Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 24, 2013

2013 . 11. 24 “What We Return To”

Central United Methodist Church

“What We Return To”

Pastor David L. Haley

November 24, 2013

Luke 23: 33 – 43

“When they got to the place called Skull Hill, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right, the other on his left.  

Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Dividing up his clothes, they threw dice for them. The people stood there staring
at Jesus, and the ringleaders made faces, taunting, “He saved others. Let’s see him save
himself! The Messiah of God — ha! The Chosen — ha!”

The soldiers also came up and poked fun at him, making a game of it. They toasted him with
sour wine: “So you’re King of the Jews! Save yourself!”

Printed over him was a sign: this is the king of the Jews.

One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed him: “Some Messiah you are! Save yourself!
Save us!”

But the other one made him shut up: “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as
him. We deserve this, but not him — he did nothing to deserve this.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.”

He said, “Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise.” – Luke 23:33 – 43, The
Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

A “free day.” That’s what we called it this summer, when we were in Jerusalem and had a free day at the end of the trip, to return to what we had liked the most. We arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday, and day-by-day had worked through our list of “must see” sights. (Not that anybody could exhaust all the sights to see in Jerusalem, no matter how long you stay there!) For first timers, we had seen the essentials. So Friday, the day before we were to head home, we had a free day: the opportunity to return for a more leisurely visit to one of our favorites.

For me, it was an easy choice: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church built over the place where Jesus was crucified and buried. So we trekked our now familiar path through the Old City and returned for a second visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Before you visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Figure 1), it’s helpful to do your
homework. To know, for example, that the rambling building is divided up and maintained by
seven religious groups, who sometimes get into fistfights over who controls what. To know
what is authentic and inauthentic, how old the architecture and the traditions are, so you
have a sense of what you are seeing.
I am skeptical when you it comes to most “holy sites,” but from what I have read, the
tradition concerning the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is very early and authentic. It is
built over an outcropping of rock (Figure 3) that was outside the city in Jesus’ time,
known as “Golgotha,” or “Skull Hill.” It is not that far from the site of Herod’s palace,
which is where Pilate stayed when he visited Jerusalem. It is also adjacent to a rock
quarry, where early Jewish tombs were hewn out of the rock. So literally, contained with
the same building, is an Orthodox chapel (Figure 2) where you can put your hand through to
touch the rock of Golgotha (Figure 4), on which Jesus was crucified, and the tomb of Jesus
(Figure 6), carved out of the rock in the 4th century and preserved inside a chapel known
as the Aedicule. (Figure 5).

As it turned out, we made a good choice. I don’t know why, but there were no tour groups
there, such that you had to wait in line for your turn. Because it was Friday, the Muslim
Sabbath, and because it is next door to the Mosque of Omar, it was primarily Muslims who
were there on Friday, who revere Jesus, if not as the Son of God (since Allah after all, is
One) but as a great Prophet. (Figure 7.)

So believe it or not, on this Friday morning, we had the Orthodox Chapel of the Crucifixion
mostly to ourselves, and the same with the tomb of Jesus.

What this allowed was a more leisurely visit, in addition to the one we had already made,
with time to reflect upon the magnitude of what we were seeing and touching: the place
where some 1,983 or so years ago, Jesus was crucified, and the adjacent tomb in which his
body was laid. Frankly, after 40 years of imagining and preaching about these places, it
was almost too much to take in. After all the pilgrims through all the centuries, for a
brief moment in my short life, it was mine. Now I could understand why those monks fight
over it, as if it was their own.

Having said all that by way of illustration, you might say that today, Christ the King
Sunday, functions as such a “free day” for us in worship. Today, we have completed another
cycle of the Christian year, another telling of the Jesus story, which we have symbolized
on the altar today by displaying all the colors of the Christian year. We started at the
beginning of Luke’s Gospel, and worked our way to the end. We began with a rumor of angels
and last week heard Jesus discussing the end of all things.

