"Leadership," by Pastor Kinsey
Jesus acquired a great many titles to his name in his short, 3 year career. Among them, Messiah, King of the Jews, Son of David, Chosen One, Rabbi, Son of Man, Shepherd, and Son of God. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, predicted in our First Reading today, that out of Israel’s devastation in the Exile, the LORD would raise up a righteous Branch in the blood line of King David, one who would reign wisely, and execute justice and righteousness in the land. The name of this one would be “The LORD is our righteousness.” A title we Christians also think fits well for Jesus.
Today, on this festival, on this last Sunday of the church year, we call him, Christ the King. We remember that Jesus the Christ reigns from the right hand of God, on equal footing – or seating, I guess – with God the Creator. In Paradise – in that relationship to God and us – Jesus is our king, the crucified and risen one, who helps us to execute justice and righteousness in our land.
And so, in the gospel of Luke, Christ the King is best described in the story of his crucifixion. Jesus, our King, holds court in the place of the Skull, just outside the city wall of Jerusalem, a hill of rock, that looked like a cranium or skull, and could very well have had skulls scattered around from previous crucifixions. This public place, near one of the city gates where the masses of pilgrims entered and exited the city – which for Jesus and the 2 criminals took place at high noon on Passover – was chosen by the Romans so that all could attend the spectacle, ensuring it had the state’s desired effect of fear and terror.
And it is here at Golgotha, that Jesus offers a radically different vision of leadership, than what we all too often see, in the public realm of our leaders, then or now.
Last year, a woman by the name of Kelly Gissendaner was on death row in a Georgia state prison. She was convicted for plotting the murder of her husband, Douglas, in 1997. While she was in prison, Kelly converted to Christianity, and not just in name only. But she received a theology degree from Emory University and shared her faith with other inmates, transforming many, and even saving a few from suicide. Her conversion was real, powerful and heartfelt.
As Kelly’s day of execution drew nearer, many that knew Kelly came forward to testify on the record, to her faith, pleading for clemency with the state of Georgia. There were former inmates she’d helped, and even correctional officers. Her children too spoke up to support her, even though it was by their mother’s actions that they had lost their father. There was a social media campaign, and even Pope Francis testified on behalf of Kelly. But in the end, all appeals for her sentence to be commuted to, life in prison, were denied, and on September 30th last year, the state of Georgia followed through on its intent, of, “an eye for an eye,” and carried out Kelly’s execution.
“When [the soldiers, and leaders, and bystanders] came to the place that is called the Skull” – they came to rid the empire of a pesky prophet. But instead, Jesus offers the world a radically different vision of leadership than what we all too often see in the public realm, then or now.
There is barely any description of the mechanics, and brutality of Jesus’ crucifixion, in Luke’s gospel. Instead, the story the Evangelist tells, is told through God’s eyes. A story about us, about the people who were there, who could have been us. All the text says is – there they crucified Jesus with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
The 2nd verse of the text, is footnoted. It’s one of those verses that isn’t found in the very earliest manuscripts, and therefore may not have been original. And yet, it is there today because, I think, even if it was inserted years later, it just seems to fit, it seems to apply – If you know the whole gospel story, that is, and particularly how this crucifixion scene ends! When Jesus is crucified between the two criminals, Jesus says, in the 2nd verse, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” As he is being nailed to the cross, Jesus is merciful.
There are then three instances of mocking Jesus on the cross, one after the other. First it is the leaders of Jerusalem. The scoff at him saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” Then it’s the soldiers turn. They mock him by offering him sour wine, and say, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” And Luke then points out, to us, the readers, that, “there was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’”
And thirdly, as the circle of accusers closes in on Jesus, one of the criminals on the cross right next to Jesus keeps blaspheming and mocking him, finally saying, “are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
The irony hangs heavy in the air, as we understand the titles of Messiah, and King of the Jews, which his accusers use against Jesus, are really the titles we believe best describe our Savior. What kind of a leader and Savior is Jesus?
It is the other criminal, finally, who stands up for Jesus – and, speaks for us. “Do you not fear God,” the 2nd criminal says to the first, “since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” He is innocent.
Yes! He gets it! Jesus has been, and always will, stand with the innocently accused, and exposes the powerful ones who exploit God’s world, for their own personal gain. This place of the Skull, this place of state sanctioned death, doesn’t have to kill and control through terror and fear. That is a choice we make. And, in fact it’s not the state of things, as God ordains it, not the laws God commands.
But never has this story, long repeated by the rich and powerful, been told from the perspective of the innocent one, the Messiah, the King of the Jews! Now, Jesus tells us a new story about leadership. Victory is mine, sayeth the LORD!
And finally, the second criminal, hanging from his cross, addresses the Savior on his, without any mocking title, using only his name. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Is this plea a confession? We don’t know what he was convicted for, anyway. But Jesus doesn’t hesitate. He answers much quicker even than the state of Georgia had time for, in deciding the fate of Kelly Gessendaner. “Truly I tell you,” says Jesus, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” The common Jewish expression, Paradise, signified for the righteous, a realm of eternal bliss after death, in the presence of God.
From the place of the Skull, there is a forgiveness and mercy that is created for God’s world by Jesus, that is wider than an ocean. Jesus himself, ‘passes’ on saving himself, because it is through the cross, that salvation is accomplished for us and God’s creation. The skull, the cross, and death itself, are conquered, and a way out of slavery and oppression, is revealed. The innocent one writes a new story, which the four evangelists, and all Jesus’ followers, tell. We find our life, and our salvation in the crucified-innocent one.
At Golgotha, Jesus offers a radically different vision of leadership than what we all too often see in the public realm, then and now – leadership, beyond lies and bullying! No more “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Now we see through the eyes of our Savior and LORD. Let us testify to the life that rises from the skull and specter of death, that Jesus, even at Golgotha, is Christ the King.