“Today You Will Be with Me…” (Luke 23.43)
We can be certain that things were not quiet the day of the crucifixion. Onlookers likely heard sounds of violence. There would have been shouts from soldiers and hammers pounding. There would have been gasps from the crowd and gambling for garments. The voices of Luke’s text are interesting. The rulers speak “Let him save himself.” The soldiers mock “Save yourself!” A criminal speaks “Save yourself and us.” Three times people hostile to Jesus tell him to save himself, he does not reply to any of them. And then we get the following short conversation. In response to the criminal who taunted Jesus, another criminal speaks “Do you not even fear God?” and then asks Jesus “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
This “word” from Jesus teaches us something about grace. This is exactly the kind of thing Jesus is executed for. He is killed because they could not tame him. The sympathetic criminal does not deserve grace. Yet, we learn about grace from the crucified Jesus. Not even a cross can stop him from his move “to seek and to save that which was lost.”
Luke has included us on a journey. Not everyone responds to Jesus the same along the way. Some respond favorably. Others reject him. All the way to the cross we are faced with the question of how we will deal with Jesus. All the way to the cross we discover that not everyone agrees with the kind of people Jesus spent time with. Now we find that the one who “receives sinners and eats with them” also dies with them and for them. It is possible Jesus was not crucified because he claimed to save people, but because he would not stop saving the wrong people. Jesus never stops welcoming unlikely people into the kingdom, even a guilty criminal who has been sentenced for execution. No further questions are necessary, welcome to the kingdom.
Needless to say, this would have been difficult for onlookers to understand. From all appearances the powers of death were eliminating any hope of future and certainly something other than paradise. Yet, Jesus affirms a future for this criminal beyond this day. We do not know what else the three on the cross may have said to one another. If anything at all, Luke does not think it important to record it. Yet, the conversation continues. Every one of us is still asking for or receiving what we do not deserve. We are all either asking Jesus to do things the way we do them in the world or we are believing he knows what he is doing.
Reading this “word” of Jesus during Lent reminds us that an invitation to join the kingdom is an invitation to follow him. The text reminds us that following Jesus cannot be interrupted by the powers of the world. We are not limited by what the world offers. Following Jesus takes us beyond the borders of this world, beyond what we think we might deserve or think is in store for our future. Following Jesus may take us to a place full of the wrong people.
A prayer of response from Pastor Susan Vigliano; “Thank you Jesus for inviting me, a sinner, into your kingdom. You made the way for me and gave me the faith to believe. You loved me first. I admit to wondering if everyone is really good enough to make it into your kingdom.Sometimes I wonder if some sin or crime is just too much for grace and salvation. I confess my struggle to love and accept everyone regardless of their crime or sin. I ask you, Jesus, to soften my heart and to give me your eyes for everyone. Turn my heart of stone into a heart of flesh and give me your grace.”
Our official position during a summer that has given us;
- Controversial rulings by the Supreme Court. We may be reminded that our official response is to love both lawmakers and protestors.
- Shootings with racial and religious implications. We are reminded that our official position remains grace and forgiveness.
- A changing relationship with Cuba and a new agreement with Iran. And our official response is to pray for and minister to those who are unlike us.
- Twenty one candidates vying to become the next leader of the free world. And our official position remains that whichever Pharaoh is elected – God will still be in control.
Two weeks ago, Dylan Roof attended bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC and sat among other attenders for nearly an hour before he pulled out a gun and murdered Clementa, Susie, Tywanza, Sharonda, Cynthia, DePayne, Ethel, Myra, and Daniel. Two weeks may not be enough time for grief to pass, but it surely is plenty of time for the politics of this world to try to define what is happening here.
A lot of people are bringing their politics to Charleston. The tragedy has become a platform for debate. I suspect that some of these are speaking out in an effort to climb the ranks in this present kingdom. At the very least, they are utilizing the natural strategies of this kingdom.
Does anyone else feel like using this incident to broadcast one’s agenda minimizes what has happened here? Does anyone else feel like people are politicizing the pain of those who are grieving? Is this the time for special interests? Is there anything going on here that is more important than discussing the politics of a temporary kingdom that is on its way out?
The part that I hope we never forget is when family members of the deceased offered forgiveness to Dylann Roof. Instead of calling for revenge, they invited Dylann Roof to look for God. This is politics, just not politics as usual. This is not politics the way the world has come to understand politics. This is the politics of another Kingdom. These folks, broken-hearted and full of emotion, offered forgiveness.
The politics of Emanuel are far more interesting than the politics as usual of the present kingdom. Pain is not minimized. Those who suffer have a voice. And they choose to talk about forgiveness. This may surprise us or seem unimaginable. Is this any way to respond to a racist? A murderer? Still, this is the response of people who take seriously the words of their King. This is the response of people who are serious about a text that says “Love your enemies”, “Bless those who persecute you”, “Forgive as many as seventy times seven.”
