Last Words | Salvation
“Today you will be with me in paradise…” – Luke 23.43
Erin Robinson Hall is a minister and a minister’s spouse in Macon, GA. She has seen her share of church. During seminary, my friend Erin interned at Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she gained a range of powerful new experiences, including one she calls “The Gospel According to Joshua.”
It was Ash Wednesday at this historic church, and Erin sat quietly and reverently as members of the congregation passed into the aisles – all at their own pace in their own way – to receive ashes, and perhaps to pause and pray at the kneeling bench that had been set at the altar.
5-yr-old Joshua came forward with his mother and two older brothers. With a puzzled look on his face, he heard that he was dust and to dust he would return as the pastor held his face in his hand and marked his forehead with the cross. His mother wanted to stay down front and pray, so in her best “mom voice” she said, “Boys, now you go back to your seats.”
But Joshua didn’t do that. Up the aisle he went, dancing and high-fiving everyone he saw. Clearly the somber atmosphere was not having the intended effect on him. Seeing this, Erin called him over. The curious 5 yr old sat looking up at her. “What’s that stuff they put on our faces?” he asked. Erin explained it was a cross of ashes, meant to remind us that God made us and that Jesus loves us. Joshua seemed satisfied, until he scanned the room and then his eyes came back to Erin’s forehead. “You don’t have one on your face!” he said.
Erin explained she was waiting her turn. Her explanation about silent meditation was lost on her enthusiastic little friend, for Joshua then reached up and touched the cross on his forehead. He rubbed his thumb around on the ashes on his own skin and then took Erin’s face in his hands. Reaching, he made the sign of the cross on her forehead with his tiny fingers and said, “You can have some of my cross.” (1)
In our passage this morning, we recall that Jesus didn’t die alone. He died in the same way that he lived. That’s what we see when we gather at the cross. That’s what we hear in his last words there. He died as he lived. So even at the end, on his cross, Jesus wasn’t alone.
As George MacLeod writes, he wasn’t “in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves… on the town garbage heap… a crossroads so cosmopolitan they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek… the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and soldiers gamble, and thieves curse… that is where he died, and that is what he died about.” (2) And that is what he lived about, too.
Luke is the only gospel to report the words of the men crucified with Jesus, or to reference a conversation among the three dying men on the hill outside Jerusalem. Mark says only that those who were crucified with Jesus taunted him, joining their voices with the soldiers and the crowd. In this scene in Luke, we find Jesus where he is so often found – flanked by the polarized reactions to him. He’s between those that think him a fool, and those that find something compelling and graceful that prompts them to cry out for their own lives. So from his left comes cynicism and mocking. But from his right comes sincerity, a remarkable moment of clarity in the midst of agony, and deep hope. “Remember me,” the doomed man says, praying perhaps the only prayer one could voice in such a moment. “Jesus, remember me…”
Jesus responds with his second word from the cross. He gathers his breath for one more word of promise and salvation: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Paradise. It was a fairly common concept in Jewish thought. It originates in a Persian word meaning “garden” – often a lush, walled, protected garden. When a Persian king wished to honor one of his subjects, that person was chosen to walk in the garden – to walk in paradise – with the King.
The word in our passage today was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to denote the Garden of Eden. Since tradition was that things would end as they began, the same word was used to describe the coming paradise. Paradise would be like a return to a beautiful garden – a restored dwelling place of God, and resting place for the dead.
Jesus – who used banquet tables, and marriage feasts, and homecoming meals in his parables – never talks about the specifics of such a place. But here on his cross, he invokes the concept of paradise. He uses this word for this one. He invokes paradise for this criminal – one who must have felt very far from any garden, and even walled off from its promise. “Today, you will be in a place far away from here” Jesus says to him. “You will be with me.”
With paradise promised to Jesus, Jesus does what we see him do throughout his days. He does not preserve it or protect it. He takes what is promised to him and he promises it to another.
Shane Claiborne – the author, speaker, and Christian culture-maker – was a student at Eastern College in Philadelphia some years ago when he felt a call to go on a pilgrimage to Calcutta, India, where he worked in orphanages and in Mother Theresa’s homes for the dying. Part of his job was to throw parties for kids on the street in the afternoons. And one afternoon he learned that one of the children they knew was celebrating a birthday. Shane and his fellow volunteers got together and plotted what they could give the boy and they decided – on such a hot day – they would buy him an ice cream cone. They pooled their change, and Shane purchased it and rushed it to the boy as it was melting in his hands. The boy held it up and he was just shaking with excitement and he shouted out, “Hey guys, we’ve got ice cream!!” And he lined up all the other kids, saying, “everybody gets a lick…” and he walked down the line, “YOU get a lick, and YOU get a lick” and every child took a lick until he came to Shane and said, “And Shane, you get a lick, too!” (3)
And if you can get past your spit-phobia for a minute, you can see the little boy knew the secret that Jesus whispered again and again, that the best thing to do with the best things in life is to offer them. That what you do with those things given and promised and imagined for you is to hear that call of God to imagine them, to give them, to promise them to another.
What do we do with paradise? What do we do with what’s promised to us? Well I know I can often be a lot like 8 yr old Steven, who wrote a letter to God about heaven featured in a book of children’s letters to God: “Dear God,” Steven writes, “I would like to go to heaven someday, because I know my brother won’t be there.” Because for so many of us, paradise is something that belongs to us. It’s something accessed with a special password or formula, and the salvation we know in Christ then becomes an individual, private, even gated concern.
