Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Second Criminal (Palm/Passion Sunday March 24 2013

Homily:  Yr C Palm/Passion Sunday, March 24 2013, St. Albans
Readings:  Luke 19:28-40; Is 50:4-9a; Ps 31. 1-16; Phil 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23.56

Today we enter the drama of Holy Week.  The sweep of the drama that we’ve engaged with this morning, stretching from the entry into Jerusalem to the cross is really too much to take in on a single Sunday morning, which I suppose is why we have the whole week to work our way through it.  This morning, I want to focus on one little vignette from the passion gospel that we heard, the story of the second criminal, one of the parts read by Ros.

He has no name in Luke’s gospel, nor in any of the others.  I’ll call him Number Two.  Luke calls him the other criminal; Mark calls him a bandit, someone who might wait in ambush on a lonely road in the wilderness and assault a solitary traveler, stealing his goods.  Perhaps he did it to feed his family; perhaps he was part of an insurrection against the Romans; maybe he was just a bad apple.  We don’t know any of those details.  All we know is that he got caught, and today is his last day.  He’s about to enter the hour of darkness.

That’s what Jesus called it in the garden when he was arrested.  The hour of darkness.  The moment when powers of violence, betrayal, injustice, suffering and death draw near.  Number Two will be crucified today, a public method of execution devised by the Roman Empire to be sufficiently cruel and painful that other would-be thieves and rebels would think twice before they acted.  As he’s hammered to the cross and the cross is raised, Number Two sees that two others are being crucified with him.  Not surprising, as crosses regularly dotted the landscape of the Roman Empire. It was a violent time.  One of the convicts he knows, another thief like himself.  But the other he knows only by reputation, the one called Jesus, the one the crowd was shouting for only a few days ago, the one that some people thought was a prophet or even the Messiah.

As the three men hang from the cross, the first criminal joins in with the soldiers and the crowd and begins to mock Jesus.  Can’t blame him really, can you?  Might as well have a last laugh at someone’s expense, they’re both going to be dead in a few hours.  It was now about noon, and a darkness came over the whole land.

But Number Two refuses to give in to the darkness.  It’s as if he’s heard that line in the Bruce Cockburn song, so he takes one last kick at the darkness.  In the midst of his despair, of his isolation, of his guilt, of his suffering, Number Two rebukes the first criminal.

“Stop it.  This man has done nothing wrong.”  He knows Jesus is innocent.  Pilate himself said so three times.  There is no reason for Jesus to be on the cross, but here he is, suffering alongside Number Two, with him in the midst of the darkness, looking at him with compassion.

Then he says, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 

Luke doesn’t give us any more detail, but I think Number Two’s life changed in that moment.  Not because the pain went away, it didn’t.  Not because death was averted, it wasn’t.  But because in that moment, Number Two’s hope was restored.  He was able to place his trust in something greater than himself.  He became at peace.

Even in the midst of darkness, Jesus brings healing and compassion.  Salvation.  Redemption. Hope.

Sometimes people talk about the cross as if the only thing that matters is the fact that Jesus dies.  But perhaps what’s important here is not the fact that Jesus dies, but rather who Jesus is, even in the face of death, and what this reveals to us about God.

This little vignette of the second criminal gives us a glimpse of what it means for the light to come into the darkness.  Jesus enters into the very darkest corners of our world with healing and forgiveness.  Compassion and love prevail.  Lives are transformed.  Hope is restored.

Even from the cross, Jesus continues the mission that he embarked on in Nazareth.  You remember the first words of his public ministry:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives.”  Even on the cross, Jesus still brings good news, still proclaims release. 

“Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

I share this little vignette of Number Two with you this morning for one simple reason.  And that is because the story of Number Two is your story and it’s my story too.  Not because we’re criminals.  Not because we’re facing execution.  But simply because at some point in each one of our lives, we will enter an hour of darkness.  A time of pain, in our own lives or in the lives of those that we love, a time when hope fades and life becomes hard to bear.  And when you find yourself in that hour of darkness, I want you to know and I want you to remember, that Jesus will be there with you, just as he was for Number Two, right beside you, sharing in whatever it is you suffer.  He will bring healing and forgiveness and compassion and hope.  He will say to you, “today you will be with me and I will be with you”.  And your life will be transformed.  Because God’s love wins.  Every time.  Always.


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