The Last Sunday of the Church Year
Have you heard of Gladstone Gander? A character in Donald Duck short animations and comic books, he is Donald Duck’s cousin, rival and nemesis all at once. The thing that most infuriates Donald about Gladstone is that he is the luckiest bird alive. He never needs to exert himself or make any effort—he wins every raffle or lottery going, stumbles on wallets dropped by their owners and in every way enjoys improbably good fortune. In the meantime, his luckless cousin spends his days working hard for very little reward—and resenting both his bad fortune and Gladstone’s luck.
They are hardly serious works or profound literature, but the tales of the two feathery cartoon characters genuinely strike a cord with the human condition: both the desire to be ‘lucky’—to get good things without the effort—and the resentment for the fact that there others luckier than ourselves. How else do you explain the National Lottery: people spending their hard-earned money on a competition where you are statistically more likely to die on the way to buying the ticket than you are to win the thing—because who knows, you might be lucky this time. Whether it’s relationships, careers or wealth that we value, I suspect we all would would prefer to be Gladstone Gander rather than Donald Duck. Who wouldn’t want to be the luckiest man or woman alive?
In today’s Gospel, we also encounter two classes of people who fall broadly into these two archetypal categories: those doing well and those down on their luck. At first glance, it seems obvious which people belong to which category. On the one hand, we have Jewish leaders, ordinary people, Roman soldiers. On the other hand, we have three condemned men led to the Place of the Skull to be executed. It’s no hard to spot the unlucky ones, the ones on whom fortune is no longer smiling. At least two of the men had brought their bad luck on themselves. The evangelist describes them as ‘evil-doers’. In the case of Jesus, it’s an even more tragic story: His downfall is the result of the schemes of others, a judicial murder born out of envy and malice.
It’s not for nothing, then, that the women of Jerusalem are moved to tears as they watch the pitiable down-and-out heading towards his grisly end.
And it’s not for nothing that we shed tears for those who walk the same road today, having met with the sharp end of the world’s wrath. Writing to the Romans, Paul quoted the psalmist’s despairing cry:
“ For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
If that was the case in the first century, how much more so today. Christians today in Muslim countries daily risk their lives—and too often, lose them—when they confess Jesus as their Lord, while the rest of the world turns a blind eye. More and more, Christians in Western countries are under pressure from society and government—and sometimes even from church leadership—to abandon the Word of God in exchange for a message that is more palatable to an increasingly pagan society.
And where there isn’t hostility, the Gospel is met by a deafening wall of indifference, as it is among so many of our family members, friends and neighbours. More often than not, we don’t even have the privilege of meeting the enmity of the world, as a sign that the Word and our testimony is having an impact on people. We are not being killed, just ignored.
It can be hard not to feel that the Gospel has run out of steam, run into a brick wall—whether that brick wall is violence of silence. It’s easy to weep for Jesus, on His way to another defeat.
But Jesus did not accept the pity of the women. Not because He was stoical or proud, but because He saw things very differently. It is not He who was to be pitied. Yes, He was about to die an agonising death, and that unjustly. Yes, to the eyes of the witnesses of those events, His very fate was proof positive that He was a failure, another would-be-Messiah who in the end couldn’t save others because He couldn’t even save Himself.
But He needed no pity. He had chosen His path, He was carrying His cross willingly and ultimately by choice. It was the women themselves, all the people of Jerusalem who were to be pitied. Because they, too, would feel God’s wrath as Jesus was feeling it then. In a very short time, Jerusalem would be destroyed, and it would lead to scenes far more atrocious and pitiable than the death of one man on a cross. A city that was chosen by God as His holy habitation had turned its back on Him by rejecting His Son: that would be the real tragedy.
Even as He was mounting the hill of Calvary, Jesus knew how the story would end: in His glorious resurrection, His vindication and the salvation of all who trust in Him. Whereas the end of unbelieving Jerusalem would have no happy end.
