First Congregational Church
March 25, 2016
“Amazing Grace for the Thief”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
John 19:14-22 Jean Neuhardt
Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. Pilate said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered Jesus over to them to be crucified. They took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the dump, called The Place of the Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.
Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”
As we have made this journey of Amazing Grace in this Lenten season, it was an easy start. Grace for the Faithful, the Tempted, the Healed, the Free, the Filled - all seemed rather logical. Amazing Grace for the World and for the Servant may have stretched some of us a little more than if we were to do the planning and perceiving. But then we get to this day.
Call me Dismas. That’s how I’ve been known since the 4th Century, although my name is nowhere mentioned in the Bible. “Dismas” may be related to a Greek word for “sunset.” That was about the time of day I died on a cross beside Jesus who had already given up his spirit to God.
Death coming so quickly to a victim of crucifixion was unusual. Sometimes it would take days for a victim to die. But it was near sundown during Passover, and with the Sabbath just beginning, the religious Jews asked that my partner in crime, traditionally named Gestas, and me be killed and buried.
To accelerate the dying process the soldiers broke my legs so I could no longer stand on the small platform to which my feet were nailed. All my body weight was now transferred to my wrists, greatly amplifying the pain and strain on my heart causing me to die quickly. And if that didn’t work, there was always the spear thrust into the side, just to make sure. But before that happened, I had plenty of time to think about my situation and compare myself to Jesus.
It was on a Friday in spring. Four of us were in the justice system, if you want to call it: justice. One was Barabbas, a murderer. There I was and, of course, Gestas. But most noteworthy was Jesus, a man both loved and hated with equal intensity. Yet in the hours that passed as we hung side by side, each on our cross, all I saw in Jesus was love. All I heard from him were words of grace.
Yet for some reason the crowd had forced Pilate to crucify this man while demanding that Barabbas be freed. If someone were to be freed, why not me or Gestas? After all, we were just petty thieves, not killers. Or even more appropriately, why not let Jesus go?
He’d done nothing deserving death, actually nothing wrong at all. Pilate even said so. But no. “Crucify him!” the crowed demanded, “Crucify him!” and “Let Barabbas go!”
Whatever possessed these people to make such an unjust request? Well, you see Barabbas’ full name was “Jesus Barabbas” meaning, “Jesus, son of the father.” By demanding freedom for Barabbas, the crowd was heaping the greatest expression of contempt they could think of on Jesus. Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of the Father must die, but a murderer who shares his name must go free! Could there be any greater insult or rejection than that?
Maybe you wonder why two petty thieves and a man who claimed to be the Son of God were being crucified at all. Isn’t that incredibly harsh? Why didn’t they just make us spend some time in prison? Well, in my day and throughout most of history, prison was not punishment. It was not a “penitentiary” where wrongdoers contemplated their crimes and resolved to do better. That was a Quaker idea from the 19th Century. Prison in my day was where you waited till you could be punished by scourging or very often death.
So it was that I, Dismas, Gestas and Jesus were sentenced to die by crucifixion. We two malefactors had been duly tried and found guilty, even admitting our crimes, but Jesus was never convicted of anything. He was only sentenced. And since a holiday was coming and everyone wanted to go home early and have the weekend off, and since it was cheaper to kill three on the same day, we were all crucified together on what you call “Good Friday,” or “God’s Friday.”
My time in prison awaiting punishment had done nothing to improve my character. I was still a sorry, miserable and impenitent thief when they nailed me to my cross and hoisted me up. I was still irreverent and full of cursing, even as I was about to face the Judge of all flesh and hear from God my eternal fate.
After we’d all been lifted up above the crowds, the taunts and catcalls poured in against Jesus. Like a schoolyard full of bullies, Gestas and I joined them. One man called out, “If he is the king of Israel, let him come down from the cross and we will believe in him!” (Matthew 27:42). “Are you not the Christ?” Gestas shouted. “Save yourself, and us!” (Luke 23:39).
This was all just hateful sarcasm, of course. Crucified men never came down from crosses until they were dead. But despite his tormentors, Jesus never responded with the anger and hatred you’d expect. Remarkably, all his words conveyed kindness and concern even as he was dying. He forgave those who mocked him. He arranged for the care of his mother. He prayed.
As I reflected on the provocations he was enduring, these were not the responses of an ordinary man. These were not words of retribution but of redemption. These were divine words, words one could imagine being spoken by a merciful and gracious God. Might he be the divine Son of God after all? Might he be the Savior? I was beginning to think so.
I looked toward Gestas and spoke. “Do you not fear God seeing that you are under the same condemnation? We are condemned justly, for we are receiving the due reward for our deeds. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41).
Without realizing what was happening to me, I was being converted. Comparing myself to this truly holy man I had become fully aware of my sin and for the first time admitted my sinful and lost condition to myself, the world and God. And though I had no time left to do any of the good works repentance always produces, I was truly sorry for my sins. I would do those good works if I could, but now I could only cry out to Jesus, and beg him to save me. “Jesus,” I pleaded, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom!”
Though consumed with the agony of his dying, still he heard me. And he answered me! “Truly, I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
With those words I could die in peace because they meant absolution! They meant pardon! Jesus himself had promised me forgiveness of my sin and a home in Paradise with him. That afternoon I would die, but even as Jesus would rise from the dead three days hence and ascend to God, I, too, would soon awake from the pauper’s grave where my body was dumped. Soon I would see Jesus and God and all the saints in glory.
John 19:23-42 Jean Neuhardt
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
So the soldiers did these things, but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.”
After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body.
Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
By Don Neidigk. © 2015 Creative Communications for the Parish, 1564 Fencorp Dr., Fenton, MO 63026. 800-325-9414. www.creativecommunications.com. All rights reserved.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.