Sunday, March 24th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford,
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke: 22:14-23:56
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The gospel of Christ confronts us with choices. Will we follow him? Will we take up his cross? Will we stay with him even to the last? Will we say “yes” to him, even when all others are failing and falling away? These are the choices we make in our journey of faith, on our journey to holiness, on our quest for communion with God. But saying “yes” is not such an easy thing. Saying “yes” has a cost. Saying “yes” has a risk. There are many things we say “yes” to in life without a second thought. They are choices that we make that have no real import on us, except perhaps a slight convenience or inconvenience depending on the situation, but these are not difficult or life-changing choices. The costly choices are the ones that ask us to examine ourselves, to be honest with ourselves, and stir up in us the longing, perhaps with fear and trembling, to change or be changed. This is the nature of the choice that confronts us in the gospel. This is the choice we encounter in the cross.
We live in a world of denial and illusion. Perhaps this is so because we are, at some deep level, afraid to face what reality brings. We are afraid of what people think of us. We are afraid of what might happen to us if we make certain choice, of what we might lose, of what we might suffer. And so we retreat into denial and illusion. We create happy, illusory edifices that surround our lives, and pretend that we are immortal, that we cannot be hurt or wounded by others or even by our own failures. “Always look on the bright side of life” says one popular song even when the pain reveals there is no bright side, but only sadness, regret, and loss.
Sometimes we feign saying “yes” when our actions really say “no.” We give lip service to one choice, while our actions tellingly speak of another. Beneath it all is fear; the fear of death. The fear of losing everything is at the heart of all lies, illusion, and denial. Until we stare that fear in face and own it, until truth itself confronts us, we shall forever live in a world of happy illusion and delusory denial.
But what if, confronted by Jesus, something were to cut us to the core, and in a moment we realize that losing all is our ultimate fate in spite of our best efforts to convince ourselves otherwise? What if, confronted by Jesus, our fears were to be momentarily unmasked and revealed and we had to face them? What if, confronted by Jesus, his witness and testimony to the truth, we were to realize that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves?
Our Lord hung upon the cross, between two thieves. Even in the face of his own impending doom, one of the thieves made a choice and clung tenaciously to his illusion. In the moment of his certain and unavoidable death, he hung next to the one who could offer him eternal life and mocked him. In the moment when he could have been saved, his own pride prevented him from recognizing his saviour and so he cast his soul away, for the power of sin is so strong that it tempts us that it is better to live a short life in illusion than an eternity in bliss.
Our Lord hung upon the cross, between two thieves. In the face of his own impending doom, the other thief made a choice, his own arms stretched wide in vulnerability and pain, and let Jesus into his heart. That thief owned the choices of his life. He owned his sin. He owned his crimes. He knew that he deserved to die. In opening his heart to the reality of his own life, his heart was opened to the presence of the Christ who hung next to him. And the sinless Christ, seeing his pain, seeing his penitent heart, hearing the words of compassion that he uttered, too this man’s sin upon his shoulders, and promised him paradise.
The story of the good thief makes explicit the work of the cross: forgiveness to the penitent sinner. To follow Jesus is to allow him to cut through the morass of the lies we tell ourselves to keep ourselves safe from the pain we fear so much; the pains of this life, and our fear of death. The choice to follow Jesus is the choice to open ourselves to experiencing and witnessing our doubt, our fear, our pain, and our sinfulness. “What need have the healthy for a physician?” Jesus asks earlier in the gospel. When we care to be honest, when we have the courage to be authentic, we realize that we all need the great physician. And yet, where does that courage come from? How can we find the courage to face what is so frightening that we build castles in the air to hide from it?
It is the stark reality of the cross, of the one man who needed no physician, of the one man who sinless, made the choice to succumb to its tortures that we might have true life in abundance. In Jesus Christ, the living God made a choice for humanity. In Jesus Christ, God became human that we might become divine. Remember how we are told in Scripture that we are created in image and likeness of God? Yet, sin obscures that image. We are apt to holiness and godliness, but are we able? That is why every “yes,” every “I will,” is qualified by the phrase, “with God’s help.” For you see it is only through Christ and him crucified that we can have any hope of re-attaining the image and likeness of God in which we were created. Under our own power, death is too frightening, our mistakes are too frightening, our sins are too debilitating. And our natural response, our primal predilection for self-perseveration is to begin to peddle lies to ourselves. “I can do this if I only try hard enough,” or “it must be everyone else; I’m okay,” or the favourite phrase of the political consultant “I make the truth.” But our castles will come falling down for our delusions and our lies are built on sand.
We hear of two Simons, one named the rock. Peter. But where was the bedrock of his faith and commitment when confronted with the reality of a crucified messiah? What were his words when asked about the one he swore he would never leave? “I do not know the man.” Fear gripped Peter. Fear made him lie. Fear put his very life and soul at risk. And were it not for the mercy of God, were it not for the merciful arms of Jesus stretched wide on the cross, Peter may have gone down in history numbered amongst the bad thief, or even Judas who betrayed his master.
Another Simon, this one a Cyreneian, had the cross place upon his shoulders when Jesus could no longer carry it. This Simon chose not to run. This Simon chose to see in the sinless man his salvation and took up his cross to follow in his way. This Simon did not turn back from the pain, or the shame, or even an uncertain fate. This Simon did not lie nor deny the Christ. Like the good thief, he faced the reality of the moment, and made a choice to minister to Jesus. Surely he too is with him in paradise.
When we reject Jesus, we seek to silence the voice our pain, the voice of our fear, and the voice of our sinful mistakes. Jesus might have let the cup pass from him, but he was the man of perfect authenticity. He was the man, the one man, the God-man, who was both apt and able to stare death in the face and openly embrace it. And in doing so, he conquered all fear, conquered sin, and yes, even conquered death, not only for himself, but for all who will come to him with a fearful but honest “yes” in their hearts and on their lips. For them, for us, Jesus offer truth and healing and even in the midst of all that pains us, a place in paradise.