This Sunday marks the end of the year. For Churches who pattern the life of their worship around the cycle of the Christian Calendar, this Sunday is the last Sunday of our year. Next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, marks the beginning not only of the Advent season but the beginning of the Church year.
Every year we begin our year anticipating the birth of Christ and every year we end remembering Jesus came to usher in the Kingdom of God, and reigns as King. Throughout his life, Jesus continually proclaimed the kingdom of God as near; as come, and yet reminded us to pray for God’s kingdom to come. We stand in the time when God’s kingdom has come, is coming and is yet to come in full completeness. We live in a time in which Christ has come, Christ has died and Christ’s resurrection has begun its work to sanctify and make the world holy in us, through and because of us.
This is the world of the already and the not yet. And so as a Church we cycle round and round each year, remembering and re-remembering the work of Christ on this earth; reminding ourselves all things have begun to be made complete; we are participating in its ongoing completion and anticipate the time when all things will be made complete; when the holiness of God will know by all; when God’s love will be found in the hearts and lives of all who inhabit the earth; when the new Heaven and the new Earth will be found in their fullness and we all will truly know what it means for Christ to reign.
But what does this passage have to do with the reign of Christ? What does this tell us about how Christ reigns and what it means for God’s kingdom to come to this earth? This is a passage which begins and ends with Christ on the cross. It does not seem to offer much hope. It does not seem much of a kingly representation of Christ. Here we have Christ the dying Savior, the dying king, in all his kingly glory. Christ the king on the cross, showing us what it really means to reign; showing us what it truly means to be a king; showing the nature and the truth of this kingdom of God, which we so often don’t understand.
Of course Christ is doing more, so much more, than dying here in this passage. He is being God, he is being holy, he is not only showing us the nature of who he is and the nature of the kingdom he is ushering in, but he is also showing us what it means to be participants in this kingdom. He is showing us what it means to be patrons of his Lordship, people who live under his reign.
Christ is dying, not just dying, this is not some poetic death scene of a movie, where the hero is cradled by the one she loves as she fades slowly into darkness, giving away his final words of wisdom, encouraging others to avenger his death. This is a scene watch with a silent tear streaking sorrowfully down our cheeks. This is a cruel, heartless, gruesome death. This is a languishing; death proceeded by hours of torture and seemingly endless pain. This is the kind of death that is nigh unbearable to experience and to watch. It is not a Hollywood kind of death, there is a reason why crucifixion is not a preferred means to kill the protagonist of our modern tales. But what Christ does and says is non-the-less movie-ending-worthy.
Jesus begins by forgiving “them.” He is hung on a cross, spread out there between Heaven and Earth, between two thieves – alongside, equated with, seen as equal to. And what does he say? He says, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” As he is dying his first words are words of forgiveness.
He forgives “them.” The word is wonderfully ambiguous in the Greek as well as the English. It is difficult to track down through the grammar the “them” to which the passage is referring. The chief priests, leaders or the people from the passage before? The “they” to which Jesus was handed over? The unnamed “they” who are presumably presiding over his death? The crowd? It is a wonderfully ambiguous, “they”. But even as their actions are bringing about the death of the God of the universe; the savior of the world; the king of God’s glorious kingdom, they don’t know what they are doing.
All the “theys” out there who are doing harm, who are perpetuating the occurrences of sin and evil in this world, all of them are forgiven. All of those who sin, all of us who fail Christ in a large and our, oh so common, small ways, all of us who hurt others, all of us who let down our friends and family, all of us who are all too aware of how we do not always love God with our whole hearts, all of us who do not always love our neighbor as ourselves, all of us who so often choose the things we want over the things of God, we are a part of this ambiguous they, the they who participate with the chief priests, leaders, crowds of people, and soldiers who brought Christ to the place of the scull that day. The wonderfully, gloriously ambiguous “they,” which reminds us, through imprecise grammar, we also participate in the death of Christ. Our failings and our sins bring Jesus to the cross, just as surely as if we were actually there with hammer in hand, raising up the Christ laden cross. And Christ is right, all too often as we make our poor choices, as we fail, time and time again, we do not know what we are doing, we do not always realize the gravity of our own actions, and we surely do not often stop and contemplate our sins and remember that it is THIS action which brought Christ to the cross. WE do not know what we are doing!
