High Mass – Sunday next before Advent Sunday 20 November 2016 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for High Mass – Sunday next before Advent Sunday 20 November 2016

Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie 

 Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Today we are celebrating a nasty joke. More accurately, we are celebrating the truth behind a nasty joke: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’, a title fixed like the words under a newspaper cartoon, but in this narrative mockingly fixed to an instrument of torture and execution. ‘Not funny’ you might remark; certainly not funny to any victim of unjust torture and execution.

It can be dangerous to joke about public affairs. In 1963 Tom Lehrer wrote a song joking about the unlikely Presidential candidates. That year he got his biggest laugh from a reference to the possibility of Ronald Reagan holding office. Over the past 18 months many satirists and comedians have enjoyed playing with the obvious impossibility of Donald Trump being elected President of the United States. We need to be careful what we joke about.

A mocking cartoon label applied to Jesus: Rex Iudaeorum, King of the Jews. This is the Roman label, because Rome operated on that model of value, status and importance. A tortured and executed criminal labelled a king is cruelly grotesque (substitute, say, a cartoon of someone in a Nazi concentration camp with a label around their neck saying ‘The King of the Jews’). Of course the Romans also intended the label as a warning to other pretenders to political power, which is how they chose to see Jesus.

Then, in this story, there are ‘the people’ as the gospel calls them, a group from Jesus’ own cultural context. They stand silently by, tacitly validating their leaders’ mocking use of a different word, ‘Messiah’. This word the Romans have interpreted as ‘King’, not unreasonably, because it has kingly connotations in the Jewish understanding.

And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”                  (Luke 23.35) 

But ‘Messiah’, as we know, means more than king, even before Jesus reinterprets it by his life, teaching, death and resurrection, indeed by the totality of who he is in his personhood. ‘Messiah’ means, in shorthand, the anointed one of God, the person who will transform the people of God and make new their relationship, their covenant, with him. 

And then

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’                                                                                    (Luke 23.39)

After the Roman overlords and the leaders of Jesus’ fellow-Jews have labelled him, a fellow-sufferer, undergoing the same fate of torture and execution, joins the chorus of mockery and populist name-calling. 

Then, finally, we hear from Jesus’ other companion in torture and execution. The man who now converses with Jesus is sometimes called the ‘penitent thief’, but he doesn’t actually repent in the way we usually understand repentance. Perhaps he interprets for us a truer understanding of penitence than we sometimes receive, repeat or impose on others:

40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?

41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

This man makes no formal confession or request for absolution; he asks only that Jesus remember him, the person there, next to him, condemned to a shameful death in public. 

‘Remembering’ is what happens here at Mass, essential remembering in the particular manner which we indicate by the word ‘remembrance’. By this remembrance we mean that our king truly comes to us now, at the altar, under the forms of bread and wine, makes himself humble and vulnerable once more, as on the cross, and unites us, if we will come to meet him, to that great act of our redemption. We are as close to him here as was the penitent thief. That is the relationship, that interaction between our true self and his, which his kingship means, and which today’s feast celebrates. It asks of us self-knowledge and openness to being changed. That is the meaning of our individual and corporate approach to the altar.

Echoing the cry of the penitent thief, older western liturgies pray within the Eucharistic Prayer, that God will ‘remember’ us, and our leaders in the faith, and the suffering and dead for whom we pray. The oldest forms of intercession at Mass were placed at this point, as close as possible to this sacramental presence of Christ, seeking that proximity to Jesus on the cross; pleading to be gathered into that nearer presence of God, that paradise, which is granted to the penitent thief.

Cranmer, and all that lot, removed those petitions from our Prayer of Consecration because they didn’t believe in the real presence; they drew back from the foot of cross in public worship, paving the way for faith to become a compartmentalised intellectual assent to propositions, not a real following or imitation of Christ. If we are not challenged to approach the cross and cry out to him there, how can we ask him to remember us in our comfortable anxieties? This is the greatest deficiency of the Book of Common Prayer and its successors: our texts draw back from committing us to the properly scandalous identification with our Lord on the cross, that identification which, ironically and uniquely, also places us in the place of safety, salvation. Without that proximity and identity we are left with just a beautiful idea, more an echo than a true remembrance.

And why would we want to draw back from that heartfelt cry to Jesus on the cross? For, as we’ve just heard,

…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.    (Colossians 1.20)

Merely changing and improving the words of our Eucharistic Prayer won’t do the job; they must articulate a truth about us. But acknowledging that what we do here is a truly threatening, dangerous remembrance, adds the essential irony to what can be otherwise merely an aesthetic high point of our week; this is the heart of the Mass, juxtaposing the screams of the tortured with Mozart and the blood of the cross with Comper pink, which will make it true as we leave the building.

In the midst of all that irony, if we are honest with ourselves and God, we can do no more than dare to pray, ‘Jesus, remember me’. He can and will, just as reliably as he comes to us at the altar, if we only ask.

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”