Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, August 20, 2018
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The Paradox of Jesus the King

Luke 23:32-43 and Colossians 1:11-22

 Where do we expect to find a king?  In a palace.  On a throne.  Maybe on TV.  

 Jesus is our king.  Where do we find him?  Well, in our Gospel text this morning, as he enters into the glory of his Kingdom, we find him in a pretty unlikely place.  

 Jesus is at Golgotha, the place of the skull.  We don’t know exactly where it was.  Bible scholars suggest one of two different sites, but honestly we don’t know.  All we know is that it was outside the city walls of Jerusalem, and it was along a well traveled road.  We know it was along a road because that’s how Rome did crucifixions.  They were more than just executions; they were public warnings.  “You cause trouble for Rome, and this will happen to you.”

 He is being crucified with two criminals.  We often hear them called thieves, but Rome didn’t crucify thieves.  They were most likely revolutionaries or highway robbers.  

 The Romans expected a condemned man on the cross to beg forgiveness for his sins.  But we know Jesus is innocent.  By Old Testament Law, if you made false accusations against a man, like the religious leaders did to Jesus, then you were supposed to suffer the fate you intended for him.  Instead, we find Jesus begging forgiveness for his tormentors.  

 The crowd mocks him, “If he claimed to save others, let him save himself!”  The irony, of course, is that it is precisely by not saving himself that Jesus is saving others.

 The Romans put a sign with the charge against him, called a TITULUS, above his head reading “King of the Jews.”  Pontius Pilate probably meant that to be a mockery of the Jewish people.  He despised them.  It was common in the ancient Near East world that a vanquished king would be executed publicly, after being humiliated.  But the irony here is that Jesus is not vanquished. He is victorious.  And he is not dying nearly so much as he is entering into the glory of his Kingdom.  

 One of the condemned criminals joins in the mocking of Jesus. But the other does something remarkable.  He pleads with Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”  In truth, that is the only plea any of us as sinful human beings can make with Jesus.  What makes it remarkable are the circumstances.  He is able to see something in Jesus that no one else can see right now.  The religious leaders see a heretic.  The Romans see a troublemaker.  The crowds see a big disappointment.  “We were hoping he might be the Messiah, but obviously, he is nothing.”  But this condemned man sees a king ascending to his

throne, a Savior who can deliver him, not from a cross, but from his sins.  What amazing faith he had!  Few people are able to see greatness in the midst of humility, but he did.  

 Jesus answers him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”  Paradise, in first century Jewish culture, was the place of the righteous dead.  It is the place where righteous souls go to wait for the day of the resurrection.  It was the opposite of Gehenna or Hades, the place of the wicked dead.  

 Who is Jesus that he could make such an incredible claim, that he could deliver a condemned criminal to paradise?  Colossians chapter 1 might be the most profound answer in the New Testament to that question.  I think it’s probably the most exalted description of who Jesus is and what he has done in Scripture.  

 I think it’s important for us to understand the backdrop against which Colossians was written.  Colossians was one of the later letters of Paul, and by the time it was written, the Church was already struggling with a heresy called Gnosticism.  Gnosticism was a “religious philosophy” that originated in Greek culture and had existed for some time before Christ.  Gnostics had a habit of co-opting other religions and philosophies and re-interpreting them as “Gnostic myths.”  And that happened with Christianity very early on in Church history.  And the same basic thing continues to happen.  The gospel message has been re-interpreted a number of times to mean something other than what God intended.  

 The basic premise of Gnosticism is that everything physical, everything material is evil.  But God, who is pure spirit, is good.  God, being good, could not have created the evil material world around us.  Instead, God sent out a series of emanations.  Each emanation was farther from God, and so each one lost some of the nature and essence of God.  Each emanation became less like God, and thus, less good.  The world as we know it was created by an evil god in one of those emanations farthest from God.  

