Just a couple of days ago I received a note from friends travelling in Nepal. I knew they were going to be at the lower levels of Everest, but I didnít think they would do anything like this! Indeed this is not a picture of them, but a picture within a presentation that they attended. It is actually a picture of the expedition with the first woman to climb Mt. Everest. Now for some people that would be Paradise, climbing Mount Everest, truly being on top of the world. For others it might be winning that lottery that gives you $1000/week to spend for the rest of your life.
Here is a picture of a stained glass window in Trinity UC, Collingwood where Presbytery met this past week. On the left is a depiction of the gospel writer Luke, the physician and on the right a Jesus figure with a crown, ready to open the door and offer light. A royal figure with crown may be the image you conjure up in your mind for this Reign of Christ, or as we used to say, Christ the King Sunday. For me that brings forth all the trappings of wealth, power and privilege.
But here as well is another illustration associated with this Reign of Christ reality, Jesus on a cross and next to him are two other figures, two criminals, one on his right and one on his left. We recall the story of guards and others jeering from the sidelines and dividing up Jesusí clothes at the foot of the cross. Writer Barbara Brown Taylor who inspired this message says, one cross is not the same message as three crosses. One cross makes a crucifix. Three crosses make a church.
All the gospel writers agree that Jesus did not die alone, although Luke is the only one who reports the words exchanged with the two who died with him. It all started after they had been hanging there for a while. Jesus was getting most of the attention from the crowd, perhaps because the sign above his head was more spectacular than the others. "This is the King of the Jews," it said, while those crosses on either side were not even interesting enough for anyone to remember.
According to Matthew and Mark, they were robbers, but Luke does not even say that much. "Criminals," he calls them, so take your pick: thieves, tax evaders, runaway slaves, mutineers. Whatever they did, one of them did not think it was as bad as what Jesus had done, because he joined the crowd in jeering at him. "Arenít you the Messiah?," he sneered. "I thought you were the Messiah. So why donít you get us out of here?"
He didnít say this quietly, because the other criminal way over on the other side of Jesus heard him and snapped back. "Do you not fear God?" he said, defending the dying man between them. "We are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong."
Writer Brown -Taylor gives this insight-As during his earthly life, even on the cross, Jesus was surrounded by controversy, being attacked from one side and defended from the other by two men who were as different as they could be. Luke does not name them, but according to the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus, their names were Dismas and Gestas---Dismas being the criminal who defended Jesus and Gestas being the one who would have spit on him if he could have gotten himself turned around right.
I have been with a few dying people completing their journey. One common thing seems to be that they become more who they are than they have ever been. The approach of death seems to sap the strength they once had for "covering up." Their disguises fall away along with their defenses, until all that is left is this condensed version of themselves, in which the core of the human being is laid bare. Some people become meaner than a snake grabbed behind the head, while others become all the more gentle, resigned, sometimes Ďglowingí and working to help those who will be left behind. It is not always easy ahead of time to know who will turn out to be whom.
Just looking at the brief description of Gestasí behavior on the cross, I would guess that he has been a bitter man most of his life. Maybe he learned early on that there was no sense hoping for much, since everything he loved would be taken away from him sooner or later. Maybe he really was a thief, who dedicated himself to stealing back what had been stolen from him. Whatever has happened, he did not blame himself. That plus his losses, would have done him in. So he blamed other people instead, for what they had or had not done to make him who he was.
The death sentence for Gestas was probably as he expected. After all, things were always going sour in his life. But when the end came he bore no responsibility for it. Whatever he had done to earn it was not, in his mind, his fault. It was the arresting officerís fault, the juryís fault, the judgeís fault, Godís fault. Today, it was the fault of the one hanging beside him who-if he really were the Messiah---should have been able to get them all out of this mess.
Dismas, on the other hand, took responsibility for what he had done wrong. ("We are getting what we deserve," he said) He had a sense of justice, even if the result was against him, and he was willing to own up to his part in the offense. We can only guess what allowed him to do that. Maybe he was one of those half-hearted criminals who are in a way relieved to be caught, or maybe he was just taking a chance to raise up his best, in hopes of gaining some respect. When he lost, he did not blame everyone else at the table. He simply lost with much dignity and exhibited a contrite heart.
Whatever it was, he seemed to know that the one strong move left to him in this life was to accept responsibility for what he had done and to face the consequences. Brown- Taylor uses this terminology, While Gestas lay tied to the railroad tracks cursing everyone he had ever known in his life, Dismas turned around to face the locomotive and even opened his arms to it.
"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom," he said. That man still had hope! Hanging there as bloody, exhausted, and guilty as he was, he recognized someone who was going further than he was, in whose memory, at least, he might survive. The thief asked Jesus to protect him from the darkness that was about to overcome him. Obviously, this criminal believed that Jesus could answer the prayer, and because he believed that Jesus could answer the prayer, Jesus promised him "paradise." All he asked for was---to be remembered---but he was granted a great deal more. "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
There is no way to account for this logically, except that God moves in with us just as we are, not as we ought to be, includes us in his Kingdom by his grace, because he loves, and because in grace and love his cross is our forgiveness. Believe it, then you will experience it.
Do we need it? By God, sisters and brothers, we need it! Modern men and women try to handle sin and guilt in other ways. Deny it! Excuse it, defend it, pass it off to others. We come as-troublemaker, thug, thief, abusers. Or perhaps we just let the world do as it will, all the while contributing ourselves to the growing disparity in society between the rich and the poor. Perhaps at our core really believing, as many of our neighbours do, "that the survival of the fittest is the way of the world." Just passed is the 22nd anniversary of the Rawadan genocide, which is a fresh reminder to us of the sin of complacency. But for whatever ill may be our character, do we hold ourselves responsible? Hardly! Society is the culprit for doing it to us. We were born that way. Peer pressures laid it on us. Or we did what our hearts told us to do, and we were told that if it feels good, we could do it, so we did it.
Dismas is pleading to participate in Jesusí kingdom. Jesus assures him that they will accompany each other in Godís reality beyond the conventional social order---he calls it "paradise". This word, which appears only three times in the New Testament, literally means "garden" and likely refers to a place of blessedness. The promise wasnít a maybe in the future, but an immediate place in the resurrection community-hid in Christ now and alive with him in eternity.
There is an organization called Dismas Fellowship. That group now meets every other week in downtown Brampton. It is an ecumenical organization that works to help integrate ex-offenders into the community by providing a safe and welcoming place where ex-prisoners and friends can experience Christian community, a gathering of people who embody forgiveness of sin.
They had hours yet to go before that promise of Jesus came true, long hours in which Luke reports no more talk between the prisoners. And yet wherever the symbol of the three crosses survives, their conversation continues. Gestas and Dismas both have their say, while Jesus bridges the distance between them---the bitter man and the hopeful one, the lost and the found.
There may only be one cross here today, but God knows we are all hanging on the other two. Whenever we stand near his, we complete the tableau. One cross makes a crucifix. Three crosses make a church.