We & the Thieves

A sermon preached Good Friday, March 30, 2018 by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD

Holding the Ocean

Preaching directly on the crucifixion is a bit like trying to hold the ocean in your hands. It’s big – too big to cover all at once. So it helps, I think, to try to bite off just a chunk of it a time, and digest it slowly. Last year, we looked at the ironic words spoken to Jesus by the religious leaders: “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”

This year we turn our attention to one man – the man traditionally called the “Good Thief,” the one who turned to Christ in his last moments on earth and heard those beautiful words, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” In Jesus’ last moment before his death, from the pulpit of the cross, he preached one final sermon, and his congregation, As Stephen Nichols puts it, consisted of only two thieves (Matthew and Mark specifically identify them as λῃστάς) – robbers, plunderers, freebooters, brigands. One was repentant and one unrepentant. I invite you to come with me as we meditate on what the Good Thief has to teach us about ourselves, about salvation, and about Jesus. As we do, you might find it helpful to turn to the front of your bulletin and let your eyes and mind and heart dwell on the painting there, notice carefully the two hands.

Let’s first turn to the passage where the thieves’ words are recorded. They are found in Luke 23:39-43.

39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

We Are Thieves

It’s a helpful meditation at the cross, on Good Friday, to consider who we are as we see the events unfold – where we are, as Jesus is crucified. We would like, I think, to distance ourselves from these thieves – whoever we are, wherever we are, we say, surely we’re not those guys. Aren’t we? Our first parents were thieves, stealing for themselves the good gift which God intended to give them freely. And each of has stolen from God – in one way or another we have stolen the glory he deserves. We have made idols and worshipped the creation (money, food, ourselves, others), taking it for ourselves instead of worshipping the Creator who gave them. I think the Good Thief is there, not as the one example of a death bed confession, if you will, but to show us all who we are and our status as we come to God by grace through faith

Those Called Sinners Can Become Saints

But as the thief is justly condemned, he hears the sermon which Jesus preaches, and he receives it, responding – “Jesus, remember when you come into your kingdom.”

He recognizes, those words, recognizes Jesus’ authority and person. And Jesus recognizes his response as faith. And in that moment, the Good Thief is lifted up beyond any human verdict and above any earthly judge or court – he is declared by highest judge and the court of heaven to be a saint. Jesus takes those called sinners and makes them into his saint. What does Paul tell us? “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Why is this thief good? Only because of what Jesus bestows upon him with his word. Martin Luther puts it this way, “Out of this person, Christ makes a saint for eternity, and out of the gallows, Christ makes a divine altar of worship, so that thief no longer suffers as a criminal, but as a Christian, and as a true saint.” What is a saint, other than sinner who has been made God’s friend? And so the thief hears those words – the only words that matter to him now – the words that tell him that the one most needful relationship, his relationship to God – has been reconciled and restored. “Today,” Jesus says, “you will be with me.”

Prayer of Jeremy Taylor (Abridged & Modernized)

Over Lent, as I reflected more and more on the repentant thief, this prayer by Jeremy Taylor seemed more and more an appropriate way to end our time together. He blends his adoration of Christ with the question posed by Psalm 8:4. Listen:

“A form of prayer recording all the Parts and Mysteries of Christ’s Passion, being a short History of it: to be used especially in the Week of the Passion, and before receiving the blessed Sacrament.

All praise, honor and glory be to the holy and eternal Jesus. I adore you, O blessed Redeemer, eternal God, the light of the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel; for you have done and suffered for me more than I could wish, more than I could think of, even all that a lost and dying sinner could possibly need.

“What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4)

Blessed be your name, O holy Jesus, and blessed be that holy sorrow you endured when your disciples fled, and you were left alone in the hands of cruel men, who like evening wolves thirsted for a drink of your blood: and you were led to the house of Annas, and there asked ensnaring questions, and slapped on the face by him whose ear you had but lately healed; and from there you were dragged to the house of Caiaphas, and there all night you endured spitting, mockings, scorn, insults, blows, and intolerable cruelties, and all this for man, who was your enemy, and the cause of all your sorrows.

“What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”

Blessed be your name, O holy Jesus, and blessed be your mercy, who when your servant Peter denied you and denied you again, and swore he did not know you, you looked back at him, and by that gracious and correcting look, called him back to himself and to you. Blessed be your name, O holy Jesus, and blessed be your patience, who were accused before the high priest and railed upon, and examined to evil purposes and with designs of blood. Who were declared guilty of death for speaking the necessary truth. Who were sent to Pilate and found innocent and sent to Herod and still found innocent, and were clothed in white both to declare your innocence and yet to ridicule you, and were sent back to Pilate and examined again. Nothing but innocence was ever found in you and yet you willingly stood condemned for the guilt of man.

“What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”

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