April 19, 2019*
By Pastor John Partridge
Why am I here?
Where did all of this, all of creation, come from?
What is the meaning of life?
What is my purpose on earth?
These are just a few of life’s great questions. They are questions that human beings have struggled with ever since we stopped looking over our shoulders for saber-toothed tigers and had enough time on our hands to think about anything other than survival.
But one of the questions that rises to the top of that pile is one that we confront at every funeral, and at the death of every friend, relative, and distant acquaintance. Because we are mortal, we know that one day death will come us. And as we consider our own mortality we are faced with the question, “What happens after I die?”
And that’s exactly the question that the thief on the cross next to Jesus had as well. He was already suffering the agony of dying, and he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would be dead before the sun reached the western horizon. Few of us get the chance to be so aware of the timing of our death, and none of us will get the opportunity to ask Jesus face to face about what we can expect. But this one man, in all of history, did. And his story is given to us in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion as we read Luke 23:35-41.
35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.
39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
My undergraduate degree is in engineering, and one of most basic things that I learned is that whenever you have a problem, you should always start by making a list of what you know. So, let’s do that. We have several groups of people who are watching the crucifixion for a variety of reasons and their reactions and their comments grow out of where their hearts are. First, there are the people who just stood and watched. They thought that they were powerless and all they did was watch what others did. Second, there were the rulers, the very people who had conspired to trump up false charges against Jesus because he threatened the status quo of the power structures of Israel. These leaders mocked Jesus and dared him to save himself by using the power that was to be given to God’s messiah. If he were the messiah, they reasoned, then he had the godly power to come down off the cross. Third, the soldiers mocked him, and challenged him to save himself using the political power that kings had. Their thinking was that if Jesus was really a king, then he should use his power to order his followers to rise up and rescue him. Fourth, one of the men who hung next to Jesus hurled insults at Jesus out of the frustration that he felt in facing his own death. Not only does he mock Jesus for being just as powerless as he is, but he calls upon Jesus, not only to save himself, but to save all of them.
The funny thing is, although we often lump this man in with all the others who were wrong about Jesus, of these four groups, he is the one who is almost right, and he has no idea just how close to the truth he really is. In just a few days, the events of the cross would allow Jesus to not only save the men on the cross, but also the soldiers, the church leaders, and all people, everywhere.
But almost right still isn’t right.
It is only the fifth and last of these that truly understands. The second thief looks next to him and understands that Jesus is utterly innocent. Although his comment is short, it is revealing. From his comment and from his question, we understand that he believed. He believed in God. He believed in justice. He believed that he, and the other thief were being justly punished for the things that they had done. He believed that Jesus was innocent. And most importantly, he believed that Jesus really was a king, and not just an ordinary earthly king, but a king whose kingship and authority belonged to God and extended beyond the boundaries of life and death.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He had faith.
And we know that his faith was rewarded within hours because Jesus answered by saying: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus not only promised him that there was an afterlife, Jesus promised him that he was forgiven of all his crimes, forgiven of all his sins, and that he would, that very day, walk alongside Jesus in paradise.
But what made the difference?
The people didn’t believe that their faith made a difference. The leaders didn’t believe that Jesus was the messiah. The soldiers didn’t believe that Jesus was a king. And the first thief didn’t believe that Jesus was any different than he was. But the second thief believed.
He believed that believing made a difference.
He believed that Jesus was the messiah.
He believed that Jesus was the king.
And he believed that Jesus was not only different than he was, he believed that Jesus had the power and the authority to rescue him even after they were both dead.
And so, after we consider this list of things that we know, we have some answers to the questions with which we started. Something does happen when we die. There is an afterlife. There is a judgement and not all humans will be judged equally.
And most importantly, what you believe matters.
Whether or not you believe that Jesus is the messiah… matters.
Whether or not you believe that Jesus has the power to rescue you… matters.
Whether or not you trust Jesus enough to trust him with your rescue… matters.
The question that only you can answer is this…
What do you believe?
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