Sermon for 03-20-11: “Seven Last Words, Part 2”

Sermon Text: Luke 23:39-43

Click here to watch the video in Vimeo.

The following is my original manuscript.

Recently, while preparing for a funeral, I noticed a beautiful prayer in our United Methodist Book of Worship. One of its petitions is: “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.” I love that image. If nothing else, a funeral ought to remind us that we are going to die. It ought to enable us to stare, at least briefly, into the face of death, and say, “One day, that’s going to be me. With that prospect looming on my horizon, how will I then live?”

The season of Lent, likewise, should be a time when we ask similar questions. What does the pastor say during Ash Wednesday when she imposes ashes on one’s forehead: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” My friend Paul was blogging about the devastating earthquake in Japan and the ongoing challenge of containing the threat of meltdown at these nuclear reactors. His title for this particular blog post was, “At the risk of pointing out the obvious, we are dust.”

Indeed, we are dust. We Christians unblinkingly acknowledge this truth—in the face of a culture that is death-denying, if—despite our best efforts—never quite a death-defying.

I love old comic books. I was reading a Superman comic from the early-’60s to my son Ian just last week. In this issue, Clark Kent is a teenager, and his human parents are dying of a mysterious, incurable disease. So his solution is to transport them into the Phantom Zone until he can find a cure for the disease—the Phantom Zone is shadowy dimension in which you’re not quite living and not quite dying. You just kind of float. It sounds like a miserable way to live.

As I was reading this to my six-year-old, I was thinking, “What kind of message is this sending?” Are we so afraid of death that we would do anything to avoid it? That’s no way to live! On a recent episode of Big Bang Theory, Sheldon, our resident scientific genius, has calculated that it will take him a certain number of years to transfer the contents of his brain and consciousness into a robot, which will enable him to live forever and share the gift of his genius with the world for generations to come! Of course, Superman, the Phantom Zone, Sheldon’s robot—this is all stuff of science fiction. But not so fast… There’s the whole cryogenic industry, which promises to flash-freeze our bodies until that point in the future when science finally finds a way to conquer death. It’s not going to happen.

Short of extreme measures like this, of course, we have lesser measures like plastic surgery, liposuction, tummy tucks, Botox, and other things that will “reverse” or slow down the effects of aging. Of course diet and physical fitness are a necessary part of being good stewards of our bodies, but I wonder if our culture’s obsessive emphasis on these things is related to a fear of growing old and dying. I listen to sports-talk radio, and there ads constantly for pills and potions and procedures that promise to cure us men of the effects of aging. See, the problem is we don’t have as much testosterone as usual, blah-blah-blah… One ad asks, “Don’t you want to feel like you’re 18 again?” Oh, brother! I was 18 once, and it wasn’t so great at the time—and 41 ain’t bad!

With every moment that passes we are a little bit older. With every moment that passes, we are inching closer toward death. We can’t escape it. No matter how long we forestall the outward effects of aging, and no matter how long we prolong our lives, we will still ultimately die. Dust we are, and to dust we will return.

Pretty morbid, huh? No… It’s realistic. I’m all for being realistic.

This is why, as beautiful and comforting as Jesus’ words in today’s scripture are to many people who are facing imminent death—and as beautiful and comforting as they are to loved ones who are left behind, especially those dealing with an untimely, unexpected, or tragic death of a loved one—there is something about this scripture that bugs me.

Is Jesus telling the criminal on the cross, “I know things are bad for you now, but don’t worry… On the other side of all this misery and suffering, you’re going to be in heaven!” Right now doesn’t matter much—it’s all about what the future holds. I’ve been to at least a few funerals where that message was loudly communicated. And you know what? To me, like so much of our popular culture, it feels death-denying. It feels like escapism. It feels like wishful thinking. It feels like pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. It feels untrue.

And I know that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true. Surely life in this world is not simply some test that we must pass in order to get to the other side—in which case this criminal on the cross handed in his exam at the very last moment. Surely life in this world is not simply some drudgery that we must endure until heaven makes it all worthwhile.

Therefore “heaven”—or, more accurately, life in the resurrection—should not be viewed as a consolation prize for a life poorly lived on this side of heaven—as if this criminal on the cross is simply receiving a “get out of jail free” card at the last moment—or I should say a “get out of hell free” card? There shouldn’t be even the tiniest part of us that looks at the criminal on the cross and envies him because, after all, he got to live life as he pleased, without giving a thought to the hard work of discipleship, at least until nearly the last moment of life—after which he got heaven thrown in. See what I mean?

According to legend, the Roman emperor Constantine—the first Christian emperor—put off getting baptized until his deathbed because he didn’t want to become fully Christian before he had to be—because, you know, it really only matters at the end of your life!

