Meditation from John Thornton, Pastoral Resident, at our midweek Lenten Service on Wednesday, February 24.
Last Words | Salvation
Luke 23:32, 39-43
The first class I took while a student at Duke Divinity School was “Spiritual Autobiography.” Each week, myself and three other students would drive 35 minutes to Raleigh, park the car, and begin our journey into the middle of Central Prison, a maximum security facility, to meet the rest of our classmates. Up stairs, down elevators we’d journey into the middle of the prison to a common room where the rest of our classmates awaited us.
Part of that journey took us past the cafeteria. And there, we saw a group of prisoners wearing red jump suits. It didn’t take us too many trips to recognize that those red jump suits signified something different from the khaki or white ones worn by our other classmates. Peter, the staff psychologist who had set up the class, informed us that those were the men on death row.
Our Scripture this evening takes place at similar location to Central Prison, a hill for executing criminals. Luke tells us that the Romans killed Jesus “with criminals,” using their standard method of exection: a cross. It was only later that crosses gained widespread popularity as a decorative symbol. For most people of Jesus’ time, a cross was just an ordinary tool of the state, one way people were kept safe and peaceful. Try imagining a people group who adorn their places of worship with prison bars; a golden electric chair hanging high above the baptistry. This tool was just the way that order and safety were maintained. If someone threatened the way things were, they were hung upon a cross.
And so the cross Jesus tells his followers to take up, was not spiritual but a very real possibility. It was only later that we spiritualized the cross. Now the cross means anything hard, anything dark, any encounter with death. I “take up my cross,” when I deal with a difficult boss; “Taking up my cross,” means struggling against cancer. “My cross” is an addiction I need relief from. This is what happens when Christianity goes from being a fringe group declaring the Kingdom of God as an alternative to the powers of the world, and moves to the seats of power that used the cross in the first place. If you’re no longer at risk of being put on a cross as a criminal, you have to find new ways of taking Jesus seriously other than actually obeying what he said and accepting the ways that puts you at odds with the world.
The problem is Jesus doesn’t make this distinction. He doesn’t say “If you want to follow me, take up a cross. And by cross, I of course mean anything difficult or challenging.” We have no reason to believe that Jesus invitation to his disciples was anything other than an invitation to live in such a way that their lives would break the law. Jesus tells his disciples that if they wish to follow him, they must be willing to put on a red jump suit. That’s what these criminals remind us of: following Jesus entails believing in and following God even to the brink of death, even death on a cross.
So this one cross here in the middle of the room only tells part of the story. We should never forget that Jesus was a criminal crucified with other law breakers. God looks down on the world and knows that our sin creates destruction. We can’t stop harming each other. We can’t stop killing each other. We come up a myriad of excuses to harm, kill, and destory the lives of other people. I was reminded of this each and every time I walked the halls of Central Prison. And don’t think I’m talking about the inmates in the prison. Of course some of them have destroyed lives. What reminded me of our sin, was the fact that prisons exist. That America has more of them and that they are bigger and more populated than any other country’s prisons in the world. What bothered me was not the presence of murderers. But the very thought that it is okay to lock other human beings in cages. What bothered me was the belief that putting people in red jump suits and injecting them with poison keeps us safe.
Any society that locks people in cages, that puts men in red jump suits is a society that is not shaped by the cross. We are a people who have not learned the lesson that Christ offers redemption even to the worst of the worst and he offers it “today.”
And so if the Christian community is found where people take up their cross and gather with Jesus, what we have here is the first Christian fellowship. The disciples are long gone at this point. These two criminals are the first community gathered around the crucified Christ. This is where the church started and this is how it continues. With those of us on his right and his left. Doubting on one side and believing on the other. Wondering how God might love us so much that he came down and put on his own red jump suit. The first Christian fellowship took place not in a fellowship hall or a sanctuary. Not in a chapel or a SundaySchool classroom. No, the first time a believer gathered with the crucified Jesus was when they were both behind bars, dying because their society believed killing them kept the world safe.
In going to death row, Christ freed us to join him in paradise. He has freed us to love one another like he loved us, by joining us where we are. Christ calls us to love those the world sentences as “criminals”; to shelter those the world calls “illegal”; To feed those the world calls “lazy”; To be willing to don a red jump suit in order to protect the ones the world labels “extremists.” We are to do this not because it earns us any favor with God, but because Jesus loved us so much that that he was willing to die with and for criminals just like us.
And now, as we close, I’d like to invite you to receive a word of benediction. But before that, I would like you to do the following. As you are able please stand and stretch your arms out. And if you are not near someone please move close enough to where your hands are almost touching.
Now go, knowing that this is how it all began, with a few law breakers serving their time together. Know that God has put on a red jump suit and beckons us to do the same if that is where the Kingdom takes us. And know that Jesus promises paradise to those criminals who are crucified with him. He hears their cry because he is close to them, and because he is one of them.