A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Good Friday 2 April by Revd Sally Hitchiner.
The disciples had fled. Most of them had run from Gethsemane as it became clear that this was not going to be a war they would win. Peter had travelled a little further. Not walking with Jesus but following from a safer distance. He wanted to follow Jesus but to do it privately without the scrutiny of others. But Jesus knew he would not see through the night. When Peter’s cover was blown, he would deny him. Once, twice, three times, like strikes to the face, before the cock crowed to indicate the dawn.
Jesus was taken from his friends, stripped of the clothes that they shared, flogged and sent to pilot.
He was held up in front of the crowds. Is there any more lonely place than being the one held up in front of jeering crowds?
Then handed back his own religion’s leaders. Those who were supposed to help people recognise God. He was forced to parade through the streets as the ultimate pariah. The other before them. To walk step by step outside the city gates. Outside of every possibility of home or community to the place of the skull. The disembodied head.
Then he is nailed to wood and that wood is lifted high above the earth, away from the realm where humanity lives. A place where anything offered must be put on a stick to reach him. Lifted to his own sphere just for those who suffer. Hell, here, is not below but lifted up, visible but not touchable.
How could he be more alone? But even here, a voice shouts at him, mocking him, pushing him further away from any human kindness.
The God of connection is pushed to the edges of the universe he created.
But then there is one voice. A friend of sorts. We don’t even know his name but something in him, even in his agony reached back to Jesus. “Can’t you see this man is good?” he shouts. “Please remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The plea at the end acknowledges Jesus is a messianic king and asks to be remembered when at some point in the future he comes into his kingdom.
And Jesus responds, creating a conversation in the worst place on earth, changing the paradigm. He speaks words which sum up everything humanity could hope for. Everything we need.
“Today, you will be with me, in paradise”
The great comfort of Jesus that the salvation of God is today, this is not some distant hope one day in the future. This is not a wish. This is today, now, right now. Salvation and eternal life are to start today. Often we live with the hope that God will look after us when we die but what Jesus is talking about is today. Now.
Even on a day when the sky turns black. Even on a day when you’ve been pushed away from all those you love, even on a day when your life is fading fast. That day can be the day of salvation.
The other end of the sentence answers the second question we have… Where will this salvation be?
We often think that Jesus will scoop us to a far away cloud and we’ll leave behind all this rotten world. But the phrase in Paradise links back to Eden. The Jewish story of the start of everything in a garden when humanity was made for the first time, where they discovered relationship with each other new and wonderful and declared “It is good”… and where they walked with God in the cool of the evening.
Could these two people hanging on a cross be any more different to the two people in that garden all that time ago? All his relationships with others have been broken or have been broken as he tumbled on that well-worn path bouncing from abuse to abusing into criminality. His relationship with the world around him was broken as things became something scarce that he had to take from others by force rather than an abundance he could share.
And yet Jesus tells him that today he will be with him in Eden, Paradise, the start of it all. Where there is every kind of fruit and vegetable and people so unashamed so innocent of exploitation that they don’t even need clothes.
Jesus doesn’t point to some far away, mythical place. This will be here, on earth, this earth. This cosmos. This ground. This body. God does not screw up and throw away our world but promises to renew paradise here among us.
Jesus promises this man, this world, even this place, Golgotha, the place of the skull will be made new.
Salvation in this situation, in your situation, now and here. How is that possible?
The middle of the sentence is the key that opens this box of new possibilities for here and now. “You will be with me.”
The most holy place now isn’t somewhere else. It’s not in a religious building where people can be excluded or a mountain that only the fit can climb. The most holy place, the place where God is, is now wherever Jesus is. And Jesus is choosing to be near you.
So here, now, in your living room as you watch this, with us here in this little church in London, whatever you are going through right now… THIS is the moment of salvation.
The kingdom that the thief talks about is coming. When Jesus will come back as king and the whole world will look like a country where love is the law and Jesus is in charge. But that’s not all that’s on offer. Paradise is here, now.
The transforming experience of Jesus being in the middle of even hell on earth is one that.
I wonder what this man thought as he heard Jesus’ words.
I wonder if there was something in the way they were said that changed things.
To find a friend with you even in the midst of suffering is transformative. Soldiers, those facing terminal illnesses, those facing the loss of a relationship all attest to the difference that it made to have someone come along side them, listen to who they really were, give them space and commit to walking the path with them as long as it took.
How much more must it have felt transformative for this thief, this man, this Adam, to hear that Jesus was promising that he would be with him.
Time unwinds… The thief, becomes not just a thief but a friend like Abraham was a friend of God, not just a friend but the innocence of Adam or an Eve, walking with God in the cool of the day.
The situation becomes not primarily a place of torture but a place of liberation like Moses walking with the people of Israel out of slavery, not just liberation but the abundance of Eden. Anything is possible now Jesus is here. Even in the worst place the presence of Christ is transformative.
As Jesus says at the end of all time in the book of Revelation but that starts where ever Jesus is present even here now, with you…
“Behold I make all things new.”
God of all connection,
all times and substance radiate from you.
Be with us here, now as we, by faith, reach to you in your hour of suffering,
That our wearied and burdened hearts might be transformed
Into homes for your Son through your Spirit.
And that we might find our present and place a dwelling with him,
A recreation of the abundance of paradise today.
Through Jesus Christ whose presence makes all things new,