Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Paradise between two thieves"

Message preached March 20, 2005
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Luke 23:32-43

Order of Worship

"Remember me."

            It dawned upon my awareness this week that Iím in the middle of my fiftieth year of life. Iíll turn half a century old this summer. Man, that sounds ancient! Being this age causes me to sometimes wonder, what have I done with my life thatís worth remembering? Will anyone remember me once I am dead and gone? It may be a morbid thought, I know, but I have a feeling itís not one peculiar to me. It comes with the territory of being "middle aged," whatever that really means. Perhaps you also wonder about yourself, will anyone "remember me?"

"Remember me."

            Along the path that led to the cross, Jesus gathered his disciples together in the upper room of someoneís house. There, they ate together the Passover meal. When Jesus shared this age-old feast with his twelve students and friends, he added a new element. With bread in hand, and later the cup, he spoke of the days to come. "This is my body," he said, "this is my blood, which is given for you." Whenever eat this bread, and drink from this cup, "remember me."

"Remember me."

            Two thieves were nailed to their own crosses on that dark day long ago. A third was planted between them. As life slowly drained from his body, the second thief spoke to the man who hung from the cross beside him. "Remember me," he said... We donít know much about this criminal #2, not even his name. Luke just called him "the other." Oh, later tradition came up with the name, "Dismas," (also spelled "Dysmas"). Whether that was actually what he was called, I donít know. I do find it interesting though, that after Luke recorded this nameless thief as asking Jesus to remember him, the early church did just that by giving him a name.

"Remember me."

            What have I done with my life thatís worth remembering? Will anyone remember me once I am dead and gone? For Dismas, if that really was his name, the remembrance of his life boiled to down this - he was one of two thieves hanging on either side of Jesus. Some have made the case that Dismas and Gestas (thatís the name tradition has given the other fellow hanging next to Jesus) were not common criminals, but rather were zealots fighting for the freedom of their native land, part of the "insurrection" (thereís a word with which we have become reconnected lately as we listen to news from Iraq) against Rome. Whether this is true, I also canít say. I do know that a freedom fighter to one person can be a terrorist to another.

            Another tradition surrounding this dynamic duo on the opposite side of Roman law, this one dating from the middle ages and quite fanciful, presented Dismas and Gestas as stick-up men who held up Mary and Joseph thirty or so years before on their way to Egypt shortly after their infant son, Jesus, was born. As the story goes, Dismas bought off Gestas with forty drachmas to leave the holy family unmolested, whereupon the infant (yes, you heard me right, the baby) predicted that this pair would be crucified with him in Jerusalem, and that Dismas would accompany him to Paradise... Sometimes, remembering can go just a tad too far.

"Jesus, remember me."

            The question does prod us to think. What have I done with my life thatís worth remembering? How we answer it gets to the core of what we value. Is it our achievement in life - how many diplomas we have on our wall, how many awards weíve received, how much money we have made, how far up the ladder of success we have climbed - are such achievements what make us worthy of being remembered?

            Spoken in a slightly different vein, are we to be remembered for how many people we have helped, for the persons we have loved and nurtured and challenged, for those we have mentored along the way to their own success? This, also, is achievement, but in an indirect sense. In this way of evaluation, my success, my worthiness of being remembered depends upon how well others do. Of course, we often donít get to see that far down the round in the lives of those we have influenced. But this is something worthy of being remembered, is it not?

"Jesus, remember me."

            The funny thing about Dismas, or whatever his name might have been, is that his request had nothing to do with what he had done with his life, and everything to do with the life of the man who hung on the cross beside him. No, not Gestas, or whatever that other guyís name was - you know, the one who echoed the jeers of the crowd in his own final words of despair. Iím talking about the man in the middle, hanging between these two. Jesus.

"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

            What can we learn from Dismas who, by the way, was later canonized as a saint of the church. In fact, for those who follow this sort of thing, his feast day is coming up this Friday. Thatís right, the feast of St. Dismas is March 25th, which this year just happens to be "Good Friday." How he was made a saint, the process, I have no idea. It certainly wasnít due to what he had done with his life, the things he had accomplished, thatís for sure. None of this is remembered, after all. By his own admission, on the cross he received the punishment he deserved. His crime, well, that is not remembered. Not in the gospel as weíve received it. All that is recalled is his request.