I pray that the witness of these people challenges the rest of us to think differently of others and to react differently to tragedy. The best political strategies of the present kingdom will not save us. The best strategies this world has to offer cannot save us. But these people from Emanuel AME – these people are onto something.
I am one who hopes that the reason some of us are intentionally welcoming toward the LGBT community is because we are trying to take seriously the command to love our neighbor. I surely want to believe that we do not make decisions in order to keep step with society. I am one who hopes that the reason some of us are perceived as opposed to that lifestyle is because we are trying to take seriously the biblical text as the word of God. I want to believe that we do not make difficult decisions in order to keep people not like us away from us.
I am one who hopes that the tensions that emerge from this conversation lead to prayer, soul-searching, and fellowship together. I want to believe that we will be part of an ongoing dialogue that is faithful to God’s words and God’s character. Our conversation must take seriously the questions about how we love our neighbors who do not think like us or act like us. Our conversation must give priority to the way we read the text and the way we interact with others.
This will be an ongoing debate, I suspect it will be a primary conversation in the church for several decades. Nearly all of us will be certain we are on the right side of the debate. While we must be true to the biblical text, we do not want to encourage inappropriate behavior. May we be gracious even as we discuss controversial subjects.
The way we hold conversation is important. Instead of challenges to our faith, our points of disagreement become opportunities to demonstrate the way God works in the world. We are to love the person who opposes our beliefs, love those who are unlike us, love even those who consider us enemies. We are to become more in tune with the character of God.
We may never reach consensus on this issue, still we must behave like Christians. May our discussion prompt us to explore biblical responses to things like creation, humanity, sexuality, salvation, and grace. May we explore what it means to be the church. Whatever our thoughts about homosexuality or the LGBT community, we are still called to love those who think differently. Whatever our thoughts about the human condition, we remain confident about the grace of God.
It is striking that at his own execution Jesus prays for his executioners. The crowds called for him to be crucified. Rulers and priests mocked him. Soldiers hit him. Still, Jesus prays they will be forgiven. This is a radical word. But this is what Jesus does. This is his trademark move. If there were doubts, we can now be certain that he meant it when he said we should forgive up to seventy times seven times. We can be sure that he was serious when he taught us that we should love our enemies. Even on the cross, his move is forgiveness.
The movement of Luke’s narrative is interesting. Jesus’ first words from the cross are “Father forgive them…” This is His trademark move, even on the cross. However, it is not the natural move for others. The rulers speak: “Let him save himself…” The soldiers taunt him: “Save yourself!” The first criminal speaks: “Save yourself and us!” Jesus does not respond to any of these words. But when the second criminal replies to the first criminal “Do you not even fear God…” and then speaks to Jesus “Remember me…” Jesus speaks to him “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” Three times, others hostile to Jesus tell him to save himself. Instead, Jesus saves an undeserving criminal.
Luke is inviting us to participate on a journey. Throughout the Gospel we find that not everyone receives the news in the same way. Some are favorable to the Good News, others reject the same news. All the way to the cross we are faced with the question of how we will deal with this Jesus. We are reminded that not everyone agreed with the kind of people Jesus spent time with. This one who “receives sinners and eats with them,” also dies with them and for them. It is possible Jesus is crucified not because he claimed to save people, but because he would not stop saving the wrong people.
Luke wants us to know that political intervention is weak and short-lived in comparison to the intervention of God. In fact, these things appear to take place in order to halt the work of God in history. Instead, they become part of a series of events that are deemed powerless in comparison to the Gospel news.
Luke wants to make sure that we know Jesus continues his business of forgiveness. This forgiveness theme of Luke just does not stop, not even while Jesus is dying. There may be numerous implications. But at the very least, we are reminded that Jesus keeps inviting the most unlikely people into his kingdom. And we get a picture of the way that we ought to forgive others.
Without mentioning the word, this text teaches us something about grace. We are not exempt from its lessons. The crowds involved in crucifixion do not deserve grace. The sympathetic criminal does not deserve grace. We learn much about grace from the crucified Jesus. Not even a cross can stop him from his move “to seek and to save that which was lost.”
A Look at the Cross reminds us that God never stops forgiving. This is what He does. No matter how disappointing our behavior, no matter how undeserving, forgiveness is His next move.
Prayer of response by Susan Vigliano; “Father, I am overwhelmed by the power of your forgiveness. There is no other way to the freedom of forgiveness than through the Cross of Christ. Sometimes I find it difficult to receive the weight of your forgiveness in my own life. When I try to forgive others in my own power, I fall woefully short. I ask today for your power and grace to receive your forgiveness in deeper places of my heart. I seek you today for your grace that I do not possess to forgive those who have hurt me and my loved ones. I have called people a fool in my heart and I need your power and grace to turn to you for me to forgive them.”
