I preached the following sermon as part of a seven-week ecumenical preaching series on the Seven Last Words of Christ. This sermon was offered at New Zion Baptist Church, one of the fellow members of the Upper James City County Ministerium, of which Hickory Neck Episcopal Church is a member.
One of the funny things about life is that when left to our own devices, we can become consumed with things that do not have ultimate significance. Whether our coworkers are counting on us to fill a shift, we have an important meeting, or we have a long to-do list to get accomplished, we can easily begin to think that the agenda we have set for ourselves is of ultimate importance. We know this to be a falsehood though: one phone call from the school nurse saying our child has a fever, or one appointment with the doctor telling us the test results came back positive, or one loved one experiences a car crash, and suddenly everything we thought was so important takes a backseat. Crisis has a funny way of creating clarity in our lives when nothing else will.
I think that is what happens to the penitent criminal next to Jesus. In the text we hear tonight, he is called a criminal, but in Matthew and Mark he is called a thief. The distinction matters because crucifixion was not a crime for petty larceny. Crucifixion was “…reserved for enemies of the state. Crucifixion was saved for people the Roman Empire wanted to make examples of – people who had committed crimes like insurrection – civil disobedience – treason. It’s why Jesus was crucified.”[i] So presumably, our penitent criminal has been fighting the state too. I suspect he has been so focused on his work, he sees nothing else, he sees no other way. Only upon finding himself on a cross – in the midst of crisis – does he find clarity.
In that clarity, the penitent criminal doesn’t ask to be remembered on earth – to have a legacy that lives on. He asks instead to be remembered – to have his body be re-membered – to be brought along with Jesus to that place that really matters. The criminal does not ask to be remembered because he fears being nothing. He confidently asks to be remembered, “because he recognizes the One who can remember. …[He] is able to see and acknowledge that this is indeed the One to redeem Israel.”[ii] This criminal could have been fighting the same empire, the same kingdom, that Jesus was fighting. Except Jesus was bringing about a kingdom that threatens all the kingdoms of this world.[iii] And in this moment on his cross, the criminal could see the Way.
I worry for us, here in Williamsburg, Virginia, among our ecumenical friends, even during Lent, we do not always have that same clarity. Two thousand years after Christ’s death, we slip into assumptions that we can control the world around us. We may even be trying to change our community – fighting injustice, organizing for the poor, rallying for the disenfranchised, and resisting the evil of this kingdom. But if we are not rooted in Christ’s cross – rooted in helping to bring about the heavenly kingdom – perhaps we too are sitting on our own crosses, not having gained the clarity to simply ask, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
In college, I spent ten days on a mission trip to Honduras. We were in a rural village for most of the visit, needing to hike from the main road for about an hour before we arrived. The week was filled with humbling experiences – seeing the sacrifices the village made to host us, learning about the plight of subsistence farmers who cannot own their land, trying to make an impact, but realizing how little power we really had. During our ten days together, one of the songs we frequently sang was the Taizé chant, “Jesus, remember me.” If you do not know the song, the song simply repeats the phrase, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom; Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” The song is also quite easily translated into Spanish due to its simplicity. On one of our last nights as a team, in our closing worship, one of the team leaders was so overwhelmed by our experience that he began to change the words, “Jesus, forget me…” he sang. His words shocked us. For him, I think his changing of the words was his way of expressing how unworthy he would ever be to be remembered by Jesus. Not in a world of such deep injustice.
What my teammate’s version of that song did though was forget what happens in Luke’s gospel when the criminal asks Jesus to remember him. Jesus says the words we honor tonight, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” As Peter Gomes reminds us, “Jesus doesn’t say, ‘There, there, there, it will be all right, just hold on a little tighter.’ He doesn’t say that; he says, ‘Today’ – now, this instant, as soon as I’m there – ‘you will be there also.’ Jesus claims lordship of the future.”[iv]
Jesus says something powerful today. This Paradise that Jesus points to is not a place they will go someday, but “a relationship that they entered today…Paradise is whenever, wherever you are with Jesus.”[v] Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds like Good News to me. When we get those moments of clarity – hanging from a cross, in the face of our sinfulness that makes us want to be forgotten, Jesus says, right now, right here, you are with me. Last week, we heard Jesus’ promise of forgiveness, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Today, Jesus moves beyond forgiveness to full inclusion in the kingdom – full, reconciled relationship that changes the here and now.
A few weeks ago, our parish hosted the Emergency Winter Shelter. We partnered with many of you here, and I know many of you host your own weeks, or partner with other parishes that do. When we host Winter Shelter Week, we often encourage our people to witness Christ’s love through service of others – to bring Christ’s light to the guests of our shelter. But what I remembered this year, is that as much as we think of our selves as bearers of God’s light into the darkness, I think what we actually do is not bring Christ’s light, but discover Christ’s light is already there – because that is where God is – at the heart of suffering, illness, and oppression. We do not bring God to our guests. God is already with our guests. We just get to be witnesses to the inbreaking of the kingdom. When we serve the homeless in our community, we are asking Jesus to remember us – and Jesus reminds us that we are there with him in Paradise.
As much as I love singing “Jesus remember me,” during Lent, I confess that as I reflect on these last words of Jesus, I wonder if instead singing the Taizé song “Ubi Caritas,” might capture the spirit of what Jesus is saying. The English translation of Ubi Caritas is “Where love and charity are, there is God.” I think if my friend who simply wanted to be forgotten that night in Honduras had remembered Jesus’ response to those words, he would have remembered that Jesus does not care if we are worthy. Our acts of charity, of love, of kindness, are where God is. Today. Not in the future. Today, we are in God’s kingdom. As that defeated revolutionary is hanging on the cross wanting to be remembered, as he and Jesus both long for justice, into that darkness, Jesus proclaims the light already present. In our community, the light is present too. Into the face of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, hatred, hunger, poverty, and oppression; into our divisions right here in Williamsburg, when we fail to love our neighbor; into the denominational differences that pull us apart on Sunday mornings, Jesus’ light is already here. “Truly I tell you, today…today…TODAY… you…and you…and you…YOU… will be with me in Paradise.” Amen.
[i] The Rev. Linda Pepe, “Today You Will Be with Me in Paradise: Luke 22.33-43,” 2013, as found at http://www.theologicalstew.com/today-you-will-be-with-me-in-paradise-luke-23-33-43.html on March 1, 2019.
[ii] Stanley Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004), 42.
[iii] Hauerwas, 42.
[iv] Peter J. Gomes, The Preaching of the Passion: The Seven Last Words form the Cross (Cincinnati: Forward Movement, 2002), 27.
[v] William H. Willimon, Thank God It’s Friday: Encountering the Seven Last Words form the Cross (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 20.