Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Open Door

In the novel 11/22/63 by Stephen King, a time traveler finds a portal from 2011 to 1958 and uses it to prevent JFK’s assassination, thinking that would also set in motion a way to prevent the Vietnam War and the assassination of MLK. It’s such a natural thought in any of our lives—if I could prevent the one really bad thing from happening, wouldn’t that take away many of the other bad things? But as any Star Trek fan out there knows, that type of trying to control the future contradicts the Prime Directive, which is that you can’t try to alter the future or it screws everything up with unintended consequences. Stephen King evidently worked with the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to explore dystopian ideas of what might have happened if JFK was not killed: in his novel: the Civil Rights Act is not passed; Governor George Wallace ends up being elected President; by the time the main character returns to 2011, the world has suffered a nuclear holocaust and is in the process of ending. I guess it is a Stephen King novel, after all.

I was obviously reminded of that novel this week in the context of the 50th anniversary of the assassination, but there are moments in today’s gospel that remind me of the fundamental premise of wanting to control or redo the future in the cries from the crowd for Jesus to “save yourself” and from the criminal to “save yourself and us.” When reality is bad—and it often is—we want to be saved from it. We want to deny death and suffering the short term victory, and ask ourselves “what if” questions… what if JFK had not died? What if Jesus had not been crucified? What if he did “save himself?”

Could there be some kind of alternative reality where Jesus reigns not just in heaven but on earth? There exists some of that desire in the feast we are celebrating today, the feast of Christ the King. Maybe Jesus could become the Palm Sunday king, riding on a donkey and being hailed by the crowd… maybe the Roman Empire could have been overthrown and Israel liberated and… and… then what would have happened? But no. We can try to force the trappings of earthly power onto Jesus, but it is clear to me that his mission was not to be an earthly king.

We don’t need to rewrite history, because the reality—as bad as it is at the foot of the cross in Golgotha, and as bad as it is at the foot of our own crosses—is going to be redeemed in a way the people who stand at its foot cannot even imagine. There would be no end of death without Jesus’ death; no promise of life without his resurrection. When we expect Jesus to act in a concrete, earthly way—like an earthly king might intervene, with military power or self-interest or earthly might, we will be disappointed. When we expect Jesus to intervene as the King of Glory and King of Peace, in the phrase from the hymn we sang before the gospel—through forgiveness and mercy and eternal life the way he does today—then we will be satisfied.

Which is not to say that we cannot and should not attempt to intervene to prevent suffering and death; it is our very faith in Jesus the calls us to intervene—to act with compassion, with peace, with fortitude for justice. We on earth are the ones who are called to intervene in the earthly way—not God. Where humanity sins and causes suffering, we are the ones who fail. But even that is not impossible to redeem.

Look at the two things Jesus says in the gospel today: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” Both are statements of incredible power—who has the power to forgive sins? Who has the capacity to promise us a place in paradise? They are not statements of earthly power, but they are statements of profound power—far more than any earthly being can offer.

Consider especially that Jesus is offering forgiveness to the men who are crucifying him. I remember learning that in order to receive forgiveness, you had to repent, and promise amendment of life. Are these men repentant? Good heavens, no. No one says “I’m sorry.” None of them promise not to crucify anyone again. Jesus is pleading for forgiveness without those signs that we consider important today. Grace is offered before we even know enough to ask for it.

What Jesus’ kingship is about is the promise that we are forgiven for our sins even before we know they’re sinful. It’s about the promise that we will be with him in paradise whether we die on a cross or in a hospital bed; it is about the promise that he is, in the words of the wonderful George Herbert poem that was the text of the hymn we sang before the Gospel, a “King of glory, king of peace.” The second verse of that poem has always spoken powerfully to me in the context of this gospel:

Wherefore with my utmost art
I will sing thee,
and the cream of all my heart
I will bring thee.
Though my sins against me cried,
thou didst clear me;
and alone, when they replied,
thou didst hear me.

I will praise Jesus; I will offer Jesus my best; and Jesus will clear me of my sins—even when they return again and again. We’re not so different from the thief. At our best we know that we need saving. At our worst we’re more like those who are crucifying Jesus—we don’t even know we need forgiveness. But to Jesus, they’re all the same. They’re all forgiven.

The Episcopal priest and author Barbara Crafton wrote a series of seven poems on the last words of Christ; here’s an excerpt from “Today you shall be with me in paradise,” speaking about that thief who stands in for us and our salvation:

“It has long been clear to him that
Most would not reach out and take the gift.
Most would stand outside and knock.
On a door already open.
But for this one on the right, status is not on the table.
At the end of life, this one is free to ask,
Because there is no harm in asking,
And you never know.
At the end of a life that knows it needs saving,
When there is no longer any chance for amends
The one on the right just asks for the gift
And, as always, the answer is yes.”

With Jesus our King, when it comes to grace, forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation, the answer is always yes, and the door is always open. We don’t even have to knock. We need only take a first step and walk through.

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