And do you know what? Christ asks the Father to forgive “them.” There on the cross, in pain, in agony, experiencing that which we hope we will never know, Christ pauses and asks “they” be forgiven. Christ asks for all the “thems” to be forgiven. And from what I know about God, from what I know about Christ’s relationship with the Father, I can say with confidence that they-we are, indeed, forgiven. We, do not know what we are doing, we fail, we sin, we participate in Christ’s death and we do not know what we are doing. Christ asks the Father for them; for us. And they-WE are forgiven! What a glorious thought. Our sins forgiven! Our failings, forgiven! When we do not love God fully, we are forgiven! When we do not love our neighbor, we are forgiven! When we do that which we know we should not, we are forgiven! When we do not do that which we should, we are forgiven! Whenever our actions in large, or even some very small way participate in the evil in this world, and thereby participate in the death of Christ, we are forgiven.
There as Christ ushers in the kingdom of God, Christ calls for our forgiveness. Christ shows us what it means for him to reign by declaring us forgiven. For Christ to reign means sins are forgiven, sinners are pardoned. Christ’s reign means WE are forgiven! Even when we do not know what our actions are doing, the full implications, the full extent to which we fail at being who God calls us to be, to be the love of God in this world, we are forgiven. Forgiven; always, in all ways forgiven!
And I could end there. That would be a glorious ending to my sermon. We could end our Church year, we could all go downstairs and eat our communal Thanksgiving dinner and we could all go home resting assured in our forgiveness. But the passage does not end there. Even if we think it could not get better, even as it seems there could be nothing more to say, there is more!
We have an example how this forgiveness works. We see the reigning Christ pardoning the sinners of one who is there with him, one we know who has failed, and who has not lived up to the kind of life God has called him to live. There on a cross next to him, likewise dying as Christ is dying, one of the two thieves between whom Jesus is hanging, turns to him and essentially asks for this forgiveness for which Jesus is asking the Father, to be extended, to him.
The thief asks for pardon, asks for Christ to remember him as Jesus comes into his Kingdom. Jesus essentially tells the thief his request has been granted, he has been forgiven, he will join Christ in his kingdom this very day. This man will know paradise in the forgiveness of the Father and acceptance into the eternal kingdom of God.
Forgiveness is requested and it is granted. He admits his sin, his guilt, and essentially requests forgiveness and he is forgiven. Christ asks for God’s forgiveness to be extended and immediately we have an example of how that forgiveness works, as they thief is forgiven. He repents, he admits his failing, he acknowledges how he fails to be the person he knows God requires him to be and asks for forgiveness and is forgiven.
This is how we can also experience God’s forgiveness in our own lives. We admit our failings, the ways in which we are lacking in being the people God has called to be. We repent and ask God to forgive us and we are forgiven. Christ has asked and declared our forgiveness. To participate in the forgiveness which Christ gives to all of us who unknowingly participate in the death of Christ through in our own sins, in our not loving God wholly or loving our neighbor fully; to accept Jesus’ forgiveness, allow for it to come to us when we like this thief come to Christ, we must admit how we fail, own up to our actions and ask to be forgiven, just as this man does here in this passage. Then we will be immersed in the great stream of father’s forgiveness, which Christ calls down up on the world while he was on the cross.
The truth this morning is, Christ reigns; God’s kingdom has come, is coming and will soon come in all its fullness. And God’s kingdom is a kingdom in which the one who calls for us all to be forgiven, for all humanity to be forgiven reigns. The king of forgiveness is king of God’s kingdom, forgiveness himself reigns. Just as through failure to love God and the people around us, our in mis-actions, our not acting in ways we know we should, our blatant disregard for others, and in the unintentional ways we hurt others, we participate in the death of Christ. We can also participate in the forgiveness he offers as he died, by simply asking for it, by turning to him, owning up to how we fail and asking that we too may know the forgiveness he gives, that we too may know him in paradise, that we too can help bring his kingdom to fullness by participating in his new life, his love, his truth in this world instead. We can immerse ourselves in the vast sea, the never ending stream of his forgiveness, simply by like this this asking.
Let us declare together this morning Christ forgives and Christ reigns. And join together living in that forgiveness and participating in Christ’s kingdom by living lives that glorify God, lives of love and kindness, lives that bring God’s love and forgiveness to all those we encounter each and every day.