It’s a familiar trope in TV and the movies. The hero appears defeated: the boxer has taken a brutal beating and is on the ropes; the plucky underdogs put up a good fight, but the heavy favorites went on a roll (probably some cheating was involved) and our guys are down by two touchdowns and the clock is running out; the spy has been caught and lashed to the mad scientist’s super-weapon, which is about to go off. All seems lost. And then suddenly, with a sudden swelling of the soundtrack the hero springs to action, his face set in a steely look of determination. All the pent-up force of his righteous anger suddenly breaks like a dam and in a stirring and decisive burst of violence, he thrashes his adversaries, avenging their crimes and breaking their power forever.
The criminal hanging on the cross next to Jesus may not have seen any of these movies, but he seems familiar enough with the script. “Are you not the Messiah?” he cries, “Save yourself and us.” This Jesus had done wonders that were the talk of the nation, giving the blind their sight and the dead their life. The authorities had been pursuing him for months and he had eluded them every time, even coming to Jerusalem to flaunt his defiance openly. But why now, after all that, this helpless passivity? Isn’t he going to finish what he started?
This criminal is not the only one sneering at Jesus. The leaders of the people, who conspired against him and handed him over to the Roman enforcers, taunt him. So do the soldiers who are carrying out the execution, and in the same way. “If you really were the Anointed chosen one of God or the King of the Jews, you would save yourself.” These men, who would see themselves on either side of a deep cultural and religious divide, are actually thinking with the same mind. They believe in the same kind of power, the kind that is first and foremost concerned for itself. This Jesus had spoken with such authority and done such deeds of power that many had been led astray, thinking that he was a new David, anointed by God to liberate Israel from bondage. Seeing him now, unable even to save his life from their hands, they feel the strange fear that he had awakened in them subsiding. Seeing him submitting to the death they chose for him, they imagine that his story is over, and the future belongs to them.
And yet even then, there is something about this man. The criminal, the religious leaders and soldiers could not see it before, and they cannot see it now. But there is one who can, one who hangs on the other side of Jesus. This criminal is another in a long line of characters in the gospel who encounter Jesus and in that meeting find their lives suddenly opening out into a new possibility they had scarcely known they hoped for. Even here, hanging on the stake, he finds the freedom to accept the truth about himself, and to know that love is still possible. This is perhaps the greatest of Jesus’ miracles, that one man being tortured to death awakens repentance, devotion and hope in another. He does nothing, and says nothing but to assure his new friend that he will not abandon him, that even in that moment they have a future in God.
Like the repentant criminal, we acknowledge this Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed Savior and Lord not in spite of his refusal to save himself, but because of it. He was, as we are, in a body, under the condemnation of death and at the mercies of the world’s rulers. But who is the true ruler of this world—the person who is Godlike in bending others to his will, in defending his winnings and taking life; or the one who is Godlike in loving others, in forgiving them and blessing their every impulse toward healing, wisdom, and service? We have to answer this question for ourselves, and if we do not someone will answer it for us, for the general drift of human affairs is what is has always been—the worship of force and the service of self.
This past Monday, on my way out to coast to go surfing, I listened to an interview with a journalist named Charles Bowden who has recently written a book called Murder City, about Ciudad Juarez, the sister city of El Paso, Texas. Juarez is descending into an inferno of senseless violence fueled by corruption, poverty, and the insatiable desire of North Americans for illegal drugs. Bowden told a story about an incident that took place last January 31st when a group of working-class parents organized a fiesta for their high school age children to celebrate their victory in a soccer tournament. They held it in a private house rather than a public place because the city is too dangerous, but gunmen showed up at the party anyway and machine-gunned fifteen children.
The President of Mexico, on a visit to Japan at the time, announced from Tokyo that the victims were all gang kids involved in the drug trade, clearly implying that they deserved what they got and that, like the 5,000 other murders that have taken place in Juarez in the last two years, there would be no investigation of the crime and no prosecution of the perpetrators. This caused a huge uproar in Juarez that would not die down, so a week or so later the President flew to the city to address the population. He secreted himself in an auditorium in a hotel, surrounded by Mexican army troops, to speak to a hand-picked audience and the TV cameras. But a poor woman named Luz Dábilo, the mother of two of the murdered boys somehow got into the room and suddenly, in the middle of his remarks she stood up. “Mr. President,” she said, “you’re not welcome in this city. What you said about my sons is a lie. If your son were murdered you’d turn over every stone in Mexico to get justice.” And then she turned around and stood, with her back to the President of Mexico, for the rest of the press conference without saying another word.
Where did Señora Dábilo get the strength and courage to take this action that almost certainly will lead to her death? According to the letter to the Colossians, from the glorious power of God the Father, the true sovereign of the world. It is he who “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his Son.” As a citizen of that kingdom, Señora Dábilo knew that that she had the authority over the false power whose only concern is to save itself. In the face of its army of lies and fear, she raised the banner of her king, which is truth and the loving memory of the victims. In a nation in the grip of total despair, she raised the possibility of repentance, and the hope of the king’s justice.
At its worst the church has been just another institution bent in obedience to lesser powers, claiming for human rulers an omnipotence and infallibility that they do not have. But at its best, it has been what it was at the beginning, a community of resistance. This little building on the corner of 5th and C is meant to be an outpost where it is spoken and remembered, celebrated and enacted with joy and thanksgiving that the true ruler of the world has visited us. He has shown us the things that make for peace, and has washed us clean from lies and the denial of death. He nourishes us with his blood, that we might know that he remembers us and has given us the Spirit of the Father with its glorious power. We do not lose hope, even as our people fall before the power of addiction, unemployment, violence, and greed, but we endure with patience, because he has promised to visit us again with perfect compassion and liberating justice. We joyfully give thanks and we raise his flag, because he has the first place in everything, and we are his glorified body.