Perhaps our lighthearted approach to this series won’t work so well on this day, with this text. Certainly, the foibles of the human condition are on display here, and we will attempt to point them out clearly and pointedly. But at the foot of the cross is not the place for humor.
Yet, on this Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday, there is dark humor in presenting as our king the one who is crucified. This is the foolishness with which Paul wrote so eloquently in First Corinthians (1:18-31). And even here, the worst of us rises up. Even in the face of such suffering, in such redemption, such sacrifice, our humanness is exposed in the characters who stood near the cross, face to face with Jesus.
But let’s start not with us or them; let’s start with Jesus and these amazing words that come from the king on the cross. One of the first observations to make about these words is that there has been considerable debate as to whether Jesus prayed this prayer from the cross at all. Some of the oldest manuscripts do not have these words recorded, which led many to believe that it was a later addition. Some even go so far as to argue that the purpose of addition was to ease the blame from Rome so that the Christians wouldn't seem to be a threat to the empire. Others argue that the addition was an attempt to avoid the centuries of anti-Semitism that grew up in the church.
The effectiveness of the former could be debated, I suppose, but the perhaps laudable goal of the latter was in no way even approached. It could even be argued that in the early days of Christendom, it was the depiction of the Passion story as a whole that brought forth the shameful excesses of anti-Semitism that still persist even today.
This brings us back to these words – this first word from the cross. It is interesting to me that this first word is not a word to us; it is a word to God. Jesus still has much to tell us, much to pass on to us even with his dying breaths. But he uses this first word to intercede for us yet again. "Father, Forgive them, they don't know what they are doing."
It is not an easy word to hear – or to overhear, in this case. It is not easy because knowledge is so important to us. "Know thyself," said one of humanity's greatest philosophers. We strive after knowledge. We live in an information age. We grow to the age of understanding. We confer degrees of knowledge upon one another. We pride ourselves on our intelligence quotient.
Yet when push comes to shove, when life bumps up against death, when meaning stands before us, salvation is offered to us, love reaches to embrace us, we need to be forgiven because we don't know what we are doing.
In the story of the prodigal son, Jesus tells us that the wanton behavior of the prodigal, the loose living, the slap against parental authority, the self-centered, self-seeking sinfulness is not really who we are. It is a madness of sorts, an unknowing. The turnabout phrase in the midst of the story is, "When he came to himself." If he had only known from the beginning who he really was; if he knew his own soul and his own mind, then his life would have been different. If only he knew.
“Father forgive them, they don't know.” Jesus came, some argue, to show us God. And in showing us God, he showed us ourselves. In other words, Jesus came so that we would know what we were doing. And yet as he died, he prayed to God to forgive us because we didn't get it. We didn't know.
He could have washed his hands of us at that moment. In an odd way, that is what the scoffers were asking for. Walk away from us, Jesus; show us your power by taking care of your own skin. That selfishness we know; we understand that. Because we live it every day. It is this sacrifice that we don't know. It is this dying that we don't understand. Give up on us and then we would know that you were right, that you did have the power, that you were who you said you were. But then it would have been too late. And we would have been lost.
Jesus didn't give up on us. He began his dying by trying to help us live. “Father, forgive them.” From the cross, Jesus was trying to get us back or keep us in right relationship with God. Forgive them. Heal them. Hold them. Gather them up. Stitch them back together.
That was the function of this word from the cross, to stitch us back into relationship with God. Even though our actions seemed to say that we didn't want to be there. Even though our words implied that we wanted nothing to do with God or with salvation or with hope for living. The thing is, we didn't know what we were doing.
No one can argue for the historical accuracy of these words from the cross. What I can argue for is the theological veracity of them. I have no doubt in my mind that Jesus died as he lived, trying to stitch us back together. Even as he was unraveling, even as the world was unraveling on that dark day on Calvary, his intent, his desire was to put us back together with God. To heal the breach, by stretching his own broken body across the gap. To stop the hemorrhage by pouring his own blood into wounds we inflict on ourselves. Cross stitching. Father, forgive them, they don't know what they are doing.
But before we go, there were those others who were face to face with Jesus that day. Not the scoffers on the ground, but the ones a little higher up, the ones on either side. The criminals, says the NRSV, one on the right and one on the left. And one of them joins the scoffers on the ground. “Show us your power by saving your skin, and ours!” In this moment of desperation, he like so many of us, defaults to self-preservation. Typical, we might say, expected. But the other had a different word from his cross.
