Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! Amen.
“Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’” (Luke 23:32-34, ESV).
Today is the Last Sunday of the Church Year—or, as we called it in the old, blue hymnal, Christ the King. This is one of only two liturgical occasions on which we actually read from the Gospels about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (one of three if you dare to celebrate the Sunday of the Passion on Palm Sunday). For a church body that insists that “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23), we certainly try very hard not to have to look upon the cross.
“But,” you may argue, “we have a big cross on the wall right behind the altar!”
Indeed we do. And it is a beautiful cross, skillfully crafted by Pastor Boettcher and paid with funds donated by Bob Gaiser. But it is a lovely cross, which underscores my point. In the 1st century A.D., crucifixion was not lovely to look upon. The death of Jesus was bloody and brutal. But our cross does not even have a corpus on it. Very few Protestant churches, in fact, have crucifixes in their churches. That’s “too Catholic” for us.
“Christ is risen!” we contend. “That’s why we have an empty cross.”
Yes, but before he rose from the dead, first Jesus had to die. I do not think that Paul pictured an empty cross in his mind when he wrote, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). You don’t get to the empty tomb without first standing in the shadow of the cross.
Earlier this week, I walked around church for about an hour seeking any crucifix or painting of Christ’s crucifixion. I only found two: this pectoral cross necklace and an icon in the vestry.
Now don’t get me wrong: I like our church’s cross a great deal. Not every cross needs to be a crucifix. In truth, it’s a matter of adiaphora—something neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture. But an empty cross can also reflect a creeping Gnosticism—a discomfort with bodies. We prefer a spiritual Christianity to an earthy one. We are still uncomfortable with the Incarnation, which is why we have a difficult time believing that God comes to us in flesh and blood—in water, bread, and wine. But today we are forced to look upon the cross.
Crucifixion was invented by the Persians, made popular by the Greeks, and perfected by the Romans. Crucifixion was a horrifying way to die. And that was the point of it: to instill terror in a subjugated population. Crucifixion was arduous and demeaning. Ordinary Romans could not be crucified. Only the worst of the worst and lowest of the low were crucified: thieves, rebels and insurrectionists, slaves, and non-citizens of the Roman Empire. Crucifixion stood as a terrible warning and reminder that Rome was in charge.
Crosses came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Besides the Latin cross that we know (which looks like a lower case “t”), there was the Greek Tau cross (like a capital letter “T”), as well as an “X” shape. Sometimes they were crucified in the “quick and dirty” fashion of the Persians—simply nailing them to a post or impaling them on a pole. Typically, the crucified were stripped naked to humiliate them (whether Jesus was hanged naked on the cross, we cannot know for certain, but it was the usual custom). Nails were commonly used to affix the crucified to their crosses, but sometimes they were just tied with ropes. As we know from the Gospels, in the case of Jesus, nails were used.
Amazingly, most victims of crucifixion died from exhaustion and asphyxiation—not blood loss. The spread-eagle position of the crucified makes it very difficult to breathe, so he is forced to push down with his feet to drive his body upward and outward to catch a breath. Instantaneously, burning pain shoots through the nerves in the feet, which causes him to relax his muscles and collapse. But then he cannot breathe again, so he is forced to push off with his feet. This never-ending cycle could last for many hours. Some victims even lingered on their crosses for days before exhaustion and dehydration made it impossible for them to push up anymore. That is why Pontius Pilate was so amazed when Joseph of Arimathea asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate couldn’t believe that Jesus was already dead until verified by the centurion. That’s also why they drove a spear into his side—just to be sure. But he was already dead.
Like all victims of crucifixion, Christ died in extreme pain and utter agony. And yet rather than plead his innocence or hurl insults at his tormentors, Jesus prayed for them. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Even as the Roman soldiers gambled for his clothes and the Jewish priests mocked him, Jesus continued to pray, “Father, forgive them… Father, forgive.” But Jesus’ prayer was not for them alone. It is also for us. Christ died for you. Jesus prayed for you—and prays for you still even now while seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven (cf. Rom. 8:34).
The crowds tempted Jesus to come down from the cross. “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his chosen One” (Luke 23:35). The soldiers also taunted him: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” (v. 36). But Jesus never tried to save himself. He came down from heaven to save us, and that is why he refused to come down from the cross. Jesus is the Son of God. Surely, if he had wanted rescue, he could have been saved. But then everything would be lost for us. You see, the nails did not keep Jesus on the cross. Love did. Love kept Jesus on the cross.
Two criminals were crucified with Jesus, and at first, both mocked Jesus. In his Gospel, Mark tells us, “Those who were crucified with him also reviled him” (Mark 15:32). Luke’s Gospel records none of that. Instead we hear the penitent thief rebuke his companion (vv. 40-42) and then pray, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:41).
Obviously, the criminal on the cross had a change of heart. I don’t know when or how the Holy Spirit moved upon his heart, but sometime during the few brief hours in which Christ hanged on the cross, that wretched man came to faith in Christ. Yet there is something even more striking about his prayer that never occurred to me until earlier this week. By asking Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, the thief recognizes Jesus as the true King, despite all evidence to the contrary: his brow bloodied by the crown of thorns and his humiliation on the cross. By all appearances, Jesus was a failed messiah, self-deceived at best and a fraud at the worst. But that thief dying on the cross had eyes to see something in Jesus that not even Christ’s disciples could see. Or why else did they flee and abandon him in the Garden? No, by his penitent plea, the thief on the cross confessed that the cross was not the end of the road for Jesus. There was still more to come: “thy kingdom come.”
Jesus still reigned as King in his death, and he would reign as King after death too. The inscription above his head was intended as cruel irony: “This is the King of the Jews” (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, or “I.N.R.I.,” as we write upon our altars). And so the jest of the Roman soldiers was truer than they realized. God subverted their joke and turned it into a bold proclamation of Jesus’ calling and identity, even as the Jewish High Priest—who hated Jesus—nevertheless prophesied about Jesus, “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50, NIV). Jesus died so that we would not perish—not just in this world but for eternity. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The thief believed at last. It may have been at the last minute, but he did believe. He confessed faith in Christ the King, and he was saved. Jesus told him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
A few verses later, Jesus “breathed his last” and died (v. 46). His chin dropped, and his head lolled to the side. His excruciating suffering was over, but his victory had just begun. All of that is what we see when we dare to look at the cross.
Christ’s crucifixion is hard for us to accept. “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18, NIV). For us to believe there is a Savior, we must—like the penitent thief—first admit that we need to be saved. To receive the forgiveness of sins, we must confess that we are sinners. And maybe at the end of the day, that is the biggest reason why we are uncomfortable with the cross. When we look at it, we must also look at ourselves.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Remember me. Do not let your eyes linger long upon your sins. Christ died for you. He prayed for you in his dying woes. He is glad to give you the kingdom of God. Look instead at Jesus. When you gaze upon the cross, look into his eyes full of love and see his arms spread out to embrace the whole world. Behold, your King! In the name of Jesus. Amen.
 All Scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
 The imperfect tense of the Greek verb indicates repeated action, unlike the simple aorist, which one would expect if Jesus had only prayed once.
 Quotations designated (NIV) are from THE HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.