Today – Christ the King – you might say is our free day, so what do we go back to, to
revisit? Shall we go back to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born? Nazareth, where Jesus grew
up? The Sea of Galilee, Jesus’ favorite place? Or what about the big occasions in Jesus’
life. Shall we go out to his baptism in the Jordan River? Hang out with Jesus in the
wilderness. How about when he walked upon the water, or fed the 5,000? Shall we return to
the Mt. of Beatitudes, or revisit the Last Supper or the Garden of Gethsemane? What about
the Mt. of Olives, where Jesus left us, when he ascended into heaven? Wouldn’t that be the
most fitting place to end the Jesus’ story, at the end of another Christian year?

No, today on Christ the King Sunday, we return in the Gospel to the same Michele and Anna
and I went on that Friday in Jerusalem, to Golgotha, to that outcropping of rock on which
three crosses are raised, on one of whom is Jesus.

Why there, of all places?

We return to this place, to Golgotha, to Jesus hanging on a cross, because it is the best
representation of the Christian story, the reason the symbol of the Christian faith is a
You want to speak great words and do great deeds, to break boundaries and threaten powerful
kingdoms? This is where it leads. I’m not saying we shouldn’t speak truth to justice or
shake the powers that be; I’m just saying that if we are going to, we be realistic enough
to know that this is where you wind up. We have to count the cost. The Romans didn’t just
execute people, that was too silent and quick. They stripped, humiliated, and tortured
criminals and rebels publically, where everyone could see, as a warning that if you
threaten the Roman Empire, this is what will happen to you.

You want to live a spiritual life, a life of faith, you want to live for God, to say, “Not
my will, but your will be done?” Believing that, if you do it right, you will get your
reward? And should it go the other way, should things not work out as planned, that God
will be there to rescue you? Well, gaze on this one who talked about God, who lived for
God, this one who was God’s beloved Child, now hanging there on a cross, naked, tortured,
and forsaken, even it seems, by God.

You want to start a movement, grow a church, bring in God’s Kingdom on earth? Here hangs
one forsaken by his followers, who – in his lifetime – were likely barely over a hundred,
at most. At the end his closest disciples denied and even betrayed him, such that at the
end the one left closest to him is only his mother Mary. His companions on the cross are
two criminals, one of whom mocks him, the other of whom prays to him. Based upon what we
see before us, in the Gospel, upon Golgotha, the Jesus story is a failure in every way.
This one who saved others cannot even save himself.

And yet we Christians believe, it was exactly what happened here at this place, in this
way, that God saved the world. Here, the love of God for us was most manifest. Here, in our
weakness and suffering, God was most present. Here, in death, life would break forth. If
he was a king of any kind, as the sign placed over him to mock him states, this is what
kind of king he was: not a king who conquered by domination, but by submission, to the
power of sacrificial love. And now we, just as surely as those who were there that day,
stand before this sight, this event, this King, and ask ourselves who we shall serve today.
And shall we do only in our imagination, only by mouth, or shall we do it with our time,
our energy, our money, putting on lives on the line for others, even as Jesus did.

Yes, on that Friday in Jerusalem, as a put my hand through that opening to touch that
well-worn rock, to run my hand across the cold stone of the empty tomb, as close as I could
get to these events which happened so long ago – these are the things I thought about, even
as I’m you to think about them today.

When you come out of the empty tomb, across from the Aedicule containing the Tomb of
Christ, if you look up, you see this Dome of the Resurrection (Figure 8). And if you walk
over to the Orthodox Chapel immediately across from the Aedicule, and look high upon the
rotunda, this is what you see: the image of Christ Pantocrator, Ruler of All (Figure 9).
You can hardly help but break into a smile when you see it.

Because it’s like it’s saying, “If this is where it happened so long ago, this is what it
means: The One who gave his life in such humility and courage and love so long ago, is now
raised to the highest place, exalted in the universe and exalted in our hearts forever.”

Today, at the end of another church year, after another hearing of the story of Jesus,
after another year of baptizing our babies, raising our children, doing our jobs, burying
our dead, and living our lives, we bring it all back to this day, to stand before Christ
our King. Let us offer our thanks and praise, and serve him with our lives. Amen.


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