The Last Words of Christ: Paradise

February 24, 2013

The Last Words of Christ: Paradise

last words of christ week 2 cover art

Last week we sat at the foot of the cross and heard, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” These words from God’s Word open our mind and heart to the counterintuitive power of grace. How are we to respond to a “Grace that is greater than all our sin,” as the old familiar hymn proclaims (I love that this hymn is #365 in the hymnal. It is a daily reminder of what Christ has done). Do you find yourself responding in shocked and reflective silence? Does a timid, yet profound, Hallelujah escape your lips? Those at the foot of the cross respond to Jesus’ prevenient and justifying grace with mockery and blasphemy; a souring of the wine from the cup outpoured. Evil is at it’s greatest when we receive God’s grace with envy and anger, as Jesus proclaims in the parable of the vineyard, “Are you envious because I am gracious.” “Save yourself,” they say, affirming Jesus’ words—“They do not know what they are doing.” Jesus did not come to exalt self-preservation; rather he “Emptied himself . . . and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross,” as Paul reminds us in Philippians (Philippians 2:7-8).

Three CrossesTwo criminals were executed with Christ that day. One of them became a megaphone of derision, repeating the crowds mockery and anger. He says, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” Earlier in the Gospel of Luke Jesus fasts for forty days in the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil. The devil attempts to plant seeds of doubt by saying “If you are the Messiah.” After Jesus resists and the test is finished, Luke tell us that the devil departed until an opportune time (4:13) . . . until this moment on the cross. I imagine that the devil is hanging there with Christ, knowing that the devil, himself, is about to breathe his last. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and save us,” or to put it another way, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself, and in so doing, save me.”

The other criminal, however, responds, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” As the first criminal represents the devil, or a spiritual temptation of self-preservation, the other criminal represents the world becoming transformed into a new creation. These words from the second criminal echoes how the world works. Fear of God, payment according to deeds (the good receive good and the bad receive bad), and justice maintained through execution. In a way, as Christ is dying, so too is the old creation rooted in the Fall, a world which assumes that our relationship with God is rooted in fear, that our worth only depends on that which human hands are capable, a world which only penalizes rather than reconciles.

But in this moment we see the world beginning to change when the criminal changes his focus from the first criminal, the devil, to Christ and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Stanley Hauerwas writes in his book Cross-Shattered Christ,

Please, dear Jesus, remember us. Insure that our lives will have significance so that we will be more than bubbles on the foam of life. Jesus’ crucified companion, however, does not ask to be remembered so that his life will have significance. Rather he asks, as the Psalms have taught Israel to ask, to be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom. Remembrance is a politic of hope.[1]


Jesus, remember me

We ask Christ to remember us, just as Jesus asks us to remember him when he takes the broken bread and the cup of wine and offers it to us in praise and thanksgiving. “Jesus, remember me,” is a powerful prayer because in it we are asking to be made whole in the body of Christ, literally to be re-membered with Christ. Remembrance is not the power of the mind, but the power of the Holy Spirit to unite us with the person of Christ, in his life, suffering, death, and resurrection. “Jesus, remember me. Jesus, remember us. Make us one with you and each other.” Jesus is there between the temptation of self-preservation and birth pangs of a creation beginning to be born.

Jesus looks upon creation and says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” It is a curious word. Today . . . you will be. It is both a present reality and a future hope all at once. “Today . . . you will be.” The kingdom is at hand and yet still growing to fruition. It is a kingdom. It is paradise. “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” is a present reality, which offers us a future of remembrance by redeeming our past. There Jesus is, in between the Temptor—“If you are the son of God, save yourself and save me; and the Old Creation rooted in humanity’s fall—“Remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” You will be with me in paradeisos, which is from the Greek root for the word, “Garden.”

Garden of eden

Just as when Jesus says, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” where Jesus’ “Them” and “They” goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, so too does Jesus’ words of paradise, a blessed garden. Have you ever wondered why God made a paradise, a blessed garden with a tree from which humanity could not eat? God said, “You may freely eat from every tree . . . but not this one.” It is because it was the tree on which Jesus was crucified. Jesus was placed on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so that our knowledge of evil may be transformed into a knowledge and desire for good. To the criminal who begged, “Jesus, remember me.” To creation rooted in humanity’s exile from the garden, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in a blessed garden. You ask me to remember you. Do you remember that place, that place where you walked with God in reckless abandon, naked and unashamed? Truly I tell you, you will be with me in that blessed garden. I will remember you as you remember me.”

As we gather around the Lord’s table we remember. Through the grace of Christ we are once again made whole. In the present, we are offered a future, through the redemption and reconciliation of the past. May we live as we believe it to be true—that Christ offers us paradise, both now and forever. Amen.