Speaking of hell, our Congress has spent the past couple of weeks questioning people about the President’s use of quid pro quo to get information on a political rival. The world has tuned in to hear the statements from diplomats and career civil servants hoping to learn the truth. After all, the President’s reputation is on the line.
In today’s reading from Luke, we get an unembellished statement from a man whose reputation is also on the line. His is profoundly poignant - especially given its context. The one who asked the question is overjoyed because the answer he receives reveals the truth he had hoped for.
READ LUKE 23:32-43
Last week we spoke of hope. And now on the last Sunday of the church calendar, as we celebrate the Reign of Christ, Jesus offers the world hope like it’s no one’s business. In his final statement to another human being Jesus tells a confessed criminal, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus is the diplomat of God’s grace. The ambassador of love. A statesman for salvation. This shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus began his ministry announcing the kingdom of God to the world, and now at the end of his short life he shows us what that kingdom looks like. Often in the most unorthodox of ways.
“Jesus was pretty weird,” writes Todd Brewer in a recent essay on Mockingbird. “Jesus laughed off death threats, and he regularly insulted his dinner hosts. He held a patent disregard for social conventions. And when he had the chance, he did or said the last thing people expected. He must have been incredibly infuriating to be around.” Sound like anyone you know?
The priest and politicians deemed Jesus a threat, because he represents and embodies God’s grace - the greatest threat to anyone who reigns over people with fear instead of love. Even in his final minutes of life Jesus practice what he preached – showing what real grace looks like to those who believe they aren’t worthy to receive it.
This begs the question, “Who among us is worthy?”
Jesus says you are worthy. God loves us all no matter what. Hanging on the cross is proof of that love. Sadly, we waste so much energy believing that we are unworthy. So, we avoid God as if God is keeping score. Or hiding in the bushes to catch us.
If what Jesus says is true, if God’s grace is real, and God’s love is abundant, then what does that say to those who doubt or mock Jesus from their cross? Are they any less worthy than the ones who recognize him?
There are some folks who say yes. They don’t want to believe that “all” people deserve God’s grace. Muslims, Hindus, Democrats, or your weird gun-toting uncle who spews conspiracy-theories whenever you’re around. Who wants to share eternity with them?
In a recent Facebook post, a friend made a comment about not wanting to live in heaven next door to the kid who killed two students last week at Saugus High. She preferred he be “in substandard housing in a really warm climate.”
But then another asked, “Does this kid get more of a pass because he was messed-up?” This got me thinking. God didn’t mess this world up, we did. God didn’t teach this boy to hate, we did. We made a place for him where violence and killing is normalized. Who needs God’s grace more than this him?
In her book Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber confessed she was reluctant to recognize the Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza among those killed. But then she realized “that the light of Christ cannot, will not, shall not be overcome by that darkness. Not by Herod, and not by Adam Lanza. The light of Christ is so bright that it shines even for me and even for them.”
It’s hard to think God loves mean, angry, bad people. But if God is alive in all, then no one can be left out. The grace of God that is revealed in Christ is so deep and so abiding, that even to those who disappoint can receive it if they want it.
Some might call this fake news. But to me, it’s the good news. The gospel Jesus proclaimed when he ushered in the kingdom of God. A kingdom where prodigals are forgiven, lost sheep are found, people are restored, and those who are condemned can claim God’s mercy and grace if they want it.
Christ has shown me God’s Kingdom is like a dad who never gave up when his son screwed up. Or a mother who patiently loved her daughter through those difficult years. It’s like my wife who forgives me not because she’s committed to loving me for better or worse, but because she too has received undeserved grace. She knows the power of claiming it…if she wants.
Congress can debate the usage of quid pro quo, but Jesus knows God plays by a different set of rules. You see, God’s grace is not transactional. It’s transformational. It has nothing to do with what we did to deserve it. But it has everything to do with those who want it.
Here is a person who does not taunt or mock Jesus with royal titles, but simply addresses him by his name. Jesus. A name which means “God saves.” And more precisely, “God is rescue.” I don’t know if that criminal knew Jesus is the embodiment of God's salvation and rescue, but he wants it. The very last thing this dying man does is to speak “the name that is above all names” (Phil. 2:9). And today he is with Christ in paradise.
I want you to remember this as you go out into the world. God’s love is infinite. So too is God’s grace. There is plenty for everyone – not just those who recognize who Jesus is but even for those who mock him. If they want it.
But if you accept it, remember that grace is God’s way of saying, “I’m not interested in what you’ve done but what you are doing right now, today, in this paradise.” Jesus has already died. We have already received the benefits of his sacrifice. Now it’s up us to go and be the presence of God’s greatest gift for others .
Today it’s up to us to go be weird like Jesus, who showed us how to sit with others in their sorrow, how to celebrate in their joy, and feed their hunger for something other than what this world offers. It doesn’t matter which side of the cross they are on, to care for the least of our brothers and sisters is to care for Jesus himself.
As we move towards Advent, we do so with the cross of Christ in front of us and the hope that it sheds light on. It is our reminder that God love is real. And God’s grace is real. The life that Jesus invites us to live is an everlasting life that begins today. If you want it, God says it’s yours.
Today, let us call on the name of Jesus, to make his name our statement in the world. This means to be a diplomate and ambassador of Christ and proclaim the truth of God’s love in all that we do.
Today, I invite you to see and do what Jesus did, so the narrow path expands and the doors of the Kingdom are pushed wide open for anyone who desires to enter into paradise.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C. Vol. 4. (Westminster John Knox: 2010) pp. 332-337.
Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. (Convergent: 2015) p. 78.
Brewer, Todd. The Elusive Strangeness of Jesus. Mocking Bird: Nov. 19, 2019. (accessed 11/19/19) https://mbird.com/2019/11/the-elusive-strangeness-of-jesus
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”