My days and years are filled with more than I can imagine and I fight to hold on while paying attention the best I can. Annie Dillard said, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” She is right. She later says “there is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.” Again, I say amen and think that it would do us all well to think of how we string our days together. The ways we spend our time should not be taken lightly. You and I are participants in a grand adventure.
No matter what else you might expect, expect the unexpected. Plan to be surprised. We are surrounded, all of us, by danger and risk and cruelty. But also by beauty and mystery and grace. We are observers, explorers, on alert. Sometimes we are patient. Other times, not so much. We are witnesses at this intersection where danger meets grace. We acknowledge mystery and know there is more than meets the eye. So we light the candles, ring the bells, and sing the songs. Sometimes we sing from habit. Sometimes we sing in doubt. But sometimes we sing in celebration of endless gifts and grace.
On the way to the cross, we are reminded that not everyone agreed with the kind of people that Jesus spent time with. “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” It is possible that Jesus is crucified not because he claimed to save people, but because he saved the wrong people. The first thing we find in Luke chapter fifteen is a context. We are told who is present. We are told their response. There are sinners and tax gatherers. There are scribes and Pharisees. Some are listening. Some are grumbling. After a clear context, we get content.
We find three parables with a similar theme. The first two parables are very similar. In the first, a man has lost a sheep. In the second, a woman has lost a coin. Both leave the rest of their property behind in order to find what is lost. Both “rejoice” upon finding their lost property. Both call friends and neighbors to announce their good fortune.
When we remember the context, we may suspect that some in the crowd may feel hopeful. But others, well, they grumble. They cannot understand leaving behind all that you have in order to find one lost piece. They cannot justify the reckless celebration.
After the first two parables, it is likely that the grumbling increased. As much as grumblers dislike the idea that it is ok to receive sinners and eat with them, we can be certain that they did not like these stories. But Jesus does not stop there. Instead, he tells a third parable and this time includes the grumblers in the story.
The emotion raises higher in the third parable as the self-centered younger brother sets off and squanders his fortune. As the foolish younger brother returns home. And then as the undignified father runs down the lane and embraces his undeserving son. More as the music and dancing begins. Even more as the father calls for the best robe, a ring, sandals, the fatted calf and announces “let us eat and celebrate!”
Again, it is likely that the grumblers really begin to hate this story when one of them shows up in it. One who does not appreciate the music and dancing. One who becomes angry and resents the father. One who thought he deserved more that he had been given. One who felt that the younger brother may have deserved something different.
We might steal the language of the earlier parables to apply here. “What father, having two sons, would not wait for the lost to return home so that he might show his extravagant love for him upon his return?” We find this story in the middle of Luke’s travel narrative. We get this story on the way to the cross. In the middle of this risky, dangerous adventure to Jerusalem we find a feast. We find an extravagant, lavish, undignified Father heaping gifts on the undeserved and killing the fatted calf in celebration of one who is lost finding his way home.
I can’t help but notice a theme that occurs in many of the New Testament letters. Letters from Paul, the Pastoral Letters, letters from Peter, the letter to the Hebrews. All include grace as part of a greeting or benediction or both. What can be said about letters whose content is surrounded by grace? It is an interesting pattern. If grace is our hello and grace is our goodbye, then should not grace be reflected in between our hellos and our goodbyes?
Of particular interest are letters written during the persecution to Christians by Nero. These letters suggest some urgency in light of the persecution. And yet the readers are not to forget grace. Can they continue to extend grace even when their lives are in danger? Can they extend grace to those persecuting them? Can they extend grace to Nero? Can they forgive the emperor that killed their friends and their family members? Can they forgive the one who threatens their own lives?
It would be easy to believe that certain deeds always end with certain results. That certain decisions always have certain rewards. That certain activities always come with certain consequences. That everyone be treated fairly. That an evil Nero be treated with evil. This all sounds good. But it is not reality. These are the attempts of people like us to make sense of things. Such attempts fall short. Such attempts lack imagination. They are boring. They are lazy. They lack adventure. Nineveh does not deserve good news. The wasteful rebellious younger son does not deserve to receive a party when he returns home.
Any attempt to think you have earned something or that you deserve it or that someone else does not deserve what you have been given or that you deserve what someone else has is against the reality of God. Would you offer grace to Nero? Would I? Would God? His way is grace. Grace can become messy. Grace does not make sense. Grace is unfair. We all know that Nero does not deserve God’s grace. The wasteful younger son does not deserve grace. But, grace is the way of God. It is unpredictable. It is extravagant. It comes unexpected. It sets us on an adventure that is unlike any other. So the Ninevites get another chance. The prodigal gets a party. Paul begins to substitute it for hello and goodbye.