The fate of Jerusalem was a local tragedy for a small group of people in the corner of the Roman Empire. But as we heard last week, the destruction of the Holy City had a far greater significance: it was a dress rehearsal for the fate of the fallen, unbelieving world. Just as Jerusalem was destroyed amid terrible scenes, so the world too will be brought to a cataclysmic end when God finally allows His righteous judgement to fall on it. The world will end, and the end will not be happy. Those who now cause Christians to weep because of their unbelief and their hostility will one day weep for themselves as they are forced to acknowledge in the face of His coming in glory: that Jesus Christ is Lord, who has come to judge the living and the dead.
Weep not for Jesus, and weep not for His people—because He is already victorious over death, and so is His body, the Church. Even death cannot defeat the bride of Christ, because death no longer has dominion over us.
Jesus was most definitely not down on His luck on that terrible Good Friday. It looked like a defeat, an ironic proof that He had failed. He saved others, but He cannot save Himself. Whereas it was the greatest victory of all: He saved others by refusing to save Himself. His failure to save Himself wasn’t a failure—it was precisely that that was the means of His victory, the completion and fulfilment of His saving work. His death may have looked like the death of the other two, the criminals on His left and His right, but it was the precise opposite: they came to a nasty end as a reprisal for their evil deeds. He came to a nasty end—but which wasn’t the end—for our evil deeds.
So it wasn’t Jesus, who was having a Donald Duck day outside Jerusalem on Good Friday. That misfortune was yet to be played out, and it would fall on those who seemed to have got their way with Jesus that day, who rejected Him.
But who, you may ask, was the Gladstone Gander of Golgotha? Who would you say was the luckiest man alive that day? Was it Pilate, who had managed to avert a potentially disastrous riot by some careful manoeuvring? The chief priests, who had got rid of their nemesis after all? The soldiers, who had another victim to amuse them in the midst of dreary garrison life, and some new clothes to boot?
None of the above? The luckiest man alive that day was none other than a thief on the cross, a dying criminal suffering at the hands of earthly justice. A man who had got what he deserved and was feeling it. A man who was on death’s door, a man under the curse of law, the curse of society and even the curse of God’s law—for cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree. He had nothing left of his life. He would leave no legacy except his crimes and their just desserts. He had nothing left to offer to anyone, except a bloody spectacle. It was curtains time for him.
Except for one thing: he was crucified next to Jesus, and at death’s door, knew what that meant. He alone recognised in Jesus the means of his salvation. He had nothing he could bring to Jesus, except this plea: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus, remember me—because you can save others. Jesus, remember me—my only hope.
And he discovered that fact, which is also our only hope: that sinners with nothing left to offer who pin their hope on the mercy of Jesus are in the best place in the world. Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. You have placed your faith in me: by faith, you are mine, and I am yours. Wherever Jesus is, there is paradise. In his wretchedness, in the moment of the shipwreck of his life, this criminal was the luckiest man alive: he was in paradise even as he hung on that cross.
He was the first to enter paradise after Good Friday. But he was not the last. Over two thousand years, millions of sinners have heard the same voice of Jesus: today, you shall be with me in paradise. At every baptism, Jesus speaks these saving words. He spoke them to you at your baptism. When your sins assail you, when your conscience troubles you, when you run into the hostility or indifference of the world, Jesus invites you to say after the thief on the cross: Jesus, remember me. And in His word, He repeats to you, again and again: today, you shall be with me in paradise. I did not save myself so that I may save you. In His Supper, you will participate in the feast of His kingdom, reminding you of the fact that you already are in the kingdom.
There is no need to weep for the Church. Even as we grieve the earthly damage wrought on the body of Christ and its individual members, we need not weep as those women wept, bereft and disappointed. Rather, we may rejoice that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. We may rejoice that every Christian who endures suffering for the sake of the cross is thereby displaying the saving cross of Christ in his life. We may even rejoice, as the apostles did, when we share the suffering for the sake of the name of Christ. Because He remembers us—because He has reconciled us to the Father by His blood—because in Him, we have overcome the world. We are the luckiest people alive.