Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Sermon: With Me In Paradise

Luke 23:33-43

It may seem strange to read a story of the crucifixion right before thanksgiving, and as part of our celebration of those who have died. But here is the thing. In this passage we have criminals who are suffering with Christ. We have people who were not perfect, people who were so bad at least in the eyes of the government that they were given a public, humiliating and awful death. And yet, despite that, they come to have a deep conversation about Christ and with Christ – as they suffer.

It begins with the crowd. They mock Jesus, “He saved others, let him save himself if he really is the Christ, sent from God, the chosen one.”

Then the soldiers join in, as they start mocking him. “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

And these two fellow victims who hang on the crosses next to Jesus, join in the conversation. The first has been listening, and I think, as he does so, he has the smallest glimmer of hope. He realizes that if Jesus is who he says, that perhaps there is escape from this awful punishment. So he asks, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Almost every interpreter I have read judges this criminal and makes it sound like he is joining the soldiers and the crowd, making fun of Jesus. But I don’t think so, I think he is grabbing at the faintest of hopes. He is begging – save yourself and save us. It comes across self-serving, but when you are hanging on a cross dying, being self-serving is okay. So I don’t really think he is mocking Jesus. I think he is grasping for hope, like most of us do when life is at its worst.

The second criminal is far more reflective. He thinks about what he has done to earn his punishment, and then he looks at Jesus and humbly says that Christ has done nothing wrong. Then in faith he adds, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Perhaps he had heard the story of King Frederick the Great who was visiting the jails of Potsdam and speaking to the inmates. Surprisingly, every single one of the inmates expressed to the King that they were totally innocent of the charges against them. Near the end of the King's visit, one of the inmates shared with him, "My King, I am guilty and deserve the punishment I am receiving." The King ordered the man to be released. With a smile, the King said, "After all, I don't want him to corrupt all the innocent people in here."[1]

Maybe this criminal was hoping by confession to be let go, but I doubt it. More likely he understood that Jesus was an innocent man, condemned by politics. More likely he understood that Jesus was a good religious man, who truly helped others. It appears he even understood that Jesus’ kingdom was real, maybe not on earth, maybe in our hearts, maybe in heaven, but that God had a plan for this suffering messiah beyond the cross. So he simply asks to be remembered.

Christ then replies, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

To me, there is this amazing thing here. A criminal expressing only the very simplest faith, making only the most simple plea – to be remembered by Christ is told that on that very day he will be with Christ in paradise.

You know, that should be a huge comfort to us as we think about our loved ones. Some of them deserve to be called saints.

“A little boy attended Church with his Grandfather one Sunday. Grandpa's church had beautiful stained-glass windows. Grandpa told his grandson that the windows contained pictures of Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke, Saint John, Saint Paul, and whole lot of other saints.”

“When he got home, the boy told Mom and Dad all about it. Dad, wanting to be funny and curious about what his son had learned, asked, "What is a saint?" The boy thought for a minute and then replied, "A saint is somebody the light shines through."

That’s “a pretty good definition of a Saint. Who are your saints? Who are the people in your life who let the light of God shine through them for you to see?”[2]

They were truly people that pointed us to Christ, they were one’s whose lives were light and hope and inspiration. And it is easy to imagine them with Christ.

But this passage goes beyond that, it includes others who may have been sort of ordinary, they may not have been perfect. They may have had a simple faith, but said little or did little to express it. Or in fact, they may have been deeply flawed – they may have been thieves and even condemned to death for awful acts.

But, but Christ remembers all of them as he sits in his kingdom, he receives them with only the simplest statement of faith, and calls them his own. Do you realize how amazing that is? Saints, ordinary folk, sinners of the worst type, all are welcomed into paradise simply by asking Christ to remember them.

It doesn’t take a degree in theology. It doesn’t take the sort of life that inspires feel-good miniseries on television. These aren’t what get the criminal into paradise. It is a realization that we are guilty, and Christ is innocent. It is a realization that Jesus is the Christ, from God, and he does have a kingdom, and we want to be part of it. That’s really about it. For all those rather ordinary people, who probably aren’t going to make the “who’s who” of sainthood, and all those deeply flawed, even deeply sinful people, even the type that condemned to death for their crimes, for all of us Christ’s words are pretty amazing, “You will be in paradise with me.”

What a hope-filled message!

So as we reflect on those who have died, whether they are the shining saints or the unpolished ones; when we consider these people without whom our lives would never be the same, we can know that they are in paradise today. Christ remembers each and every one of them. Isn’t that nice to know? Isn’t that comforting? I think it is!

Plus, we can also come to the point of making a simple statement of faith for ourselves: starting with confession of our sins and then simply asking: “Christ remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In doing this we can hear him respond to us that we also can be with him in paradise (maybe not today – I hope not today), but when that day comes and our eyes close in final rest – we will be with him.

Once we come to know that message of hope, then we can begin to change our lives, to work toward a different lifestyle, but at the very least we know, that Christ will remember us; he will not forsake us, but he will welcome us into the eternal kingdom.

So it may seem strange to read a passage from the crucifixion as we think back on our loved ones who have died, but I think it is very fitting – it is a word of hope, a reminder of forgiveness – from people who were facing imminent death themselves. And it tells us there is a future beyond the grave.

[1] Christianglobe Networks, Inc. , The Ritz Collection, by Eric Ritz
[2] ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., RSVP: Stewardship through Service, by Billy D. Strayhorn

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