Amazing Grace Good Friday:  The Penitent Thief

P          How did we get to this point that Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, should be crucified as a criminal among criminals? When Holy Week started, people were lauding praise to the Son of David. But within a matter of days, a more chilling cry arises from the crowd: “Crucify, crucify him!” Jesus will not be saved from this sentence of death.   Pilate recognized the innocence of Jesus, but he gave the crowd a choice regarding which of the two men should be released, Jesus or Barabbas. Barabbas was a man with a criminal record, in prison for insurrection and murder. But the crowd chooses the life of Barabbas over Jesus.

Simon of Cyrene helped carry the cross of Jesus, even as women lament for Jesus as he is taken away. But none of this will spare Jesus from his destiny or save him from crucifixion.

There is even talk about whether or not Jesus can save himself while on the cross, but most of that was mocking, not expecting to see any grand miracles. The leaders of the people said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers at the foot of the cross said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Even one of the criminals who was being crucified next to him derided him, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The crucifixion was carried through, and Jesus was not saved from death.

But then, neither would anyone else in this whole scene escape that ultimate fate of death. And that also includes us today who look upon the body of Jesus on the cross. We, too, will die. We were already reminded of that when this whole journey from Lent to this Good Friday began. “Remember that you are dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” There is no one who gets out of life alive. Not even Jesus.

But the fact that death claims the life of Jesus is itself the seed of the good news, God’s amazing grace. For as the seed of his body falls in death, from it shall spring forth a harvest of wheat.

It is the criminal who is on the other side of Jesus who brings this great story of amazing grace to us who come with empty hands and no prospects of being saved from death. His own comments need to be heard, for all their inquiry in the face of death, and in the presence of the One who is in the center who will give the promising answer.

R          Do you not fear God?

P          We need to pause on just that much of his question. This inquiry is not directed at Jesus, but to the other criminal who mocked him, perhaps half-heartedly hoping to get off the hook of death. Whatever these thieves may have stolen in life, they cannot steal from death its final claim of their lives or all its meaning.

The words of this second thief harken us back to the very first commandment, “You are to have no other gods.” As Luther simply explained about this commandment, “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” There it is in the first few words­—“We are to fear” God. Indeed, Luther would also say that if we could keep this first commandment perfectly, we would have no other need for the other nine. But therein lies the rub. We do not keep this commandment. Yet all that false worship of other gods cannot spare us, cannot save us, the final losing of it all. Isn’t that what happens in death? Isn’t that, perhaps, why we fear death most of all—because it takes all away? When we die, we lose everything. But there is more from this thief’s opening inquiry that we need to hear.

R          Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?

P          Again, this criminal is addressing his compatriot in crime. You and I, he says, are under the same sentence of condemnation. The sentence of condemnation has been handed down by the authorities as a consequence, a punishment, even a sentencing to death. And death puts a period on the sentence. There is no escaping it. To be sure, not all sentences are that severe. But sentencing happens in life, in the sentences of daily criticism as well as in the sentences of civil life. All are a reminder of how we have fallen short, reminders of judgment. But the thief adds another layer to that reminder. Whose judgment is it? It is God’s—the God we do not daily fear, let alone love or trust. We may resist and squirm and even fight in the face of it, but we cannot change it. There is always a mortifying, crucifying judgment, even in the mildest of sentencings.

R          And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds.

P          This thief knows when he’s been caught red-handed. Yet for the other thief, and frankly for all of us, the reason for the judgment is now laid bare. “We indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds.” Paul spoke of it in these words: “The wages of sin in death.” Condemnation is that final verdict of justice, getting what we deserve. For the thief to just leave this as his message, so frankly and openly, might make him out to be a heroic nihilist, one who thinks that nothing we do can finally change the harsh fatal recognition of not getting saved from death, nor even deserving anything else—not even before God. But that would be hard to imagine. No, this thief also trusts something about grace from the man in the middle, and now provides his segue.

R          But this man has done nothing wrong.

P          While this judged criminal is still speaking to his fellow judged criminal (or criminals, including us), he is calling attention to who this One in the middle is. His comment about the innocence of Jesus, something which even the centurion at the foot of the cross will finally come to confess, may raise more questions. If he is innocent, then why is here? Why is he being crucified and dying with the likes of us? Good question! And it deserves a good answer.

We would be mistaken to think what this criminal meant is that Jesus is just another case of someone who is really innocent nonetheless facing the verdict of a crime they didn’t really commit. But what if Jesus, for all his innocence, chooses nonetheless to make this sentencing of condemnation in death also his own? The other evangelists even pick up on his suffering cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why, indeed?

Answer: Because he shares in the sufferings of sinners. Even as he did throughout his life and ministry. He made their sufferings his own. And so also here, he shares in death with those charged with condemnation as their just deserts. Jesus is not saved from death because he makes our death his own. He bears the curse of our crimes.

But what he gives us in return is his saving innocence. We receive that as the grace from his cross. Even as death may take us, we trust that because of him we are saved from the final verdict of condemnation. Instead, we are pronounced innocent, whole, righteous.

This is what the thief dares to trust about Jesus the Christ. Even in this hour of death, he is there with us, to set us free, and to give us the very innocence that he himself has to give. All judgments or the ploys of evil temptation to cast us down into death and condemnation are overcome in this death of the One who bestows us with the grace of his innocence. And so, to this source of everlasting innocence, this source of grace in the face of death, he makes his last appeal.

R          Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

P          He does not ask to be set free from death, because he already trusts that death shall not be the last word for him. What he calls for is to be remembered. “Remember me.” We best understand the word remember when we break it in to two parts: “re” and “member.” Make me a member again, with you, and with God. Make me whole again. Do not forget me in my sin and death, but keep me as your own, a child of God, an inheritance of faith and hope. Keep me, Lord Jesus, with you—and you with me.

And Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Paradise, a place of peace and wholeness, is promised. And there will be no delay in the coming of this grace. Not even in the face of death. It comes “today.” Jesus is, as he always has been, with us, today, tomorrow, and for all eternity.

For us he will himself gladly die. It is not only a promise for this one who turns to him in faith but a promise for all who are now gathered before his cross that they may come to faith. It is a promise also for us this day as we take pause and reflect before his cross. What he did in life was to extend grace to the many and for all. Even in his dying, he is yet extending that grace to those who cannot even possibly understand the fullness of this moment. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” But it is the culmination of how far Jesus will have his gracious promise of forgiveness and mercy extend.

The cheer with which Holy Week began comes full circle in the cheer of our Lord’s own grace, even in this hour of death. So the song writer invites us to sing of our Lord’s cheerful verdict for us, cheering us on: “Yet cheerful Christ to suffer’ng goes, that he his foes from thence might free.”

What are we free from, again? We are free from sin and death, from all judgment and guilt and condemnation, from all that would criticize and mortify and humiliate us in life. For “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

All of us are brought from death into life through the One who is with us, Jesus the Christ, even with us in death on the cross. That same blessing of grace was pronounced upon us at our baptism, where we died and rose with Christ. And so even in death, it is the final crossing of that promise of our baptism now coming to fruition.                         Jesus remembers us so with his amazing grace!