NOTE TO READERS: This Lenten essay was originally published on Open Salon, FEBRUARY 15, 2009. It is part of my Christian Calendar Series. It is intended to set a tone for thinking about the season of Lent. I have edited it for 2010, clarifying certain points and improving the flow of the text.
Christian liturgy, ritual and most of Christian theology change little from year to year. The reason for the Christian Calendar is to encourage Christians to rehearse, ponder and reflect on, year after year, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, so that His life becomes part and parcel of our family history.
The story of Christ changes little, but we, His disciple, change and grow, become ill, or face death, our own or a loved one's, and in so doing we come each year to view the events of Christ and the traditions of His Church through different eyes.
Hopefully, what I write in this series will have a certain timelessness, updated slightly each year to improve clarity and thereby open more deeply our understanding of aspects of the events celebrated during the Christian Year.
This opening Lenten essay for 2010 lays out some basic parameters of orthodox Christian belief. However, even within Christianity there is no unanimity on what are essential beliefs and what are not essential. I will not argue any of that here.
What is laid out here are my own beliefs, which are widely shared by Christians in most mainline Protestant denominations and in the Roman and Orthodox Catholic denominations in the United States as being fundamental to Christian faith.
We begin this reflection at the foot of the Cross upon which Christ is crucified. Most Christians have been here many times before, but we come back now to explore an aspect of this poignant scene that is crucial to understanding why there is a season of Lent at all.
St. Luke tells us:
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other one rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?" [23:39-40]
Before this scene at the Cross, Jesus, in utter agony, has been driven with whips, carrying the instrument of his own death on his back, struggling up the dirty hill outside Jerusalem which serves as the city garbage dump. He has been nailed to a Cross which has been raised as a barren tree on which he hangs.
There is something utterly, painfully earthly and totally unnerving about Luke's description of the crucifixion because, however some Christians might want to pretty it up, it is nothing less than the painful picture of the death of God's own Son, hanging from a tree like a common criminal!
If you contrast this scene with later descriptions of who Jesus is, the difference is startling in its clarity. As Christianity moved further and further from the recording of eye witness accounts of Jesus' death, a "higher," more theological, description of who Jesus is began to emerge.
For example, St. Paul, in his Letter to the Colossians (Col 1:15-19) says of Jesus:
"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers -- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together."... "For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his Cross."
Paul's picture of Jesus is one of the highest, most holy images of Christ as the powerful ruler of all creation that one can imagine. Christians like me believe that it is true.
Compare this with Luke’s gut wrenching picture of a bruised and battered man hanging on a Cross between two convicted criminals. Can there be a more stark contrast? Yet, as a Christian, I say that this picture is also true.
Can you begin to sense the paradox, the stark contrast between the very human Jesus in Luke's Gospel and the gloriously and powerfully divine Jesus portrayed by Paul? Can you feel the painful, bewildering irony of the crucifixion when one comes to believe that both descriptions are true?
Both writers are talking about God. Paul calls Jesus the very "image of the invisible God." The Jesus Paul is talking about is the One hanging there on the Cross, being ridiculed by hypocrites, power mongers and thieves.
All the power, the might, the majesty, and the glory of God is hanging there: being spit upon, a sword thrust into his side, humiliated, left to die.
And what is the response of the One in whom Paul says all things in the universe are held together? Of the one whom St. John says was there before the beginning of time, before the cosmos was created, from whom all things came into being; the one John says literally gave us life?
Since he has all this power, does he unleash the fury of Michael, the archangel, and his host of heavenly warriors? No. Rather, he says, "Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)
And what is their response to that? They shout more insults! What does it take to get through to them?
To paraphrase William Barclay, How low must God go to prove that God loves you? That is the question this text poses to us. God went as low as the Cross, and only one person on earth understood it that day, a simple thief hanging on a cross beside Jesus.
We need to get a clear mental picture of that scene: There was not just one cross. There were three. Three crosses, Jesus in the middle, a thief on either side. When we have that mental picture before us, can we see the symbolism that would spring from the cross? Can we see God saying, with outstretched arms, “I love you this much!”? Can we see that there are no depths to which God will not sink to offer us the gift of divine love and grace?
One of the best explanations of the meaning of the Cross comes from William Barclay, the great writer of Bible commentaries for ordinary people. Barclay seldom spoke of the Cross in the traditional legalistic terms of atonement, or of ransom, or even of sacrifice for our sins. He knew those were traditional and accepted explanations of the theology of the Cross.
But, for Barclay atonement was not enough. For Barclay, even Jesus' sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins was not the essence of what Jesus was saying to us from the Cross.
For him, and for me, the Cross was the ultimate sign of God's complete and unequivocal love for us. Barclay said that God was saying to each of us, "Nothing you do can make me not love you. You can disappoint me, break my heart and grieve my Spirit, you can spit on me, scourge me, beat me, ridicule me, and even kill me -- but you can not make me stop loving you. See that Cross? I love you like that!"
In the 8th chapter of Mark, Jesus asks the disciples, "But what about you? Who do you say I am?" (v. 29) Each of the synoptic Gospels records this question.
The Cross can help us answer that question. And that question is vital to understanding Christian faith. In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter to you what anyone else's view of Jesus is. Whether it is the thief on the Cross who believed him or the other who did not; the Pharisee on the sidelines or the soldier at the foot of the Cross; your best friend or your worst enemy, your Sunday School teacher, the bartender down at the corner tavern, or even your pastor or priest.
All that matters in the end is how each individual answers the question that has echoed down through the centuries, asked by Christ to generation upon generation of seekers: "But what about you? Who do you say I am?"
There is only one way for a Christian to answer that question. When a seeker comes to me and talks about becoming a Christian that is the only question that I ever ask her or him. I don't ask them about the Bible, or about where they live or where they work, or what they did before they got there. I don't care what church they came from or if they have never set foot in a church in their life. None of that really matters.
