Lent is a journey. It is a journey to the cross. Traditionally Lenten readings and sermons usually lead up to Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and going to the cross. The end of that journey is the cross and grave, but the culmination of the whole journey is the resurrection.
Last year, we made the journey through Lent by following the readings of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem throughout the week that led to the cross. We read about His triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, his arrest, trial, flogging, and crucifixion. This year, we are again, going to do something a little different. We are going to spend 6 weeks at the foot of the cross listening to Jesus’ final words spoken while hanging on the cross. These words aren’t something we often hear in sermons, unless on Good Friday, even then seldom for those of us who go to a Good Friday service.
Listening to the words of Jesus while hanging on the cross will challenge us. We can think about what it means for a life to end, what it means to be forgiven, what it means to be in paradise or with Jesus. I’ll challenge us to think differently about what the cross means to our salvation.
What I’ll be challenging us to think about is atonement. Atonement is the theology of reconciliation. At-one-ment defines what it is that reconciles us to God after our relationship has become estranged due to sin. Specifically, this Lent, we will think about what role the cross plays in that at-one-ment.
The Bible records Jesus saying 7 things while hanging on the cross during the 6 hours he was dying there. He hung on a cross on the hill at a place called Golgotha meaning Skull Place. It is believed He hung on the cross from mid-morning until 3 o’clock in the afternoon – 6 hours.
All 7 sayings we claim are the last words of Jesus. The Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John each record different words that Jesus spoke. We have different records of what was said because the Disciples may not have been there all day. The Disciples may have been standing at varying lengths from the cross. Most scholars would agree that the 12 Disciples weren’t standing together at the foot of the cross for 6 hours. What is recorded as Jesus’ last words are what the different Disciples heard during their time near the cross.
As I said, the Bible records 7 sayings. We have 6 weeks of Lent, so I had to skip one saying. The one I chose to skip comes from Luke 23: 34. Here are those words: Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” I skipped this one because I just preached about forgiveness 3 weeks ago.
Today, we read the story of the criminals hanging on the crosses next to Jesus. One of the criminals told Jesus that if He is the Messiah He should save Himself and the 2 men on the crosses next to Him. The other criminal recognized that he had done something wrong and they deserved punishment. He asked Jesus to remember him when He comes into His kingdom.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
You will be with me in paradise.
When we read this, we assume that Jesus means the criminal will be in Heaven with Him on that day when they die. But, that doesn’t reconcile with what we believe about Jesus following His death. And, that doesn’t reconcile with what we believe happens to us when we die.
If we really think about it, most of us do not believe Jesus went to Heaven right away after He died. The Bible doesn’t tell us that He does. Traditional Christian theology tells us He didn’t. We believe 3 days after His death Jesus was physically raised from the dead; thus, His soul, spirit, whatever you want to call it was present with His body in the grave at the time of the resurrection. The Bible tells us that Jesus taught His disciples for 40 days before He ascended to Heaven just before sending the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
The Bible tells us that Jesus was on earth 3 days after His death. I think many of us believe He was dead in the grave during the time between His death and His resurrection. Some traditional Christian theology suggests that He descended into Hell to redeem sinners who would come to believe in those 3 days. I think most of us agree that Jesus did not immediately go to Heaven following His death.
So, if Jesus didn’t go to Heaven, in what paradise did the criminal join Jesus that day?
Where was the criminal with Jesus that day?
The criminal was at the cross with Jesus on that day. So, is it possible that with Jesus, even on the cross, is paradise?
When I preside at a funeral in the chapel of a funeral home, I try to highlight some of our varying beliefs about what happens after death. Often, when we lose a loved one or try to console someone who has lost a loved one, we say, “They are with God now.” That statement says that we believe that somehow that person who has died is somehow with God in a different way than he or she was in this life.
Hear these words from Romans 8: 38 – 39 by the Apostle Paul: “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth or any other thing or any other thing that is created.” Paul is reminding us that Jesus is Emanuel, God with us. God is with us in this life and God is with us in the next. Nothing, not even the grave, can separate us from God.
To say that someone who has died is with God now suggests that that person was not in his or her life or that we are not now with God. That’s the belief with which we read the text about the criminal going to be with Jesus in paradise. We somehow assume that Jesus’ future tense use of the verb to be has to mean that paradise is following death; yet, we don’t believe that Jesus went to paradise that day. So, paradise must have been on the cross.
When I speak at the graveside of someone who has passed, I remind us of the duality in beliefs that we experience at the grave. We go to the graveside with different emotion than we have at the funeral chapel. We believe at the graveside we are laying to final rest our loved one. This is a different action and requires different emotions than standing by a casket in a receiving line or hearing a eulogy.
Standing at the grave, we recognize that we are doing something holy. I read from the Apostle Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians chapter 15. Paul tries to teach his readers that there is a difference between a physical body and a spiritual body. A physical body is put into the ground where it will decay but a spiritual body is raised on the final day. The Apostle Paul seems to say that at the resurrection all who have died will receive a new spiritual body. I take that to be unclear about what happens to us between the time our physical body is laid to rest in the ground and a spiritual body is raised.
So, we stand at the grave believing our loved one is with God and that there is something final about the grave. Our beliefs about what happens after death don’t seem to reconcile with what the Bible tells us about death and the resurrection. That’s what I try to help us understand when we are in the funeral chapel or at the graveside.
Death challenges our beliefs because we try to comfort ourselves with difficult theology. Difficult theology is what we have to struggle with at the cross when Jesus says things like, “Truly, I tell you today you will be with me in paradise.” We want to believe this statement affirms our hope in eternal life in Heaven with Jesus, but, if we look at what the Bible tells us about Jesus that day, paradise is at the cross.
Well, boo to that. Who wants to believe that paradise is hanging on the cross with Jesus?
Paradise is wherever we are, doing whatever we’re doing, with Jesus. Jesus, Emanuel, is with us all the time, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing. Right now, this moment, Jesus is with us and so we are with Jesus in paradise.