Luke 23:43
Preached by Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
Good Friday Service
Chicago St. Mark UMC
March 29, 2013

Jesus ends and begins his ministry emphasizing the word “today.” At Jesus’ hometown synagogue in Nazareth, the Rose of Sharon stands up and reads the 61st division of Isaiah. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of our Lord.” Jesus rolls up the scroll and sits down. He boldly declares “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” To astonished hometown folks, Jesus’ is saying: “I am the One the prophet Isaiah wrote about 700 years ago. I am the One God sent to save the people from their sins. I am the One the Messiah sent to save Jew and gentile. If necessary, I will save gentiles before Jews.” The joy and pride of the Jewish congregation becomes pent up rage. Their rage carries a carries a distinct message. “Jesus, if you keep talking that talk, we’re gonna kill you “Today.”  Before they can throw Jesus off a cliff at the edge of town, our Lord passes through their midst and goes on his merry way. Fast forward three years. It’s Good Friday.

Rome has crucified the Lily of the Valley, the bright and the Morning Star, the fairest of ten thousands. They brought him to trial on trumped up charges. Falsely accused by his enemies lying through their teeth; our Lord is unjustly convicted. To no one’s surprise, Jesus is sentenced to death and hung on an “Old Rugged Cross.” Now, all his enemies and bystanders had to do was to wait for the Grim Reaper “to do his thing.” While they waited; our Lord utters seven last words, the second of which is my assignment. “Today, thou shalt be with me in paradise.” What mercy, what joy, what forgiveness, what grace infests this word. Prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying and amazing grace go out to a man who simply requested that our Lord remember him. How ironic! A criminal, a stranger and perhaps a non-religious person who believes in Jesus the Christ receives salvation. His own folk do not. Why? In the minds of his hometown folks, the Messiah is the promised deliverer of the Jewish nation prophesied in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus extended love and grace to everyone. What Mary’s baby and Joseph’s Son offered was not consistent with their beliefs. To re-iterate, Nazareth knows Jesus well. But they cannot envision someone whom they saw grow up in Nazareth as the Christ, the Savior of the world; famous maybe, Messiah, absolutely Not.

How does this criminal come to know Christ? That’s like asking Chicago, “How do you know Dennis Rodman?” Chicago knows Dennis Rodman as a former Bull and Detroit Piston. He loves tattoos, body piercings, dying his hair red, green, occasionally wearing a dress, etc. Chicago knows Rodman as weird, crazy, out of control and a little mixed up person. Chicago knows Rodman as “the best rebounding forward in NBA history.” And they know him by nicknames such “Mole or The Worm.” Given this reputation, Rodman’s hobnobbing with the leader of North Korea, watching the Harlem Globetrotters and praising and hugging Kim Jung Un may seem incomprehensible but not that surprising. Somehow, Rodman worms his way into the presence of the leader of North Korea. And they have a high old time. Now, Rodman has communion with the 28 year old Kim Jung Un, leader of North Korea, a man whose decisions are shaping world affairs as we speak. Even President Obama has not engaged in basketball diplomacy with the leader of the North Korea face to face.   Label Rodman and Kim Jung Un an odd couple.

Like Rodman and Kim Jung Un, our Lord and the thief on the cross represent an odd couple.   Saint and sinner, the perfect and the imperfect in communion; how could that be? That’s life. Stuff happens. Odd couples happen. Jesus’ reputation impresses a man whose life is the anti-thesis of his. For instance, the thief knows that Jesus is condemned to death under false charges. Nevertheless, he is willing to die standing up for his beliefs. Jesus’ sacrifice connects. Our Lord overhears him making that admission to his partner in crime. The thief knows about Jesus challenging sinners and sin publicly and privately. His stories of the prodigal son, the woman at the well, telling folks to “go and sin no more” were legendary. The thief knows Jesus’ cares for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked as well as the prisoners whom he promises to set free. Best of all, the thief knows of Jesus’ penchant for relating with people that others avoid like a plague. Matthew 11:19 says it best. Jesus eats and drinks with winebibbers, publicans and sinners despite the disapproval of the religious community. With this knowledge and concern about his soul’s salvation, how could the dying thief not ask the Lord to remember him?