Often their honest answer to the question Jesus asks is "I don't know." And that is a good enough answer at that stage of their faith journey. Some never move beyond that stage, but most do. From my perspective an honest person who sincerely struggles with answering that question is in a far healthier spiritual place than one who gives the answer he or she is "supposed" to give but really doesn't believe.
So it is with us. If we think that we really aren't quite sure of the answer to that fundamental question, then we can learn a bit more about the answer by spending a little time with the two thieves on the Cross.
And, as we look at them keep in mind what we have already learned: that whatever else the Cross means, it means that God will do anything to prove to you that He loves you. He is saying to you, "See that Cross? I love you like that!"
The unrepentant thief asks Jesus, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" (v.39)
Although the question was rhetorical and sarcastic, it’s still an important one. If Jesus is simply a great teacher who has met an unfortunate end, then the story of the Cross is touching, but not truly relevant to Christian faith. In fact, there would be no Christian faith. Christians believe that Jesus was, in fact, a great teacher. But that is hardly the basis for believing that he is the Son of God, God come down, Emmanuel, to save us from ourselves
The irony of the unrepentant thief's question to a Christian, is, of course, that Christians believe that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah -- but that man could not see it.
Yet, if Jesus were not the Messiah, then how could he promise the other thief, "This day you will be with me in paradise?" Only the Messiah, a Messiah even greater than the one the Jews hoped for, or a deluded mad-man, would make such a rash promise.
And, in a very real sense that is the choice a Christian must make: is he God or is he mad? C. S. Lewis argued that is the only real choice humans have to make about Christianity.
There is no middle ground to be found here. Either Jesus is the Messiah, or he is not. And, if we decide that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah, a Messiah capable of actually welcoming the repentant thief into paradise with him, what more might that tell us about a Messiah who is able to offer such a promise? Answering that question will get us to that next step in faith that has to be taken if we would claim to be a believing Christian.
To help us get to that next step we need to explore the question asked by the good thief to the other thief who continued to mock Jesus: "Do you not fear God?"
In other words, if this man should truly be God's Messiah or more, have you no fear in continuing to hurl abuse at him? Luke records no response from the unrepentant thief, but leaves it that, even at the outer limits of his mortal existence, this man has no room for even the possibility of God working in the life of Jesus!
How do we know this? Because of the words Luke uses. Luke’s account of the conversation between the criminals and Jesus is unique. The words in the New Revised Standard Version, in English, "kept deriding him" translate the word "blasphemeo" in Greek. The NRSV translation is a weak translation. The intensity of feeling in that word is immensely strong and is not captured by the tame, "kept deriding him". In koine Greek it means to speak evil, revile, defame or vilify GOD.
The man hanging on a Cross knows he’s going to die but, nevertheless, Luke tells us that he is blaspheming God. Even if Jesus is the Messiah, or if Jesus is not the Messiah, but is merely "of God" in some undisclosed way he is not someone this thief has time for. The thief is in deep pain and anger with a soul closed to the possibility of God, or of caring about one who serves God. Nor is he open even to the idea of his own possible redemption.
That’s a scary place to be. This poor, pitiful man is locked in a prison of absolute loneliness. There is no room in his heart even for even the fear of God. And there is no room for hope.
This thief rejects Jesus. To a Christian to reject the love Jesus displayed on the Cross is to reject the love of God.
The other thief chose not to reject that love. Hanging from his own cross that thief made his choice: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom." (Luke 23:42)
So how does Jesus respond to this thief? This man is a convicted felon, who was guilty of his crimes, but he has chosen to fear God in these final moments, and most importantly, he has chosen to believe that Jesus is indeed the Messiah of God. And the response of God to his deepest need is instantaneous. Jesus says, "Today, you will be with me in paradise."
Luke's story shows us the very radically different decisions that two thieves made. It tells us that one rejects the Messiah, the Son of God, while the other asks to be remembered in Jesus' Kingdom. And Jesus promises that second thief that he would, that very day, be with him in paradise. Christians believe that only the Christ, the Son of God, could have made that offer.
That is how looking at the two thieves can help us to understand just who this Jesus is. He is the one who could offer to the thief who only asked to be "remembered" the gift of paradise. It can provide to those who, like the "good thief," are willing to make a leap of faith with insight about how they might answer Jesus' most important question to all of us.
When Jesus asks, "And you, who do you say that I am?" he is asking the ultimate question of Christian faith. The answer of the repentant thief is consistent with the clearest answer to that question found in the Gospels.
St. Peter, speaking for himself and all of the disciples in the 16th chapter of Matthew, says it clearly and succinctly: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." (verse 16)
It is that belief that causes Christians to gather each Lent at the foot of the Cross, to strengthen and renew their faith in the One who offers peace, salvation and eternal life to those who believe that he is their Lord and Savior, God come down, Emmanuel. Jesus, the Christ, is the One who says, in Barclay's words, "Nothing you do can make me not love you. See that Cross? I love you like that!"
May the Season of Lent bring to each Christian a clear sense of what the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross means, and may it also be a time of introspection, looking into our own lives and reflecting on what we might do that will help us turn ourselves away from worldly things and toward the greatest gift of God: God's everlasting love for all humankind.
I hope that those whose faith is not Christian but have joined in the reading of this essay have a better idea of one reason, I think the most important reason, why the Cross is so central in the lives of those who follow Christ. That reason is love.
And I ask all Christians who read this essay to remember that Christ did not die upon the Cross out of love for Christians alone, for there were no Christians then. He died that all might know the love of God. He died for all of us.
As we enter this season of Lent 2010 my prayer is that all may know the unequivocal, unconditional, everlasting love of God.