Most mysteries fall into one of two categories: the Who Done It and the How Done It. Heist movies are usually How Done Its. The mystery is how will someone commit the crime. The recent film Now You See Me about 4 magicians pulling spectacular heists is a How Done It, as are many of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers. The now classic film The Usual Suspects is a Who Done It, as are most Agatha Christie mysteries. But since you get to know several characters during the course of the investigation and one of them is the non-obvious person behind it all, most Who Done Its also explore the question “Who are you really?” And in fact, Now You See Me does reveal that one character is also the non-obvious mastermind of the whole enterprise and not really a bad guy at all. And, like the reveal of the mastermind in The Usual Suspects, this new information makes you rethink the whole story.
The central question of the New Testament is “Who are you really?” and it is directed at Jesus. In the center of the 3 Synoptic Gospels (Mark 8:27-29; Matt 16:13-16; Luke 9:18-20) Jesus turns that question to the disciples: “Who do people say I am?” Then he probes deeper. He asks these folks who have been traveling and living with him for 3 years, “Who do you say I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Christ.” Christos is just the Greek word for the Hebrew word Mashiach, Messiah, the Anointed. Peter identifies Jesus as God's anointed prophet and king. But I doubt Peter sees Jesus in the same light as those Jews who expected the Messiah to be God's anointed priest. Jesus is not of the priestly class, as his cousin John was. There is no expectation that he will make sacrifices on the part of the people. Which is one reason why Peter immediately rejects the idea that Jesus will be killed by his enemies. A conquering king, especially one chosen by God, doesn't get killed; he kills God's enemies. In short order Peter is proven wrong and he comes to see Jesus differently.
But the idea of Jesus as conquering warrior did not die. We see it in certain passages of Revelation. And we really see it when the ruling class and warrior cultures became “Christian.” Jesus was increasingly pictured in Christian art as an enthroned monarch, Pantokrator, literally, the All Powerful. Since the church in the first century came to see that Jesus was not a mere man, and that the term Son of God was not simply an old title for the king of Israel but was literally true in Jesus' case, it is appropriate to see him as God Almighty. But that doesn't do justice to all that we know about him.
I've got to give credit to the people who compiled our lectionary, the texts we read each week, for juxtaposing on Christ the King Sunday this passage from the New Testament with the one they chose from the gospel. In Colossians 1:11-20 we have this statement in regards to Jesus: “He is the image of the invisible God.” At the end of a murder mystery, we want to know who is the bad guy. In the Bible, we want to know who the good guy is; that is, what is God like. In the passion narrative in Luke 23:33-43, we see an indelible but startling image of God: a naked man crucified between two criminals. But how can that be God? Like Peter's problem with Jesus' conception of the Messiah, our mind rebels against the notion of a helpless, suffering God.
But if Jesus is God incarnate, then that image is as accurate an image of him as the one where he is all-powerful. The key clue is found in 1 John 4:8—God is love. When we read the Old Testament, we tend to think of God as being all about judgment. And now we veer into the territory of How Done It. How can the Old Testament God be love?
I learned that when I had kids. Nobody can make you as angry as your kids when they are doing things that can harm themselves and/or harm their brothers and sisters. My daughter once got between two back to back metal shelves at a Sam's Club and started to climb them. My wife and I were beside ourselves. If she had fallen, getting to her would have been impossible without moving huge ceiling-high shelves packed with bulky merchandise. When she finally deigned to respond to our entreaties, descended and squeezed herself out from between the shelves, laughing at our concern, I gave her a few swats on the bottom, the only time I can remember doing that to her. My action and my furious face sent the message that this wasn't a joke or a game but a deadly serious situation that she had gotten herself into. She never did that again.
In the Old Testament we see the nation of Israel in its infancy and adolescence. God keeps telling them not to do things like exploit the poor, mistreat the immigrants, and sacrifice their children to Moloch and they keep disobeying him. He warns them of the consequences and when they don't listen, he lets them suffer the results, often meted out by the empires around them. But in the same way that a good parent forgives and resumes his or her relationship with a child after the bad behavior is dealt with, God always forgives and restores his people. Because he loves them.
God's justice arises out of his love. If you have more than one child, you have to be fair to all of them. Favoritism towards one spoils him or her, gives them a sense of entitlement and makes the favored one think the world will treat them better than it really will. It also breeds resentment and rebellion among the unfavored children. If you love all your children, you treat them fairly.
