Our tortured king (Isaac Villegas)

Title: Our tortured king
Texts: Col 1:11-20, Lk 23:33-43
Date: November 21, 2010
Place: Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship (Chapel Hill, NC)
Author: Isaac Villegas

Hanging on the cross, tortured, nearing death, a convicted rebel asks Jesus to remember him. Don’t forget me, he says, just before he dies alongside Jesus.

We’re usually very good at running away from death. But our passage from Luke’s Gospel won’t let us look the other way. For the moment, with this story from the bible, our attention must focus on three people, nearing death, on crosses, painfully awaiting their last bit of life to drip to the ground.

Crucifixion isn’t for a run of the mill thief or criminal. Only special people get killed on crosses. To crucify someone takes a lot work and it’s costly. It’s a torturous death reserved for people whom the Roman authorities consider subversives or revolutionaries, enemies of the state, threats to national security, sectarian radicals or freedom fighters.

Sometimes the Bible sounds like it comes from a distant planet, or another world—separated from ours by thousands of years. But not this time, as we read the story of crucifixion and then hear the former president George W. Bush speak, without regret, of his authorization of torture during his war on terror. “Damn right,” he said in response to questions about whether he authorized the torture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

With this news, I don’t think we need to do much work to make this passage from Luke relevant. It’s about three guys from the Middle East who are tortured to death because they are, for some reason, deemed a threat to society. In today’s language, they would be called “terrorists.” Jesus, though wrongfully accused, dies hanging between two convicted terrorists. For the people passing by, Jesus would appear to be just one more radical, sectarian freedom-fighter.

The torture and killing of Jesus is a public humiliation—Rome has done it before, and they’ll do it again. They try to make an example out of him, as they did to other Jews who claimed to be Messiahs, alleged liberators of Israel. The Romans put a sign on his cross, “This is the king of the Jews,” it says in verse 38. In other words, the sign says, this is what happens to messiahs. It’s a deterrent. It tells all the other wannabe radicals that this is what happens when you talk too much about the promise of a kingdom other than Caesar’s, another dominion or empire. Too much kingdom-talk will get you killed on a cross. Messiahs end up on Roman crosses.[1]

But this man, this Jesus, is different from the other radicals. And as we enter the crucifixion scene, if we want to know more about this man Jesus, we’ll have to trust the guy hanging on the next cross next to him, one of the guilty terrorist. He’s the one who gets Jesus right; he’s the one who calls Jesus a king. He says, (this is in verse 41), “this man has done nothing wrong.” Jesus is innocent. Jesus is a victim, a casualty of people drunk on power.

In this story, the guilty man who hangs beside Jesus is the one who speaks the truth. He’s the one who proclaims the truth. After speaking the truth that no one else is willing to say, the convicted rebel says, “Jesus, remember me when you enter into your kingdom” (v. 42). Jesus answers his companion on the cross, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43).

There’s something very strange about reading the crucifixion story today. The church calls this day, “Christ the King Sunday.” We focus on the kingship of Jesus and our service in his kingdom. But how strange is it that we read about his humiliating death, not his coronation? We read about a cross on a deserted hill, not a throne in a beautiful palace. We read about the tortured death of two terrorists and a falsely accused one, not an extravagant banquet and celebration. What can any of this mean?

What is completely unnerving about this passage, at least for me, is that Jesus invites one of them into paradise—to be his companion forever. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

It’s crazy enough for this tortured Jesus, with the thorns of death digging into his soul, to forgive his torturers and killers: “Father, forgive them,” he prays from the cross, “for they know not what they do” (v. 34). That prayer for grace is shocking enough—to forgive your killers as they are torturing you. But it’s almost what we’d expect from this guy who has been extending God’s forgiveness to people throughout his life. It only makes sense that he has the grace to forgive as he is being tortured.

But that Jesus accepts a terrorist into God’s kingdom, into paradise, is completely disturbing. It’s disturbing because that place is our hope, too. It’s like being invited to a party and discovering that someone you hate is going to be there. You can’t stand him; he disgusts you; the last thing in the world you want is to be stuck in the same room with him for an evening. So, you make up an excuse and apologize for having to miss the party.

But, apparently, heaven—the paradise of God—has people like this violent rebel there. Are we sure we want to party with an enemy like him in eternity? Why does Jesus have to invite him to our party?

The conversation Jesus has with the other crucified ones reveals to us the profound mysteries of God’s peace, the peace of Christ—which is something quite different from how our world thinks about peace. The apostle Paul names this mystery of peace in the passage we heard from Colossians: “Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20).

It’s that little word “all” that disturbs me. At the cross, Jesus invites this convicted criminal into peace, into paradise—to be with him for eternity, to live at peace with him and with those whom he has wronged.

Yes, Jesus shows us that peace is possible. But it’s a peace that takes work; it’s something we receive as we enter into God’s power of forgiveness—to forgive the ones who have hurt you, and to be forgiven by those whom you have hurt. The peace of Christ is not just about making all the guns and bombs go away. God’s peace is not simply the absence of war. No, the peace of Christ is a much more difficult promise. It’s about being drawn into the power of forgiveness, the power of asking for forgiveness from someone you have wronged and the power of forgiving someone who has wronged you. As we let the power of Christ’s forgiveness flow through our lives, we may find the hope of companionship, of being invited to eat at the same table, with friends and enemies, with people we like and with people we would rather never see again.

Communion is that table, the Lord’s Table. As we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we are eating at the table of our tortured savior—the one the powers of this world wanted to make go away. At the Lord’s Table, we gather our lives around the wounded one, and learn that in God’s kingdom, the dead come back to life, the tortured will be able to speak the truth, those who have been silenced will return to us. This meal, this celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, creates what Johann Metz calls “a dangerous memory”[2]—we remember what the powers of violence want us to forget: that, in Jesus, the tortured one comes back, and with him comes all the others.

In paradise, the tortured come back and are invited to eat. The question for the rest of us is: Do we want to be part of that party, that heavenly banquet? Or, will we have to excuse ourselves because we can’t bare the thought of sitting at the same table?—with not only the enemies of society that we see on the news, but also the people who have hurt you and the people you have injured.

At this table, with this bread and this cup, we open ourselves to God’s forgiveness, which is a flow of love and grace that dissolves the hostility of this world—the rivalry that organizes our world in terms of friend and enemy, the rivalry that organizes our lives according to hatred or grudges that run deep within us.

For as Paul says in our passage from Colossians: “Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20).


[1] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996): “It told an implicit story, of the uselessness of rebel recalcitrance and the ruthlessness of imperial power. It said, in particular: this is what happens to rebel leaders. Crucifixion was a symbolic act with a clear and frightening meaning” (543); “when Jesus was crucified, the general impression in Jerusalem that day must have been that he was one more in a long line of would-be, but failed, Messiahs” (544).

[2] Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), p. 200: “that dangerous memory that threatens the present and calls it into question because it remembers a future that is still outstanding… This memory breaks through the grip of the prevailing consciousness. It claims unresolved conflicts that have been thrust into the background and unfulfilled hopes. It maintains earlier experiences in contrast to the prevailing insights and in this way makes the present unsafe.”



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