So I was at a party a week ago and someone started to sing one of the songs from Jesus Christ Superstar. I was quite surprised as she’s not a church goer, and hasn’t particularly shown a lot of interest in what I would call a big theological debate or conversation. Yet here she was singing her favourite song – the song of Simon the Zealot ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3bZqqe_s84&list=PLWMIGF70kAjtnE-NGrqrErtycIh4OHp3u&index=3&t=0s ) “Christ you know I love you, did you see I waved? I believe in you and God so tell me that I’m saved.” It’s a perfect example of how we do a real disservice to Jesus as mere humans. We think it’s all about power, military or political power. Again and again we try different ways of understanding who Jesus is for us. What kind of king was he and more importantly, is he?
In the movie version, the zealots want Jesus to manipulate the people into choosing violence to deal with their oppressors from Rome. They want Jesus to twist his message to one of hate and anger. They want him to incite riots and start a war. They understand power to be solely political, us versus them. A black and white world where only the strong have the right to survive and all opponents will be crushed in their crusade. The movie shows the followers doing back flips in their excitement in hopes that Jesus will notice them.
How different that is from the scripture we read this morning. It reads like an intimate report by someone close enough to have heard that last small conversation between three criminals executed in the most shameful, embarrassing way possible for Jewish men. It was meant to be a deterrent, to promote obedience and quell any thoughts of rebellion. This is what they did to traitors and other enemies of the state. Hanging on the cross in the hot sun, even their robes taken from them so all could witness that they were just scrawny weaklings. How humiliating and disgraceful it must have felt to be treated so.
I can imagine some soldier there listening idly to the thieves and Jesus as they waited the long hours it took for the crucifixions to kill the men. And the thieves reacted like humans have done ever since to the idea of Jesus being someone special, someone inspiring, someone holy. One mocks Jesus, happy perhaps to have someone to lash out against with his last dying breath. I may be in pain, I won’t get out of it, but at least I’m not as ridiculous as you with all your talk of holiness and a new kingdom of God all touchy-feelie, lovey-dovey nonsense.
The other recognizes something different about Jesus. Maybe it was his dignity, or his manner, or how his followers wept and witnessed to his final hours. We don’t know. But something about Jesus made the other thief pay attention and offer allegiance to Jesus, a dying man who had nothing to offer, no power, no control, no strength to save his own life.
I think we all face the same struggle. Who is Jesus for us? When I started going to church after my angry atheist stage, the last thing I wanted to think about was some weird stuff about Jesus having magical super powers, being special, being so exciting that I would want to do cartwheels and back flips. I didn’t want some over the top, rolling on the ground experience that would leave me all open to emotional manipulation. Not my style, and far too threatening. The Jesus Seminar came out and some scholars tried to make Jesus just an ordinary person, only human, nothing special, just a particularly good man. But the more I heard the stories and the more I learned and listened, the more I realized that Jesus was not just a nice man who loved people. He had to have been a very strong man to resist over and over the temptation to become a war leader, a rebel, a politician leading a coup, a new king taking over the country by passion and propaganda and maybe even a few little secret back room deals here and there.
He constantly resisted the temptation to save himself from his fate. And he constantly pointed to something more powerful than Rome, more lasting than the Temple of Jerusalem, more enduring than vast armies at his beck and call.
The thief said, “Save yourself” and he resisted that. It wasn’t about him at all. It was about God first and foremost. Even today we are faced with the temptation to do it all ourselves, to be strong, be tough and never ask for help. Be independent, be full of the right answers. This is the age of “Do it yourself” psychotherapy and spirituality. Jesus didn’t do that. He asked for God’s help to do what he must, to do what needed to be done, even to die on the cross. To die as an example, a witness to a different kind of power, the kind recognized by the second thief. The kind of power that doesn’t transform through violence or manipulation, threats or bullying, but the kind of power that gently transforms cultures and attitudes and opinions with gentleness, patience, endurance, joy and forgiveness. The kind of power that challenges us to say to each other and ourselves words of hope and encouragement, love and forgiveness. That kind of power transformed the Roman Empire, and transformed the way we take care of each other, the way we shape our society. It continues to transform us, to hold us accountable to a higher standard, and to guide us into ever more loving ways of being in community. The kind of power that never ends and continually inspires us to greater and greater deeds. Okay, maybe not cartwheels and backflips, but something even harder, the transformation of our hearts until we can say “Jesus Remember Me when you come into your Kingdom.”