In light of the thief’s reputation, this liaison between Jesus and the criminal is all the more impressive. We are talking about a man whose larceny managed to offend synagogue and society. While no scriptural clarity regarding the kind of theft committed by the man and his partner in crime, it apparently reaches the category of “heinous crimes.” Were he and his partner involved in a Ponzi scheme, fleecing the rich and poor of their savings or retirement income ultimately causing the fleeced sickness, broken dreams, despondency and premature death? Did the two thieves unknowingly vandalize the home of Roman royalty, beat up and/or seriously injure a noted Priest while looking for valuables? Maybe the two thieves accidentally caused the death of a teenager who performed at a celebration for the Roman Governor? Whatever his grievous act or acts, the thief strikes an enviable liaison with Christ that folk in this room should emulate. The thief admits that he is a sinner. He knows that he cannot save himself. And he is not too proud to beg publicly for Christ to save him. It’s crystal clear to him that salvation is the Son of God’s primary business. No sin, regardless of its magnitude is beyond Christ’s consideration for forgiveness. Salvation is God’s primary business. In life not just death, God saves. Here is a case in point.

Have you ever heard of the name George Frederic Handel, a famous German composer? He composed Messiah. For 250 years, Messiah has found its place in the hearts, minds and souls of the global community. Ironically, Handel wrote for the Easter season. But we have found great meaning for it during Christmas. Comfort Ye My People, Every Valley Shall Be Exalted, the Hallelujah Chorus, Amen, etc., have driven home the birth of the Saviors come to earth along with the daily presence of a compassionate God able to save us as we twist and turn on our torturous crosses of life.

Ironically, Handel wrote Messiah at a time when his life and career were in a perilous downward spiral. When Italian Opera lost its popularity in London everything nosedived like the ongoing problems of the American economy. To be sure, Handel had no peers and his achievements represented the crème de le crème. Nevertheless, money dried up and so did his career, lifestyle and paycheck. To survive, Handel embraced sacred music, particularly oratorios. Oratorios told sacred stories about the resurrection and Israel in Egypt or Biblical personalities like Esther, Deborah, Saul, Sampson and Solomon. His fortunes rebounded. Then, a devastating stroke knocked him down in 1740. As Frederic recovered from his debilitating stroke, a librettist sent him the manuscript for Messiah. The message of salvation literally reeked from the text. Inspired and personally influenced, George Frederic Handel composed the music for Messiah in three to four weeks. When he completed the manuscript, Handel wrote SDG at the bottom of the manuscript. SDG represented the Latin words Soli Deo Gloria meaning “to God alone the glory.” George Frederic Handel was crystal clear. He refused to take credit for what the world called his greatest work, his claim to fame. Instead, his wrestling with the word of God and putting the salvation story to music for the ages saved him, worked with him, fixed him. Charles Wesley said it best “Tis music in the sinner’s ears, tis life, and health and peace.” Eventually, Handel recovered from his stroke and continued to compose sacred music until his death in 1759 although he went blind five to six years preceding it.

The late Bishop Sheldon Duecker, once the resident Bishop of Northern Illinois Conference, gave me some talking points to use when his wife died last year. “Jonathan, tell them that Marje’s death and dying is not the full story of today. Emphasize that we are an Easter people. Not only that, emphasize that “we have hope in an afterlife of joy and reunion with those we love.”

That is the nature of the second word from the cross. The thief’s death on the cross is not the full story of Good Friday. “Today,” on Good Friday, Jesus told the dying thief he’d be with him in paradise. Glory Hallelujah! Glory Hallelujah! Glory Hallelujah!

Sing the wondrous love of Jesus; sing his mercy and his grace. In the mansions bright and blessed, he’ll prepare for us a place. “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory.”