On Good Friday, six Christian churches honored the crucifixion of Jesus together in a special ecumenical service. Here is a picture from that service:
Here are the words I shared at the service:
The words of Jesus I am discussing with you takes place in the Gospel of Luke, when the criminals on the cross of either side of him begin to speak.
To explore this story in greater depth, I’d like to use the assigned names our spiritual ancestors gave to the unnamed characters in this passage.
Traditionally, Christians refer to the first thief as Gestas, and the second thief as Dismas.
The Gospel of Luke reads,
“One of the criminals, (a man named Gestas), kept deriding (Jesus) and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’
But the other criminal, (a man named Dismas) rebuked Gestas, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’
Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
(And Jesus) replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”
These are the words from the Gospel of Luke.
So here’s a story
where two dying men,
Gestas and Dismas, are on either side of Jesus Christ who Christians believe is the incarnation of God.
In other words, this is a story about two men arguing about how they understand God better than the other while God is right next to them.
Not only that, but both Gestas and Dismas have the gall to tell God what God needs to do in order to be God in their hour of need.
The first criminal, Gestas, believes that God needs to be powerful in this situation. Gestas wants a miracle in which God removes the nails and heals wounds. Gestas has a feeling that if he can just get back to living a pain-free life, then Gestas can experience joy and happiness.
In other words, Gestas believes that in order for God to be God, God must bring an end to suffering. And if Jesus can do such a miracle, then, Gestas believes, Jesus will erase any doubt that he is the Son of God.
However, the second criminal, Dismas, believes that God needs to be faithful in this situation. Dismas wants the kind of faith from Jesus that will remove all of his fears. Dismas has a feeling that if he can trust in God’s will just a little bit more, then the nails in his hands will lose their painful sting.
In other words,
Dismas believes that in order for God to be God,
God must bring unwavering certainty.
And if Jesus can provide that kind of faith, then, Dismas believes, that Jesus will erase any doubt that he is the Son of God.
After making his point about faith,
Dismas then is so confident in his theological right-ness, that he says to Jesus, “Will you remember me when you go to heaven, since I aced the theological exam?”
And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”
But can I ask all of you a question this evening? Why is it that Christians assume that Jesus is only speaking to the second criminal here?
Now some may say that we make this assumption because Dismas just asked Jesus a question.
But my friends, there are three reasons that lead me to believe that Jesus is speaking to both criminals, rather than just one:
We are telling a story about God, and God does not speak to some of us more than others. God speaks to ALL of us ALL of the time.
The text does not say, “Jesus replied to the second criminal” or “Jesus spoke in a low voice so only Dismas could hear,” or “Jesus said things in a way that only Dismas could understand.” In other words, there is enough room in the Gospel of Luke for us to make the assumption that Jesus is speaking to both criminals and still honor the text.
We need to remember that we are speaking about Jesus Christ, who tends to find a way to transcend our theological debates and call us back to our original purpose: To live lives filled with love and risk.
Returning to our story, Gestas tells God to be powerful And Dismas tells God to be faithful.
And then God tells them, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
Today? Like… today, today?
A quick review on the current situation, Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise,” on the day when he is nailed to a tree and he is about to die.
Wouldn’t it make more sense within our theological framework if Jesus said, “Don’t worry friends, TOMORROW you will be with me in Paradise!”? Now that statement would get an fervent “Amen,” from Dismas.
But Jesus doesn’t promise Dismas he will be with him tomorrow. Instead, Jesus says, “I will be with you TODAY!” This day. The day when you are on the cross. The day when you have been rejected. The day that is the worst day of your life. The day when you confront the very thing you fear. The day when you die.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
Paradise? Like… Paradise, Paradise?
Another quick review on the current situation, Jesus says, “Today we are in paradise” while he is nailed to a tree on earth and about to die.
Wouldn’t it make more sense within our theological framework if Jesus said, “Watch this!”
and all of a sudden
angels appeared and undid the nails
and gardens sprang up from the ground
and the planet cooled
and the lion laid down with the lamb right at the foot of the cross?
Now that statement would get an enthusiastic “Amen,” from Gestas.
But for Jesus, paradise doesn’t begin when suffering ends. Instead, Jesus says, “I will be with you in Paradise, TODAY!” Paradise today, even though there is suffering. Paradise today, even though there is pain. Paradise today, even though there is death.
And while Gestas demands power
and Dismas demands faithfulness,
God gives both of them something greater:
God gives them Her presence.
God is with them, even when they pass into death.
And if God is willing to enter into death with us then where could we possibly go that God will not go with us?
The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not promise certainty. The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not promise freedom from suffering. The Gospel of Jesus Christ only promises that you are loved and you will never be alone.
My friends, may we always remember that no matter how dark it gets around us and no matter how hopeless we feel God is with us.
And God says to all of us on Good Friday in 2023,
“Today, I will be with you here in Paradise.”