“Facing Death”

Jan 23, 2022

The Scripture

Luke 23: 26-43

26 As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27 A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28 But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


The Sermon

This morning we are returning to our series titled: Faces of our Faith. I’m sure you remember that series! I know it’s been a while since we were here, but we didn’t want to miss some important people who we were not able to focus on last year. This morning we find ourselves reliving Holy week and the crucifixion of Jesus. Like many of the other Faces of Our Faith, I have never preached on the person who is the focus of the scripture passage. It is a person facing his own death! Today we will turn our attention not to the middle cross but to the cross on the side. It is the thief who hung on a cross next to Jesus. He is only known as “a thief” though I did realize in the book of Nicodemus, which is a book that is part of the apocrypha, the thief is named Dimas. In Luke there is no other name or information about him except to know that he broke the law, he is a criminal…yet his words spoken to Jesus who was hanging right next to him, hanging so close that they could talk to each other, his words speak to us today.

Joseph Ross knows what it is like to be on “death row”, he served as a volunteer chaplain at the Indiana State Prison. He would go from cell to cell to speak with the prisoners, most of all he listened…he listened again and again to the stories of each man living in his tiny cell. One convict, Jerry stood out to him, he was one of the first men Joseph met. Jerry was always clear that no one put him here but himself. He took responsibility for his own life. But chaplain Joseph reflected on this, “I sometimes doubted that this was really true. (Was it really true that Jerry is responsible for his moment of outrage that led him to death row.) I sensed that a whole web of realities landed Jerry on death row—lack of mental health care, raised in an unstable family, born in poverty, to drug addiction.  All these things contributed to his presence here in this eight by ten-foot cell.”  Joseph goes on to say, “While all of us have the potential for both goodness and cruelty, it was always hard for me to imagine how the gentle, thoughtful Christian I came to know in Jerry could be the same person who killed a man at a highway rest stop. When someone starts using drugs, he makes a series of bad choices. He hangs out with others who use, and he often breaks the law to get “high.” At the end Joseph believes that whatever moral sense, whatever reasoning or free will he once had had slipped away.

Like Joseph it is hard for me to imagine how a gentle, thoughtful Christian could be the same person who took another life, but I’ve come to believe that there are always two sides of the faces of our faith. For the criminals hanging on each side of Jesus, both facing death, we see both sides. And is it not true that we all have two sides of ourselves. One side reflects who we hope to be and the one we want the world to see and the other side, is the one we want to stay hidden deep within, the dark side of ourselves that we don’t want the world to see. Jerry revealed a dark side…Jerry who is now sitting on death row! Waiting for death to come! Chaplain Joseph talked about this, he shared that he felt one of the great sufferings of death row is the day-to-day brutality. Every detail of these men’s lives says to them: “You don’t deserve to live.” 

The thief on the cross next to Jesus is on “death row” too! Were not his experiences similar to Jerry’s? The public trial, the journey of carrying your cross and walking to the place you will die, the mocking by the people, the humility of being strung up on a cross. Again and again, the thief heard “you don’t deserve to live!” And he believed that about himself!

In the midst of experiencing the reality that “you don’t deserve to live” what happened to this thief who was then able to see Jesus in a different way? Had he heard about Jesus before he was arrested? Maybe he heard the people around him talk about all the things Jesus had done. How he healed people, how he raised people up, gave them hope. Did he walk next to Jesus on the way to Golgotha and see no fear in his eyes but only love? Maybe as time slipped by hanging on the cross, he heard Jesus say, forgive them Father for they know not what they do. We will never know the mind of the thief, but we do know that he knew Jesus was the Christ…when he says “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus comforts him by saying, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jerry sitting on death row found his own way to Christ. Joseph shared this about Jerry, “he was baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Faith on an Easter Sunday.” They celebrated the Eucharist, and tears were flowing as the priest, Jerry, two of his friends and Joseph sat around a small table that had become an altar and sang alleluias. Joseph said, “In the midst of clanging doors and laughing guards, we laid hands on him, anointed him with oil and gave him the confirmation name Dismas, which was the name given to the man executed next to Jesus.”

Both Jerry and the penitent thief were open to redemption…a renewing of their souls and both found the One who was able to bring them peace at last. Jerry was executed two years after his return to his faith. Joseph anointed Jerry with oil so he would have strength for the journey and read the very passage we read this morning. “Jesus remember me” was the words Jerry held onto walking into the death chamber. You can read more of Jerry’s story in the article titled: “Living and Dying on Death Row; An Eyewitness Account” by Joseph Ross.

For you and me, we might feel we are so far from this true story about Jerry. But remember there are two faces to our own faith. If it weren’t for many, many life experiences that led us down a different path, we could be right were Jerry was for so many years. There are many ways that you might think you don’t deserve to live…perhaps you made some egregious mistakes, maybe you’ve had your own struggle with drugs and alcohol…addictions come in many ways and addictions always rob us of the life we are meant to live. The thief teaches us, and Jerry teaches us, that there is One who always “remembers us” and One who leads us into tomorrow with the promises of forgiveness and restoration. Thanks be to God!  Amen