When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 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 God’s Messiah, 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 Messiah? 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 your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (NIV)
Grace to you and peace from God our creator, from Jesus Christ, our redeemer and friend and from the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and guide.
How many orange cars did you see on your way to church today? How about on your last drive over 5 minutes? Did you see any? Think about it for a moment… Anyone?
I thought you wouldn’t have seen any. But it isn’t because they aren’t there. You weren’t looking for them. But the next time you are out there on the road, look for them. I bet you see one. I bet you see more than one. I bet you will see one almost every time you are out for a drive.
And it is kind of like seeing the evidence of the Kingdom of God. Unless we are looking for it, we are not likely to notice it. But it is there. There is evidence of the Kingdom of God everywhere. We just have to be cued in to notice it.
How do we see what God is doing right in front of us?
What does our gospel passage tell us?
First of all, it tells us there is no place God cannot be. Why? Because the cross is the least likely place to find God. It is the place of ultimate shame in the Roman Empire, and there Jesus was…right there on the cross. There is no more painful way to die. And there was Jesus… In the midst of pain and suffering… God was fully present. There were two criminals, God was in the middle of them. With the onlookers, scoffers, skeptics and mockers… God was with them, forgiving them, accepting them and inviting them into the Kingdom. So if you don’t remember anything else, always remember there is no place where God will not go to be with you.
This is the Jesus we are called to imitate. And really, it is even more than that. We are called to be “in Christ,” which means we share—always imperfectly, and always in community with others—the call to be the embodiment of God’s love in the world, the living face of Christ. We are to be the body of Christ, the presence of God with skin on. So wherever you see kindness, love, patience, joy, peacefulness, faith being expressed and trust being lived through self-control, know that you are not alone in bearing the Kingdom of God.
Then there are the criminals on the cross. The first criminal recognized Jesus as the one whom people said was the Messiah. He asked, “Aren’t you the Messiah?” He recognized Jesus for who and what he was. But his expectations fell short. That criminal had the right words, “Save us.” But he couldn’t imagination what Jesus could really do for him. He only wanted down off the cross to go back to the same old life he had always lived. Jesus had SO MUCH MORE TO OFFER HIM!
Then there is the other criminal. He chastised the first one for disrespecting Jesus. He then said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He recognized Jesus for who he was too… the heir of the Kingdom; the one who would inherit it all upon his death. But he said more than he knew he was saying. In scolding the first criminal, he said, ““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.” (Luke 23:40-4, NIV) But that’s just the thing… Jesus didn’t do anything wrong. Everything he did was absolutely right, but it was still sedition to claim anyone else but Caesar might be the Son of God. In the Roman Empire, that title was reserved for the Caesar alone. Jesus was absolutely guilty of what the empire was accusing him. That doesn’t make it wrong though.
So you see, both criminals got it a little bit right and a little bit wrong. Just like most of us. None of us can see God completely and clearly. We are all muddled by our human condition. And yet, there is a lot we can see because God has revealed God-self to us in the scriptures, in our daily prayers, in our worship and in the every-day world.
God is in the middle of us and God’s Kingdom is here too, right in front of our faces. Jesus forgave those who were hardest on him. Jesus said to the criminal “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” It wasn’t about how right the man’s beliefs were. It was about how much Jesus loved him. It is always about how much God loves us. It is never about how much we deserve it, nor is it about what we have done or what we can do. That is the nature of grace. It is purely about God’s divine action and preference.
We are called to bring hope into a world full of despair by reminding people that God’s love is FOR them. We are called to proclaim forgiveness in an age of self-righteousness by telling people that there is nothing God cannot redeem. We are called to be advocates of the resurrection in a culture of death by telling our stories of how we have been sustained, now we have come back from what we thought was the end, how life and renewal are always God’s ongoing purposes.
The law and the gospel are equal partners in bringing this hope. We need the order and justice that comes through God’s law and we need the mercy and love that are given in the gospel; God’s good news. Too much law and we are tempted to give up because we know we can never measure up. Maybe we have left the church for a time, turned away from God and God’s people and lived on our own at the risk of our souls and to the detriment of the community. Maybe we thought if people really knew us we wouldn’t be welcome. Or maybe it was the other way around… we saw too much in the church that disappointed and disillusioned us. Not enough people acted like Jesus. Either way, too much law drives us away from God.
Too much gospel has its own problems. It sounds funny to say that. Part of me wants to scream, “There is no such thing as too much gospel!” True, there cannot be too much mercy and grace. And yet, it might be better said that the opposite of too much law is too much freedom; too much detachment. Some misunderstand and misuse the gospel to imply there are no rules. That’s just wrong. The gospel is ruled by the law of love. That’s why the statement is true that there is no such thing as too much gospel. But when there is no structure, no standards, and no way to live in harmony with God’s people or the creation God made, nobody benefits. Too much freedom is not a healthy way of life. We are better off when we are constrained by the desire to be a blessing to those around us, the desire to love and be loved, the desire to be part of something greater than ourselves.
And so I invite you to take a deep breath, know that God’s love is as close as your next breath. Remember that no matter what, God loves you just as Jesus loved the criminals to his right and to his left, and invited them straight into paradise. Sit with that. Ponder the wonders of God’s love and grace…
Some silence for reflection
Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world all the time. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Thanks to Rolf Jacobson, Professor, Luther Seminary, St Paul, MN for the orange car illustration and inspiration in his article on The Craft of Preaching, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5396.