Before the Cross of Jesus: A Criminal in Paradise

08 Mar

jesus-to-the-thief-on-the-cross1(a sermon for March 8, 2015, the 3rd Sunday in Lent; second in a series, based on Luke 23:32-43)

Let me begin this morning with a proposition:  that of all the human behaviors that might well be considered as “sinful,” perhaps the most egregious sin of all is choosing to live life “on our own terms.”

Now I know that this might seem surprising and even a bit confusing; because I also realize that for some of us, if not most of us, the idea of living life “on our own terms” is actually thought of as a good thing!  And to a point, yes it is: in one sense, after all, all we’re talking about here is being strong or bold enough to make decisions for ourselves, right?  For most of us, living life on our own terms is about basically creating a pathway in life;  it’s adopting for ourselves a philosophy, a code of ethics in which we do not capitulate to the prevailing winds of the culture, nor do we bow down to the false idols and straw dogs of this world.  Moreover, as a pastor, I’m not unaware that one main reasons a lot of us come to church is that we have set the terms of our own lives, and at the top of the list is the faithful claim that though we are “in the world” we are not “of the world!”

So, you may ask, how can this preacher possibly suggest that such a thing constitute a sin, much less an egregious one?

It’s a fair question, to be sure; but maybe the answer is a matter of degree.  I suspect, for instance, that most of us here could name people in our lives who we see as having made consistently bad choices in their lives – drugs, alcohol, relationships, all manner of risky and self-destructive behavior; you name it – and yet, what always seems to be the answer when they are confronted with these incredibly harmful and possibly fatal choices? Usually something to the effect of, “It’s my life and I’ll live it the way I want.”  You see, when I speak of the sinfulness of “living life on our own terms,” what I’m talking about is our all-too human tendency to live in utter defiance of moral, ethical, natural and spiritual law; to the extent that the self – that is, us – becomes the center of all life, to the detriment of everything and everyone else!

That’s bad enough; but take this a few steps further and we come to the question I really want to ask this morning: what happens when this “living life on our own terms” becomes the stance in which we come to God?  At what point does the determination to do things “our way” begin to displace God as the central presence and concern of our lives?  Back in my seminary days, we studied the works of the great theologian Paul Tillich, who wrote that faith defined is the “ultimate concern” of life and living, and that a faith in God means that God will be your ultimate concern!  But what if it isn’t?  What if you, and your priorities, and your decisions, and your emotions are the ultimate concern?  What does that say about our relationship to God?  How does that enter into our claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ, and how does it affect our place in the kingdom of heaven?

Well, friends, that’s the question and the concern that’s on full display this morning as we come “before the cross of Jesus.”

Our text today comes from Luke’s version of the Passion narrative, and as such includes the first two of what most consider to be the seven last “words,” or utterances, of Jesus in those final hours on the cross.  These “seven last words” offer us incredible insight into Jesus’ suffering on that horrific day of crucifixion, as well as a deeper understanding of what his sacrifice means for us; but almost as important as the words that Jesus speaks is the context in which those words were spoken; and that’s especially true today.

You see, as we enter into the story this morning, after having suffered through his “trial” before Pilate, mocking and beating at the hands of the soldiers and the cries of the people to crucify (not to mention having already carried his cross through the streets of Jerusalem), now… finally… “they came to the place that is called The Skull,” and there “they crucified him.”  But understand that where we might expect this moment to be somber and funereal and deathly quiet, as it were; the actual crucifixion was anything but.  We’re told by Luke that the air is filled with noise of mockery and derision, with the crowd still hurling their insults, people cast[ing] lots to divide his clothing,” and even the soldiers, for whom this was an official detail, joining in;. There’s yelling, screaming, the threat of violence breaking out at any moment; this act of execution has the appearance of a mob scene, but even worse, it has the look and feel of a sick, twisted party.

Which makes it all the more amazing and utterly inconceivable that the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth are these:  “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Father, forgive them…   The absolute worst that humanity could possibly be capable of, all of its sin and degradation all right there in every bit of its horrific glory, and Jesus says, Father, forgive them…

And then there were the criminals.

This passage also serves to remind us that Jesus did not, in fact, die alone, but was crucified in the company of two criminals, “one on his right, and one on his left.”  Since crucifixion was a fairly common means of execution, it wasn’t unheard of for several crucifixions to happen at the same time; and quite frankly, these two particular criminals – both of whom were guilty and according to the law of the day, were being sentenced justly – might not even have provided a footnote in the gospel story were it not for the fact that they were a study in contrasts.  One of them had no qualms at all about joining in with the crowd below, “hurling insults” at Jesus, and, taking the whole thing a step further, taunting Jesus; challenging him:  “Are you not the Messiah?” he said, no doubt sarcastically and with a rasp in his voice that sounded like death itself, but with the tiniest bit of expectation: “Save yourself… and us!”

