When I first saw what the Gospel was for today, I thought there was some mistake. I was expecting an apocalyptic reading – like last week’s – where the world crumbles and then we see Christ reigning in glory. Even though I’ve preached on this Sunday before, the reading caught me off guard. I was looking for Christ in his glory not Jesus on the cross. My initial reaction was disappointment: the fulfillment is Christ on the cross?
I found myself caught up in looking for fulfillment in the ways our culture extols. We are taught we will find fulfillment in success, in the admiration of others, in power, riches or beauty. We do not expect to find fulfillment in failure, mockery, suffering, or weakness.. In fact, our culture teaches us to avoid suffering and weakness at all costs. But here we are on the Sunday of Fulfillment before Christ on the cross crucified between two criminals. There is nothing of success, glory, riches or beauty here.
We see, instead, weakness, terrible suffering and scorn. Jesus is mocked for his apparent powerless. “Save yourself.” “If you are king of the Jews, save yourself.” “Save yourself and us.” That is the kind of power the religious and political authorities were looking for. Sometimes it is the kind of power we seek too. In the midst of distress, we protest our innocence and want someone to save us from our suffering.
Society offers us myriad ways of trying to save ourselves. Get rich – money will save you from misery and helplessness. Become popular – the admiration of others will save you from loneliness and isolation. Exercise power over others – their subservience will save you from feeling like a nobody. If all else fails, get drunk or take pills to save yourself from the pain. But ultimately none of this works. In the face of death, the stark truth is we cannot save ourselves from the suffering and death that are a part of the human condition.
The second criminal crucified with Jesus, sees through the mockery. In his own suffering, he sees the truth of who he is and who Jesus is. He knows himself to be guilty. He sees Jesus as an innocent man suffering beside him. In Jesus, he sees one with a power that moves him to act not on his own behalf but on the behalf of others. Here is one empty of himself yet so filled/united with the love and mercy of God that his life overflows in forgiveness and healing for others. Perhaps the criminal intuits that what saves us is an intimate relationship with a compassionate God. He realizes that this intimacy, this forgiveness and welcome, is offered to us as a free gift for all who recognize their need. This free gift of life has the power to transform us into vessels of God’s mercy, compassion and service.
Jesus, “filled with the fullness of God,” spent his whole life among outcasts, people of little account, sinners, ordinary folk weighed down by evil, in need of healing who could not save themselves. At a touch or a cry for mercy, this fullness of God flowed through Jesus’ into the lives of all who knew their need and were open to receive it. That was the expression of Jesus’ power.
We have known this power. It is a force that transforms our lives. We experience it as acceptance, forgiveness, mercy, a loving presence, a call to service. We see it in people like Oscar Romero and perhaps Pope Francis.
Here at this table we receive the outpouring of Jesus’ life for us – his power to make us one with him in love and service to God and all people. With the repentant criminal, we, too, are bold to say: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your reign.”
Jesus responds, “Truly, I tell you, today, you will be with me in paradise.” “Today,” he says, because today he is with us in our need and in our joy. Today, he offers us mercy and forgiveness. Today, in whatever our suffering or darkness may be, he pours out his love for us. Today, whether we feel near or far from God, Jesus offers us his presence – the fullness of life that transcends death. “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”