Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig on Luke 23:33-43 & Colossians 1:11-20
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[SLIDE #1–Crucifixion and Resurrection]
The last day of the church year before we enter another cycle beginning with Advent is called Christ the King Sunday. It’s strange to celebrate that Jesus rules the world with truth and grace while being reminded of his arrest, trial and execution–the Son of Humanity is crucified as a criminal, an enemy of the state.
[SLIDE #2–VA incarceration rates] In the state of VA there were 70,000 people incarcerated in 2018. That’s more than the population of the whole city of Harrisonburg. VA is one of three states that permanently disenfranchised people for a felony conviction. After a felony is on your record, you’re not allowed to vote ever again unless the governor gives you your rights back. Anyone born in 1980? Approaching the big 4-0? In your life time the number of women incarcerated in VA has risen exponentially–not 100%, not 500%, but by 930%. Across the country, women are the fastest growing population of persons in jail or prison. And we know that the criminal legal system in the United States disproportionately uses incarceration, fines, and surveillance against people of color, perpetuating the violence of systemic racism.
[SLIDE #3–SJB] Our scriptures for this morning ironically proclaim the universal transcendent Christ–the image of the invisible God whose power exceeds that of every system, government, network, empire or nation, who is the very wisdom and logic through whom all things were made, who is the fullness of God and who was crucified under a discriminatory criminal legal system in the first century.
[SLIDE #4–Saura, Crucifixion] Jesus hangs with criminals. Jesus literally hangs on a Roman cross with persons labeled criminal. The title of this sermon in the bulletin is Who have we made king in our lives? In case you have to leave early or get distracted, I’ll just tell you up front that if it’s not Jesus Christ, then we’re serving a false power.
[SLIDE #5] The inscription read: This is the king of the Jews. Luke 23 is the lowest point of the gospel story, when Jesus is being killed, slowly by crucifixion. And so if we belong to Christ, then we too are present to our own suffering and we belong to the suffering of those beside us. If we’re nowhere near the suffering of the least in society, then we need to relocate because we’ve lost track of Jesus and have to go find him. Jesus hangs with those labeled criminal.
In Jesus’ day, the Roman Emperor Tiberius surely seemed to be the most powerful person in the world. As emperor, he was more than just an individual with a role. Major leaders like emperors or corporate CEOs or gatekeepers of any kind, both concentrate power and project power beyond their individual capacities. Within the Roman Empire, Jewish people had a dangerous view of political power because their originating story was one of being rescued from the overreaching power of empire. Their originating story, our salvation story–God interrupts SIN in the form of empire. In a liberation initiative that wins God international fame for centuries, God intervenes on behalf of those most harmed by Egypt’s deathly power, the enslaved Hebrew people.
By the first century, the relevant memory of Israel’s originating story was fading, so Jesus came to re-mind them, to personally show and tell the extent of God’s rescue mission–not only in the past, but in the present. That’s why Jesus went to the cross. He made himself an object lesson in sacrificial love for the sake of saving others.
In the Gospel of Luke the whole passion story, but especially the part we heard this morning highlights Jesus’ sharing in humanity’s suffering. From the cross we overhear a conversation among dying men. Jesus holds out hope to the one beside him–a man who only knows the justice of retribution and sees himself deserving death. Yet in the presence of Jesus, this same man believes that there is another kingdom, another justice, ordained by God and available to him. He says: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And Love says: Today, you will be with me in Paradise.
Jesus and both of these men crucified with him received the death penalty. [SLIDE #6–VA map] The state of VA is second only to Texas in the number of persons executed in the modern era, although only 35% of our political jurisdictions have executed someone since 1976. Today–or soon–we have the opportunity to abolish the death penalty. The 2020 legislative session will likely pass a bill to exempt the severely mentally ill from death penalty sentences. And Governor Northam has said that if a bill to abolish the death penalty reaches his desk, he’ll sign it into law. Now Mennonite Christian ethics opposes the death penalty, because we follow Jesus, because we have put away the sword, and because we have been charged with a ministry of reconciliation as peacemakers in the world in the name of Jesus, himself a victim of the death penalty. Our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective reads: “Led by the Spirit, and beginning in the church, we witness to all people that violence is not the will of God. We witness against all forms of violence, including…and capital punishment.” We don’t usually think about having much influence over these matters, but for the lives of Anthony Juniper and Thomas Porter our two remaining Virginians on death row today, we have some Christlike responsibility. You may have heard that on Thursday there was a major press conference in VA in which murder victim family members publicly opposed the death penalty, and expressed their desire for alternatives to this evil business of killing people.
[SLIDE #7–execution and salvation] We can’t be reminded of and by Jesus’ crucifxion without reflecting on where we are today as Christ-followers with respect to criminalization and the death penalty. For the rest of this sermon, we’re looking into the personal and collective meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The cross is about Roman torture and execution. And the cross belongs to a larger story that culminates in the resurrection and reign of Jesus as God’s salvation for the world.
[SLIDE #8] Salvation means a rescue. In Colossians we read that God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of Christ, the Beloved. Now that rescue takes different forms depending on our conditions. If you’re being rescued from a house fire it takes different emergency measures than if you’re being rescued from drowning. But both rescue teams are there to save your life. And God–in three persons–is our rescue team.