One commentator wrote that this just might be the first Christian sermon. Not the Word from Jesus, but the confession of the criminal. "Do you not fear God since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And, we, indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." It was not a long sermon, but a sermon, nonetheless. The argument is that here is the first one who realized that Jesus, the man dying on a cross, was the Messiah because he was dying in innocence. His death was sacrificial; whereas, the thief's death was selfish - he died for his own deeds. And then having realized this, and having made the proclamation to his fellow criminal if to no one else, he then asked for something from the one he identified as his Lord.
What is amazing is what he didn't ask for. He didn't ask for rescue. “Get me down, get us down!” That is what was expected, and what the other asked. But this one asked to be remembered. “Remember me. When you get where you are going, remember me.” That's all. Maybe what he meant was, “Come and get me, “but that isn't what he said. So, maybe all he really meant was, “Remember me. Don't let my life be summed up by this death. Remember me as the one who recognized you. Remember me as someone who was more than the sum of his sins. Remember me.” That's what he asked for.
What he got was a whole lot more. “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” Most folks hang their attention on the word “paradise”— the promise of joy unending, of completion, of wholeness. The green fields of heaven stretching out into forever, waiting for the final breath of the one who claimed faith in a man he met while dying. It is a wonderful vision and certainly one worth clinging to.
Yet there seems like there should be more. There's that word "today." I know that given the fact that death was mere breaths away, at least for Jesus, he could have been referring to the fact that shortly Jesus and his new friend would be gamboling through those green fields. It was a sort of "hang on until we get through the messy bit right now and then we'll find our way to the garden” -- which is the literal translation of “paradise.”
Even so, I think we are missing something if that is the interpretation we glean. The word "today" seems even more immediate. It carries the sense of right now, this very moment, not just within a twenty-four-hour time span. But how can that be? How can Jesus be inviting the thief, the criminal (and actually the word “thief” is never used). Mark calls them “bandits,” which is a term used for those who stir up trouble, often attacking foreigners. So maybe” thief” isn't accurate, and “criminal” is too vague. Perhaps “terrorist” would fit better in this context. So, how can Jesus be inviting this terrorist into paradise even while they hang, dying on a cross?
Maybe the answer is in the other phrase of our second word: "with me." Christian artist Sara Groves has a song titled "What Do I Know" on her Conversations CD. In the song, she reveals that she has a friend who has just turned eighty-eight and is afraid of dying. Her faith is still strong; she "grew up singing about the glory land, and she would testify how Jesus changed her life. It was easy to have faith when she was thirty-four, but now her friends are dying, and death is at her door." A not uncommon experience, we might say. And the singer, Sara, wonders how to comfort her, how to strengthen her for what is to come. And what strikes her first is what she doesn't know. Here is the refrain of "what do I know":
I don't know that there are harps in heaven, / Or the process for earning your wings. / I don't know of bright lights at the ends of tunnels, / Or any of those things. -- Written by: SARA GROVES. Lyrics © MUSIC SERVICES, INC.
What we don't know about eternity is profound. And when we look at what Jesus told us, there isn't that much that we can add to our knowledge. Jesus didn't seem that interested in resolving our need to know exactly what was going to happen to us when we die.
In fact, we might argue that he wasn't that interested in resolving our need to know what was going to happen to us while we live, except in the most general ways. We aren't told what works and what doesn't. Jesus doesn't give us the twelve steps to a better life or anything like that. What he offered us is a relationship. “Follow me,” he said. “Today you shall be with me in paradise,” he said. “Where two or three are gathered, I will be there.” “And lo, I will be with you until the end of the age.” “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden.”
Sara Groves resolves her dilemma this way:
"But I know to be absent from this body / is to be present with the Lord, / and from what I know of him, / that must be pretty good." -- Written by: SARA GROVES. Lyrics © MUSIC SERVICES, INC.
“Today. you shall be with me in paradise.” Eternity is not about a place; it is about a person. It is about a relationship. And when Jesus spoke those words to that terrorist dying on a cross, he meant right now, right then. Paradise for that man was nothing like a green field or garden of delights; it was a cross that was robbing him of life. And yet in that moment, he found life, abundant and full life. Paradise begins when we enter into a relationship with Jesus. Eternity starts now, not just when we die, but right now when we reach out for the nail-scarred hand and realize that we are not alone. We have declared obedience to the king, the one dying on a cross and risen from the grave. That one is the one with whom we want to be face-to-face.