Remember me. . .

Good morning, Friends! Thank you all so much for coming today.

We come here every Sunday, partly to greet each other, and to see our friends.

We come here to enjoy some music, and to spend some time in prayer. We love the quiet and the inner peace we feel when we pray. And sometimes people say really important things in open worship.

A lot of us enjoy the children’s message just as much or more than the sermon. And for all of us, there’s so much joy in hearing the voices of the children, and all the little noises they make.

But we also come to learn more from the Bible. We’ve read it, so many times. But there’s always something new, something that touches our hearts and minds.

For the last few weeks, we’ve been going back and learning more from the Easter story. We’re always in such a hurry to get to the good news of Easter morning. We rush through the story, when there’s so much more to learn.

Last week, at our midweek Bible study, for example, we talked about angels. On Easter morning, it says that the people who went to the tomb met an angel, or maybe two angels. Or maybe, there were a whole lot of angels, standing on the sidelines, and Mary and the others just didn’t see them. Maybe it was like Christmas, where there was a whole host of angels, trying not to shout for joy and scare people away.

Anyway, at Bible study we were reading about angels, and in one of the Psalms God says, “I change my angels into wind, and my servants into flaming fire. . .” (Psalm 104:4)

It’s almost as though wind and fire are what angels really are, all the time. But once in a while they have to take on human form, like on Easter morning, when they told the people that Jesus wasn’t in the grave any more.

Anyway, that’s the kind of thing we sometimes do here at worship and in Bible study. We dig deeper, and we read more, and we stretch our minds and hearts. That’s what I want us all to do this morning.

Our Scripture reading today is part of the gospel of Luke. Luke is the one who always cares about the underdog. Luke is the gospel which tells the story of the Prodigal Son, who messed up his life and ran away. He was living on the street and ashamed to come home, till one day, it says he came to his senses. He started home, and it says his father came running to meet him.

That’s what it’s like for all of us, Jesus said, whenever we turn back to God. God isn’t just sitting there, fuming, waiting to read us the riot act. God doesn’t just meet us halfway. God comes running to meet us.

Luke is also the gospel where Jesus tells the story about two men who went up to the Temple to pray. One was stuck up and self-righteous, and he said, “God, I thank you that I’m not like all these other people here beside me – the thieves, the liars and adulterers all around me.”

The other person, Jesus said, didn’t pray like that. He didn’t even dare to lift his eyes up to heaven. He stood in a corner at the back and he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Jesus said, “You tell me – which of those two went home a better person that day?” (Luke 18:10-13)

Anyway, like I said, Luke always sticks up for the underdog. It runs all through his gospel. Luke remembers how Jesus cared for people like this, even while he was dying on the cross. Let’s read that part of the Easter story.

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Jesus to be executed. 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 Jesus: “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.”

Luke 23:32-43

All of the gospels say that people mocked Jesus, as he was dying on the cross. It hurts us, and it shames us, because we love Jesus.

We love what Jesus taught. We love who he was. We love all the healing that Jesus brought. We love the peace that he shared. We love the kingdom that Jesus told people about – the kingdom of peace, the kingdom of love and justice. Jesus said that his kingdom is so close to us, only a prayer or a heartbeat away.

And now, the Jesus we love so much is betrayed by one of the people he chose himself. He’s arrested and dragged off in the middle of the night.

His arms and hands are tied as he’s questioned and beat up. Lying witnesses accuse Jesus of things he’s never done. Jesus’ words are twisted against him by people who want him dead.

He’s led away by Roman soldiers, who whip Jesus and make fun of him. They march him out of the city, carrying his own cross. They strip him, and they nail him to the cross. The soldiers toss dice to see who’ll get Jesus’ clothing. And people come out from the city to mock him again and watch him die.

The other gospels say that Jesus cried out and asked why God had abandoned him. Only Luke says that Jesus cried out and said, “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they’re doing!”

All four gospels say that Jesus was crucified with common criminals on either side of him. The Romans and the religious leaders wanted to rub it in and make Jesus seem like a criminal himself.

But only Luke’s gospel, the one we read today, lets the criminals speak.

