I was with Rose Schultz just before paradise. Having battled terminal brain cancer through three months of winter, Rose's only desire was to see another Spring. Late in the afternoon of the first day of Spring, as the setting sun was melting the last of winter's snow outside her window, Rose said goodbye to Otto, her husband of 63 years. She closed her eyes and went to sleep. Death arrived as beautifully and peacefully as life could ever be. Later that night, I told my wife I had shared in Rose's graduation to eternal life. I likened its beauty to that of the being present at our children's birth.
I have had the privilege of being at the bedside of five people when they passed from this world to the next. Each passing has been a final gift to those loved ones gathered around. Sharing in the renewal of marriage vows in the face of death, silence in sacred times of farewall, and holding on to a person as he or she is letting go and letting God carry them to paradise are sacred gifts I have received in ministry. As with Rose, all the time I have spent just before paradise has been holy and blessed.
Today we come to end of the church year. We call this day, The Reign of Christ the King. In many of our German-rooted churches, today is recognized as Totenfest - a festival to remember the sacred memory of those who have entered paradise since the first Sunday of Advent one year before. We, in the church, count time differently. Today the sun sets on this year in the church's cycle. We pause to remember Jesus just before Paradise.
The passion narrative in Luke is the simplest of the four gospels. Ironically, today's passage is the reading for Christ the King Sunday because, in this story, Jesus is declared "king of the Jews" by mocking Roman soldiers and a cynical governor. The title "King of the Jews" is publicly displayed above his head. As they spit those words and penned these words of disdain, they spoke more truth than they knew.
The brevity of this account is impressive. Luke understands that the power of this event does not lie in our flow of tears but in Jesus' flow of blood. So he provides the essentials. The place is called "The Skull." It is there that they crucify him (which literally means, "to impale on a stick"). Jesus is joined in this public execution by two criminals - one on his left and one on his right. The soldiers who are there on assignment make sport of Jesus (vs. 36-37). The leaders of the people are there. They mock Jesus with two titles - Messiah and the Chosen One. They sneer, "He helped others, let him help himself if he is Christ of God, the Chosen One." The crowd is there, too. They have been with Jesus all along but now they watch him in silence, apparently feeling helpless before the combined powers of the state and religion. Luke will later say that Jesus' acquaintances from Galilee, including the women, watched from a distance.
Twice Luke turns our attention to the ones on the crosses. The first time is to hear Jesus' words of forgiveness, "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do." The "they" in Jesus' prayer covers all who are implicated in his death. The second time our attention is drawn to the cross is let us overhear the conversation among the crucified. One criminal joins the mockers. The other does not, acknowledging the justice of his punishment and the injustice of that of Jesus. Jesus never responds to the words of rebuke from the one criminal. His words of forgiveness have already covered his response to all of this, including this new hate. But, to the criminal who says to Jesus, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom," Jesus says, "So be it. I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise." Three times Jesus has been mocked to "Save himself." Here he does save, but not himself. That the one saved is a dying criminal is fully congenial to the type of persons blessed by Jesus throughout his ministry. Jesus continues his ministry until his dying breath. As Luke writes, "For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost" (Luke 19:10).
Just before paradise, we see Jesus as he always was - compassionate, fully aware of the other, forgiving, non-judgmental in the face of abuse, in love with the world even as the world hates.
In one week, we will be reading words of prophecy that speak of the birth of Jesus, the coming of the Messiah - and in the Matthew's gospel - the judgement of the unrighteous. But today we pause on the Hill of Skulls, before beginning our assent to "the little town of Bethlehem." We witness our Savior's death, before we all get ready for a baby's birth.
You and I can learn a lot about living from Jesus' dying. We can learn to forgive everyone of everything. We can learn to be graceful instead of spiteful or hateful. We can learn to be kind rather than judgmental. We can learn that no matter what another person spits at us - verbally or literally - we can treat it as a gift rather than the truth. We can learn to welcome even the most despicable characters into the embrace of God's love and grace. We can learn to live life until the last breath, and with our dying breath to commend ourselves into God's hands rather than condemn anyone into the halls of Hell.
Colossians 1:11-20 teaches us that the one from whom we learn these lessons is the greatest image of the living God. Colossians 1:11-20 is a christological hymn of praise. It sings of Christ's kingship and power. Christ is presented as "the image of the invisible God" (vs. 15). He is spoken of as "the firstborn of all creation - not the first thing to be created, but rather the one with preeminent rank. He is God's agent in creation - "for in him all things on heaven and earth were created" (vs. 6). Before all things came into being, Christ was present (vs. 17). And "in him all things hold together" (vs.17). In other words, he is the super glue that holds our family pictures in the aging photo album of the Christian story! While the rubber cement of yesteryear may cause the disintegration of former photos, Christ glues all things together! He is "the head of the body, the church" (vs. 18). As head over all creation, he is not only the firstborn of creation, but also the firstborn from the death (vs. 18). "In him," Paul writes, "God is in all God's fullness chose to dwell" (vs. 18). In him, all reconciliation occurs (vs. 20). Through his death on the cross and the shedding of his blood, peace is made between God and the world.
What a glorious God we worship! What an amazing Christ reigns in Glory! As Paul writes to the church Just After Paradise, we see that all things work together for good - IN CHRIST! In the world in which we live, we need Jesus Christ more now, than ever before. But this Christ which we need, is a God of love, who holds all things together. He is the super glue for reconciliation in humanity and in all of creation.
In today's two texts, we have met Christ just before and just after paradise. In that time between his death and his resurrection, we would do well to hear the words of non-believers about this Christ of God. At the cross, just after Jesus' last breath and just before his bloodied body is taken from the cross to the tomb, the Centurion guard says, "Certainly, this person was righteous." Or in the words of Eugene Peterson in The Message, "This man was innocent! A good man, and innocent!"
Today, just before paradise, I invite you to take this final journey from death to new birth, from the end of time to the new beginning of time, from alienation to reconciliation, and from our imposition of our limits on God to the limitless possibilities of his presence in our lives through Christ our Lord.
I can tell you from my small, but meaningful experience with people just before paradise, that when we make this journey, Jesus' words to the criminal will rest in our bones and reside in our consciousness for all eternity, "Today you will be with me in paradise." Amen.