 But all throughout these emanations, there are little sparks of the divine, little pieces of God, so to say.  And inside each one of us, there is a spark of the divine.  But that spark is imprisoned in a body of evil flesh.  Salvation in Gnosticism consists of rising through all these various emanations to return to God.  But to get through each emanation, we need to have a secret, special knowledge.  This is the origin of the word Gnostic, which means “enlightened.”  In Gnosticism, not everyone could be saved.  Only the intellectuals, only those capable of grasping deep, secret knowledge could ever be saved.  

 In Gnostic thought, Jesus was not God.  He was a spiritual being from one of these emanations closest to God who came to us to teach us this secret knowledge.  And Jesus was not human.  He was not even a physical being.  He couldn’t be, since everything physical is evil.  They believed in what was called docetism, which meant that Jesus only appeared to be human.  He didn’t really have a body.  And therefore, of course, he didn’t really die on the cross.  He simply rose back up to God and someone else was crucified in his place, Judas they said.  

 This was the first heresy the Church had to contend with.  And when the Church is confronted with heresy, it has to be able to articulate the truth clearly.  That may be the origin of Paul’s words in Colossians 1.  Some scholars think verses 15-20 are from an early Christian hymn.  Hymns were some of the first confessions of faith.  If you think about the teachings of Gnosticism, you can see how they are countered here.

 “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.”  The Greek word is EIKON, meaning exact representation or visible manifestation.  Christ shows us exactly what God is like because he is God.  He is not some lower spirit or angel.  

 “He existed before creation.  He is the firstborn over all creation.”  The title firstborn is one of the highest honor.  

 “He is the one through whom all things were made, both the visible and invisible.  Everything was created by him, for him, and he holds all of creation together.”  He is the sustainer of creation.

 “Christ is the head of the Church.”  Head means both source of and authority over.  The Church comes from Christ, and he is the Lord of the Church.

 “He is the first of the resurrection and first in everything.  For God in all his fullness was pleased to dwell in Christ.  And through him, God reconciled everything to himself.”  Even us, who were once enemies of God because of our sin.  Sin distorts our thinking and changes our perception of God.  So we can’t possibly save ourselves.  We need help from outside ourselves, and Christ is our help.  Only Christ can restore us to friendship with God.  

 Through Christ, we share in the inheritance of God’s people.  The word inheritance was used in the Old Testament to refer especially to the Promised Land.  In the New Testament, it usually refers to the New Heavens and New Earth.  

 “For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and brought us into the Kingdom of his Son.”  This is important.  But we have to understand another concept from the ancient Near Eastern world to grasp it fully.  In the ancient Near East, it was common that when an empire conquered a kingdom, they would exchange people.  They would take many of the residents of the vanquished kingdom and bring them back to their territory. Then they would move some of their people into the vanquished kingdom.  This was intended to prevent that kingdom from rising up in rebellion against the empire.  We see it in the Old Testament in the Babylonian Exile.  They took some of the people of Judah back to Babylon and moved in their own people.  

 But here the idea is used in connection to a rescue.  In the Old Testament, God rescued his people out of Egypt in the Exodus and transferred them into the Promised Land.  Now, in Christ, God has rescued us from sin and death by the cross and transferred us into his Kingdom of light.  

 But not completely.  Not yet.  We’re still here.  Jesus is a paradox.  He is the greatest of all kings, and yet we find him in the lowest possible place:  suffering and dying on the cross.  And Jesus creates a paradox in our lives:  We are citizens of the Kingdom of God, but we live in the world.  We’re still here, for now. 

 This is both a privilege and a challenge.  The privilege is that we have the opportunity to show the love and goodness of God to a world that desperately needs to see love and goodness.  But the challenge is that we are living in between two kingdoms.  We don’t have luxury of that dying criminal on the cross!  He went to paradise that day!  We have to muddle through for the rest of our lives asking how we live as children of light in the darkness of a fallen world.  And it’s not easy.  But that’s our task.  We are citizens of the Kingdom of God, but we have to live in “Babylon” until Christ, our King, returns.  

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