It’s Good Friday. We can’t help but think of the cross. Maybe we need Good Friday to help us reflect on and understand what happened there at the place called skull. I fear sometimes we start thinking of the cross as religious furniture or inspirational jewelry. But today we are reminded that what happened to Jesus was an execution.
And we have the unusual opportunity to eavesdrop on the words being said there. What kind of words do we expect to hear at an execution? We listen but we are not data collectors. We listen because we are learning how to follow. And we hear words like this “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
There is a lack of reverence in the text. We can be certain the scene was loud. It is full of the sounds of violence. Soldiers were shouting. Hammers were pounding. Gamblers were gambling. Mocking voices from the crowd. Screams of despair.
Luke wants us to know some of the words that were said. And they are interesting. Rulers were saying, “let him save himself.” Soldiers were saying “save yourself.” A criminal from the cross is saying “save yourself and us.” Three times we are told that people hostile to Jesus are telling him to “save yourself.” Jesus does not reply.
And then, Luke gives us a brief conversation. The other criminal replies to the first one “Do you not even fear God?” And he speaks to Jesus “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This time Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Most of us are in favor of being saved. We are in favor of being rescued. In fact we have been raised on stories about being saved. We have all heard stories about a brave knight in shining armor who rides fearlessly into a scene where a fair maiden is trapped and held against her wishes by a fire breathing dragon. We know how this goes. This gallant knight saves the maiden. That is unless my daughters are telling the story. In their version of the story the knight messes everything up and the maiden has to bust them both out.
The Gospel of Luke is full of people who are in need of saving. Luke is, after all, the gospel that tells us Jesus came “to seek and to save the lost.” In Luke we find stories about lost sheep, lost coins, and lost sons. And in the end they are all found, or if you will, they are saved.
Luke brings all sorts of unlikely people into the story. Shepherds, soldiers, tax collectors, women who live unclean lives, lepers and other unclean people, Samaritans, Levi, Zaccheus, two criminals hanging on the cross, even Peter in the gospel says “I am a sinful man.”
Luke wants us to know, all of these are welcome in the kingdom. People keep entering the story and Jesus keeps saving people. Wherever they come from, whatever they have done, he simply continues to do what he claimed he came to do. He is seeking and saving the lost. And for this, he was crucified.
And we start to realize something. Jesus is not crucified for saving people as much as for saving the wrong people. Even at his own execution, he is hanging out with the same kind of people he has been hanging out with for his entire ministry. And he is still welcoming undeserving people into the kingdom.
“Today you will be with me in paradise.” This word from the cross tells us something about grace. This word is exactly the kind of thing Jesus is executed for. This criminal does not deserve saving. But not even a cross can stop Jesus from seeking and saving the lost.
This word reminds us that following Jesus takes us beyond the borders of the present world. This word takes us beyond what we deserve.
All the way through the gospel, all the way to the cross, people complained about who Jesus spent time with. Now at the place called skull, the one who eats and drinks with sinners also dies with them and for them. Jesus is crucified because he would not stop saving the wrong people. He never stops welcoming unlikely, undeserving people into the kingdom.
It is one thing to talk about Jesus welcoming unlikely and underserving people into the kingdom. It is one thing to listen as Jesus speaks these words from the cross. After all, this is the kind of thing we have come to expect from Jesus. It is far more challenging to actually be inviting, welcoming and loving. We all know people who simply do not deserve it. We know some who have been places and done things that are difficult to look past. We are know people who are really hard to talk to. People who vote for the wrong candidates (what are they thinking)? People who cheer for the wrong team. People who listen to the wrong music. The fact is, some simply do not deserve the same saving we do. The idea of spending eternity with some people does not sound like heaven at all.
This is not easy stuff, this welcoming others into the kingdom. Yet, the fact remains, we are not the managers of the guest list – we are the welcome committee.
We do not know what else these criminals and Jesus may have said to one another while on the cross. If they said anything else, Luke did not think it was necessary to record it. Yet the conversation continues. And you and I are part of it. Each of us are asking Jesus to do what we would like him to do or we are trusting that he knows what he is talking about. We are all either asking for or receiving something we do not deserve. That is worth repeating. We are all either asking for or receiving something we do not deserve.
Today we listen to these words from the cross. We need Good Friday to help us reflect on and understand what happened. We listen but we are not data collectors. We listen because we want to learn how to follow. But what happens on the cross makes following Jesus very hard. We hear words like this and we are reminded how Jesus kept welcoming unlikely and undeserving people into the kingdom. We are reminded how he kept saving the wrong people. But it is not enough to be reminded. As followers we are expected to be welcoming and inviting and loving as well – but beware – one has already been crucified for this kind of behavior.