Rev’d Jay Smith
Luke 23:33-43 When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his life. Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him, “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus remember me when you come into you kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
This is the gospel of Christ
Praise to Christ, the Word.
Lord, take my words and speak through them,
take our thoughts and think through them,
take our hearts & set them on fire with love for you
through the power of the Holy Spirit,
and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
The desire to “get even” seems to be a part of the human psyche.
It is like the story of a mother who heard her seven-year-old son screaming. She runs into the next room to see what is wrong, and discovers her two-year-old daughter is pulling the hair of her brother. The mother gets the hand of the baby unclenched and says, “You will have to overlook this. Your sister doesn’t know what it feels like to have her hair pulled.”
The mother goes back into the kitchen when she hears the daughter screaming. She runs back into the room and says, “What happened?”
The boy answered, “She knows what it feels like now.”
Revenge. It can seem sweet. It seems like it may even set things straight. But so often that just doesn’t happen. This mornings reading there were many gathered. And revenge was part of what was going on. This reading this morning does not exactly draw us in with an air of joy. A motley crew indeed gathered round the cross. Waiting, with different agendas privately held as they watched and waited for Jesus to die. Was he going to make a last minute run for power after all? Was the obvious pain and suffering only to add to the drama?
Every Sunday, believers all around the world come together and gather around the cross of Christ. In worship we acknowledge the cross, In faith we acknowledge that the cross is the way. What was done that day, and what happened after is the foundation of our faith. Let us look a little closer at who was there, gathered around the cross of Jesus— the religious leaders, the soldiers, and the thieves— all gazing at the crucified Christ. But why were they there? What did they see?
Most of the people who viewed the cross that day saw Christ the Failure. A man who was not able to live up to the title that was inscribed above his head—The King of the Jews. The first people we run into at the foot of the cross are the religious rulers. These are the men who held the power in Jewish society. They were thought of as very devout and knowledgeable in the law of Moses. But although they knew the words of Scripture, their interpretation did not convey the true meaning of the law, especially in what they saw as being the Kingdom of God. They had read of the Messiah who was coming, but they thought of him as an earthly king—a ruler who would deliver the Jewish people out of the hands of their Roman conquerors. When they saw Jesus hanging on the cross, it was clear to them that he was not the conqueror they were looking for. So they taunted him: “If you really are the Chosen One, prove it to us once and for all by coming down from the cross.” And oh, I wonder how much unspoken dialogue was going on as they looked at one another, waiting, to see what might happen. But Jesus did nothing. And so they thought, what a failure.
Next we see the Roman soldiers looking at the cross. They joined in mocking Jesus. They must have felt very superior seeing yet another pretender king(a claimant to a non existent throne, like King Constantine of Greece where the monarchy has been disbanded-of which there were many in the times of the Roman empire) brought to his knees by the might of Rome. They mocked him by giving him wine vinegar to drink. They played the part of butlers offering their king a glass of wine. But their purpose was plain and simple—humiliation. “Oh great king—where is your power? Clearly you are nothing compared to our mighty Caesar! If you really are powerful, come down from the cross.” And Jesus did nothing. So for them too they thought, “What a failure”.
As if the taunts of the rulers and solders were not enough, Jesus also faced the insults of a common criminal who hung on a cross next to him. The criminal was looking for one thing from Jesus—salvation. He wasn’t seeking salvation in a spiritual sense, but in a physical sense. He wanted Jesus to get him down from his cross and end his suffering. His taunt was even more personal than the others: “Aren’t you really the Christ? Then why don’t you end this suffering for us, huh?” And Jesus did nothing. And so he would have thought, “What a failure”.
Then there’s a character in this story we haven’t talked about yet. He’s one of the most unlikely heroes found on the pages of Scripture. This was a man whose life of wickedness and crime earned him a death sentence with the Roman government. He knew that he deserved to be hanging on that cross. He told the other criminal, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” He also knew that Jesus had done nothing wrong. His life was very different from the criminal. Throughout Jesus’ entire life on earth, there was not even a hint of one improper action. Yet he was dying the same death as the criminal who hung next to him. This criminal recognized the injustice of the situation. But he did not see it as a failure.