Which means that you punish those who break the rules. You don't turn a blind eye when one deliberately hurts or harms another. But many parents who have tried to be fair still find that a child may not listen and learn. What happens when that child gets him or herself into a situation where the consequences are dire, where their health or their life is endangered? The loving parent will do whatever they can to save their child. They might even donate an organ if a child's kidney or liver was damaged. They would certainly give their blood to save their child.
In a sense that's what God did in Jesus. He shed his blood to save us. He gave his own life to save ours. And he did it despite our bad behavior.
That's exactly what we see in our gospel. Jesus is crucified between two criminals. Mark and Matthew say they were robbers, the Greek word being the same as the one used by the historian Josephus for revolutionaries. They were probably colleagues of Barabbas, the man released by Pilate in place of Jesus. So these were men who committed violence. Now they are dying by a nasty form of execution reserved for slaves and those considered traitors to Rome. And Jesus is hanging there between them. One insultingly tells Jesus if he is the Messiah, he should hurry up and save himself and the two men. The other rebukes his colleague in crime. They got what they deserved. Jesus didn't. He asks Jesus to keep him in mind when he comes into his kingdom. And Jesus says to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” This violent person, pinioned to a cross, cannot at this point change his behavior to merit a change in God's attitude towards him. Yet he is the only human being in the Bible we know for sure is in heaven, because he is the only one given that assurance in Jesus' own words.
That is the true image of God in a nutshell. The God who is love giving himself for the world and forgiving a dying sinner because the man recognized him as his king.
And that's why some traditions adorn their churches like this:
It's been a bad year for my family. Among other things my sister-in-law's mother died. She was Greek Orthodox and her funeral was done in accordance with that long tradition. This was laid on her coffin. My brother says neither his wife nor his daughter can look upon it without crying. So he gave it to me. I haven't decided whether to keep it or give it to our Greek Orthodox friends who have met in this sanctuary. But my brother, raised like me in a Protestant tradition that prefers crosses to crucifixes, found it a bit grisly. I understand. There is a church here in the Keys that has behind its altar a life-size, realistic and rather bloody Christ on the cross. I could see the point if they just displayed it during Lent or Holy Week and then substituted the empty cross, the cross as it was on Easter, the rest of the year. But every time they hold Mass they look upon Christ crucified.
I get it, though. Without the death of Jesus, Christianity would be very different. It wouldn't speak to our mortality, our limits, our brokenness. It wouldn't grapple with the true extent of evil in our world. It wouldn't show us the depths of God's love or the extent of his grace. See the skull at the base of the cross. It is a reference to the Place of the Skull, Golgotha, of course, but it is also a reminder that Jesus does not merely suffer but dies. Without Jesus' death there would be no resurrection and therefore no triumph over death, our greatest fear and greatest adversary. If Jesus can conquer death, what can possibly stand in his way? And if by uniting to him our fear of death is taken off the table, then what is stopping us from taking up our cross and following him all the way? In the recent film Risen a Roman centurion is investigating the disappearance of Jesus' body. He arrests the disciple Bartholomew and interrogates him. He threatens to crucify the apostle if he doesn't produce Jesus' body. Bartholomew laughs and tells him to go ahead. Because he has seen the risen Christ, he no longer fears death.
So who is God? Let's face it: even for believers, God is kind of nebulous in our minds. Theologically, he is a mystery. Sure, he created the universe but what he is really like? To find that out, we have only to look at Jesus, who, despite all we have done to his world and to each other, and what we have done to him specifically, loves us to the end and gives his life for us and to us. He is the God of life, whom even death cannot hold. He is the God of forgiveness and redemption and renewal.
We are created in the image of God. People should be able to see in us that same love, which gives deeply of itself and is concerned with acting justly towards all and mercifully towards those who like us fall short of God's glory. We need to ask ourselves “Where is Jesus in this thought? Where is Jesus in these words? Where is Jesus in this act?” And whenever we find that we are not reflecting Jesus accurately in those things, we must ask God for forgiveness and for his Spirit to work in us so that there can be no mistake of who is behind it all. The mystery is revealed. In everything, our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord is at work to save us all. And his motive is love.