Note to Readers:
This post is aimed primarily at practicing Christians and at those who wish to know more about Christianity. I preached this brief sermon at Zion UCC, Baltic, Ohio on Sunday, March 18. It is based on a study I did of the subject matter which was posted here on Open Salon, on Feb. 15, 2009.
Today's question is how low must God go to prove his love for us? We begin our search for the answer at the Cross.
Jesus has been driven with whips, carrying the instrument of his own death on his back, struggling up a dirty hill outside Jerusalem in utter agony, and then nailed to the Cross on which he hangs.
There is something cruelly human about Luke's description of the crucifixion because, however some might want to pretty it up, it is simply the unceremonious death of Jesus, hanging from a tree as a criminal, an event unremarkable in that time and place!
Yet all the power, the might, the majesty, and the glory of God is hanging there: being spit upon, a sword thrust into his side, humiliated, left to die one of the cruelest deaths man could conceive.
Since Jesus has all the power of God, does he seek from his Father retribution? No. His love unwavering, he says, "Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)
And what is their response to that? They shout more insults! What does it take to get through to them? How low must Jesus go to prove he loves them?
That question is valid today and applies to us. Put simply, How low must God go to prove that he loves you? Jesus went as low as the Cross, and yet only one person on earth understood it that day, a poor thief hanging on a cross beside Jesus.
We need to get a clear mental picture of that scene: THREE crosses, Jesus in the middle, a thief on either side. When we have that picture before us we will soon see that there are no depths to which God will not sink to offer the gift of divine love. We will be able to see that the key meaning of the Cross is sacrificial, steadfast, unconditional LOVE.
This explanation of "love" as the key meaning of the Cross comes from William Barclay, a writer of Bible commentaries for ordinary people. For Barclay atonement and forgiveness of our sins is not enough to describe what Jesus did for us on the Cross.
For him, and for me, the Cross is the ultimate sign of God's complete and unequivocal love for humanity. Barclay said that God was saying to each of us, and I quote him here: "Nothing you do can make me not love you. You can disappoint me, break my heart and grieve my Spirit, you can spit on me, scourge me, beat me, ridicule me, and even kill me -- but you can not make me stop loving you. See that Cross? I love you like that!"
Yet an unrepentant thief hanging next to Jesus sees nothing of that gift in Jesus' self sacrifice. Instead he mocks Jesus and says, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" (v.39)
Although the question is rhetorical and sarcastic, it’s still an important one. If Jesus is simply a great teacher who has met an unfortunate end, then the story of the Cross is touching, but not relevant to Christian faith.
Christians believe that Jesus was, in fact, a great teacher. But that is no basis for worshiping him. The irony of the unrepentant thief's question to a Christian, is, of course, that Christians believe that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah -- but that thief could not see it.
The repentant thief asks the one who continues to mock Jesus: "Do you not fear God?
In other words, if this man, Jesus, is God's Messiah, have you no fear in continuing to hurl abuse at him? Luke records no response from the unrepentant thief, but leaves it that, even at the outer limits of his mortal existence, this man has no room for the possibility of God working in the life of Jesus! This thief is in deep pain and anger with a soul closed to the possibility of redemption.
That’s a scary place to be. This poor, pitiful man is locked in a prison of absolute loneliness. There is no room in his heart for even the fear of God. And, therefore, there is no room for hope.
But the other thief, the one often called the "good" thief believes that God is working in Jesus. He simply believes this. And hanging from his own cross that thief makes his choice: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom." (Luke 23:42)
So how does Jesus respond to this "good" thief? This man is a convicted felon but he has chosen to fear God in these final moments. And the response of God to his deepest need is instantaneous. Jesus says, "Today, you will be with me in paradise." Jesus offers the ultimate gift of love: eternity with God.
If Jesus were not the Messiah, then how could he promise this thief, "This day you will be with me in paradise?" Only the Messiah, or a deluded mad-man, would make such a promise. And a choice must be made. Which is he?
There is no middle ground to be found here. Luke does not intend to allow us to avoid the question. Either Jesus is the Messiah, or he is not.
And, if we decide that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah, a Messiah capable of actually offering the repentant thief Paradise on that very day, that tells us much about a Messiah who is able to make such a promise.
Luke's story shows us the very radically different decisions that two thieves made. It tells us that one rejects the Messiah, while the other asks to be remembered in Jesus' Kingdom. And Jesus promises that second thief that he would, that very day, be with him in Paradise. Jesus goes far beyond "remembering" him; Jesus promises him Paradise! Christians believe that only the Messiah, the Son of God, could have offered that.
That is how looking at the two thieves helps us to understand just who this Jesus is who could offer the gift of Paradise to the one who asked only to be remembered. It also tells us how to answer Jesus' most important question to all of us. Do you remember what that question is?
Long before the Cross Jesus has asked us, "But you, who do you say that I am?" That is the ultimate question of Christian faith. Let me remind you of the clearest answer to that question. In the 16th chapter of Matthew, St. Peter says succinctly: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." (verse 16)
It is belief in that truth that causes Christians to gather each Lent at the foot of the Cross. We gather to strengthen and renew our faith in the One who offers himself as a gift of divine love. And from that gift flow peace, salvation and eternal life to those who believe that he is their Lord and Savior. Jesus is the One who says, in Barclay's words, "Nothing you do can make me not love you! See that Cross? I love you like that!"
It is that unconditional sacrificial love that Jesus showed from the Cross that gives us the answer to his great question of faith, "Who do you say that I am?" With St. Peter and with millions of Christian faithful through all the centuries since, we can boldly say, "You, Lord, are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God."