Sermon: Canon Historian Jon Meacham
“Then he said, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Please.
The core of Christianity, the core of the faith that binds us together in this place, at this hour, is counterintuitive. In symbols and in substance, in word and in deed, in heart and in mind. We are called to profess a faith in which the ordinary realities of the world are reversed. The last shall be first. Out of chaos will come order. Out of death, life. It was this way from the beginning or even before the beginning. For at first we are told there was darkness. Only when the Lord said. “Let there be light”, was their light. And as we have just heard in the gospel, it was this way to the end. Or at least to what was supposed to be the end, on the cross at Golgotha.
Called upon to marshal armies and exert power to save himself, Jesus refuses. So what kind of a king is that? Not the kind we tend to think of. The nature of a fallen world offers the strong and the ambitious, plenty of room, plenty of opportunity, to amass and maintain power. Jesus is not that sort of king, and neither is God the Father. The Christian order is different from the mortal order. The order that is commemorated here is different from the order that unfolds below this hill in a capital city. This is not, to be sure, a universally shared perspective. History, including American history, including unfolding American history, is full of examples of temporal forces marshaling religion. Not as a tool of redemption and of mercy, but of repression and of might.
But that I submit is a fundamental misunderstanding of the faith that has brought you here on this chilly morning. So let’s be clear. We are not gathered here to pray for dominion over, or the death of, those who might disagree with us. We are not here to pray for vengeance or victory at any cost. We are not here to plot assaults, literal or figurative, on institutions or peoples we may dislike or disdain. No, we are gathered here to serve a different kind of king. A king for whom love is more important than hate. For whom right is more important than might, for whom light is more important than shadow.
And he is a king who died, whose reign begins where all else ends. It is a reversal. It is counterintuitive. And an inescapable element of the faith in that story, the motive force of Christianity, is that we are to follow as best we can, the commandment to love one another as he loved us. Nothing is more difficult. I don’t particularly want to love my neighbor as myself. I like my neighbor fine, but love, nah, I’m good. Thank you. That’s from the King James version. “Nah, I’m good.” The Dean is currently rethinking his invitation. Love however lies at the heart of the faith and nothing’s more difficult. In Leviticus, the commandment to love thy neighbor first appears. Jesus would not have had to command us to love our neighbor if all of us had been busy loving our neighbor. You don’t put up speed limit signs if everybody drives safely.
The heart of the faith, the heart of the life, of our religion, and of our state at its best, lies in the call of the insurgent in today’s gospel. The word is translated as criminal, sometimes in the old versions, it was thief. A more accurate version is insurgent. There had been a political insurrection in Jerusalem in around the year 33. Those two men who were crucified with Jesus, we believe, were part of that insurrection. So insurgent is the right word. But what does that insurgent call upon? Call for in extremity, in the last instance? Not for temporal power. He calls for, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Remember me. Who among us has not felt the way that condemned man felt, desperate, alone, dying, hungry for assurance, gasping for breath? Asphyxiation was how you died in crucifixion and pleading to be remembered. I know I felt that way. I probably will again sometime before lunch.
And I’d suggest that the figure most worth our contemplation for a moment this morning is not Christ the King, whose feast we commemorate, but the dying sinner, the dying insurrectionist next to him. Not the monarch but the subject, not the figure on the throne destined for clouds of glory and for resurrection. But the writhing, pitiful, guilty supplicant asking for mercy from the Lord whom he knew had done nothing wrong. And the mercy comes. “Today,” Jesus says, “you will be with me in paradise.” The forgiveness of that insurrectionist underscores the mystery and the majesty of Jesus’ love. And if we’re being honest, and we should be, the absolute inscrutability of the faith. If we’re being honest, not all of us are all that comfortable with inscrutability. Most of us prefer certainty to uncertainty, clarity to riddles. And we like to think that if we don’t have all the answers, we at least have more answers than the other person.
There’s an old story about a minister who met a friend, old friend from college, who had become a member of a different denomination. And the pastor and his old classmate discussed their different religions, the differences between their creeds, and it was a wonderful lesson in tolerance and forbearance. And as they were parting, the pastor said to his friend, “Yes, we do both worship the same God, you in your way and I in His.” So, if anything, the account of Jesus’ redemption of the criminal at Golgotha should give anyone pause before claiming they understand everything about him. “Truly, I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.” These words of Jesus mark the culmination of his public ministry with the proclamation of a kingdom in which good shall be wrought from evil, in which the sinful shall be redeemed, and in which the condemned shall be made whole.
It is the proclamation, in other words, of a new kingdom. A kingdom that’s not a fairy land. It’s not simply a place of myth, but a kingdom in which we are citizens, and which acknowledges the inevitability of historical crisis and affirms the ultimate hope. It’s a kingdom that’s about enduring in the confidence that what we have been promised, that the gates of hell will not finally prevail, is true. And what’s true in the kingdom of our faith, that we ought to love one another, as others, is also true in the life of the country. Now, religion and politics have the most complex of histories. But they are inextricably linked for both are about the human enterprise. I worry when I talk about politics and religion partly because of the old story about President Eisenhower who came in, he opened every cabinet meeting with a prayer. And he came in once during the Suez crisis and immediately jumped into the business and about 20 minutes later he looked up and he said, “Jesus Christ, we forgot the damn prayer.”
But we are enjoined by the psalmist not to put our trust in princes. And the New Testament teaches us that all nations are of one blood. In a few moments, you will sing in the great hymn that “Jesus, out of every nation have redeemed us by his blood.” Out of every nation. The duty of the Christian is not to force one’s belief on anyone else, but to bear witness as best we can, by living in as close in accord as possible with the gospel of love. And because we are called to do that, a democracy which is the fullest manifestation of all of us, which is at once thrilling and terrifying, it’s thrilling because it means we can make a difference. Our habits of heart and mind matter enormously. And it’s terrifying because, oh my God, it’s up to us. We matter.
Democracy is forever vulnerable. It is as vulnerable as we are to sin and appetite and ambition. And yet goodness is possible. And that’s what democracy is. It’s forever possible if we heed the lessons of our faith and of our history. And heeding those lessons is incredibly difficult. But the beginning of the way forward, the beginning of the heeding toward that kingdom lies in the prayer of the insurrectionist, “Jesus, remember me.” May we also remember Jesus. And in so doing, perhaps light can be shed, love encountered, hope realized, and that the kingdom for which we so often pray may in fact come. And that heaven and earth, sinners and saints, the lost and the faithful, may be one.