeremiah has come true. The Son of David has begun to reign, but upon the cross, and the pardoning and welcoming of this criminal is the first act of the new administration. This criminal is made the opposite of Adam and Eve. From his sin he’s welcomed back into the Garden. A lost sheep of Israel has been gathered by this shepherd, as Jeremiah prophesied. And in the words of Colossians, the criminal 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.”

A crack is broken in the surface of the earth. A great crack is broken in the hard shell of human history. From the foot of the cross the crack runs back through time, breaking open all the misery and loss of Israel, back through the woeful dynasty of David, all the way back to Genesis, all the way back through the gate of the Garden of Eden, the crack runs to the dead tree in the middle, and the dead tree comes to life again, and the green spreads out across the ground.

From the same foot of the cross the crack runs forward too, into the future, under us and off beyond our sight, breaking open the hard shell of humanity, fracturing our monuments of mastery, crumbling our achievements into rubble and dust, and the soft green shoots rise up there as well. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

I’m trying to imagine this strange wonder of how the cross of Jesus Christ has power across the span of human history, that the death of Jesus has some virtue beyond that single day. I’m trying to imagine how the Kingdom of God is with us and also yet beyond us, I’m offering an image of how the Kingdom of God is both powerless and powerful. This dying man, a paradigm of the powerless, is also the pinnacle of power and an emperor of peace.

I propose to you that for us to see the Kingdom of God we have always to see it with two eyes, two contrasting visions, both envisioned by the Lord Jesus, both true, but neither true just on its own. (The following adapted from Jacques Ellul’s Violence, pp. 44-45.)

First, the Kingdom of God is out there, majestic, cosmic, impending, over-arching, all-inclusive, the life of the world to come, the future always pressing down on us, judging everything, keeping us always discontent. In the light of this Kingdom we must examine everything and question everything. The cross judges everything. We may never be content with any human system. Every advance in church and society must be analyzed and criticized. The Kingdom demands nothing less than radical change. The Kingdom is a revolutionary magnitude that cannot be measured by our measuring sticks, and being immeasurable, it reveals the vanity of all we do. This is the source of the revolutionary vigor of our faith.

But also, the Kingdom is already present in the world—the seed in the ground, the leaven in the dough, the treasure in the field, the mustard seed, the faith of children, working in the world and changing it mysteriously. For the signs of that working we Christians are on the lookout, seeing the signs no matter how fragile, and being ourselves the signs of hidden life. So you can be open, you can be patient, you can be humble, you can even be submissive in your joy, you can be confident that God is working in the world right now, in fragile ways, and doing it through you.

When you keep these two visions together you get a double witness, and so we Christians do our actions in the world with reference both to the future, which we cannot achieve but only receive, as it is given us by God, and to the hidden present, where God keeps revealing God’s self in your own human acts of love and mercy and welcome, so that even the hill of The Skull may be a Paradise.

But it’s not a rose garden without the blood shed. And I don’t mean the blood of your enemy but your own. Thus the gory words of Colossians: “making peace by the blood of his cross.” Why blood? Why this gruesome reference to barbaric sacrifice to please the gods?

Here’s the point. Making peace is not the same as making nice. Making peace is not the same as all of us getting along. Not if peace includes justice. Your Christian actions of making peace are going to be hard work, risky, and costly, putting you in danger, you will have enemies, and it may cost you your life. You will be tempted like Jesus to save yourself. Your actions may not look like unity. Reconciliation is not the forgetting of our differences the repentance of our sins and the costly work of forgiveness.

If you want to work for peace and justice, keep the double vision in front of you, the vision of the kingdom of God at the end, already established up ahead, pressing down and judging everything, and the kingdom of God already today, in tiny shoots of tenderness growing through the cracks in the concrete. You do your little actions, and you pray them into the greatness of the future. You do your work and you let God gather your work into the larger whole. God is gathering in all things.

This is Ingathering Sunday, the final Sunday of the church year, when we have this vision of what God has been doing in the world since Jesus died and until he comes again. I invite you to believe that you are in the midst of it, and to rededicate yourself to action and to prayer. You are in the midst of it. When Jesus says, “Amen, Today,” it’s not just a man talking, it is God talking from the cross, 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.”

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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