He was stunned. He’d never thought it would end like this. How can this be happening? How can this be happening to me?
Sure he was a criminal, a thief. Sure, he made his way through life by taking without asking. And sure, he’d had some run-ins with the law — some pretty close calls. Yet, he never thought it would end like this. How could this be happening?
But the jeers and insults of the crowd, the feel of the rough-hewn cross on his back, the sound of the hammer pounding the spikes, and the horrible pain — all they said about it was true, the awful truth.
He was being crucified. This second criminal knew — he knew now that it was over. He only hoped that death would come quickly now. It was all over for him.
Was it over?
We know that this criminal was one of three men to die that day. The scene on that garbage dump outside of town — Golgotha, the place of the skull — was crowded as usual. These executions were entertainment for a lot of folks. There was some sort of fascination with crime and violence and blood and suffering — something like we have today I suspect. Yes, there was the usual crowd. But something was different about this day, and this second criminal noticed it.
He recognized a lot of the townspeople; he knew the other criminal on the cross. But this third man — what was His name? This Jesus, who was He? And who were these women who were with Him? And what is this big deal that the soldiers are making over Him?
Why this crown of thorns? Why these peculiar insults? Oh, he was used to insults at crucifixions, but not like these: “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Messiah of God, His chosen one. If you are king of the Jews, save yourself.”
Then he hears some peculiar words from Jesus Himself. Very unusual. Usually the condemned swear or curse or moan or beg — but Jesus says “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Slowly, this second criminal begins to figure it out. This man Jesus is no criminal. Slowly, listening to the talk of those around him and recalling the stories he’d been hearing around town, this second criminal begins to put it together. This is the one they’ve been talking about. This is the one who has been talking about God’s mercy and compassion, about God’s care for the poor, and the oppressed and the stranger in our midst, about God’s love for all people — a love that never gives up or lets go. This is the one who’s been talking about justice and fairness and steadfastness and a new life of faith. This is the one who says He’s going to bring it. This crucified Jesus is the one.
The second criminal recalls other stories. This Jesus not only talked about God’s love, compassion and mercy, He lived it out. He ate with sinners, hung-out with those on the fringes of society, touched the diseased. He made the lame walk, He made the blind to see, He restored the crazy to their right minds. And He said this was only the beginning. More was to come. God’s love is so great that we haven’t seen anything yet.”Save yourself and us.”This shout interrupts the second criminal’s thoughts. He turns to the first criminal and hears those words: “Are you not the messiah? Save yourself and us.” He listens to the insults and derision of the first man for awhile longer. Then he turns to that man. “Be quiet!” the second criminal shouts. “Do you not fear God … you are under the same condemnation, do you not fear God?” “We have been condemned justly. We are getting what we deserve. But this man … this man Jesus has done nothing wrong, nothing wrong at all.”
There is a silence.
Then this second criminal turns to face Jesus. The two men look at each other, both are wracked with agony and the tortured suffering of the cross. And the criminal quietly says to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus looks back at the man. In the midst of His pain, a gentle smile crosses His face. Jesus responds: “Truly, I tell you, this day you will be with me in paradise.”Was it over?
The second criminal thought it was. He thought it was all over. But something happened. In the midst of his suffering, in the midst of his pain, in the midst of his regrets, in the midst of the insults around him — in the midst of his horrible struggle, he turned his face toward Christ, and he was never the same.
“This day you will be with me in paradise.” It was not over.
None of us gets a free pass through life. Our lives can be filled with pain and difficulty that is nearly impossible for us to bear. There can be trouble that seems insurmountable. We can wallow in the depths of despair, loneliness, anxiousness, confusion and fear. We suffer. We struggle to make sense out of life. We do not get the things we are hoping for. We lose people who are dear to us.
But today we are reminded that we need not go it alone. It does not matter who we are; it does not matter what we have done; it does not matter what other people think of us; it does not matter what we think of ourselves. It does not matter. Because today we can be renewed in Christ.
In Jesus, God lived among us and with us. In Jesus, God continues to live among us and with us. God knows our ache and our pain, knows our suffering and our anguish, knows our fear and anxiety. God knows our despair and despondency, knows our anger and confusion, knows our grief. Our God has faced our death. Through it all God in Christ overcame the pain and the struggle, the suffering, the anguish and despair, the deep and abiding grief that can be a part of our lives. God overcame it all and said that life can be renewed and that we can live fully, that we can have hope now and forever. We need not be alone. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.