One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding [Jesus] 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.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”Luke 23:39:43
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This prayer, the prayer of a dying thief, is our prayer today. On this day, when we remember Jesus’ death for us. We remember that it should be our death, not his. And so, we make this simple, heartfelt prayer, our own: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
In a famous devotional work (A Meditation on Christ’s Passion), Martin Luther teaches us this – to see ourselves in this story of the Passion of Our Lord, the name given to the gospel account of the suffering and death of Jesus. It was one of his most popular writings, written to help us learn how to meditate on what we just heard, the Passion of our Lord – how to think about, and pray about, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death.
I think about his words every year, and often re-read them. Because they help me to make sure that I am seeing myself in this story. Luther’s words help me to meditate on this story by remembering that it all took place for me. And for you. Our sins, Luther reminds us, nailed Jesus to the cross. We are the reason he suffered. We are the reason he died.
And it’s true. And it is the most important truth. Not just that the Son of God suffered and died. But that he suffered and died for me and for you. We may wish there were another way. But there was not. His death was necessary, and it was necessary because of our sin. We should be on the cross. But he went to the cross on our behalf.
And the way to meditate on this story is to see ourselves in it. In a very real sense, we are the crowd that demanded that Jesus be crucified. Because it is our sin that made this demand. And, we are the soldiers, who mocked Jesus. And we are Peter, the disciple who denied even knowing Jesus, at the moment of his greatest need. And we are even Judas, who betrayed Jesus. These are not people of old that we can blame for the death of an innocent man. They are us. And we are to blame for the death of an innocent Savior.
Jesus, Remember Me
But, and this is important: We are not just the crowd, and the soldiers, and Peter, and Judas. We are also the repentant thief, who hung on the cross next to Jesus. We are this criminal, who knows that he is getting what he deserves, who understands that he belongs on that cross, because of his sin. But who also, as he is dying, realizes that the person hanging next to him offers him a hope that nothing else in this world can.
And so, he turns to Jesus as they both are dying, and places his trust in Jesus, in a way that I always find remarkable. He says to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And we say these words, too. His prayer is our prayer. His words are our words. We gather today, as we do every Sunday, to place our trust in Jesus. And to acknowledge our sin. To admit that we are the crowd, demanding that Jesus be crucified. And we are the one who betrayed him, and too often the one who denies even knowing him.
But also, today, and every Sunday, we gather to repent. To turn from our sin, and to turn to Jesus. And to ask him to remember us. We are the repentant sinner on the cross next to Jesus. We are the one saying, with our dying breath, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
When Our Faith Is Weak
In a book-length meditation on the Passion of Our Lord, called “Death on a Friday Afternoon,” Richard John Neuhaus devotes a chapter to this tender exchange between Jesus and the repentant thief. He writes about it in this way:
“Christians are those who, like the thief on the cross, have turned to [Jesus] with faith that is more like a desperate hope and, in listening to his response, have found the faith that moves mountains. When our faith is weak, when we are assailed by contradictions and doubts, we are tempted to look at our faith, to worry about our faith, to try to work up more faith. At such times, however, we must not look to our faith but look to him. Look to him, listen to him, and faith will take care of itself.”
It is why we are here today, here every Sunday. To look to Jesus. To listen to him. And to find in him everything that we need. And we don’t need great faith, because we have a great God. Our weak faith is more than enough. All it has to do is turn the eyes of our souls to Jesus. Look at him, not our faith. It is always enough.
Today is a powerful reminder of that truth. That whatever little faith we might have is always enough. If it turns our eyes to Jesus, it is enough. If it leads us to ask him to remember us, it is enough. We turn to Jesus with faith “that is more like a desperate hope,” and because of Jesus, we find “the faith that moves mountains.”
Let Down from the Cross?
But what does this faith look like in our daily life? What difference does this great story make, when we leave here to live out our faith, at home and at school, at work and in daily life? This question brings me back to an experience that I had before I went to seminary, when I was still working toward a career as an economist. I attended a retreat at the Lutheran seminary in Chicago that changed my life. It was called “Christ the King Crossings.”
The retreat revolved around one basic question, one that I continue to ask myself often: Imagine being the thief on the cross who is forgiven by Christ, and instead of being promised Paradise, imagine that you are let down from the cross. What would you do with your life? What would you do with this “bonus life,” that you don’t deserve, and didn’t expect?
In a very real sense, of course, that is true for us. We have been let down from the cross. We have been given this bonus life, unexpected and undeserved. Life is a gift. And the forgiven life is a grace-filled gift. It is precious. And not meant to be wasted.
I often imagine that thief being let down from the cross. I imagine him running to find other believers. Getting baptized, turning his life around. I imagine him giving up a life of crime, finding work. Finding someone to share his life with – a wife, perhaps, and children. I imagine him getting active in a church community. Sharing what he was given with the poor and those who needed it. Being generous with his time, gladly serving others. Not worrying too much about what was happening in the world. Going to bed each night with gratitude.
I imagine him remembering, in his darker moments, those dreadful hours on the cross. His desperate prayer. The shocking answer. Knowing, even when life was throwing its punches, that Paradise awaited him. But not being in a hurry to get there. Because each moment of every day was an opportunity to thank his Savior, with his every breath.
I imagine him sharing his story, with anyone who would listen, the story of him being saved by his Savior. I imagine him telling his friends, his family, his children, grand-children. I imagine people asking him to share his story again.
It would have been the defining moment of his life. And so it is of ours. We can trace that moment to our baptisms. When we died with Jesus. And when we were given new life. We are the thief, and we have been let down from the cross. What will we do with this precious new life?
We are here today to remember what happened on that cross outside Jerusalem. We are here, not just to wave our palms, but to meditate on the Passion of Our Lord, to see ourselves in it. To see ourselves in the crowd, the soldiers, in Peter, and in Judas. But also to see ourselves in the repentant sinner on the cross next to Jesus. If this day means anything, it means that. It means that we are the one saying, with our dying breath, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And it means that we are also the ones who hear the promise from Jesus: “You will be with me in Paradise.” And so we will. That promise is for you and for me. And for all who would look to Jesus.
And Jesus can make this promise because of what he did for us on that sacred cross. We remember this great gift throughout this week we call “Holy.” Until next Sunday, when we gather here again, to join those first disciples who found the empty tomb. And to celebrate the day when the doors to Paradise were flung wide open, never to be closed again. Thanks be to God. Amen.