"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

            This sort of puts our own achievements, or lack thereof - however we evaluate them, into perspective. The older we get, the more the question of what we have done with our life plagues us, as it should. It is good to examine ourselves, especially in light of our faith. By the way, thatís something we encourage each other to do in preparation for Love Feast, for coming to the Lordís table, and sharing the bread and cup of remembrance. Examining ourselves is likewise part of the process of healing. Our public act of anointing during worship this morning purposely did not include the more private act of confession, which took place yesterday.

            Confession is an examining of your life, noting where you have fallen short, and releasing the "stuff" that may get in the way of healing, of receiving from God what we need. In some cases, the "sin" thus released is something that has also hampered other parts of our lives. Unresolved anger, for instance, can poison relationships even as it can damage our physical body. Fear, though not really a sin, can prevent us from approaching what lies ahead with faith, aware that all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above... Ah, there - we mentioned it.

"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

            What prodded this criminal, regardless of whether he was a political prisoner or a petty thief, to say this? Above Jesusí head hung a sign which, with an air of contempt, read, "This is the King of the Jews." It was a joke, really, gallows humor, meant to humiliate both this seemingly helpless soul, as well as his fellow countrymen. Certainly Dismas could see this. Jesus was hardly a king, hanging there just like him. If this Jesus was a king, where was his kingdom? Was it the garbage dump that surrounded them? Thatís what calvary was, you know - the town dump. In that place Dismas and Gestas, more than anyone else, knew exactly what Jesus was going through. It was happening to them, also.

            Why would a dying man make a request like this of another dying man. It wasnít a sarcastic remark. Just a simple request. He wasnít asking much. Ambrose - a church leader and theologian in the fourth century - once wrote, "More abundant is the favor shown than the request made." Simply, "remember me." Thatís all. Maybe the ending of oneís life puts things into perspective. It all boils down to this. My worth depends most upon the one who remembers me, and that One is Jesus.

            Would that my perspective was that simple. When I get down on myself for what I havenít done in life, for all the ways I have fallen short of my potential, for the influence I have not had - you know the drill, itís built into the process of being human. When I stand in judgement of my life and find it lacking, as it will when judged by what these eyes can see, what matters most is the One who - I pray - simply remembers me.

"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

            The rest of the story is the glory. You heard the Word. To Dismas, or whatever his name was, Jesus replied. "I speak the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." A strange thing to say, looking out at this refuse heap and the small crowd who had gathered to jeer or fear. Paradise? Hardly. This was more a vision of that other place. And yet, even here, Jesus spoke of paradise. What he said is hope for every dark moment, to be remembered by all who face such times.

            Close your eyes for a moment, though donít fall asleep on me. If you can, come up with a picture in your mind of paradise. When that word is spoken, what first comes to your mind? Paradise. What for you would such a place look like? I have a feeling what you envision might have a lot to do with what you are going through in the moment you try to picture paradise. If you are highly stressed, paradise is rest and renewal. If you are bored, it is the most exciting place possible. If you are awaiting surgery, it is a place where no one pokes and prods with needles and scalpels, where pain is a forgotten memory. If you are poor, the very streets here are paved with gold. If you are lost and lonely, loved ones and friends line your path, and you are at home.

            If you are nailed to a cross, looking out at the garbage dump that your life has become, what is paradise to you? Try for a moment to imagine what Dismas saw as he heard those words. On his way to this moment, Jesus had been painting word pictures of paradise for his disciples, parables of possibility, kingdom snapshots of wedding banquets, good Samaritans, mustard seeds, sowers tossing seed, treasure hidden in a field, lost sheep found, prodigal children returning home. "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" (Luke 15:7). Jesus had sung this song to his followers before he arrived at this moment. But Dismas had not been there to hear any of these stories or songs. So what did he see? ... (you can open your eyes now)

            I donít know this thief saw. All I know is that, with this little piece of gospel on the cross (which is all the good news Dismas ever heard), Jesus pulls me away from the question, what have I done with my life thatís worth remembering? The truth is, when it comes down to it - thatís not what is most important. Itís not the defining question of our lives. What really matters is the One I am next to in this moment. Yes, picture paradise - but if the One who once said, "whenever you eat this bread or drink from this cup, remember me," is not in the picture, it is not paradise.

"I speak the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

[Reprise of "Jesus, remember me", #247]

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Luke.


©2005 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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