That’s not the way of Jesus. Not here, on his cross, out in the wide-open, exposed, public space where he throws his whole body into his commitment that we all come to see and know the redemption of God, and that we come to imagine the kingdom of God. The scene – particularly the exchange with this criminal – is like the gospel in miniature form, with so many themes of Jesus’ life and ministry compressed into a single episode. Here he is, once again surrounded by the least and the lowest – those Howard Thurman has described as standing with their backs against the wall, with no where else to go. Of all the people at the scene – all the powerful on the ground standing by, the friends grieving quietly, the soldiers casting lots – the ones with whom Jesus has the most solidarity are to his left and his right – the bandits, thieves, crooks, “the wrongdoers or wretched,” the text suggests. The ones whom this world has decided it can kill.
That is where he died. And that is what he died about.
In fact, in Luke, these are Jesus’ very last words directed to another human being before he dies. An assurance of salvation. The first words of Jesus in the gospel of Luke were spoken in the synagogue in Nazareth, as he proclaimed release to the captives and liberty to those who were oppressed. “Today,” he had said back then, “this is fulfilled.” And now he invokes that same word on his cross, “Today,” once more fulfilling the plan of God for a captive – a wrongdoer on a cross. The one who with his first words announced release to the prisoners, now with his last breathes deeply to promise paradise to a crucified criminal.
That is how he died. And what he died about. And what he lived about. So I have to ask myself, is that what my life is about? Is that what the life of Christ’s church is about?
As we recall Jesus’ first words way back in Nazareth in Luke 4, we remember that he told us he came for the poor, the crippled, the lame. He came for the captives, the oppressed, and those so blinded by the way things are that they can’t see the way things can yet be. He came to proclaim a kingdom composed of such people. So, when we invite him into our lives or into the life of our community, he brings those people along. And then he even promises them the paradise that we have heard promised to us.
“In my father’s house there are many rooms…” Jesus says elsewhere in the New Testament. Well, most of us have imagined our room, or the rooms for our family and friends, or those we respect, revere and remember. We know the way to this place he has gone. But chances are, many of those rooms are filled with people with whom we would not associate. People Jesus knows as friends that we know as enemies. People for whom we have not even begun to imagine paradise or promise. People like a thief. People like a criminal.
“For I was in prison, and you visited me.” I haven’t done that nearly enough, despite Jesus’ repeated insistence that we will find him there. But a few years ago, while serving as a pastor in New York, I found myself one December Saturday at the Manhattan Detention Complex – the White Street Jail, it’s sometimes called – there to see a friend who had come into some trouble.
I wound through the security checks, and ended up in a waiting room with others there to visit their loved ones. As I sat, I noticed a young woman walked into the room pushing a stroller. She was recognized by another person there for visiting hours, they shared greetings and her acquaintance looked into the stroller and said, “Oh, he’s getting so big!”
“He’s five months now,” his mother said, shaking the stroller to soothe her son.
Well – 5 months old – that made him about the age of my daughter, Della, at the time. And I thought about my baby girl. The very next day she was being dedicated at our church, Metro Baptist. Family was in town, friends had made plans, and we all were anticipating how powerful it would be for her to be dedicated during the season of Advent that December, as we remembered how Jesus came into the world like that, for us.
It was all on my mind, when from the waiting room, I entered into a large, visiting area where family spread out among institutional tables waiting for those they had come to see. I did my best to wait looking straight ahead, trying to contain my voyeuristic impulse, but out of the corner of my eye I again saw the woman and her baby. They settled at a table within my view. As I waited for my friend, I glanced later to see the baby’s father coming in. He was a young man. He walked up and he smiled. I looked away, then glanced back to see him reaching out, doing his best to cradle his son, somewhat clumsily holding him, asking the mother how he should hold his hands, getting used to the feel and finally rocking his son to sleep.
“My God,” I thought. “That’s why you came.” You came not for those polished, and picturesque, and so set on paradise. You came for those times when we’re right at the end. Nothing left. No sense of hope. You came for those forsaken by this world, dis-membered, walled off and set out. That’s why you came. And that’s who you came for. And that’s what your life was about, even unto its end.
Jesus could have preserved paradise. Protected it. Grasped hold of it. But he came. And before he died, he gathered whatever strength he had to share it with another right next to him that he might know, and we might know, “When you are right at your end, that’s when I imagine paradise for you…”
For those standing around and overhearing it, the words must have provoked all kinds of reactions. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” When those words are spoken to a wrongdoer like that, there’s always bound to be someone, somewhere who’s frustrated and exposed, and wondering how the love of God they worked so hard for could be so freely given to one who has seemed to live so far from it, so carelessly, so criminally.
But how different would our world be, if instead of standing about hoarding it for ourselves, or claiming our own virtue, we learned to imagine it for others, and to seek it for them not in some distant time, but today. To seek it and work for it and live for it, not just for ourselves, but for those who surround us to our left and to our right.
To say to them, “Here’s what I have. Here’s what I know. And it’s not mine, it’s for you, too.”
To ultimately learn these words of Jesus, who looked to his right, his left, and then looked out farther and wider than any of us can see and said, “You can have some of my cross.”
(2) “Return the Cross to the Marketplace” by George MacLeod
(3) “The Simple Life” by Shane Claiborne