Unlike all the others, the criminal was able to see Jesus for who he really was. His death was not a sign of weakness or failure, his death was a sign of his victory. His death was the very reason he came to this earth. If he would have listened to his mockers and come down from the cross, then he would have been a failure. But he did not. He patiently endured the great suffering and agony because he knew there were many souls, just like that criminal’s, that were desperately in need of salvation. This was Jesus’ greatest concern—the souls of all mankind. And it was the cry of that criminal’s soul that Jesus answered while he was on the cross.
The criminal longed for the rescue that only Jesus could provide—an eternal rescue. He cried out to the Saviour, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And now, at last, Jesus opens his mouth. The taunts and the open mockery of the synagogue rulers and the soldiers had all been met with silence. But when Jesus hears this humble plea of a soul in need, he answers him with great words of comfort. He responds, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The criminal did not have to wait any longer for his salvation. That very day he would be with Jesus in Paradise. One can only imagine the relief and the comfort that came with those words.
Jesus’ act of forgiveness while dying on the cross resounds with his teachings that forgiveness is given for all who repent and believe, even condemned thieves during their own executions. This kind of forgiveness is a challenging notion for many of us. Part of humanity’s inability to believe and trust in the forgiving power of God’s grace and mercy is our inability to believe that other people deserve mercy. So often we want to judge who gets into heaven. So often, we want to take the part of the religious leaders and make the kingdom of God on our own terms. Many of us are more comfortable not knowing what happened to the thief who scoffed at Jesus than knowing that an undeserving thief was let into paradise. We would rather have that Jesus loves the people we say we like and are like us. We would prefer if God did not love the drug dealers, the murderers, the child abusers, the adulterers, the slave traders as much as he loves us. But as Christians, we have a confessional faith, not because we are weak, but because God is strong and God is love. We have a confessional faith because the grace of God is sufficient for all. We confess because God will hear and forgive our sins and the sins of the worst sinners in the world. Our salvation is not dependent on the religious leaders- on our priests, our bishops, or on each other, but on a loving grace-giving God. We confess because God’s saving grace will heal, restore, redeem and forgive those whom God has created and whom God loves fiercely. Yes, Jesus’ words to the thief then are the words he speaks to our souls today. And these are the words that our souls need to hear. As the hymn’s words say, “When peace, like a river attendeth my way, when troubles like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.” We are reminded of the prophet Isaiah’s words: “He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him.” This was the purpose of Christ’s suffering and death—to bring us peace.
Unfortunately, this peace so often eludes us. Just like the synagogue rulers of Jesus’ day, we want Christ to make everything better in our lives here on earth. We want our problems to go away. We want every day to be happy. We want the boss to give us a raise. We want; we want; we want. And you know what? Christ does not always give us what we want. But he does always give us what we need. In Christ, we find everything we need for life—forgiveness, salvation, a peace that lasts.
What would have been your words if you were on the cross next to Jesus? Would you have seen as the thief saw that day. Would you have roused Jesus out of the silence of his suffering? Would you have been a confessor? Or would you join in with the crowd? Were you there when they crucified our Lord as the hymn goes? Would it have caused you to tremble.
When you come to church on Sunday morning, we hold the cross before your eyes and we say, “Look at the cross and see the suffering Christ. He’s not a failure, he’s your King. He’s not a king that conquered lands and peoples while he was here on earth. But he’s a king that conquered our greatest foes—sin and death. He’s a king that brings us peace as he rules in our hearts. And he’s a king that will one day turn his face to you and answer your soul’s cry with words of eternal comfort: ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” Amen.
I now invite you to join with me in a prayer.
Father, you never leave yourself without a witness.
You raised up a thief who had great faith and received a great promise.
Please strengthen my faith.
I am often so upset and confused by the buffeting winds of my life.
Let me be unmoved.
Let me see beyond them to Jesus.
By your grace, may my faith bring joy into your breaking heart as did the thief’s faith to Jesus.
As I confess my faith, I dedicate my life to you.