39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Over the past six weeks during the midweek series, we’ve heard a lot about the high priests of the Old Testament. And the book of Hebrews does such a great job of connecting the dots of how Jesus is the Great High Priest, not just for Jews, not just for good people, but for all people of all time.
And that is exactly how we arrive here, at Good Friday. Good Friday is all about Jesus serving as our Great High Priest. A sacrifice was necessary, but it could never be made by sinners. Instead, it had to be made for sinners.
And make no mistake, that is what we are. As I got ready for church today, that is what I saw in the mirror. As I look around at all of you, that is what I see. No, maybe I don’t know exactly what you said. No, I don’t know what you thought. No, I don’t know what you did this past Monday and Tuesday or 8 years ago. But I do know who was speaking, thinking, and doing. It was you, a person tainted like me, tainted from being born of two sinful parents, tainted from the sinful nature that is selfish and conceited, tainted from thoughts, words, and actions that are not always in line with God’s holy law. We are, in fact, tainted so thoroughly that only a perfect sacrifice from God himself would offer us what is necessary for heaven.
That had to be running through the mind of the criminal hanging on one of those crosses next to Jesus. “How can I get in to heaven?” He knows his sin. As his life flashes before his eyes this Friday afternoon, he’s not proud of what he sees. He knows the nails through his hands were pounded with a hammer of justice. He knows the burn in his collapsing lungs was ignited by the fairness of the law. “We are getting what we deserve,” he chided the other criminal. But that doesn’t help him at all with getting into heaven. Nothing he could have, would have, should have done could help him now. This criminal is all out of options.
“How do I get into heaven?” is a question we contemplate, too. And there are so many answers that people have come up with. But if those answers aren’t looking at the man hanging on the center cross, like the one criminal, then there is no heaven. With that kind of child-like faith the criminal pleads, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
We don’t know how much time elapsed between the desperate request and the divine response. As this was apparently only the second word Jesus spoke from the cross, perhaps his breaths weren’t so shallow yet. But no matter whether it was minutes or seconds, God’s Great High Priest was making this sacrifice on the cross for him. So, imagine the relief when he heard these words, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Every piece of that sentence lifted the criminal’s soul from the pit of death and despair. The same is true for this criminal in front of you right now. “Today,” Jesus said. Today you will be with me. For someone who sat on death row for who knows how long, for someone who had just begun one of the slowest forms of execution—one that could extend three or four days—how comforting that must have been for this criminal. Before the sun would rise again, this man is assured his suffering would be done.
The promises you and I make to one another come with conditions. If this happens, then that will happen. Perhaps we’ll visit there. Someday I’m going to do that. Jesus’ promise of relief to this repentant sinner was not in the form of an if/then clause. Nor was it preceded by a “perhaps” or a “someday.” It wasn’t a next month, a next week, or even a tomorrow, but a today. Through faith, this criminal could be assured his suffering would be over today.
When we’re lying on our own deathbeds, our Great High Priest, who made the full sacrifice for our sins, says the same. For the one who looks to Calvary’s center cross in faith, death is not just the cessation of breath. It’s the cessation of all suffering. No more hunger. No more pain. No more tears. No more guilt. No more anger. No more envy. No more sin . . . today.
Jesus’ promise is not just a promise of time. “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Imagine what that meant for this criminal. More than likely, a life of crime did not land him in the nicest company of people. Now, in the waning hours of his life, he saw people at their worst. As the passersby spit on him and shook their heads in disgust, scorning him with their words and their glares, imagine how emotionally deserted this criminal must have felt. That was part of the punishment of crucifixion. Not only was it physically tormenting, it was embarrassing and shaming as you were hung naked just outside of a busy entrance to the city so that others could heap their insults on you.
But as much as this criminal wanted to escape the people around him, there was something that drew him to the man pinned on the middle cross. There was something different about this thorn-crowned criminal. Something that made him different than the soldiers and the scorners. There was something about him that made him different than the other criminals. Instead of cursing as the nails were driven through his hands, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” Instead of the charges that convicted him to death being hung over his head, a statement of conviction, power, and fulfillment hung over Jesus’ head: “jesus of nazareth, the king of the jews.” The differences between Jesus and everyone else on that hill were not comparable. It was the difference between sin and perfection. And the Holy Spirit used Jesus as the living Word of God to work on this criminal’s heart so that instead of wanting to run away from God in fear of punishment, he was drawn by God’s own grace.
And Jesus assures the criminal that the sin that separated him from a perfect God was not unbridgeable. Jesus promises, “You will be with me.” Not behind me. Not a stone’s throw away from me. But with me. Jesus’ forgiveness is so complete that it allows us to be in the very presence of perfection.
The high priests could only enter into the Most Holy Place of the Temple, the place of God’s presence among his people, once a year. And he had to follow the command of God and bring the blood of an animal sacrifice with him. Our Great High Priest offered his holy precious blood for us. We are cleansed by his sacrifice and are free to enter into God’s presence through Word and sacrament whenever we want. And at death, we will be with the Lord forever.
The promise Jesus makes to the criminal also gives a place where he will be with Jesus. “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Let’s not make this beautiful promise about the types of vistas and vegetation that heaven’s paradise will hold. It’s not about what you want heaven to look or feel like. But it’s about the One walking with you on the paths of paradise that makes this promise so beautiful.
Think about it this way: when you’re at the airport to greet your son or spouse as he returns home from a two-year tour in Afghanistan, does it matter if the airport walls are gray or blue as you throw your arms around him? Does it matter if the room temperature is 72 or 82 degrees? Does it matter what smells are coming from the food stands? No, what matters is that you’re with the one you love. In heaven—in paradise—you’re with the Son of God. You’ll be with Jesus who loved you enough to leave heaven and be with you on earth. You’ll be with Jesus who loved you enough to live under the law that he was above. You’ll be with Jesus, our Great High Priest, who loved you enough to make the sacrifice for you, even when it meant his death on the cross. If Jesus thought having you in heaven with him was worth all that, you can be guaranteed it’s a spectacular place.
But how do you know this is what’s in store for you? Don’t forget those first words: “I tell you the truth.” Those are the English words. Do you know what one Greek word that comes from? AMEN. Isn’t that awesome! Jesus’ promise leaves no room for doubt.
In its history, the word amen was used to express the basic concept of support. For example, architects would use it to describe a supporting pillar of a building. It was also used to describe a parent standing with strong arms, supporting a helpless infant. That picture of certainty or strength behind the word made it a favorite word of Jesus. Whenever he wanted to really drive home an important point, when he really wanted everyone’s attention and to say, “This is something you can lean on,” he would start out by saying, “Amen.”
If there’s any time we need something to lean on, it’s at the time of our death. Today, Jesus makes it clear that when that moment comes, it doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past, if we are criminals in the eyes of the world or in the sight of a holy God. We have a the one who sacrificed for all those sins. They are gone. He has given us something to lean on. We have Jesus’ amen. The Great High Priest, Jesus, promises, “Amen. Today you will be with me in paradise.” There is only one thing to say to that, “Amen.”