God rescues us from the power of sin in the form of human enemies. If you’ve been beaten up, then you know what it is to have a human enemy. If you’ve been abused, then you know about human enemies. If you’ve suffered in these ways, then even when the immediate danger and threat is passed, the power of that enemy may still keep you living in fear. We also need rescue from demonic power–on the personal or the corporate level. If you’ve had experience with addiction, if you’re part of an oppressed group, you know how much we need rescue from powers beyond ourselves. Often the rescue we need is from illness–physical and mental illness. Salvation is also simply rescue from sin. Sin, of course, is the bad things we do, or the good we fail to do, as well as the bad conditions of our world that are beyond our individual influence. In fact, all of these reasons for needing rescue–enemies, death, demonic power, disease, can be described with the word sin. We know that God doesn’t eliminate these bad things–look at the world–but in Jesus Christ sin’s power over our lives is broken. In the light of Christ we see the power of SIN for what it is and we can see ourselves for who we are–beloved children who belong to the kingdom of God, not the kingdoms of the world.
[SLIDE #9] When sin is like bondage or slavery to false powers, then salvation is freedom. This is the Exodus story, right? This is Harriet Tubman’s theology, right? Freedom is being redeemed from bondage, or being ransomed from slavery to Satan, the quintessential false power. If anyone or anything is king in our life other than Jesus Christ, we’re subject to false power and we need to be set free by Jesus. If you’re always rooting for the underdog, then this is likely a way in which God’s rescue works in your life. God pays a ransom with the life of Christ and then steals it back again in resurrection. The apparent loser, triumphs in the end. We too can win freedom.
[SLIDE #10] When sin results in death or powerlessness, then Christian salvation is described as new life, new birth, new creation. This is what our faith ancestors the Anabaptists referred to as regeneration. They experienced the Spirit of Christ dealing with their dead, wooden, powerless religious forms and giving them new life. This kind of rescue gives us hope in the face of physical death. That’s why those Anabaptists were often martyred singing praise and giving testimonies of faith. The power of sin and death does not have the last word. Our lives can be raised up with Christ in a resurrection like his. Do you believe that? If so, that’s because God is addressing the death and powerlessness that you sometimes experience. God is saving you.
[SLIDE 11] So, when the power of sin is described as uncleanness or taboo, then salvation–God’s rescue–is understood as washing with water or even being purged with blood. The end of our Colossians passage says: God makes peace through the blood of Christ’s cross. Anyone who has dealt with shame might find this image of salvation connects their own life to the life of Christ. Rather than being excluded and rejected, we’re saved and accepted us.
This experience of salvation as being truly cleansed from the stain of sin is the power of divine hospitality–to clean us up and deck us out for celebration.
[SLIDE 12] Another way we experience sin is rebellion against God. If sin is rebellion, then God’s rescue, God’s salvation for our lives, turns us around, and gives us a new path. Some of us grew up with conversion or change of direction as the only image of salvation and it didn’t entirely fit our lived experience because not all of us were outright rebels against God. But let me remind you that some of us need this kind of divine rescue. And whatever it takes, God is coming our way with rescue. If you’re mostly living life for yourself and exercising power over others, then you need to be turned around and get on a path of self-giving love. If you’re wasting your spiritual energy not paying attention to God, then conversion is the way you will experience God’s salvation most deeply. When you turn around you’ll be on a narrow path that leads home to God.
[SLIDE #13] Here’s another picture of sin and salvation. When sin is hostility or estrangement, then God’s salvation is reconciliation and loving relationship. You know, some of us feel alone in the world. When our suffering is hostility or estrangement, it’s often an expression of profound losses in our lives. With those of us who are angry or lonely–not just in the moment, but in life more generally–the Lord is patient. The church is to be a community of patient, loving kindness. We know that prejudice and division is not just personal, but collective. We accept that some will be hostile to one another or to the good news. Present to the pain, we discover God with us.
[SLIDE #14] Another reason we need salvation is that some of us are racked with guilt. We think we know what’s right, but we’ve not done it. We think we know what’s wrong, but we’ve done it anyway. When sin is the heavy experience of guilt, then salvation is forgiveness. You know, the God who created the universe, certainly has the power to forgive. Forgiveness as a form of divine rescue from sin can also be described as being justified–debts paid, sins forgiven. If you’re a person whose wants the world to be right–if you hunger and thirst for righteousness–then you might also be profoundly disappointed in yourself or your community because you haven’t always been right. Jesus speaks to you from the cross–the cross that stands for everything that’s wrong in the world–your sins included–and Jesus says, Father forgive them, for they do not know. We know a lot, but not enough to keep ourselves and our communities free from sin. So we need forgiveness, from God and from one another to keep our covenant of faithfulness.
[SLIDE #15] Here’s another way we Christians understand the human condition. When sin results in illness or death–and by that I mean physical death and spiritual death–God heals us and gives us eternal life. If you are in touch with trauma–your own or secondary trauma–then you may best experience God’s salvation in terms of healing and receiving God’s kingdom as an abundant life. The life God is giving us is full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. And we can share in this abundant life here and now as well as beyond the grave. God does not eliminate trauma and sin, but their power is not absolute. We can experience healing and abundant life in Christ.
[SLIDE #16] When sin is fragmentation and confusion, then salvation is coherence, wholeness and meaningful identity. As Christians we have more than ideas about sin and salvation, we have a God who comes to us as a person. Jesus’ world was confused about power and God’s salvation. Jesus’ body was broken for us. Yet, Jesus was not confused. He shared with those whom he loved, who would listen with their ears and their hearts, the truth about worldly power and the truth about God’s power of love. He lived an undivided life. I love that line in Colossians: In him all things hold together.
[SLIDE #17] Who have we made king in our lives? How has the power of sin taken hold or taken over in our lives? Perhaps the simpler question is: Do we need Jesus? If we are present to our own suffering and if we recognize the suffering of those beside us–even when it takes a different form from our own, we will see Jesus. He is always with us making peace. Do we need Jesus? My answer is yes and day-by-day and today we will be with him in Paradise.
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