Luke 23:27-43 / Proper 29C / 21 November 2010 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” – Luke 23:43
It’s an odd reading for the end of the church year. Ordinarily, we’d expect a parable of judgment – the sheep and the goats or traditionally, the wise and foolish bridesmaids. But instead we get Luke’s picture of the crucifixion. Odd to have a Good Friday text on the Last Sunday of the Church Year, the Sunday when we consider Jesus’ appearing in glory to judge the living and the dead.
But if you look and listen closely, you’ll recognize that Good Friday is a kind of snapshot, a pattern, a “type” of the Last Day, just as last week we saw that the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was a pattern picture of the Last Day. Jesus follows the same pattern here as he trudges down the streets of Jerusalem on His way to the place of the Skull, Golgotha. The women were weeping and wailing over Him, but Jesus says to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children.” He looks to the coming days when Jerusalem will be overrun by the Roman armies and laid siege, times when it would be worst for pregnant women and women with infants, when people would say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.” It also goes worst for mothers and children.
And that isn’t the worst of it. “If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry.” No question. The ends times go from bad to worse to worse even still. And yet, amid all of it, there is Jesus, praying “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” That’s not only HIs prayer over those who crucified Him and cast lots for His clothing, but His prayer over all of humanity in its collective insanity. Forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing. It’s His prayer for you and me, living in these latter days.
He is mocked by the religious, as He is mocked by Religion today. No religion of this world tolerates free grace, unconditional pardon, forgiveness of the sinner. Even we sometimes recoil at it. The soldiers too, mock Jesus with their cheap, sour wine and sarcasm. “Save yourself, if you’re the King of the Jews.” Politics and Religion always mock Jesus, always crucify Him, always want nothing to do with Him.
But even here on the cross, especially here on the cross, Jesus is King of all kings, Lord of all lords, Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, Son of God, Savior of the nations. This is the last image the world gets of Jesus – bleeding, dying, persecuted, ridiculed, mocked. Five hundred would see Him risen from the dead, but not the general public. Eleven would see Him taken up in the clouds. But this spectacle is for the whole world to see. This is the King in His kingdom as it appears in this world. In your minds freeze frame that picture of Jesus on the cross, between two convicted criminals, mocked by church and state. That’s the last image the world gets until He appears in glory on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead.
It’s also a picture of judgment day. In Jesus, the world is already judged. He is all of humanity in one Man, the second Adam. His death is humanity’s death; His death is the death of the world. This is the world’s last Day in type.
The two thieves separated by Jesus are the sheep and the goats, the wise and foolish, the believing and the unbelieving. They too are a picture of what has come in Jesus and what will come on the Last Day. Two sinners, separated by the crucified Sinless One, one on his right, the other on his left. James and John had vied for the positions of power when Jesus came into His kingdom, seated at His left and His right. But the honored seats go to these two.
Both men were guilty as charged. Their deaths were intended to be an example for the general public. Both were guilty, just as you and I stand guilty under the law, guilty of insurrection against God, guilty of wanting to be gods in place of God, guilty of willfully violating His law. Both criminals were equally guilty, deserving not only their death sentence but deserving condemnation before God. Those who are saved and those who are condemned are equally guilty, as these two were. There is no distinction. All have sinned, all fall short of the glory of God, all are condemned by the Law of God.
Two guilty men dying next to Jesus. One rails against Jesus in unbelief. “Aren’t you the Christ? What sort of Messiah are you, anyway? Save yourself, save us.” Here’s the irony – in not saving Himself, Jesus saved us and the world, including the one who railed against Him! This one is the unbeliever, the old Adam who refuses the salvation that is next to Him, who mocks the only Savior that there is. Even in the despair of death he’s full of hatred and mockery and joins his voice with those who stood at the foot of Jesus’ cross. His salvation is right there next to him, but he refuses to see it. In this Jesus is pardon for his sins, acquittal before God, the promise of Paradise. But he would not have it. Instead, he mocks Jesus even in death. A life of rejection culminates in a death of rejection.
The other one believes. He is faithful. He bears witness to his fellow sinner. “Don’ you fear God? You’re under the same sentence. You’re damned as much as anyone. He preaches the Law to his brother convict. A word of truth. “We are receiving the due reward for our deeds. We deserve this.” The wages of sin is death. We deserve this. You deserve this. We all do. No one escapes this.
“But this man, this Jesus in between them, He has done nothing wrong.” He confesses Christ. He is innocent. More than that. He is sinless. And yet in the mystery of God’s mercy, God made this innocent, sinless Jesus to be sin for us. He is the criminal, the terrorist, the murderer. He became our sin, the sin of the world. Every crime against humanity, every homicide and genocide and fratricide is focused upon Him. He becomes our Sin, so that in Him we might become His righteousness, the righteousness of God.
This is the judgment of humanity. God has judged Sin in the death of His Sinless Son. “This man has done nothing wrong,” and yet this Man dies as one who has done everything wrong, forsaken by God, condemned, persecuted, mocked, ridiculed, damned. He gets what we deserve so that, in the end, we get what He deserves.
And then comes the prayer of faith. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This is how faith prays. He asks for nothing but to be remembered by Jesus. He doesn’t ask to be saved from the cross, to be spared his suffering, to be granted a last minute pardon, as the other one did. When death is unavoidable, faith embraces death and prays, “Jesus, remember me.” He who dies with these words on his lips, dies well.
“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said, giving out His body and blood. “Do this for my remembrance.” Remembrance works both ways. Faith remembers Him, what He did to win forgiveness, life, and salvation for us. And He remembers us with His Body and Blood. Now, you may argue, of course, that the thief neither was baptized nor did he receive the Lord’s Supper. And that is true. Baptism had not yet been instituted. That comes after Jesus’ resurrection. The Supper had been given only to the Twelve, not yet to the world. That too would come soon enough. But this dying thief, both actually, had the ultimate Sacrament – dying Jesus on the cross next them. And from the lips of dying Jesus, the faithful criminal heard these words saving words with Jesus’ own Amen: “Amen, I say to you, today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
The guilty one is pardoned before God. Justified for Jesus’ sake. Though the world has found him guilty and sentenced him to die for his deeds, and justly so, the Son of God has declared him righteous, fit for life in Paradise. Though he dies for his crimes, he is pardoned of his sins by the Sinless One who died next to him and is promised life. His death sentence becomes a life sentence, thanks to Jesus..
Jesus didn’t say anything to the other one, and we dare not say anything either. Jesus said that every blasphemy uttered against Him would be forgiven. Jesus prayed for those who mocked Him, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Did this prayer also extend to the thief who mocked Him? Did His blood and His death atone for that one too? Yes, of course. And yet Jesus’ silence over the other thief offers no comfort, just as any refusal on our part of the gifts of salvation will not bring us comfort in our last day. He stands condemned by his own words. How is He to remember you in His kingdom if you refuse to His Baptism, His word, His Body and Blood, the very means by which He remembers you?
You are baptized into the death of Jesus. In Baptism, God declared dead to sin and alive to Him in Christ. You have been judged in the death of Jesus. The One who comes at the Last Day to judge is the same One who came to the cross to be judged. The One who comes on the Last Day is the One who comes to you today with the gifts of His sacrifice. Jesus, remember me. That’s faith’s prayer. And Jesus’ response is ever the same: “Amen, I say to you, Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
In the name of Jesus,