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"The Thief on the Cross: Perfect for Paradise"
Dr. William S. Barnes
2/20/2005
Luke 23:32-43 Page 89 in the New Testament Text:"'...today you will be with me in Paradise.'"
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“The Thief on the Cross: Perfect for Paradise” Luke 23:32-43 Lenten Sermon Series: “Faces of Faith” Jesus chose the perfect person to be the first one to join him in Paradise on the day he died. Oh, that Jerusalem thief whom tradition remembers as Dysmas wasn’t a perfect person. He was a perfect choice. Today I want to tell you why. But first a story. Many of you know that there was a time when our sisters and brothers in the Catholic Church believed that unless you were a faithful Catholic you couldn’t go to heaven. Teaching on that point has changed now, but back when I was in seminary there was a story about a Methodist who died and went to heaven. Since more than a third of our St. Luke’s family has Catholic roots I feel like I am safe in telling this. St. Peter was showing the deceased Methodist around the place when they passed by a large oak door. “What’s that for?” asked the Methodist. “Oh, don’t go in there,” said St. Peter. “That’s the room for all the Catholics. They think they are the only ones here.” This same story could be told about any denomination that thinks it has exclusive rights on Paradise. For some reason I don’t think the thief Dysmas was a card-carrying member of any denomination. I am not even sure if you could make the case that he was a Christian, when you come right down to it. We have no indication that he had ever heard a sermon of Jesus’, had ever witnessed a miracle, or had made any commitment of his life to be a disciple. He simply asked Jesus to remember him when everything was said and done. The thief on the cross is the perfect choice for Paradise because he perfectly epitomizes the purpose of grace. He did nothing to earn his place in Paradise. He did nothing to “prove” his commitment to Jesus as Lord. He didn’t go forward at a Billy Graham crusade. He didn’t sign the final page of the “Four Spiritual Laws” tract that kids used to pass out when I was in high school. He didn’t make some great and memorable statement of faith like Peter who said at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” All he did was make a request. “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” Of course, the fact that the thief would even think that this bleeding, dying teacher would have any kingdom at all was a faith consideration. In a time when it seems that so many in the Christian faith are circling the wagons to determine who is “in” and who is “out” when it comes to heaven, I think it is of critical importance to remember again what is so “amazing” about grace. The one thing that I think is going to be so surprising about heaven is who is on the other side of those pearly gates. One of those residents in glory is that thief who was on the cross beside Jesus. It’s perfectly wonderful that he is there because it makes perfect sense when it comes to grace. PhilipYancey, author of the widely acclaimed book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, was the object of plenty of angry letters and emails when an article he wrote about grace was published in Christianity Today magazine. The title of the column was “The Atrocious Mathematics of the Gospel.” He followed that up with a chapter in his book entitled, “The New Math of Grace,” figuring that the word “atrocious” was a bit strong, after all. But his point was that the grace of God brings a whole new accounting system to life. When Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone for the same offense, and magnanimously offers to do it seven times, Jesus replies, “No. Seventy times seven.”--which means an infinite number of times. Yancey claims we live in a tit-for-tat world of un-grace, and as such, God’s math of grace seems atrocious. The one story of God’s grace told by Jesus that never fails to insult our “you get what you deserve” mentality about life is the story of the Middle Eastern labor pool a vineyard owner used to find grape pickers one day. (You can read it for yourself in the 20th chapter of Matthew.) I suppose you know what a labor pool is. When I was in college our fraternity needed to raise money for something one time and our whole freshman pledge class went to a labor pool one Saturday morning to work. You sign in and wait until your name is called to be sent out on a one day job for minimum wage. I got a job moving four drawer filing cabinets down three flights of stairs with a hand truck. I never worked so hard for so little in my life. It was early morning at the labor pool in Israel. A man came to find workers to cut grapes in his vineyard. The harvest must have been plentiful and his ability to bring it all in himself or with his family and regular workers was limited. It must have been just at daybreak that he hired the first of what was eventually to be 5 groups of workers. He promised to pay them a day’s wages for their work and after they agreed to the pay, they went to the vineyard. Three hours later, at 9 am, the owner saw that the work was too much for just the laborers he had hired, so he went back to “Ishmael’s Labor Emporium” and hired some more guys, telling them “I will pay you whatever is right.” Again at noon the owner hurried back to the labor pool to hire more workers. These were the guys who had partied last night and slept in late. He promised again to pay what was right and sent them to the vineyard. By 3 in the afternoon a lot of progress had been made, but still not enough to finish the job and the owner went back yet again to hire some guys. Same deal. They went to work. An hour before sunset the owner saw that just the addition of a few more workers would finish the job. Would they be anyone left to hire an hour before quitting time? Lo and behold, there were. Maybe these were the guys who were so lazy that they fooled around doing nothing all day but went to the labor pool long enough to tell their wives that they had tried! Their excuse for the vineyard owner for being there so late in the day was that no one had hired them. Well, of course not! Who looks for workers an hour before