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. [[ Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 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!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
I’m struck by the repeated refrain in this morning’s gospel reading. Save yourself. Over and over again, these words are hurled at Jesus; by the religious leaders as they mocked Jesus’ foolishness, by the soldiers as they demonstrated the futility of undermining the authority and stability of the empire, and by one of the criminals condemned to die with Jesus, laughing at the hopelessness of the situation.
Save yourself. It is a mocking challenge to Jesus, because none of them believe that he can. This is the way of the world, you don’t challenge the status quo, you don’t threaten the order of things, you don’t give hope to those who are hopeless. You are just one person, poor and weak, and this is what happens to people like you. Go ahead, save yourself. We’d like to see you try.
Save yourself. They are the words of people who don’t believe that salvation is possible. They are the words of people who don’t know what salvation looks like.
But what does salvation look like? Is it the vindication of having those who would disagree with us proven wrong or those who would challenge us put to shame, as it was for the religious leaders? Is salvation the conquering of our enemies or the domination of others as the soldiers of the empire thought? Or is salvation a release from whatever problems ail us, a get out of jail free card if you will, as it was for the criminal who hung next to Jesus on the cross?
As we hear this list, I suspect that you already know the answer. No, this is not what salvation looks like. And yet, is this not how we so often think and speak about God’s salvation. Is this not how our ancestors in the faith have so often thought and spoken about salvation? We pray to God to save us and put to shame those who would disparage us, upholding us before their eyes. We pray to God to save us and deliver our enemies into our hands, whether on the battlefield or the political stage, that they might be defeated, that their opposition to us might be utterly destroyed. We pray to God to save us from the present brokenness and suffering of the world, the brokenness and suffering in our own lives, that our slates might be wiped clean and we find prosperity and happiness in a world free of adversity.
What does salvation look like? Those who gathered around Jesus taunting him as he hung on the cross didn’t know. If we’re being honest with ourselves, sometimes I’m not sure I know either. Sometimes I’m not sure we know.
Sometimes we’re not sure what salvation looks like, and it is why this reading strikes our ears as an odd one for the Sunday of Christ the King, when we are supposedly celebrating the Reign of Christ and the promised Kingdom of God. This is a day that anticipates the second coming of Jesus, and we expect vindication and victory and relief. Instead, we get Jesus suffering on a cross, taunted by those who look on. This Sunday we expect an Easter celebration. Instead we get Good Friday.
What does salvation look like? Salvation looks like the cross. And what is a cross but the intersection of two lines. What is a cross but the crisscrossing of two pieces of wood, not in opposite directions, but in fundamentally different directions that meet at a single point that gives shape and form to the whole.
What does salvation look like? It is the intersection of our own brokenness with God’s creative urge, where the God who first formed the red earth into human being and breathed life into its lungs meets the dry and broken potsherds of our souls. And where they meet, at the center, is the cross.
What does salvation look like? It is the crisscrossing of our disdain for ourselves with God’s overwhelming love for us. Where the two meet hangs Jesus, crucified, taunted, humiliated.
What does salvation look like? It is the place where our transient fidelity is crossed by God’s enduring faithfulness. Where the two connect is the stone once rejected, but now the cornerstone upon which the Kingdom of God is given its foundation.
This is not the salvation that we often imagine. It may not be the salvation that we even want, but our reading this week is a reminder to set aside the salvation that we expect and pursue instead the cross, for that is where we will find Christ. That is where we will see at last the new creation that God is working. Our reading is also an invitation. It is an invitation to enter into the hardships of this world, not flee from them. It is an invitation to step into the suffering of the world, not seek salvation from them. For it is only there that we will find salvation. It is only there that we will find ourselves face to face with the cross and with Jesus. It is only there that we will be witness to the cornerstone being laid in our midst.
Preached by Adam Yates