“Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke’s gospel chapter 23)
Some of us know about five stages of death.
The first is denial and isolation.
The second is anger.
The third is bargaining.
The fourth, when things are definitely not going to get better, is depression.
And then, supposedly, the fifth stage is acceptance.
Eighty years before Elizabeth Kubler-Ross thought up this five stage scheme, the very realistic Russian writer Tolstoy showed us the death of Ivan Illich.
Tolstoy’s Illich has been a lawyer and judge.
Illich has gone from position to higher position with hardly a hitch. He lived for getting honour in his good job at his career and for recognition in society, for his own pleasure.
Suddenly at age 45 he comes down with a pain in his side. The mysterious pain grows worse and worse.
Over weeks it becomes clear to everyone around that Judge Illich is dying.
For everyone else death is outside them. Like Illich himself until now, death happens to other people.
He has become just an invalid, a burden.
He is an inconvenience to all whose lives go on.
No one will tell him that he is dying.
His life has been a self seeking lie but he cannot quite see through it. And the pain will not go away.
Now, shift the scene:
In the year 33 on this hill outside Jerusalem – two executions are going on, besides Jesus.
Jesus the rabbi from Galilee. Jesus is crucified with a couple of criminals.
Three executions. Three naked human beings. Three humiliations. Three failures.
The criminals react to Jesus in two different ways. One mocked Jesus and would not believe.
The other repented and trusted him.
Luke 23:39-44 reads, (NIV) One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Isn’t this scene exactly what we find in regular life? Just like the mocking criminal, there are people who just make fun of believers.
Many see no difference in living for Jesus.
Others see their need and believe.
Something in the situation led criminal Two to see himself. For what he was. To see Jesus. For who he really is.
Criminal One mocks. Aren’t you the Christ? -the Messiah we expected? -the savior?
But see it makes no difference, Christ, Messiah, savior, you end up here just like the rest of us. There is no hope from you.
But he missed himself. He missed his own situation. He is dying.
Why are there not more deathbed repentances? We are hardened. We fail to understand the horror of dying. The flow of life hides it. We have to stop and think and that sometimes takes quite a knock.
Sometimes even being on the edge of death doesn’t do it.
Criminal Two saw it clearer. Don’t you fear God? You are under the same sentence. In fact, WE ALL DIE.
Jesus should prompt you to repent. Criminal Two said: he has done nothing wrong. But you have. All of us have.
No one has done no shameful things.
No one has failed to forgive.
No one has not had deep desires for this or that which God has not given as yours.
No one has not committed character assassination.
But Jesus is innocent. He did nothing wrong. He did nothing to deserve death.
He makes the horror of dying clear. We deserve death. He did not. Our sin put him there.
Jesus should prompt you to repent because he is able to save you.
Criminal Two said, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
Jesus accepted many unacceptable people. Jesus’ care was evident. Criminal Two does not mock Jesus the savior king. He confesses his faith.
“You are going to get a kingdom. You are the Messiah. At the end of time, think of me. That will be enough for me to be OK. Remember me. Rescue me. I think I may be some place suffering torment, but remember me when you win. God is with you. I trust you. You can get me out of there. Save me.”
Jesus said: I say to you, not sometime down the road, but TODAY you will be with me in Paradise.
Here is the word of the king. I say to you — verily verily — you can count on it — Amen, amen — my word is as reliable as the fact that the sun comes up every day.
Today you will be with me. I speak and it happens. My word goes out and accomplishes what it is sent for. Even on the seeming failure of the cross Jesus is Lord.
Today. Go in peace, your faith has saved you.
If there was ever a clear show of the fact that Jesus saves, not our efforts, not what we do for the Lord — or don’t do — it is here.
At the end of a wretched life, totally misspent, God gives this criminal the grace, the smarts, the courage to cry out for mercy. A misspent life but an eternity with Christ.
Today. You can die in peace. You can face it. You have Jesus’ word: today. Absent from the body is present with the Lord.
And this is what Ivan Illich finally came to in Tolstoy’s account.
By the grace of God, through the pain, he asks the impossible question: did I live my whole life wrong? After he receives the formal communion something clicks for him, something he has overlooked, something that takes away all the falsity and lying of his family and friends.
Do you need a fresh view of the cross? Paul says to the Galatian Christians: I made you see Jesus Christ Messiah Savior clearly pictured: crucified.
Have you forgotten that Jesus takes away sin by his cross — for you? Have you forgotten to keep repenting in the light of the cross — to live out your faith by putting off the old and putting on the new person?
The cross is the word of mercy.
There is a right reaction to Jesus on the cross. Jesus on the cross should prompt you to repent.
He should prompt you to repent because you will die too.
He should prompt you to repent because you are guilty.
He should prompt you to repent because he can save you when you trust him.
TODAY you will be with me in Paradise.