Colossians 1:13-20 / Last Sunday (Proper 26C) / 24 November 2013
In Nomine Iesu
The end has come. The last Sunday of the church year. It’s a little artificial, perhaps. A little liturgically“geeky” to be celebrating the end of the year a month before the end of the calendar year, but that’s the way it goes with the Church that always has her eye fixed on the horizon, waiting for the dawning Day, waiting for the Bridegroom to make His appearance, waiting and watching for the Day no man can know when the Son of Man comes as a thief in the night.
It’s a day of faith’s vindication. Faith in Christ is finally vindicated. The prophet Malachi spoke to that this morning. Before the end, faith appears to be more or less a waste of time and energy. “It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping His charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts?” The psalmist declares that his feet nearly slipped when he considered the ways of the unbelieving. Their lives seem to be trouble-free, they prosper in everything they do. Malachi says the world calls those who are arrogant “blessed” and evildoers not only seem to prosper, they seem to test God and get away with it. It’s enough to cause one’s believing feet to slip.
You ever wonder sometimes whether it’s all a waste of time? All this agonizing over God, over church, over spiritual things when the world seems to be clicking along quite nicely. Why complicate your life? If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit the thought has crossed your mind, or that fleeting moment of doubt has settled upon your heart. Sometimes it almost feels like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin in the pumpkin patch, all this talk of the end times and the visible return of Jesus.
But Malachi says there will be a day when you will see with your own eyes what God sees, when the distinction between the righteous and the wicked will be made clear, when it will be obvious who serves God and who doesn’t. It will be clear on that Day, but not one day sooner. Now we have to be content with this “from below” perspective, looking at everything from our “from below” perspective.
From below, Jesus always appears crucified. It’s fitting to end the church year on that note. Jesus is called a lot of names, all of them true. He’s God’s Chosen One, the Son of God, the Christ, the King of the Jews. He’s all of that and more. But He’s all of that hanging on a tree, dying, with the world and its leaders mocking Him. This is how the reign of Christ appears in this world. Crucified. Not powerful, not glorious, not mighty. Weak, rejected, despised, crucified. That’s why Paul resolved to know nothing among the Corinthians except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. He knew that the hidden power of God was not in flashy wisdom or persuasive words or shows of power but in weakness and suffering and rejection.
The drama of the last Day is played out between the two criminals on either side of Jesus. Outwardly, they both appear the same. Both were convicted of a crime deserving crucifixion. Both were dying. As a casual bystander on the road, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two of them. One called out to Jesus, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” That almost sounds like faith, doesn’t it? He seems to believe that Jesus is the Christ, and he wants Jesus to save him as He saves Himself. But that’s precisely NOT how Jesus saves. He saves others by not saving Himself. He saves sinners by dying for them. He justifies the ungodly, not the godly. He saves the unsaveable and redeems the irredeemable.
The other criminal says it in the way of faith. He confesses his sinfulness. He knows he deserves his sentence. It is just, the reward for his deeds. He also confesses Jesus’ innocence. “This man has done nothing wrong.” And in the juxtaposition of his guilty death and Jesus’ innocent death, he sees a ray of hope in the darkness. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He doesn’t ask to be spared his death sentence. He doesn’t ask to be saved from his suffering. All he wants is to be remembered by this dying King next to him.
Some people make much over the fact that this man wasn’t baptized, though we don’t know whether he was or not. We can presume that he wasn’t. And he never went to a Lord’s Supper, though the only one that was celebrated the night before was a closed communion of Jesus’ apostles. He was probably a Jew, a messianic zealot, though we can’t be sure of that either. What we can be sure of is that he had dying Jesus next to him in his last hour. And he had Jesus’ promise spoken from His dying lips into that man’s ears. “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” That’s all the Word and Sacrament that man needed.
Both men died that day. One died with the promise of life. Therein lies the difference. We don’t know about the other one, and we’re not going to speculate. What matters is the promise of Jesus delivered to that man in his death. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” That’s the promise the Lord makes to all whom He numbers as His own, to all whose names are written in the Lamb’s baptismal book. Those are the words the Lord will speak to you who have been baptized into His Name, who bear His body and His blood. Today, you will be with me in Paradise. Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
What happened on a cross two thousand years ago has cosmic implications. St. Paul in Colossians and Ephesians delves into that. We tend to think in personal terms, as in Jesus being our “personal Lord and Savior.” But the books of Ephesians and Colossians demand that our view of Christ be larger. Yes, He has delivered us from the domain of darkness to His kingdom. Yes, in Christ we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.
But to appreciate this fully, and to grasp what this means in view of the end of all things, we need to understand who Christ is. He is the image of the invisible God. He makes God visible and known. In the OT, you couldn’t depict God. God alone images Himself, and He does so in sending His Son into our flesh. The image of God is the human face of Jesus the Christ.
He is the Word through whom and for whom all things were made. Everything that exists owes its existence to Christ. In Him, all things hold together. Take away Christ the Word, and everything simply ceases to exist. He is the head of the Church, the Groom for His Bride who was taken from His side as He slept in death. He is the firstborn from the dead, the first-fruits of the resurrection with the promise of more to come. As He was at the head of the old creation, so He is also at the head of the new creation that comes with His resurrection and your Baptism into His death and resurrection. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Now, already, as we speak. The old has gone, the new has come in Jesus.
In Christ, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. The infinite and holy took up finite human flesh and dwells among us. And the purpose for his dwelling among us in the flesh was to reconcile all things to the Father, in heaven and on earth. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting men’s sins against them. The death of Jesus, the blood of His cross, reconciles all things and everyone including thieves on crosses and sinners the likes of you and me and that world load of sinners we encounter every day of our lives. He reconciles it all by His blood. He makes peace where there is no peace. He cancels the charges of the Law against us. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
You are baptized into Christ Jesus. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, God’s treasured possession. Reconciled by the blood. Crucified with Christ. Dead to the world and to Sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. That’s how you meet the Last Day and your last day – as a sinner justified for Jesus’ sake. That’s how you live under Christ in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. The righteousness is not your own. It belongs to Christ. The innocence is not your own, but Christ’s. The blessedness is not your own, but Christ’s.
Remember this as you recall your Baptism, as you confess your sinfulness, as you come to the Lord’s table to receive the gift of life and salvation in Christ’s Body and Blood. As we do this “in remembrance of Him,” He remembers us in His kingdom.
Today He is with you. Soon you will be with Him in Paradise.
In the name of Jesus,