Grief and glory: the thief on the cross

In case any of you want to revisit one of the first sermons I gave at St Peter and St John’s in Nov 2013 (how lovely that St Andrews Benn school featured right at the start and right at the end of my ministry here)

One of my first sermons here Nov 2013

This week two things have prepared me for this morning. Firstly on Tuesday we welcomed 90 six year olds into church and I told all of the story of the church year and how the church tells the time by colours. How Advent is a time of preparation to celebrate the mystery of God coming to live on earth at Christmas. As we went round the clock of the year, I pointed out that Advent (for us in the Northern Hemisphere anyway) just at the point in the year when the nights are longest, when the trees are all dead and the hope of Spring feels furthest away. How at that moment of deepest darkness we begin to light our advent candles that remind us that hope can be held even in the darkest place.

The second thing that I’ve been thinking and praying about has been the wedding of a friend of mine yesterday down in the West Country. Julie’s boyfriend Gavin proposed just over a week ago, they were married yesterday.  They pulled together a wedding in a week. Why? Because Julie had just received a diagnosis of a brain tumour. Whatever they were going to go through they would go through together, as legal next of kin for however long or short that may be for.

Why have I begun by sharing that with you because both those moments made me remember that life very rarely comes to us in neat packages of either joy or sadness. The two are almost always encountered together. That often it’s in the moments of greatest darkness that hope is kindled.

As Christians we live with a sense of being in two worlds: one of confusion, pain, heartache, distress at either our own pain or the pain of a broken world we see around us and yet and yet, we are also called to hope and to joy and love and we worship a Saviour who reigns and rules as we have come to remember today ‘Christ the King’ Sunday. 

And these two worlds could not be more fully illustrated by the two readings we have heard.  The one from Colossians draws an amazing cosmic picture of a risen and ruling Saviour: all powerful, supreme, pre-existent, clothed with all authority, the Creator of everything, the fullness of God.  He prays that we will draw strength from this image – that you will be strengthened by his glorious power so that you will have endurance and patience. In V 11. He even prays that we may be filled with joy! (Colossians 1: 11-20)

These two readings could be called the glory and the grief. In the first one we see Jesus in power, in the second one (Luke23:33-43) we see Jesus with blood running down his face, beaten, struggling for breath and about to die. Together they help us to answer the question of how do we kindle hope and joy in a pain filled world.

The story from Luke about the thief on the cross gives us the biggest clue and the reading from Colossians writes it up large. To spot the clue in Luke we must be prepared to dig deeper than a surface understanding, this is not just a story about the comfort of the afterlife. We need to take ourselves in our imagination to that darkest of all moments, the death of the Living God in a particular time and particular place on a cross outside Jerusalem.

We must hear the shouts and scoffing, the clanking of Roman armour, the thud of the hammer, the screams of agony from the three men being crucified, we must smell the wine mixed vinegar. If you were there at that moment would you have thought it was a good news story or a bad news story? We are so used to using the phrase ‘good news’ about the gospel but at the time would it have felt that way?

Was Julie and Gavin’s wedding a good news story or a bad news story? Let’s be honest and say that often at the time when we find ourselves in difficult and confusing situations we are never really sure.

If we had been at the foot of that cross listening in to this conversation between Jesus and the thief, I put it to you that it would have looked like an utterly irredeemable bad news story, like nothing good would ever come out of it, apart from the comfort of some dying camaraderie between two men being executed.

But the thief saw something and Jesus gave something. And this morning I hope that we will see the same something and receive the same something.

The thief in an incredible leap of faith that flew in the face of all evidence to the contrary saw that Jesus was a king. What kind of king we’re not told, only that he asked ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom’. The thief saw that Jesus somehow even though he was nailed to a cross and seemingly helpless still held out a hope, a future, had some kind of authority or power. Why else would he have asked, if he hadn’t glimpsed this greater reality behind how everything looked at the surface?

Now we are accustomed to thinking this is a story about how the afterlife, eternal salvation makes everything right. After all, the thief still dies. But there’s more to it than that, dig deeper and we find that it is actually a story about seeing the greater and deeper reality that lies behind the surface pain and reality of life as we see it now. This is story not about dying in hope but also about living in hope, living in the light of the truth that Jesus IS king, he does indeed rule and he is still bringing his kingdom in and one day every eye shall see him and every knee shall bow.  One day that greater reality will be the whole story.

But for now we more often find ourselves like the thief did, in a place of darkness, fear and confusion. We need to pray that we too will have the eyes of faith to glimpse that greater reality; that we will see what he saw.

So what was it that Jesus gave to the thief? It’s an important question because really we are asking what might he still be able to give to us to help us hold on, have strength and courage in the face of dark and difficult times. Jesus gave him a promise. That’s all he gave him. I wonder if that was what the thief was hoping for. I wonder if perhaps he’d hoped that Jesus would in fact leap down from the cross and kick over the Romans.

Neither of those things happened. The thief’s pain was not relieved, he was not rescued. In fact if we pay close attention to the story, he actually watched Jesus die first. Can you imagine how that must have felt? The promise giver expired right there in front of him. Surely now, all hope was gone?

In our darkest moments are we comforted by the presence of Christ who is suffering with us or do we demand that our pain be relieved? Will we trust that the promise is enough?

The thief received a promise and for him the promise was enough. He didn’t need to know how it would work out. The presence of Jesus, the proximity of Jesus in sharing his pain, was enough, the promise was enough.

And the challenge for us is ‘is the promise of Jesus enough?’ I don’t mean the promise that he will take us to heaven when we, as important as that promise is. I mean is the promise ‘I will be with you always even to the end of the age’ be enough. ‘ I will never leave you nor forsake you, see I have engraved you on the palms of my hands’ is that promise enough that no matter how bad it gets, no matter how dark things look we are trusting the Jesus has now risen, is now enthroned in Heaven’s control room has said, ‘a little while and you will not see me but I will send another a comforter, to be with you’ that by the power of the comforter, the Holy Spirit, he is indeed present to us, by the sharing of this bread and wine we remember that he knows what pain feels like, he knows injustice, he has been into the darkest and most destructive parts of human experience.

So there is a promise of presence. But there is also for us, as was the case for the first readers of Colossians the solidarity of the company of other who believed in the same vision of Jesus as supreme authority. They lived in world where Ceasar was Lord, where to say that Jesus was Lord could get you thrown to the lions. Yet they held on to this same belief that seems to fly in the face of the ‘reality’ of the world about them, because like the thief they had glimpsed the truth about Jesus. In Peter’s letter he urged them to ‘set apart Christ as Lord in their hearts’ to keep this vision, this view of the world as their utmost controlling reality. To live in the light of the glory that God is preparing for all creation Romans 8: with eager hope all God’s creation looks forward to the day when it will God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay’

So we have for now, the promise and the presence. Let’s go from here this morning holding those things close and let’s encourage one another that we may have endurance and patience and yes, even joy, because we do live in the light of a good news story, a story that is good not just for us but for all God’s creation.

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