If you’ve been reading our blog for the last few weeks, you know that Pastor John has been moving through a series on rescue. We’ve looked at personal rescue, such as Abram rescuing Lot, Boaz rescuing Ruth (and Ruth rescuing Naomi), The reckless love of the father running to his homeward-bound destitute younger son, and going out to his indignant older son, and we’ve looked at God’s rescuing of an entire nation when he led the Israelites out of slavery under the leadership of Moses.
Today’s story of rescue, found in Luke 23:32-43 happens as Jesus is hanging on the cross, gasping for every breath; he is dying. He is hanging between two men who are in the same situation. I imagine neither of them was wearing a crown of thorns, and I don’t know if they’d been beaten almost to death by Roman soldiers prior to their crucifixions, but they were definitely suffering on their crosses. These three men were that day’s example of Rome’s cruelty and violent means to ensure their power–many people were crucified during Rome’s reign.
Before I move on from here, I want to acknowledge that we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Thousands of people are dying. Most everyone has had life disrupted. Many have lost jobs. In times like these, it is not unusual for people to blame God or ask God where he is and why he has abandoned us, or why he is so cruel. While I certainly don’t understand the ways of God, I do know, because the cross is evidence, that God is in this with us. He loves us. He joins us in our suffering. Brian Zahnd, in his book The Unvarnished Jesus writes:
Jesus doesn’t die as a lone sufferer, but as Immanuel among the sufferers…To see Jesus Christ hung upon a cross wearing a crown of thorns, with victims on either side, is perhaps, the most powerful single image of the gospel. Incarnation, forgiveness, and kingdom are all present.
Immanuel, God with us–even in this. We are not alone.
As Jesus is nailed to the cross he speaks words that many of us are familiar with: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)
There’s a footnote in The Passion Translation regarding this phrase that says: The Greek text implies a repetitive action… As the centurion crushed him to the ground and tied his arms to the crossbeam, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” When the spikes tore through each quivering palm, he prayed again, “Father, forgive them.” And when the soldiers parted his garments and gambled for the seamless robe, again Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” Only heaven knows how many times that prayer was spoken.
Let that sink in. This is the heart of God. No one was asking for forgiveness, yet God the Son was requesting undeserved forgiveness for his violent perpetrators, as his fully human body was being tortured beyond anything we can imagine. I’m reminded of John 3:17: For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. It’s mind-blowing. God’s unconditional love is mind-blowing.
It makes me wonder, as Jesus intercedes on our behalf (Romans 8:34), is he still praying “Father, forgive them.”? Or was his overarching forgiveness fully accomplished on the cross, and now we live in unconditional forgiveness? I don’t know the answers, but I do know that no one is beyond God’s forgiveness and embrace. Not even the two men who were crucified with Jesus.
The King James version calls the two men “malefactors”. I like that word–I think it captures the essence of their misdeeds. The word basically means “evil-doer”. Etymonline.com says it’s “one who does evil or injury to another” (the opposite of benefactor). There are some commentaries that suggest these two men were partners in crime with Barabbas (the insurrectionist who Pilate set free in exchange for Jesus). If they were part of an insurrection to overthrow Rome, Rome’s leaders would certainly perceive that as evil. If they had killed Romans while pursuing revolutionary acts, Rome would certainly have perceived that as injury to another. No matter what their actual crimes were, according to the power and structure of Rome, they were malefactors, and therefore worthy of public humiliation, torture and execution. I think it’s important to pause for a moment and remember that like all human beings, these two were more than the descriptive labels placed upon them. They had names, families, friends, personalities, and life stories that led them to this point–real people, not just dehumanizing labels.
And it is here, in the chaos of this moment that one of these men mocks Jesus and the other reaches out to Jesus. Luke describes the moment like this:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (23: 39-43)
We (I) can be either one of these men at any given moment. Sometimes I am asking God to fix a situation, I get frustrated when he doesn’t seem to listen, and doesn’t come through the way I want him to. I can frame it in really lofty language, but the heart is often–come on, God…do this according to my desires. That’s what one of the men was doing—“Come on, Jesus, save yourself and us.” His understanding of salvation was – get me off this cross so I can continue with life as normal.
The other man had eyes to see something different. He recognized Jesus’ innocence; he knew, that despite what every earthly thing looked like, Jesus had a kingdom and he wanted to be part of it. His understanding of salvation was union with Jesus.
Jesus said to him…TODAY, you will be with me in paradise.
Paradise–it means “garden”–as in the Garden of Eden before the fall kind of garden. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon states: According to the opinion of many of the church Fathers, the paradise in which our first parents dwelt before the fall still exists, neither on earth nor in the heavens, but above and beyond the world.
This same word paradise is used in Revelation 2:7 where the resurrected Jesus says: “Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious, I will give fruit from the tree of life in the paradise of God.”
Jesus says to the man, labeled malefactor, I will rescue you, and today we’ll be together in the perfect Garden of God.
I’m mIn the Genesis account of the garden, there are trees. Adam and Eve chose to eat from the one tree that they were told not to eat from–the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There was another tree in the garden–the tree of life. They could have chosen to eat from that tree.
God, for whatever reason, allows us to make choices. Some of our choices have devastating consequences. He allows us to experience the consequences of our choices, and he rescues us. Once Adam and Eve see good and evil, everything changes. Blame is almost immediate–I’m good; he/she is bad. That shift is the beginning of all the world’s chaos.
God, in what some see as punishment, didn’t want them to eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in their “good and evil” state, so he removed them from the garden in order to protect them. It was an act of love.
