No passage has caused more debate and more hurt feelings in my pastoral experience than the last verse of this text. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”? Some say, “Aha! Proof we go straight to heaven!” Others—those with a sarcasm level of Pastor Tim or higher—ask, “Didn’t Jesus descend to hell after he died?” On balance, the Bible prefers to speak of the dead being dead for now, with a resurrection being emphasized in the New Testament. That’s usually my answer, and it never leaves anyone happy. (I am to disappoint.) An angle inspired by Fred Niedner, at VU, turns on “Paradise,” the word the Greek Old Testament used for “The Garden of Eden.” It’s a loan word from Persian, which means “garden” or “forest.” In a world where water was scarce and desert abundant, a garden sounded good to just about anyone. Persian words make their way into Hebrew and Greek following the Persian King Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon. While none of the texts today speak of that event, I think that if we want to understand this text on this Christ the King Sunday 2016, we would benefit from considering Persia and Cyrus.
Cyrus has struck again. You may ask how. We live in bubbles, and unless your bubble includes Evangelical news and blogs you probably missed it. According to a large percentage of Evangelicals, Cyrus won the presidential election. Evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. Many liberals, Christians and non-Christians alike, could not from their liberal bubbles figure out why. There are certain aspects of Trump’s life that usually are immediate deal breakers for Evangelicals, such as his multiple marriages and admitted affairs, his statements about women and minorities, and his history of fairly progressive positions on gay rights and abortion. How can Evangelicals support him?
Well, in Evangelical bubbles, Donald Trump is Cyrus. In Isaiah 45, God calls Cyrus “God’s anointed,” or, “God’s Messiah.” It’s revolutionary to call a conquering pagan king God’s chosen or anointed. But God says God is using Cyrus to defeat Babylon. This will enable the exiles to return to Jerusalem and live free from oppression. Skip ahead 2500 years. The argument went like this. Please note: I am summarizing this position; I am not endorsing any part of it. Nor am I ascribing it to you if you voted for Trump. The argument goes: Evangelicals are troubled by Donald Trump regarding a host of issues I already mentioned. But, Trump emerged as the GOP candidate, the only one who could stop Clinton. Clinton is from a party that (sometimes) extends rights to the LGBT community, allows legal abortions, opposes mandatory prayer in schools, and so on. So God anointed Trump. Trump might be godless, but he will destroy those who have made America godless, thus giving our nation a chance to rebuild on its Christian foundations. The wealth of nations shall come over to us and be ours, says the Lord through Isaiah, and the nations shall come to us in chains. So the argument goes
If you don’t believe me, Google “Trump Cyrus”. Filter out the ones about Miley Cyrus. There are a lot. This was the story making the rounds in Evangelical bubbles.
Cyrus presents a typical vision of kingship. The Greek historian Herodotus ascribes to him a miraculous birth. Cyrus united his people in opposition to Babylon, and rapidly conquered everything Babylon ruled. By his death, Cyrus had taken by the sword the largest empire the world had ever seen. That is not the kingship model for Christians, though. I cannot pin my salvation on Cyrus. My king is not Cyrus, but Jesus. Could Jesus in today’s gospel be more different from Cyrus? Here is our King, crucified. Instead of crushing the world so that we can go about our business, beating up our enemies so we can get back to whatever we want to do, he takes on the sin of the world and makes the cross on which he hung our holy possession.
Martin Luther writes in his 1539 essay On the Councils and the Church, that the “holy possession of the cross” is an identifying “mark of the church.” In contemporary discourse, we would call this “solidarity with the suffering.” That helps us get an idea of what Luther means, but it is important to remember the cross. Otherwise, we might misunderstand. If we just say “suffering” is Christian, we may be tempted to think horrible things, like, “God gave me painful cancer.” No, God doesn’t make you sick. Or we may think, “God wants me to stay in an abusive relationship.” No, that’s not it either. Or we may be tempted to think that anything that bothers us is proof of our righteousness. Like, I don’t like the color of Starbucks’ holiday cup, so I’m suffering for Jesus. No. The “cross” which is in our “holy possession” is the cross at the center of today’s gospel.
The cross is Jesus’ act of solidarity. He’s crucified with two criminals. He is not a criminal, and not deserving of death, but chooses to be with them. The crowds taunt, “He saved others! Let him save himself!” He says, “No, I belong here.” Jesus embeds himself in a horrible situation. Nothing can justify crucifixion, so since it is happening here Jesus will submit to it himself. Crucifixion is Rome’s ultimate death by torture, a mark of Roman dominance. The sign above Jesus says, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” but the three crosses posted together by the gates at Passover say, “It’d be a pity if you ruined Passover like these guys tried to.” By allowing himself to be crucified, Jesus says, “If you’re going to treat people this way, you’re going to do it to God, too.” Where we exercise the “holy possession of the cross” is where we suffer precisely as those who are victims of a vicious and broken world. I say this to disabuse us of any pretense at smug superiority. We cannot, for example, lament that feminism took a hit in this election, and then try to shame Melania Trump. That is not Christian. Period. If we feel that women are suffering and we want to be in holy possession of the cross, we should find women who are suffering, and suffer as they do. That is the way Christ the King calls us to do things. That is the way Christ the King does things.
We proclaim “Christ the King” confessing that the maker of the world chooses to operate within the world from a cross. It is not an idle claim or a doctrinal point we mention because we’re contractually obligated. It is a radical and dangerous hymn in Colossians that sings, “In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” It is not God urging us to take up arms and join in smiting our enemies, but rather it is God becoming our victim, demanding that we each see the humanity of those we hurt. It is all of God—everything that is God—hanging there, between two criminals.
When we ponder this, we perhaps can come to terms with Jesus’ statement, “Truly I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.” For when I ponder how “all the fullness of God was pleased” to hang between two criminals, I begin to wonder just why I am yearning for heaven. It seems that my questions about heaven miss the point. Do we go straight to heaven when we die, or do we wait a while? Does everyone get in or do only some? Is heaven before or after the resurrection, or is it what resurrection means? These questions sputter out because our focus is not on the one who is in heaven but rather on the one who is on earth. Luke tells us that Jesus says these words about Paradise at noon, and then at three pm the curtain of the temple tears in two and Jesus proclaims, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!” It is Luke’s way of saying that any divisions between heaven and earth have been abolished. The fullness of God is coming to earth permanently.
God is coming to reclaim God’s garden. It was a great garden—Paradise, you might say, to borrow a word from Persian. Lovely place for those few minutes before the “fruit incident.” The story goes that God threw us out of the place, but truth be told we’re the ones who insist on distance from God. Even that command, “Don’t eat my fruit,” we had to turn into “We can’t even touch the tree.” Always trying to put things between God and us, keep God safely up in heaven and ourselves down here, right up until we die, of course, then we expect to go up there. In Christ, God announces, “I’m moving back in. It’s my creation, and I’m going to live in it.” God is moving in not by smashing our enemies but by joining the suffering, by putting all of God’s fullness on a cross between two other crosses. God will plant this garden by suffering with those we hurt. God will cultivate this garden by calling us to suffer alongside them, and by forgiving our sins. Paradise. Where do we go when we die? Paradise. Earth, as you may know it. We’re going to Earth. Right now, with the cross as our holy possession, we’re getting the place ready. God is coming.