When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah 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 there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? 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 have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Oh, how we want to joyfully start thinking about the resurrection! But today, especially in light of the political and sociological state of the world, when we NEED to see Jesus risen and seated on the throne, we see instead Jesus on the cross. We glimpse the final hours before his death, seemingly the lowest point of his life; when it appeared he had been beaten by everyone and everything. And while there are many passages dealing with Jesus’ time on the cross, this is surely one of the most humiliating! What is so Christ-like about that?
Crucifixion was not an execution method for common criminals- it was reserved for enemies of the state. Crucifixion was saved for people the Roman Empire wanted to make examples of- people who had committed crimes like insurrection-civil disobedience- treason. It’s why Jesus was crucified. The message sent to the commoners by a body left to rot on a cross was simple: 'Don’t oppose the State (the government) or the systems of the state. Don’t mess with the ones who are making a profit from those systems, cause if you do, you’ll end up hanging on a tree at the edge of the city.'
And this is exactly what we witness in this passage. In one of the most familiar scenes in the Bible… the edge of the city… three crosses propped up on the hill, sun setting in the background with clouds gathering for an impending storm… three lives slip away in slow, painful death. Among the witnesses are mourners. If we listen, we hear whispered cries from friends and loved ones- hushed conversations and condolences to the family- “I’m so sorry…”"He was so young..." and only the sound of the wind fills the silence between the tears…
But among the witnesses, there are also mockers. Those who, for whatever reason, thought it amusing to poke fun at the condemned Jesus. Maybe they were desensitized; maybe they were trying to alleviate some of the horror of it all. Making jokes in painful situation tends to ease our discomfort. We even have a name for it. We call it “comic relief.” Humor distances us from intimacy- from the atrocity that we are allowing to happen before our eyes, or even participating in. If we can make a joke, we can push down the nauseous feeling that rises within us… we can distract us from the repulsiveness of human suffering.
But what’s different is that in this scene, one of the suffering, the thief on the left.found a place among the mockers. Although, I don’t think he was a mocker at first.
The thief on the left had journeyed to the cross, up the same hill as Jesus. His final moments on his own feet on the road to the place of the skull were no less filled with fear and trembling than anyone else who comes face to face with their own death. His mind was probably racing frantically for a way out- lips whispering desperate prayers to an unknown God- his senses ceased to function. The people and world that surrounded him as he climbed the hill to the cross must have been a blur. When we are afraid, all the sounds around us muffle- except that of our own heartbeat. That sound is deafening. Feeling the chill as his clothes are ripped away, the roughness of wooded cross on his back as he is laid on the cross, so scared he is unable to cry out as his trembling body is stretched and fastened by arms and legs- so vulnerable- so alone as the crosses are lifted up and settled to their bases.
'But wait- there are others here,' he thinks. 'There are three of us,' and initially perhaps- that thought upon settling to the raised position- and finding himself, not yet dead- perhaps brought a bit of comfort. The fact that he was not totally alone, well, misery and company are indeed good bedfellows. But then the sensations of his own body heighten… sweat begins to bead on his forehead and eventually drip as the effort of holding his own body weight becomes more strenuous. He drops his head to the left to keep the sweat out of his eyes, but as he does, he sees the first of what promises to be many visitors he will have on the cross that day- a small black spider that has made its way up the back of the cross and is now crawling on to his arm!
The terror of his situation is too much for him to handle- and he scans the landscape for something to distract him- anything that can take his mind somewhere else! He allows sound to return to his ears! And he hears laughter, below him- around him... 'What are they laughing at?' he wonders. "Oh, the man in the middle- the one they have nicknamed "King of the Jews"- they say he calls himself messiah. Yes... please let me, let me join in on this, this tasteless talk show ridicule... let me take part in this cruel form of entertainment at the expense of one who truly suffers... because I am suffering too...’
And with that thought the thief on the left becomes a mocker- one who is trying to both suppress or distance himself from the situation, but maybe at the same time hoping… hoping that somehow, he will be saved from his own fate. So in full voice he gives a desperate plea to the man in the center...
“If it’s true what they say about you- then save yourself! Show us… because if it’s true… you can save US... For Gods sake, man, get us down from here!!!”
But instead of and answer from Jesus, he hears a new voice, this one from the cross on the other side… “What are you doing? Are you crazy? We’re all dying... You and I are sharing the same fate as this guy you’re mocking! At least you and I are up here for the things we’ve done- we deserve this death! This man has done nothing.”
Now, here’s where we need to take a break. Because this is traditionally where we acknowledge the fact that Jesus was innocent of any crime. Where we agree with the thief on the right, and we get angry with the government that condemned him to death- because Jesus didn’t DO anything. But today, I want to submit to you that Jesus, in the three years before his death did plenty- and he did it intentionally.
Jesus was a man who was intentional in his actions from day one- Intentional about challenging corruption in authority, intentional about exposing systems that were oppressive- Intentional in the telling of his stories and parables- knowing full well they would antagonize the religious rulers. Intentional in healing- casting out demons- raising the dead- picking grain on the Sabbath just in view of the Pharisees- Intentional in turning over the tables at the temple, infuriating the vendors, interrupting business as usual status quo of religious profit Intentional in his message ‘free the oppressed- give to the poor- include instead of exclude- love instead of judge’- knowing full well that his message of shalom building would lead him
Intentionally to the cross.
Jesus told his disciples, and anyone who would listen, "follow me." But what he is asking us to do in ‘following’ him, is to join him in a radical social justice movement- to participate in the new reign of God- to help usher in an era of paradise…
The Greek word for paradise, the word we often mistake for Heaven, is paradisio. It refers to the Garden of Eden- a state of delight- a place where all things are just, and fair, and whole. Jesus knew what it would take to bring the world to paradise… it would cost him his life.
The voice from the thief on the right continues… "Jesus, remember me today when you come into your kingdom…” And Jesus turns his head to the thief of the right, and sees that he understands… Jesus can see that this man "gets it." The thief on the right realizes that Jesus has been sentenced to death for standing up against the systems of corruption in the world- both governmental and religious- the very same systems he had been a participant in. He sees that Jesus’ way, although it led him to death, is the only way to peace…. to making the world whole… to righteousness… Jesus hangs on the cross with no guilt- no shame about the things he has done- no remorse about corrupt actions- he is transforming the world and dying for it.
And Jesus responds… “Today… you will be with me in paradise… In other words, today…you heard my call. I said, "follow me," and you said, "yes"
Today you accept me as Lord of your life and are willing to stand with me as a part of God’s righteousness making activity where love is so powerful that forgiveness is offered to all… to you and your family and friends and neighbors and coworkers… to the ones who mourn down there and the ones who put me up here- even spiderman to our left over here...
Today… you will know how far God is willing to go to free to the oppressed…. to ensure that the hungry are fed, and the naked are clothed and the poor are cared for and the sick are healed…
Today, you will stand with me as we fight racism, and classism, and homophobia, and hunger, and discrimination, and homelessness, and poverty…
Today the systems of injustice are made just and powers and principalities are overturned to rid the world of corruption and darkness...
Today… truly… you will be with me in Paradise”
And church, this is the Christ we joyfully wait for who will rise this Easter! The one who ushers in and shows us what to do to help bring about peace.
We don't know what the future of our nation will look like, but Paradise doesn't include fear, hate, or shutting down. We must answer the call of Jesus which hasn't changed in 2000 years- 'Follow Me to Paradise.'