the sunset? Finally quitting time came, and the owner gave his field manager a wad of cash with which to pay the workers. He told them to line up in the reverse order in which they had come out to work. The last workers would be the first to be paid. They had hardly broken a sweat in the last hour with the sun so low on the horizon. Standing in a single line with their palms open, the guys got their wages. The ones who had gone out last got paid “whatever was right” as the owner had promised. They were paid for a full day’s work. Unbelievable! Can you imagine what they thought? “Let’s do this every day!” The guys who had worked three hours were next. Maybe they thought they would get a little more. But they were paid the same as the first ones. The ones who went out at noon and the ones who went out at nine were paid the same as the first. The longest laboring men, the ones with sunburned necks, aching backs, and hands scabbed from cutting and piling clusters of grapes said, “This isn’t fair, dude! We have been here twelve hours and we expect to get more than you paid those slackers that didn’t even break a sweat for an hour.” But the owner answered, “Are you getting what we agreed upon this morning? Yes, you are. Then take it and go. Am I not allowed to do whatever I want with what is mine? Or do you have issues with me being generous?” Apparently there was also a contemporary Jewish version of this story in which the workers who went out at the last hour worked so hard that the impressed employer decided to pay them a full day’s wage. This is not the case in Jesus’ version which seems to imply that the ones who went out at the end may have actually been rather lazy, since good workers would not have been idling around the marketplace during harvest season. I would assume that no one here would agree to this being a “fair” way to compensate people. But the story is not about fairness, the story is about grace. Grace, as Yancey says, cannot be calculated like a day’s wages. Grace is all about not counting. It is not about earning; it is about receiving. The full day workers did not get cheated in any way. They got what was promised to them. What ticked them off was the mathematics of grace. They just couldn’t see why the owner could do anything he wanted with his money. In the end, we see that God dispenses gifts, not wages. And if we really wanted to be “rewarded” for our faithfulness to God, no one would “earn” paradise. Yancey writes: The more I reflect on Jesus’ parables, the more tempted I am to reclaim the word “atrocious” to describe the mathematics of the gospel. I believe Jesus gave us these stories about grace in order to call us to step completely outside our tit-for-tat world of ungrace and enter into God’s realm of infinite grace… From nursery school onward we are taught how to succeed in the world of ungrace. The early bird gets the worm. No pain, no gain. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Demand your rights. Get what you pay for. I know these rules well because I live by them. I work for what I earn; I like to win; I insist on my rights. I want people to get what they deserve—nothing more, nothing less. Yet if I care to listen, I hear a loud whisper from the gospel that I did not get what I deserved. I deserved punishment and got forgiveness. I deserved wrath and got love. I deserved debtor’s prison and got instead a clean credit history. I deserved stern lectures and crawl-on-your-knees repentance. I got a banquet…spread for me. The thief on the cross is the epitome of the prodigal son, who after wasting his whole inheritance on a worthless life in the “far country” comes home in disgrace and embarrassment only to have a huge party thrown for him. He has rehearsed a confession for his father, but he never even gets to use it. Instead the fatted calf becomes barbecued beef and the best champagne is popped. The only party pooper in the story is the older brother, who refuses to put on the paper hat and blow the cardboard horn with everyone else. He demands to know why his Dad would throw such a bash for the kid who deserted the family, while he who has been faithfully working away hasn’t even been given a banana split from Dairy Queen. The father replies, “Everything I have is yours. You know that. But this, your brother, was lost but now he’s found. For all practical purposes he was dead. But now he’s alive. We have to celebrate.” And so the convicted offender dying beside Jesus gets what he deserves: death. But he also gets what he doesn’t deserve: life. You and I get what we deserve in this life: death. But we also get what we don’t deserve: life. Have you ever tried to find yourself in the stories of the Bible? That’s what you ought to do when you read it, you now. You ask yourself, “Where am I here?” Where are you at the crucifixion? Let me suggest you are not there as one of the faithful women. You are not there as part of the taunting curious crowd. You are there on the cross next to Jesus, knowing that you are getting what you deserve for how you have lived. You know you cannot use the time to try to plead your case, listing for Jesus all the good things you have done, because you are well aware that that list would be insignificant when compared with all the not so good things you did and all the other things you failed to do. All you can do is ask him to remember you. That’s an interesting word re-member. Look beyond the idea of re-call to the concept of re-union. You are a member of the family of God. Maybe you haven’t lived like it very much, so you ask Jesus if he can re-member you, bring you back into the fold of the righteous. And so he does. The thief on the cross is perfect for Paradise because you are. Nothing you do earns you a place there. It is a gift from God. Turn to page 875 in the back of the hymnal and you will find the commendation portion of The Service of Death and Resurrection. One day these words or some words like them will be said for you: Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. The thief was the last person the righteous would have expected to enter Paradise with Jesus. He became the first. He was the perfect choice for the new math of grace. So are you, you can count on that.

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