In the ultimate demonstration of God’s love, Jesus died on a tree and paved the way to garden of Eden life.
Revelation 22: 1-2 tells us:
He showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
This Jesus’ life is available now. Our personal rescue is available now. The healing of the nations is available now. We get to choose which tree to eat from–“good and evil” or “life”. They both bear fruit. One harms, one heals.
Today–Jesus rescues us, remembers us and reminds us his kingdom is here. Paradise begins here…
I have read and re-read Luanne’s words, praying for direction, asking what I might add to this week’s post. She reminds us of the hope that we have, the truths that still stand in the midst of the chaos we see and feel pressing in around us:
Jesus’ life is available now.
Our personal rescue is available now.
The healing of the nations is available now…
Jesus rescues us.
Jesus remembers us.
Jesus reminds us that his kingdom is here.
Paradise begins here…
All true. All beautiful. Even now.
As I typed those last words, I found myself asking, “Really? Do you believe that? Here? Now?”
I want to. But if I’m honest, there are moments in this present turmoil we’re all facing when it all feels too lofty for my reach.
And yet, I know…
I know the truth in those words because over and over, Jesus has come in the beautiful way that only he can to bear witness to my pain. He has come to me in moments of despair and doubt and refused to look away, because his love is the co-suffering kind. He endured our wrath and violence, and chose to love, forgive and welcome the very ones who mocked and maligned him as he hung, murdered unjustly to satisfy the bloodthirsty brood who didn’t have eyes to see the kingdom of peace–the paradise he brought with him when he entered into the story of humanity as one of us. And he comes still today to minister to our soul-amnesia, to stand in solidarity with us as our co-suffering savior, to bear witness to the realities of our lives when we don’t have eyes to see him standing there.
To bear witness is no small thing. It’s more than being willing to look at the hard, to not look away, though it includes that. It means to share, as one’s own, another’s testimony, to enter into pain. It is the embodiment of empathy, support, and love that lightens the load by upholding from below and covering from above.
It hurts to bear witness to another’s agony… It’s much easier to look away, to erect a wall of protection around our hearts that keeps us from feeling the weight of another’s suffering. We can look at pain so long that we become desensitized to it. We “see” it, but it never penetrates our hearts.
When Jesus walked the earth, he did so wholeheartedly. It’s a dangerous way to live because it robs one of the luxury of remaining uninvolved. Jesus modeled what it means to bear witness to the hard and the ugly, the trauma, the grief, the losses of this life. He didn’t merely look upon pain, he entered into each story. He did not ridicule fear, doubt, and uncertainty. Rather, he acknowledged them and offered himself as the answer. He invited the weary to exchange heavy, ill-fitting yokes for a shared yoke, for his yoke. A yoke that he doesn’t place on anyone, but that he carries with everyone.
Jesus bore witness to the pain of the malefactors on either side of him while his own pain was excruciating. He bore witness to the pain he saw beneath the surface in the executors, the ugliness that lived in the hearts of those shouting, “Crucify him!” as he breathed words of pardon, of forgiveness. The men on either side of him bore witness to his pain as well, as they experienced the dying with him.
Many witnessed the events of that day with their eyes. Few bore witness to the pain Jesus endured. Among those that did were a few women including Jesus’ mother, Mary, and one of his dearest friends and followers, John.
Mary, Jesus’ mother, was standing next to his cross, along with Mary’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. So when Jesus looked down and saw the disciple he loved standing with her, he said, “Mother, look–John will be a son to you.” Then he said, “John, look–she will be a mother to you!” (John 19:25-27a)
Can you imagine the grief of these women, the grief of John? What about the grief Jesus felt as he witnessed the sorrow, the anguish his mother and friends experienced as they watched him die?
None of them turned away. Not Jesus. Not his mom. Not his dear friend. They entered into the suffering of one another in the midst of their own pain.
I think that is an important point to note, to remember…
The other night, my husband and I were cooking and doing dishes. I told him that I was sorry for how back and forth, how up and down I had been lately. I told him that my emotions were swinging like crazy, and even I didn’t know what to expect from one moment to the next.
He told me that it was okay, and then he quietly added, “I’ve seen it before…”
What did he mean?
“After we lost your mom.”
He was identifying grief. And he was right. The volatility many of us are experiencing in these days has a name. It is grief. It comes and goes as it will, it offers neither warning nor greeting. It is the heavy blanket that wraps us head to toe and overtakes our senses. It can dampen hope and set joy just out of reach. It is grief that can make it hard to cling to the beautiful truths Luanne wrote above.
We may not all be able to identify our feelings as grief, but we are all experiencing it–individually and collectively. Losses are mounting. They look different to each of us, some stories seem more worthy of grief than others. But as I heard earlier this week, no good comes from comparing losses. The worst loss, I heard it said, is your loss. Whatever you are facing right now. We’re all experiencing loss. And loss brings grief–with or without our permission.
Usually when we face loss, there are people on the outside who can bear witness to our pain, empathize with us in our grief, offer strength to uphold us in our weakness. But right now…
None of us are on the outside.
Each one of us, everywhere, are part of this unfolding drama. Willing or not, we are members of this cast. None of us are unaffected. This is why the example of Jesus is so important. Just as was modeled by Jesus, the women, and John, we must have the courage to look up, to behold one another even while our own grief sits heavy.
Pastor John said Sunday, “My shoulders are not big enough to carry this.”
He is absolutely right. Neither are mine. Or yours. We are all in this moment in history together, even while we’re apart. The story of Jesus teaches us many things, but one of the most vital is that it shows us our connectedness.
I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. . . I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love. I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. (John 15:5, 9-13)