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Luke 23:33-43

Jesus’ last words sputtered while hanging on the device of roman capital punishment, the cross, reveal the depths of God’s love:

“Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (verse 34) “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (verse 43).  

Those words must have shifted something inside the criminals hanging next to him, as they do us today. One responded in doubtful bitterness, the other in humble repentance.

The Word Incarnate’s final utterance, according to the Lucan gospel, was forgiveness and inclusion. Jesus’ prayer from the cross and declaration to the criminals beside him say something to us today, about the Reign of Christ the King. He was mocked as the King of the Jews by onlookers, however his Kingship is found in the upside-down Reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus refused the derision of those who mocked, rebuked and challenged him to “save himself.” For the gospel writer Luke, Jesus’ purpose while he was alive or enduring a brutally unjust death was not to save himself, but to pioneer the path back to right relationship with God all over again. Jesus’ majesty was in humility, not in coercive power. He “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”[1]

The condemned criminals illustrate the two kinds of people in this world: the repentant and the scoffers. When the derisive criminal mocks Jesus and challenges him to save himself along with the two condemned at his side, the contrite criminal rebukes him. When the humble criminal asks Jesus for entrance into his kingdom, Jesus graciously grants him his request. Jesus began his ministry proclaiming good news to the poor and release to the captives, he ends it by extending assurance of salvation to two dying people who embody impoverished captivity.

What if Jesus was including both criminals in his prophetic invitation to paradise? What if both the repentant and the scoffing criminals were found in God’s paradise that very day? Jesus’ Kingship is rooted in forgiveness and inclusion. We so badly want to judge who gets in and whose penalty is being left out of God’s paradise. But over and over in the gospels, especially Luke, we are challenged to comprehend the extravagance of God’s grace. The prodigal father extends forgiveness to the son who rejected him and wasted his inheritance. Jesus admonishes anyone who prepares a feast that is unattended by the wealthy to fling open the doors to the poor, blind and lame. In his own death, Jesus extends forgiveness to those who are carrying out his murder. According to Luke: It is not the death itself that effects forgiveness of sins, but reception of Jesus’ revelation that God’s character is forgiving without bounds.

The expectations of the onlookers to the crucifixion, along with Jesus’ fellow condemned are turned upside down by Jesus. They expect Jesus’ to display power through dominance, coercion and over-turning the present circumstances. Instead, he is powerful in endless grace, transformative forgiveness and the inclusion of even the condemned in eternal life.

Theologian Karl Barth writes a sermon, “The Criminals With Him,”[2] and in it makes a stunning claim about Luke 23:33. “When the dying Jesus promises, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise,’ he is making this promise not only to the criminal who respects and advocates for him, but also to the one who derides and seemingly rejects him.”[3] John Wesley ponders the same in his notes on the Bible, “And how eminently was his prayer [for the Father’s forgiveness] heard! It procured forgiveness for all that were penitent, and a suspension of vengeance even for the impenitent… This shows the power of Divine grace. [The] conversion was designed to put a peculiar glory on our Savior in his lowest state, while his enemies derided him, and his own disciples either denied or forsook him”[4] (emphasis mine).

Christ Crucified. It is central truth to the Christian faith. It is a stark picture of a God who “enters into a world of crass injustice and brutality to reconcile all things and reinstitute the harmony originally intended for the universe.”[5] The harmony we long for on this earth is fragmented, fragile and failing — a reality only magnified by the image Luke offers of Jesus nailed to a cross. But what if Jesus was including both criminals in his prophetic invitation to paradise? What if, like Barth and Wesley imply, they were the very first Christian community, gathered by Divine grace? How would this transform our understanding of Christian discipleship?

The onlookers questioned Jesus’ identity as Messiah, because their expectations for what a Messiah would look be like and o did not align with a dying man hung on a cross. The Real Messiah has been revealed over and over and over again: offering forgiveness, extending inclusion and sending the Comforter to empower each of us to do the same. The Real Messiah emptied himself of all but love, took the form of a slave, was born a helpless, entirely dependent and vulnerable human being. And having grown in wisdom and stature as fully human and fully divine, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross. The Real Messiah broke bread with humble and derisive people, drank water at the well with unmarried Samaritans, dined with tax-collectors, touched the sick and reviled, knelt and washed the feet of his disciples, hung on a roman cross next to criminals — all the while offering forgiveness and extending inclusion.

“Jesus enthroned on the cross rejects coercive power for the persuasive power of divine love.”[6] Jesus’ majesty is not found in pomp and circumstance and gold-plated palaces: Jesus’ majesty is found among the lowest, humblest and least likely to be included in the gift of paradise. This king does not save himself, but saves those in desperate need of restoration and restitution. This king does not meet evil with evil but replays evil with good. This king forgives the very people who do not know the extent of their own evil selfishness. This king shifts the hearts of the criminally condemned and dying. This king includes the criminals beside him in the gift of paradise with immediate entrance into God’s never-ending grace.

This is Christianity. This is who we worship on Christ the King Sunday. This is the mercy extended to us today. This is the good news for this moment: forgiveness and inclusion that is ours for the asking, receiving and giving away. [1] Philippians 2:6b-8 [2] Collection of Barth’s sermons, “Deliverance to the Captives” (most recently republished by Wipf & Stock) [3] Unpublished essay, Cynthia L. Rigby, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, November 2015,  [4] John Wesley’s notes on the Bible,, Accessed 10.8.2016. [5] Russell Pregeant, essay on Christ the King Sunday – November 25th, 2007, Accessed 10/8/16. [6] Paul S. Nancarrow, essay on Christ the King Sunday, November 21st, 2004,, Accessed 10/8/16