33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 [Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" 38 There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews." 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." 42 Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 43 He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
Today’s Gospel lesson feels a bit out of place. After all, it’s Christ the King Sunday – should be a celebration, right? But instead we get the passion story of Jesus, King of the Jews, on a cross. But it’s not a mistake.
In Luke, “Jesus is King” is proclaimed by surprising sources. The Romans placed the inscription “This is the King of the Jews” over Jesus head – not as a statement of faith – but as a warning and a mockery. One bandit also mocks Jesus saying, “IF you are the King of the Jews, save yourself – and us!”
And Jesus does. Jesus saves. But not by calling down fire from heaven, or using supernatural powers to free himself and the bandits. Instead, Jesus prays for his enemies, forgives those who have persecuted him and, in response to the bandit who somehow knows that Jesus is not only innocent but also is indeed the Son of God, Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Today. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, we hear the proclamation of the saving act of God. The angels declared to the shepherds, “ to you is born this day, TODAY, in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And throughout the Gospel Jesus proclaims health, healing, hope and salvation to lepers, blind, crippled men and women not for some future time… but “today”.
And so, the story of Jesus praying, forgiving and saving is current – the message is for TODAY.
The challenge for us is Luther’s question: “What does this mean?”
Well… as Woody Allen once said, “eighty percent of life is showing up.”
In today’s Gospel, Luke shares that as the leaders are scoffing and the soldiers are casting lots for Jesus’ clothing, “the people stood by, watching.” Later, after Jesus’ death, Luke also reports that not only did the people mourn, “But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” Certainly they felt pretty helpless. There was nothing that they could “do” to stop the crucifixion… but while the disciples went into hiding, these ordinary people showed up. And because they did – they knew where to find Jesus after the resurrection.
Showing up may be the first step in discipleship.
Showing up isn’t always easy. When I agreed to be a police chaplain, Police Chief Franzen warned me – it’s never convenient. It’s often an interruption. But it is deeply appreciated by the families and the officers when a chaplain comes. He’s right. It’s rarely convenient – especially when it happens in the wee hours of the morning. But when I answer a police call, I am a physical reminder that Christ is present. I bring the Word of God. I pray. But mostly – it’s just about showing up.
Just showing up. It doesn’t seem like much. But when Philando Castile died, people gathered at Luther Seminary and at a church in St. Paul to pray, to light candles, to be present together. It didn’t “do” anything – but somehow it was important to just “show up.”
The week after the police officers were shot in Dallas, Texas, I had a routine Police Chaplain meeting scheduled. It was a busy week – but I was glad I went because I was the only chaplain who showed up. Police officers are pretty tough crew and don’t like to let anything under their skin – that’s their training. So they didn’t share too much about the fact that other police officers had been targeted. They just shook their heads and complained of their frustration at not being able to hire good cops. 100 applicants for 2 positions… and they were only able to hire one. Again – I didn’t do anything remarkable – but it was important to just “show up” and listen.
Pastor Morrie Wee - the former pastor at Advent Lutheran – has just returned from a year in Germany as an exchange pastor. He reminded me of the story of Nikolas church in Leipzig – another story of people just showing up.
Leipzig is in Eastern Germany. During the cold war, the city suffered – as all Eastern Germany cities did – from the repression of freedom, the spying by the “Stasi” the military police who encouraged and paid neighbors to spy on and rat on neighbors and the suppression of Christianity. Professed Christians did not get good jobs and Christian youth were not allowed to attend universities. Not surprisingly, the percentage of Christians dropped to being only about 14% of the population.
Despite this, a group gathered at Nikolai church for prayer for peace every Sunday night. They prayed and lit candles. At one point the group dwindled to 5 people – and three of them were pastors. At that point, one of them said, “What’s the point?! This is useless.” But another said, “No, this is what we should do. I’m going to continue – even if I’m all alone.” So they kept praying. They kept showing up. They did this for years.
Then one day, in 1986, when the peace movement was getting active, the government declared that people could no longer gather together. But… they did not extend this prohibition to going church.
Word spread that people were welcome at Nikolai church at the peace prayers. People came. Prayers for peace continued, more candles were lit, and the peace activists met in the back pew as prayers filled the sanctuary. At first the atheist leaders did not feel at all threatened by people lighting candles. They assumed there was no power in prayer. When they figured out what people were doing, they tried to infiltrate the church – they sent their officers to sit in all the pews. But the people came anyway – and lit candles and prayed. The numbers grew. Night after night the numbers kept multiplying until the numbers were so large that it equaled the population of the city. The leaders finally told their soldiers to shoot at any disturbance. But the soldiers recognized their neighbors – and did not shoot. The leaders called it a miracle. And they don’t use that word lightly. But it started with disciples, followers of Jesus, just showing up, praying, and lighting a candle.
Today German Christians are again gathering for prayer and lighting candles. This time it is in reaction to an anti-migrant, anti-Muslim group that is promoting hate speech. Every time that the hate group marches – the Christian peace group marches, peacefully, holding candles – just so that the world, through the media, can see that there is another voice, another option than hate.
It began as just showing up so that another way other than hate and exclusion could be offered. But now this group is inviting people of good will to take a simple action: “light a candle and put it in your window every Sunday evening as a sign of humanity in our country.”
This invitation reminded me of our baptismal charge, “Let your light so shine that others may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” It also made me wonder: maybe this sign of peace and love for all of humanity doesn’t have to be limited to Germany. There is too much hatred and exclusion in our country. Churches should not have graffiti sprayed on them because they have black or gay parishioners, black mothers should not fear for their sons every night and police should not be targeted when they are doing their jobs protecting the people; God’s children should be able to live together in peace. And so…tonight, there will be a light in my window and I will say a prayer of peace and care for all people in our country and around the world. I invite you to do the same.
After all, if a little prayer and five candles could be the beginning of the end of the Wall in Berlin – what could happen now if we light a candle and join our prayers to others for Christ’s love and forgiveness and blessing for all of humanity?
I’m glad you showed up today because you never know what impact “just showing up” can have. After all, your showing up allows you to hear again the Good News of Jesus. Your showing up bears witness to the truth. Your showing up encourages your neighbor in the next pew who may be hurting. And, finally, showing up allows you to receive Christ’s blessing.
Faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: May Jesus Christ our King bless you and keep you and encourage you to show up to bear witness as shining lights proclaiming the love of Christ. In Jesus’ name.