Do you see what was happening here?  Incredibly, this man’s looking for an angle!  Even now, at the moment of his own execution, here’s this condemned man approaching Jesus on his own terms.  Go ahead… save yourself; and if you can… and I bet you can’t, but if you can… why don’t you use your divine influence and get us out of this mess!  In other words, prove to me you are the anointed on of God, that you are the Christ; all you gotta do is get me off this cross!

The other criminal, however, is different.  First of all, he’s quick to rebuke the first criminal, reminding him that they’re getting what they deserve, but “this man has done nothing wrong.”  But then he turns his head, painfully, to Jesus and in contrast to the actions of the first, this second criminal does something that nobody expects; he says simply, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”   No taunts, no pretense, no deal making, no protests of innocence; nothing like that at all.  It’s worth noting, you know, that there are only two instances in the gospels Jesus is addressed in this specific way: that is, by name, and so very intimately and familiarly (usually, Jesus is addressed as Teacher, Rabbi or Master; very rarely is he actually called by his first name, and only twice like this); and in the other case it was a beggar asking for healing; basically, people with nothing asking for very little.  Not forgiveness; not salvation; not even the opportunity for a one last chance.  At this point he was so far gone, so close to the end that had no reason to expect anything, so he certainly wasn’t going to ask for anything.  He was done – emptied – and all this man asks in his emptiness is to simply be remembered by Jesus.

And to this, Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Actually, if you want to get very literal with the original Greek here, what Jesus says is “Amen, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Paradise – in the Greek paradisio, which interestingly enough is not only the word we associate with heaven, but which also, more specifically, refers to the Garden of Eden; that place of God’s intent and vision where “all things are just, and fair, and whole” and in glorious reconciliation with a loving, forgiving God!

Do you see the difference here, friends?  Can you recognize what happens when we live our lives with an “ultimate concern” wholly focused on ourselves and our own self-preservation, versus what happens when in our humility we empty ourselves before God and let him be the ultimate concern?  That first criminal, he didn’t understand this; all those people milling about beneath the cross, they certainly didn’t get it; and sadly, so many of us, in our futile effort to justify ourselves as so-called “self-made” men and women, we don’t understand it, either.

But here’s the good news:  Jesus does understand; and by grace, gives us the life that we need now and forever.  That’s what was behind his prayer of forgiveness offered to those who knew not what it was they were doing, and that was the purpose of his gift of paradise to a common criminal, who understood on some level where he needed to go. It’s the infinite love of God, manifest in a Savior who went to the cross to pay the price for our sin, thus guaranteeing us the gift of forgiveness, salvation… and a place in paradise.  All we really need to understand is where we need to go to receive the gift.

Some years ago, I was asked by a church member if I might go and visit his father, who was not a church member, who I had never met and who was near death at a local hospital; the reason being that though this man had no church connection of any sort, he’d made it known that he wished to receive some version of “last rites” and to make a confession before he died.  So I went to see him, and it soon became very clear what he wanted; with a very agitated wave of the hand, he immediately cleared everybody out of the room, took my hand in both of his, looked at me squarely in the eyes and began to confess his sins!

The only trouble was that because he’d suffered a series of strokes, he could barely speak at all!  And what words he could get out were not at all intelligible; to be honest, I didn’t understand a single word!  But in one of those beautiful moments when I allowed God’s grace to overcome logistics, I simply held his hands and let him talk.  And he talked for a long time; and friends, though I couldn’t make out any of what he was saying, he knew what he was saying and it was coming forth with raw and honest emotion.  You could see it in his eyes filled with tears, in gestures made with his head; how he squeezed my hands at key moments as if to emphasize what it was he was sharing with me.  And I just sat there in silence; listening and nodding.

Then, when I finally knew that it was my turn, together we asked – and acknowledged – the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ.  And when that was done he heaved this incredible sigh; as though the weight of the world was suddenly off his shoulders; which of course, it was.  He passed away a couple of days after that; his son told me that at the end his father had a peace about him that none of his family had ever seen before.  “What did you say to him?” the son asked me.  All I could answer was that I didn’t say anything, really; that in that moment of emptiness, someone else had done the talking, and that is what had made all the difference.

Beloved, we draw ever nearer to our time “before the cross of Jesus.”  The question for each of us will be whether we come to Jesus on our terms; or whether we will come to Jesus empty, ready to be filled with the wonders of his grace and thus find our place in paradise. I hope and pray for all of us that when the time comes, it will be the latter; for this is what will make all the difference now, and eternally.

Thanks be to God.


c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on March 8, 2015 in Jesus, Lent, Sermon, Sermon Series


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