Friday, November 23, 2007

Becoming the Good Thief

Sermon for the Reign of Christ
Sunday, November 25th, 2007
Preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 23:33-43

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
--Luke 23:42

The desire to demonstrate power through a show of force is not a new urge. If we find ourselves concerned with the growing tendency of our society to beat others into our own image and likeness, into conformity with our principles, political, moral, ethical or religious, then we stand with many across the ages who have felt powerless against belligerent exercises of unjust power. But we must remember that none of us are immune to the temptation to exercise power and force over others who are different from us. So, as we stand shocked and awed by the tyranny of others, can we dare to recognize the tyranny we exercise in our own lives over those less powerful than us?

There is a very real sense that the exercise of power is a good thing, that power equals strength. Indeed, most of us would rather work for a strong leader than serve under a weak one. Thus, we are sometimes seduced by the strong leader who demonstrates, with acts of power, their strength. We might laud their show of force as decisive, as the mark of one that is in control, that knows his or her own mind, that will not be swayed by others. But to what end is the power exercised and to what good? What good is a decisive king if his subjects go hungry, remain oppressed, are silenced upon the questioning his authority? What does it profit any of us to have peace, order, and security if indeed we have lost our souls?

Three convicted criminals were led up a hill to the place of their execution. The crime was sedition; the punishment was death by crucifixion. The peace of the empire was at stake. The king, the emperor, had been challenged by back-water upstarts. It is likely that the emperor, himself, never heard the name Jesus of Nazareth, nor those of two bandits crucified on his right and left. There was a way of maintaining peace, order and security in the empire, and the local governors, the instruments of the state knew it well.

We know little of the two men crucified with Jesus. Their names are lost to us. Both Matthew and Mark speak of them as “revolutionaries” while Luke simply calls them “robbers” or “bandits.” The implication, though, is that they themselves were men of violence; men who sought to overturn the rule of the Emperor through sedition, violence, the use of force. To fight force with force; for this, they were condemned. And what of the man, Jesus? A revolutionary? Certainly – but of what sort? He was not above shows of power and acts of force. He had overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple court, after all. But more often then not, his acts of power were miracles, healings, signs of God’s mercy and sacraments of God’s love for a broken humanity and hope of reconciliation for a conflicted world. He gave sight to the blind, he mended broken hearts, and he set free those who were tormented in their minds and in their spirits. He saved others through his gentle touch and compassionate words – a different kind of power.

“He saved others! Let him save himself!” Who dared shout these words as he hung on that rood of death? Who dared mock and taunt the Son of God in the passion of his suffering? The leaders of the people. The soldiers who crucified him. Even one crucified with him who had likely stood against the tyrannical power of the emperor. Who are these who mocked and taunted him? They are you and I. They are both those who held power and those who stood against tyranny. They are you and I – waiting, hoping, longing for a show of power to prove themselves wrong. They placed a placard above his head, ironically proclaiming him king. But in some sense hoping beyond hope that he was a king. “Show us your power! Make us believe! If you can do it, if you are a king, if you can save yourself we will follow you, we will bow down before you, we will worship you! Show us your power!” But nothing happens, darkness descends and hope is lost. He is no king; he has no power.

But then a voice, one thief rebukes the other who taunts the would-be messiah: “We are justly condemned, but this man has done no wrong.” It is a moment of crisis for this thief who is about to face his own death. Who in his own acts of power and shows of force has failed to see his goals met. Power and force have done him no good, and there he hangs justly condemned. But in this moment of crisis, his mind clear, he sees all that has gone before him and catches a glimpse of eternity – a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is truly like. In his moment of clarity he penetrates the fog of misunderstanding. The outstretched arms of the man between him and his fellow thief are not nailed to the cross in defeat, but rather, are outstretched for the healing of the nations. They are arms that embrace; they are arms that welcome home even the most brutal blackguards and hopeless sinners. He recognizes in the outstretched arms of this man, not defeat, but triumph, not weakness, but power. True power, in compassion, in love, the power of God to heal the world. And as his life drained from him, his wasted, bloodstained life, the good thief turned his head and uttered these simple words, “Jesus, remember me, as you come into your kingdom.” And beyond remembrance, Jesus offers him eternal friendship and companionship: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” In the words of St. Ambrose of Milan: “More abundant is the favour shown than the request that was made.”

In Jesus’ dying moments a criminal receives a share of the Christian destiny in the Kingdom of God. Those who mocked know not what they asked, for indeed a show of great power was made, not in force, but in humility and weakness. For it was not simply one criminal who was received that day, but with outstretched arms, our Lord opened the way for all humanity, broken as we are. The “Good Thief” is good not because he has done anything good, but because he has allowed himself to be known by the one who sought him out from before the foundation of the world. In his own weakness he met the humility of God at the cross and was born to new life in God’s kingdom of reconciliation.

Life is filled with moments in which we find ourselves crucified. In which all power is taken from us. There is a great temptation to grasp at power in order to raise ourselves up from despair. There is a great temptation to trample others in our grasping at that power. There is a great temptation to believe that in one great show of force we can resolve our brokenness. We cannot. We stand crucified with our Lord. And the moment of choice is ever before us: we can choose the lot of the one thief, who taunted and mocked to the very end, believing only in the fallacy of the force of might, or we, with the good thief, can turn to Jesus in our brokenness, in our own crucifixion, and ask him to remember us in his kingdom.

Copyright 2007, by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed either in whole or part, by any means, without the express written permission of the author.

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