‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ – the best ending of all
And there followed [Jesus] a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:27-43 ESV)
Today we have a reading that seems out of place – it is about Jesus’ execution – a reading linked to a specific day – Good Friday – which was 6 months ago or is 6 months to come – and so having it as the Gospel for the Last Sunday of the Church Year simply seems out of place – why have a Good Friday event so close to Advent and Christmas? Because at this time of endings and beginnings – as we get up in the morning after having gone to bed the night before – as we move through our lives whether we’re infants or elderly knowing that our existence isn’t eternal on Planet Earth, we want to have meaning and peace and purpose and yes, comfort should this day or moment or year or event be our last and the best ending of all seems to be the words Jesus said from the cross – really from the throne (Jesus is king after all) – to the thief who saw something different about Jesus: ‘Today, you will be with me in Paradise’.
This is the message and a truth all people want to be true. You see it in all societies, all religions saying there’s something after this life, art and literature and films with people constantly assuming and accepting a life after death. To not want this is not a rejection of life after death per se but what people believe are the price or cost for it or the conditions that exist in it. So having life after death or Paradise is not unique to Christianity – there are many versions around of it and many mechanisms it seems for entry. Perhaps we all get there in the end? That’d be nice we think … until we start thinking of specifics and then questions arise.
The story of the man on the cross – the central story of Christianity – explains not so much the details of Paradise – a return to the garden – to life in perfect harmony and in communion with God – but says what God has done to make it possible for us to be there. The biblical message from Genesis to Revelation is surprisingly clear – people have sinned and killed themselves spiritually and God in his grace, mercy, and steadfast love keeps coming to people to give them life with him which is lived now and after we die. The trouble is that people by nature reject the notion that humanity is spiritually dead and we’re blind to knowing and seeing God come to rescue us – thus we don’t trust him – and we don’t see him clearly because we need his Word to make our eyes work. Faith comes from hearing and then we can see and understand – while looking at the same thing as before suddenly everything has changed.
Luke brings this out clearly in his account of Jesus’ crucifixion where he presents us with the same event seen in two different ways. Jesus is taken out to be killed and two crowds follow – they’re mingled possibly but they are distinct – the multitude who are watching the spectacle and the women who are lamenting and mourning. Jesus acknowledges them ‘Daughters of Jerusalem’ – a phrase found aligned with Daughter of Zion referring to the personification of the city of Jerusalem or to the love song ‘Song of Solomon’ where they are the companions or observers of the Bride waiting for the Bridegroom to arrive – for love to happen. Love is hidden behind this execution – all you see is judgement – crucify him! crucify him! – and judgement will fall on Jerusalem so severely for if the innocent Jesus is treated thus and he didn’t deserve it, what will happen to guilty Jerusalem who is guilty? When the Bridegroom appears there will be no running to meet him but absolute terror – no paradise – but a cry to the garden, to the mountains and hills to hide them!
And then Jesus is crucified and all the words are mocking and jeering. The cries are that of the jungle, not a garden – cackle and pain – waiting for a sign – but amid the cacophony comes some words: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. And again there are two – close by – one either side – also being crucified – they’ve got ring side seats so to speak – both see the same man on the cross and yet one sees it differently. Words are powerful and in an instant can reset life, reshape perceptions, change behaviour – and the criminal becomes a convert – to what exactly who knows – but this thief can now see that Jesus is different – innocent, a King, whether the Messiah we’re not sure – but he wants to be linked to this man, follow this man in the last moments of his life. What has he seen? More importantly, what has he heard? What the world still sees and hears but doesn’t understand – a death. The world so fears death and tries to cling to life that even today blocks with so many rationales, excuses, and rejections its eyes and ears and so doesn’t see what we see – that in Jesus’ death is our life; that in Jesus’ words are our life; that in Jesus, because of Jesus, his words to the thief are ours today: ‘Today, you will be with me in Paradise’. That sentence is true by faith now and true on the day of our death or the day of the Lord’s return.
What is going on here?
God has rescued us. God has sacrificed his Son – atoned for our sins – because we could not do it ourselves. The dead cannot make themselves alive. The filthy who make everything filthy by their touch cannot make themselves clean. There’s no all paths have a happy ending for anything to do with humanity is to do with death.
In Leviticus 16 God established the Day of Atonement to deal with the built up sins of the people so that he could dwell with his people and they could freely and in confidence and joy be in God’s presence and receive his blessings. This ritual involved cleansing with blood the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle and later Temple and it also involved two goats – one was sacrificed to the Lord and one was cast out – the scapegoat – to the unclean demonic world. God’s rescue – Jesus is fulfilment of the sacrifice, the high priest, and the temple – opens up for us the way to be with God and it is complete (‘It is finished’ Jesus said) but there remains a truth – a sad and horrible truth – an unbelievable and tragic truth – that people reject God’s salvation, don’t see what God is doing, remain stubbornly opposed to what God says and thus see the cross in all sorts of ways but not as what it is at its deepest level – the Bridegroom wooing and loving the Bride and rescuing and cleaning her so that she may live with him always.
We do come to the end of the Church Year and we always face endings and beginnings in our life and the starting point for the followers of Jesus getting up in the morning – having meaning and purpose in life – remains Jesus who died and rose again – who is the guarantor of the words: Today you will be with me in Paradise. We live with these words in our ears – not uselessly in this world – but engaged and ready to serve – not out of fear but because Jesus is with us and there is nothing on this planet – not death, not life, not angels nor demons, not the present or the past or the future for that matter, that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
It is also not too late for the world for each day people hear the words – sometimes for the first time – sometimes in old age having stubbornly held them at bay – but suddenly by the power of the Holy Spirit they see something new – and their pride, their hurt, whatever it was they had as a barrier melts away and they see what that thief saw in Jesus and they want to be with Jesus.
Bring on the end! Bring on new starts! Bring on today! Jesus is with us and paradise regained is happening.
- Luke 23:27 - 43