In my sermon this past Sunday (which I’ll post soon), I argued for an interpretation of Luke 23:43 (“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”) that prior to last week I had never before considered… Thank you, William Willimon!
Willimon is a great preacher and theologian who was Dean of Duke University Chapel before being appointed a United Methodist bishop in Alabama. (I guess he was being punished?) Anyway, I’ve been reading his book about the seven last words of Christ called Thank God It’s Friday. In his chapter on this “second word” from the cross, Willimon quickly discarded everyone’s favorite interpretation of this verse—that this criminal on the cross received assurance from Jesus that he would go to heaven when he died—for something far more radical: Paradise begins now. Heaven begins now. Eternal life begins now.
Although Willimon has been a pastor, he can now say things without worrying about confused parishioners meeting him in the greeting line, asking, “Where did you get that?” It would have been helpful for him to back up his interpretation at least a little. So he left me to do the heavy lifting! Having done so, however, I wholeheartedly agree with Willimon.
This is why, in my sermon, I took a little bit of time to discuss the two other occasions on which Jesus used the word “today” in Luke. In both cases, 4:21 and 19:9, Jesus uses the word to describe a reality (the in-breaking of God’s kingdom and salvation) that begins now and continues into eternity.
I’ve certainly preached and taught the “already/not yet” aspect of eternal life plenty of times before, but I never imagined using this scripture as a proof-text (not that we should ever proof-text, but you know what I mean). In fact, if we don’t pay careful attention, Jesus’ words in 23:43 sound like pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. They sound like wishful thinking. They sound like something we tell ourselves to feel better when a loved one dies.
But what if Jesus really meant “today” as in right now? Do you hear the challenge in that question? Does it knock you upside the head?
No waiting around for paradise. No “flying away” to a far removed heaven. No “opiate of the masses” here, thank you very much. If we are in a saving relationship with God through Christ, heaven is now—not in all its fullness, of course. But it’s enough.
I believe this describes Paul’s attitude in his letter to the Philippians. As he’s writing that letter, he’s facing a very harsh imprisonment (in Ephesus, I think), and he’s not entirely sure he’ll survive it. But he’s torn between wanting to continue his ministry or wanting to be with the Lord in the fullness of heaven. “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Phil 1:21). After struggling aloud with the question, he decides it’s preferable to stay alive and continue his kingdom work on earth.
Regardless, we get the sense from the tone of the letter that Paul doesn’t view death as any kind of dramatic transition. After all, he’s already with Christ. He feels at best a holy ambivalence about death. And isn’t this true of the holiest people we know?
Years ago, I had a parishioner in my little church in Forsyth named Darlene who had lived for years with terminal cancer. She was well-prepared to die and had been for some time. She knew that her life and future were safely in God’s hands. She was at peace. She was almost embarrassed to talk about her imminent death. To her, it was inconsequential—except her concerns for loved ones she would leave behind.
I’m not sure I’m there quite yet, but I hope to be some day. You know what I mean? Darlene’s and St. Paul’s attitude seem exactly right to me.
Paul goes even further in describing the present reality of eternal life in a couple of other letters. In Romans 6:1-4, for example, he uses resurrection as a metaphor for life right now. Although, as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 15, resurrection hasn’t happened to us yet, we have the power to live as if it has already happened. In Ephesians 2:5-6, he goes further: not only are we raised with Christ right now, we’re even seated at the right hand of God with Christ!
If all that is true, and we’re not experiencing life this way, what’s our problem?
Many years ago, Van Morrison released an album called Enlightenment. In the title track he sings, “I’m in the here and now and I’m meditatin’/ And still I’m suffering, but that’s my problem/ Enlightenment don’t know what it is.” That has the ring of truth for me, even if I can’t live it out.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christand the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
I’m still suffering, but that’s my problem.