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states that grace “is always a gift on which one has no claim.” It goes on to add that grace is sufficient. “One neither needs more nor will get more.” The hymnal says that this stuff is amazing. But we seem to find it more amazing when we are the recipients. We should be singing that it is unfair. That it is unpredictable, unexpected, undeserved, unbelievable. We sing that is higher than a mountain and deeper than the mighty rolling sea. Should we also be singing about its mystery and its danger? Should we sing of its untidiness and extravagance? We never know where we will find it. Who it will be poured upon or when. But there are glimpses everywhere. Even where you least expect it.
I am reminded of an interview I once read with rock star Bono. He contrasted grace with karma by suggesting that karma is at the center of all religions. I think he is right. Many of us, even those who claim not to believe in karma, hold to a philosophy that we get what we deserve. Then along comes grace and shakes everything up. Grace defies reason and logic. You certainly do not deserve it, nor have you earned it. It is a gift like no other. It is more than we can ask for, more than we can expect.
It pours down upon us. It bubbles up from beneath us. We are soaked in it. John Mark McMillan says that “if grace is an ocean we’re all sinking.” It is greater than we are. It comes upon us, wave after wave. Does this stuff ever end? Can we stop it or stand in its way? In the next line McMillan says that “heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss.” Will you think of grace the next time you are licked by a dog? The next time you stare at a body of water? The next time you feel drops from the sky? The next time you wade into a cool stream? The next time you take a warm shower? The next time you enjoy a cold drink? The next time you receive a free refill? The next time you receive any gift at all? Grace.
Even people who are unfamiliar with scripture know both Goliath and Bathsheba. Both these names connected with David. There appear to be obvious differences; Goliath an ugly giant, Bathsheba a bathing beauty.
But as Eugene Peterson points out, there are also similarities. Both Goliath and Bathsheba bring David into a context of testing. Both put David in a situation that reveals his heart. The giant demonstrates that David is more impressed with the invisible god than the visible giant. The woman demonstrates that David is capable of evil. Both stories reveal that God is active in his life. The first in David’s trust in the power of God. The second in David’s reliance on the grace of God. Both Goliath and Bathsheba remind us that this story is not really about David at all. This story is about God.
II Samuel chapter eleven brings us the Bathsheba story. It begins “then it happened.” David is now king and Israel is out conquering. The one that God saw in the shepherd’s field has become the one enabled by God in the battlefield. Then, we come to a turning point for Israel, a turning point for David. While others are out risking their lives, “David stayed in Jerusalem.” While his armies march forward in the Ammonite wars, David walks back and forth on the roof. From his vantage point, he is master of everything he sees. Including the wife of his servant Uriah. By the end of the chapter eleven we find that “the thing that David had done was evil in the sight of the Lord.” In chapter twelve he acknowledges it.
As human eyes overlooked David’s potential while he shepherded sheep, they overlook his sin while he shepherds Israel. In contrast, the seeing eyes of David’s God did not overlook him as a future king, nor do they overlook his sin while on the throne.
Like David, we would like a god who could make our bad decisions go away. We prefer a god that behaves like an errand boy we call on to get our car to start, make our golf games pleasant, or beef up our checking account. We call him when someone hurts our feelings and we want revenge. We want God to be like roadside assistance, our own version of AAA, to call on him when in trouble. We are not first to think of God in such terms. At times, David appears to think that God is tame and domestic. Like David, we don’t want him to be involved in our affairs. We can work those out on our own. Like David, we do not want a God who forgives, instead a God who accommodates our sin.
This is why Mark Buchanan has claimed that even though we haven’t killed God, we have domesticated him. We try to create a convenient and predictable and tame God. The God we conjure up is nice. He pampers us. We want him to be comforting – actually what we want is for him to be comfortable. We would like for him to be our ace. To call him in from the bullpen when we need a reliever. To come out and get for us another save.
But God is not comfortable. He is not accommodating. We cannot expect him to be our errand boy. He does not fit into our box of definitions. He is on the loose. I think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Upon finding out that Aslan is a lion, Lucy asks “Then he isn’t safe?” “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
We may want to tame God, domesticate the faith, but our efforts fall short. We can decorate the nursery with a Noah’s ark theme but that does not eliminate the disaster of the flood. No wonder Adam and Eve try to hide from God. No wonder Jonah runs the other way. No wonder Peter denies that he knows him. No wonder David works so hard to cover up his sin. We do not know what this surprisingly wild God will do next. Still, we trust in what we do know – He is good.