Do we ever live our lives as if what we do now doesn’t really matter so much—so long as we’re saved? And how we live now doesn’t really matter so much—so long as we’re Christians? Do we kinda sorta get that message from today’s scripture? If there is such a thing as “cheap grace,” then surely this passage of scripture can be twisted around into the number-one proof-text for cheap grace. But since we know that grace isn’t cheap, we must be interpreting it wrong!

So let’s interpret it correctly.

When the criminal on the cross said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he had in mind some future event on the other side of death and resurrection, some future heaven, something at the end of history as we know it, when peace and justice would prevail and God’s kingdom would be established in all of its fullness, and Jesus, its rightful king, would sit on his throne. The criminal’s saving faith was in Jesus’ power to grant him admission to this heaven, this paradise.

So when Jesus responds to the man, the emphasis of Jesus’ words was not on word “paradise.” That’s what we modern people bring to the text. We’re the ones who often struggle to believe that there is a heaven. So we read this passage and think, “Isn’t it great that we get to go to heaven when we die?” But that wasn’t where the criminal was coming from. What was shocking and surprising and radical about what Jesus told him—what Jesus emphasizedwas the word today. And by today Jesus doesn’t mean later today, or this evening, or several hours from now—when the Romans come and break your kneecaps and cause you to suffocate. He means “today” as in right now. From this moment onward.

Jesus uses the word “today” in only two other places in Luke’s gospel, and in both places it speaks to eternal life as both an event in the future and something happening right now. When Jesus gets up to read the scroll from Isaiah in the synagogue in Luke 4, he reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” etc., and when he’s finished—to the surprise of everyone listening—he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And later when he visits the wee little tax collector Zacchaeus, he says, to the surprise of everyone listening, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

In other words, this future paradise to which the criminal looked forward with hope begins right now. Heaven begins right now. Eternal life begins right now.

I like the way William Willimon, former Dean of the Duke University Chapel who is now a United Methodist bishop, puts it in one of his books: “I believe that if Jesus had been walking along some Galilean road in the bright sunshine, rather than hanging here on the cross before a darkening sky, and if Jesus and the thief had had many years of life on this earth still ahead of them, I believe that this conversation would have gone exactly the same way. ¶ For when Jesus speaks of ‘Paradise,’ he is not talking so much of a place where they may go someday, as a relationship that they entered today.”

A relationship that they entered today!

Even if—and this is very shocking—even if you’re hanging on a cross, you can experience a little bit of this Paradise, because you’re with Jesus now; you have new life; you’re in God’s family. And that changes everything!

Maybe you’re spending much of your life waiting for something to happen in the future… waiting for something to change in the future; waiting for something to fall into place in the future; waiting for something good to materialize in the future. Maybe you’re thinking, If I get that job, if I get that scholarship, if I get that medical treatment, if I finish that book, if I get accepted into that college, if I get into med school, if I become a partner, if I get that promotion, if I meet the right person, if I get my business off the ground… It’s a lot of ifs, a lot of contingencies, a lot pushing things into the future. And maybe these things you’re waiting for are good. But hear the challenge of Jesus’ words: Paradise begins now. Heaven begins now. Eternal life begins now. It’s not something you have to wait around for.

If, like most people in here, you have accepted God’s gift of salvation, forgiveness, and eternal life, you have the power through the Holy Spirit to bring a little bit of heaven into your family; into your work life; into your school life; into your friendships; into your dating life; into the lives of people you love; into the lives of people you don’t like so much; into the lives of people you witness to and minister to. Heaven is now, and heaven is everywhere, and heaven is breaking into the darkest corners of our world. Can you see its light shining?

See, this criminal on the cross did get heaven at the end of his life, by all means, but the shame is how he lived his life up to that point, and all the he missed out on by not being in a saving relationship with God through Christ!

Are you experiencing a little bit of heaven in your life? If not, what is preventing you from doing so?

Speaking from my own experience, I do experience heaven now, but only in fits and starts. Not consistently. Recently, as I’ve shared with some of you, the Holy Spirit has convicted me to read the Bible more—not just as a professional Bible reader who prepares sermons and Bible studies, see what I mean? But as someone who needs to feast on these words of life every day. So the Holy Spirit and I have been working on that. I’ve tried to carve out a little bit of “heaven” in my daily routine. And the more I do it, the more I want to do it. Because it helps me develop a deeper, more intimate relationship with my Lord.

When I was in the Holy Land, I bought a cross necklace made of olive wood. Inexpensive. Nothing fancy. I’ve never worn a cross before. What I like about it is that I feel it against my chest every once in a while, and it reminds me: “You’re not alone, Brent. Jesus is here with you. Jesus is helping you. Jesus is giving you new life. Remember that!” I need to remember that sometimes. Do you? If you’ve said yes to God’s gift of love, forgiveness, and grace, you’re not alone, either. Jesus is with you! Jesus is helping you! Jesus is giving you new life! What kind of difference will that make in your life?

[Respond with affirmation of faith, United Church of Canada.]

William Willimon, Thank God It’s Friday (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006), 20. Emphasis mine.

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