Friday, April 14, 2006

today you will be with me in paradise (good friday)

Luke’s gospel had told us, in the middle of the story, that Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem. There the encounter, the showdown, the conflict would occur. There the cross would await him. Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. Was Jesus looking for a conflict, a cross? No, but he had begun to understand that his mission in life included a cross and the suffering that went with it.

The great theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer was teaching at Union Theological Seminary as a visiting professor from Germany, as Hitler was beginning his rise to power in his home country. Bonhoeffer reads Paul’s appeal to Timothy to “come before winter”, and he returned to give his life there, for the gospel. In life, in ways visible and behind the scenes, Bonhoeffer wrote, “we don’t have to go looking for suffering, for the cross, it will find us”.

The waving of palm branches have given way to a cross on that hill far away, the cheers of Hosanna to the jeers of soldiers and religious authorities, the gathered crowds become only a few, everyone else having abandoned the whole matter.

A number of scenes related to Holy Week could come into focus here, it would be like shuffling through snapshots, or clicking through images on a digital camera now, I suppose, but we will stay with one. The one that catches our eye is Jesus, hanging on a cross at Golgotha, the place of the skull. He is there between two thieves, one on his left, and one on his right. Luke alone records the conversation between them. It is a visual image of the prophecy of Isaiah, that Jesus himself had reflected on and quoted: HE WAS NUMBERED AMONG THE TRANSGRESSORS (52. 13).

The two thieves, so far from him in life, so near to him in death, respond in surprisingly different ways. One rejects, the other accepts. One mocks, the other takes seriously. One is the response of secularity and cynicism, the other of radical faith and trust. These are different responses, and yet, if we are honest, many of us find these voices speaking from within us---at times we reject, at others we accept; at times we are defiant, and maybe voice our own skepticism about the usefulness or reality of religious piety; at other times, we can be childlike in our own faith.

There are two criminals there. The one mocks, the other confesses. Hanging between them, someone has observed that the cross stands not between two candles but in in the midst of two thieves, two outcasts, two sinners. Again, in death Jesus is exactly where he had been in life. You can read Luke’s gospel as a narrative of the characters whose lives intersected with Jesus:

The man with a demonic spirit and Simon’s mother-in-law, near death in Luke 4;
A man with leprosy, another man who is paralyzed, and Levi, a despised tax collector, in Luke 5;
The Roman officer’s servant, near death, the widow’s son, the Gerasene Demoniac who was chained in the graveyards, in Luke 8;
A boy foaming in the mouth, in Luke 9;
The unheard of act of teaching a woman in Luke 10;
A man unable to speak in Luke 11;
A crippled woman, whom Jesus heals on the Sabbath, in Luke 13;
The healing of ten lepers in Luke 17;
The radical gesture of welcoming children in Luke 18;
Going into the home of Zaccheus, a despised tax collector, in Luke 19;
Sharing a meal with Judas, who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him, in Luke 22.

And when Jesus wasn’t living the message, he was teaching it, in parables, which are often stories about outcasts, just in case we missed the point, Jesus would talk about good Samaritans (Luke 10) and prodigal son (Luke 15), and these are some of his best-known teachings.

In life and in death, Jesus was near the outcasts, the failures, the sinners: sometimes they got it and sometimes they did not, and maybe the same is true for you and me. And he is near to them---he stoops to their weakness, and ours---in a cross; a cross not between two candles, but between two sinners.


The two thieves remind us that, at the cross, it is all level ground. None of us can say, of ourselves, I HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG. And yet the one being crucified between two thieves/outcasts/sinners is innocent. God---purity, righteousness, love---is in the midst of sin, guilt and death. He hangs right there on a cross, in the middle of it all. He is numbered among the transgressors. If we were looking at a snapshot, we couldn’t miss it.

And of course, this is the heart of the matter, the central focus, the question about the very nature of who God is and what God is like. God is in the midst of the world, not distant or detached from it. The early church father Irenaeus, meditating on the nature of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, gave us the beautiful image of the Son and the Spirit as the two arms of God, the cross as God’s embrace of every enemy and outcast, of all suffering and pain, of every thief and sinner.

He hangs there at Golgotha. It is almost too much. The writers of the passion hymns have captured the overwhelming sense of the gift of his presence there, and what it meant, and what it means still:

“O Love divine, what hast thou done! The immortal God has died for me”.

“Was it for crimes that I have done, He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity, grace unknown And love beyond degree”.

“What wondrous love is this, o my soul, o my soul!”

Jesus keep me near the cross, there a precious fountain,
Free to all, a healing stream, flows from Calvary’s mountain.

“Were you there when they nailed him to the tree…
Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble”.

“What language shall I borrow, to thank Thee, dearest friend?”

One of those hanging on a cross beside Jesus was taking all of this in. He could only say: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Remember me. In the Bible, when God remembers, God acts, God does something, God saves. Remember me. It is the appeal of a thief, an outcast, a sinner: Remember me.

And it is an appeal that God hears. The Apostle Paul wrote: whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. Even a thief. Even an outcast. Even a sinner. Even you. Even me. Whoever.

We can say no more and no less than the thief, the sinner, the outcast: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

And the one who hangs on the cross, the crucified God, speaks: “Today you will be with me in paradise”.

Today; not just a future promise, but a present reality. Today.

Today marks the beginning of Holy Week, when we are reminded that we don’t have to go looking for suffering, for a cross.

The cross will find us.

The message and mystery of Holy Week, however, is that this turns out to be good news, dawning upon us, claiming our attention, calling for our response: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

And then we listen for the promise: Today you will be with me in paradise.


We have stayed awhile with this one scene: Jesus on the cross, between two thieves, two outcasts, two sinners, between you and me. If we look closely we will see that His arms are reaching out to us, like a shepherd gathering lost sheep, like a great physician touching the wounds of a leper, the cross as blunt instrument begins to bend toward mercy and compassion, the arms of the cross are curving toward us, like the embrace of a Father who has been waiting for a lost child to come home.

Sources: Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace; Richard Lischer, The End of Words.


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