Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross
There were two thieves crucified with Jesus on Good Friday. The thief who was crucified at the right of Jesus, legend has it, was named Dismas. Both of these men were sinners, as we all are. They were criminals, as some of us are. But the thief on the right saw Jesus as he truly is, and the thief on his left wanted Jesus to conform to his image of how he should be. Jesus did not measure up to the thief on the left’s expectation of what a king should look like. Jesus did not use his power to save himself from a humiliating death. The thief on his left derided Jesus, Luke tells us, echoing the comments of the soldiers and the mob in the previous verses: the leaders of the mob said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, the chosen one!” The soldiers gave him sour wine and said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There are echoes of Satan in the wilderness, in these words, when he challenged Jesus, saying, “If you are the son of God, throw yourself down from here.” But Jesus accepted his death. His death was a direct consequence of the way he lived his life, and his message about the kingdom.
I imagine Dismas, the thief on his right, knew something about the ministry of Jesus, because he asks Jesus to remember him in his kingdom. I also imagine that he did not think he would actually be invited there, because he simply asked that Jesus would remember him. I imagine his words to have meant, “Lord, please remember me in your kingdom. It is paradise to me. I am just a poor thief.”
Perhaps he thought he had sinned too much, that he had been a terrible person. But he believed in the kingdom of God, and he believed that Jesus would be going there. Jesus’ministry was the message of the kingdom. More than that, his ministry was actually a taste of the reign of God. His death cannot be separated from his life. The life he lived resulted in death, a death he freely accepted.
Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom of the oppressed (Luke 18). In Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see specific examples of releasing the captives, freeing people from the things that bound them, like sickness. The sicknesses that Jesus healed people from in his time might be different, but the substance is still the same. Leprosy does not come to mind first as a sickness people would come to Jesus with today, but AIDS does. People who had leprosy had were put outside of the community. In Africa, where AIDS is growing at an alarming rate, help from other countries has been slow coming- and so a comparison can be made, that the people of Africa are put outside of the global community. There are so many orphaned children, whose parents have died from the disease.
Jesus healed the sick, the sinful, the fragmented. Let us reflect on the ways we live fragmented lives- we are divided by history, race, class, culture, religion, ageism, sexism. Colonialism, apartheid, politics, ideology, violence, degradation. When we realize these divisions in our lives, we want to hold them up to the light. We remember that Jesus’ death had everything to do with his life, the way that he lived, the message of the reign of God.
Jesus turned systems of power upside down. He said, love your enemy (Luke 6:27). He said, blessed are the poor (6:20). He showed in each encounter that women are equal to men in their humanity, as in the story of Mary and Martha- Mary, who preferred to sit at the feet of Jesus, was doing something couter-cultural, as this was an activity reserved for men (Luke 10:39). Jesus taught love and acceptance of the outsider (invite the poor when you have a banquet, Parable of the Great Dinner, Luke 15:21). Jesus said let the little children come to me, rather than keep them outside of the important adult ministry. He said the kingdom belongs to them (Luke 18:15).
The message about the kingdom does not, at first, seem like good news for the powerful, the elite, the protected, the ones who benefit from a system of oppression- racism, sexism, classism- but it has taken me a while to figure out that it is. It is good news for everyone. The systems of oppression fragment us, they separate us from one another, and from God. When God reigns, there will be wholeness of relationship. The result of this, of course, is freedom from war and oppression. The result is peace. The result is reconciliation. The result is wholeness, for everyone. Jesus says today. We are still fighting a war in Iraq, there is so much violence in our society. But we might have eyes to see, ears to hear, and we might find that God is bringing about the kingdom. When the thief asked Jesus to remember him in his kingdom, Jesus told him that he will be with him today in paradise.
The paradise Jesus talks about, for me, it is the reality pointed to in Jesus’ life. Paradise is synonymous with the reign of God. When the love of God infuses all that is, there is paradise. It might mean pearly-gated heaven, or a garden, or some other place, but more important to me, it is a condition. It is a condition, it is relationship, it is wholeness. God will be all and in all. In the midst of chaos, God is telling us