It’s been a while since writing, after a delightful two-week vacation with family in beautiful Cape Town and then two weeks of catching up with ministry back home. Here goes…
In my last blog we addressed the matter of ‘numbering’ among kingdom citizens without ‘membership’ of the kingdom of Christ. We noted how Judas Iscariot ‘numbered’ among the Twelve but never really ‘belonged’ to the Twelve and the Master of the Twelve (Lk. 22). Essentially, he was disappointed in Jesus’ messiahship. He was looking for something nationalistic, political and material. He didn’t want to be found backing a ‘loser’ – he wanted to be associated with a ‘winner.’ [another false gospel of our time]
By contrast we noted a well-off institutional man, Joseph of Arimethea, beginning to grasp the fact that there was something more to Jesus and his kingdom message (Lk. 23:50ff). Hence he asked for Jesus’ body in order to give the King of the Jews an honourable burial in a decent tomb. Luke described Joseph as ‘a man of good heart and good character. He had not gone along with the plans and actions of the council. His hometown was the Jewish village of Arimathea. He lived in alert expectation of the kingdom of God’ (MSG).
Somehow I missed another unexpected kingdom seeker in Luke’s passion story. We come across him in Lk. 22:39-43, “One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed him: ‘Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!’ But the other one made him shut up: ‘Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him – he did nothing to deserve this.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise.'”
Who would have expected such understanding (admittedly limited) and such empathy with his crucified neighbour from a common thief? Maybe we are surpised, but God never was, nor his Son Jesus. As Anglican theologian Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out, the penitent criminal asks in the spirit of Israel’s prayers in the Psalter, he asks as one believing that his strange neighbour, undergoing the same crucifixion, is capable of fulfilling his desperate request. This thief asks to be remembered because he recognizes the One who can remember. This humble man is able to see and acknowledge that Jesus is indeed ‘King of the Jews,’ come to redeem Israel. Maybe he was familiar with the odd psalm and recalled Israel’s prayer in Ps. 42:11, ‘Why are you so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.’ In the last analysis he backed a ‘winner,’ when most (including Israel) considered Jesus a hopeless ‘loser.’
Jesus’ kingdom, his sovereign reign over the universe and in this world threatens all the kingdoms of this world. So many think our world leaders have the answer, some brilliant politician or social reformer. Others think Mammon can deliver the deal. Others are so caught up with themselves that they look within and traipse off to India or Tibet. Many live by the saying ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die!’ Other multitudes, possibly millions, have some or other link with Christendom or the visible, institutional Church, while they have never belonged to Jesus and his body on earth. They have never understood the call to incarnate the Christ among lost humankind and pray daily ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Mt. 6:10). They know nothing of death to self and life in Christ: long ago Keswick speaker lan Redpath reminded the Church that before we can pray ‘Thy kingdom come,’ we must be willing to pray ‘My kingdom go.’
Hauerwas reminds us that to be with Jesus, to be claimed by Jesus as a friend, is paradise, the autobasileia, the kingdom of the crucified!
For those others who insist, like so many do today in the name of Christ, that it’s all about getting your doctrine and theology ‘spot on’ (I am one of those who constantly pleads for a biblical theology and good biblical teaching), how could we ever think we need to know more than this repentant thief in order to be part of the kingdom? The only remembering that matters is to be remembered by Jesus!
[When next we ‘break bread in remembrance’ of Jesus, let’s remember this and be thankful!]