We don’t know their names or what they did. Luke says that there were two of them. The gospel says they were thieves or robbers – some say they were ordinary thieves, others say they were more like highway robbers.

One of the two criminals mocked Jesus and yelled at him – “Aren’t you the Savior?”, he shouted. “Why don’t you come down from the cross and save us and save yourself?”

It really makes you wonder, what we would say, if we’d been there being punished ourselves. The Romans weren’t real big on rehabilitation. The Romans’ idea was to make an example of people – to punish them brutally and painfully and scare everybody else into staying straight.

When we’re hurting, do we blame God for it? When we get caught doing wrong, do we blame Jesus, and expect him to do something about it? That’s what the first thief did. And it’s probably what most people do today.

What about the second thief? What did he say?

“Don’t you fear God?” he said, “We’re under the same sentence of death. We’re being punished justly. We’re getting what we deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And do you remember what Jesus answered? Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Tradition calls these two men the Good Thief and the Bad Thief. Years later, someone said that the Good Thief’s name was Desmas or Demas. In the Catholic Church, he’s recognized as a saint. On the church calendar, he’s got a special holiday, March 25th, to remember and honor him.

There are many local churches named after him – the Church of Saint Desmas. There’s even a church in Ontario called the Church of the Good Thief. It was built by prisoners from the nearby penitentiary. Not many churches like that.

One of the things we always forget about the Bible, is that the Christian part of the Bible was written in Greek. And one of the funny things about Greek is that there’s no punctuation marks. There are no quotes, periods or commas.

So, people who study the Bible aren’t sure how to translate what Jesus said.

It could be that Jesus said, “Truly, I tell you today: you will be with me in paradise.”

Or Jesus could have said, “Truly, I tell you: today you will be with me in paradise.

Can you hear the difference? One says, “Truly, I tell you: today you will be with me. . .” The other way to read it is, “Truly, I tell you today: you will be with me. . .

So, it’s not clear whether the Good Thief was going today, or whether it was going to be down the road. But one way or the other, he was going to be with Jesus.

He wasn’t going to get to be with Jesus because he earned it or deserved it. Remember, he was being executed for being a criminal. He was going to be with Jesus, because he prayed for mercy, and because even while he was dying, he believed in Jesus’ love.

In a very real sense, the Good Thief was the first Christian. Even though he’d done a lot of things wrong, even though he was a sinner, even though he’d hurt a lot of other people and was losing his own life, before he died, he realized who Jesus was.

Even though he couldn’t make a move to help himself, he threw himself on Jesus’ mercy. It’s like he said, “Lord, I’ve run out of every option – but I put my hope in you.”

And in a very real sense, we are all either the Good Thief or the Bad Thief. Even if we’re pretty good people, even if we haven’t been arrested, tried and convicted, at some place we are all either one or the other.

And Jesus is on the cross with us. We’re with him – but he’s with us.

Just one last note, but it’s an interesting one. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “you will be with me in Paradise. . .”

This is the only place in any of the four gospels, where it uses that word. Most of the time, Jesus talks about Heaven or the kingdom.

In John’s gospel, Jesus talks about “my Father’s house” – “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many, many rooms. If it weren’t so, wouldn’t I have told you? I’m going to prepare a place for you, and I’ll return again and take you to myself, so that where I am, you will be also. . .” (John 14:1-3)

Psalm 23 talks about heaven as a beautiful green pasture, with a clear stream running beside it.

Many times in the gospels, Jesus talks about heaven as a great banquet, with room for everyone. I think that’s partly why we all enjoy fellowship meals so much, and cookouts and barbecues and other events where we all sit down and there’s plenty for everyone. It feels just a little like heaven.

But here, and only here, Jesus calls it paradise. I looked it up this week, and “paradise” means “garden”. It’s literally the same word the Bible uses for the Garden of Eden.

Forget about the streets of gold and the pearly gates. Jesus is saying that the Good Thief will be with Jesus, in the garden that God created, the place God made for us.

Even a sinner like the Good Thief will have his innocence restored. He will be at peace again. He will be who God made him to be.

In a way, our whole relationship is gathered up in those two sentences in today’s gospel:

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. . .”

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise. . .”

This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.