One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, "Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!" But the other answered, and rebuking him said, "Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? "And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he was saying, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!" And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." Luke 23:39-43
I was really moved a few weeks ago when Sharon Howes shared with us the letter she received back from a young man named Johnny, who many years ago was a regular attender our Wednesday youth group. Like many of the young people we’ve served over the years, Johnny was mostly attentive and respectful of the message being taught, but the Gospel never really took root in his heart. The combination of a negative home environment and the accessible temptations of adolescence proved too great of a pull, and as Jesus teaches us, faith cannot grow in soil that is hardened and filled with thorny weeds.
But in Johnny’s case, those temptations not only drew him away from Christ, but pulled him down a dark path of criminal behavior. Now as a young adult he is facing a long prison sentence for a despicable act: selling fentanyl-laced heroine to a seventeen year old girl, who immediately suffered an overdose. Thankfully the girl pulled through this life-threatening ordeal and is now getting intensive help. But Johnny now has the confines of a small jail cell and nothing but time to consider the ramifications of his choices.
The letter got me thinking about the cross and those criminals on either side of our Savior. One mocked Jesus, not taking responsibility for his actions and thinking only of himself. But the other seems to understand the gravity of his situation, fearing God and recognizing he deserves a ‘sentence of condemnation.’ He also realizes that as he is staring at death, the God of life is right next to him! He doesn’t take time to try and rationalize his actions or make some case as to why he should be spared. Yet he does have the perfect combination of humility and faith, asking Jesus to remember him as He comes into His kingdom.
In that dying moment we see the fullness of Jesus’ mission, “to proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18b). Indeed both of these criminal would pay the price for their crimes, but the one who was poor in spirit found himself in paradise with our Lord. I do not know which of these paths Johnny will follow, further hardening himself in darkness or seeking the Lord in repentance. But what I do know is that we serve a God of redemption that saves in the lowest of the low. I know because He has saved a wretch like me.
I hope we all remember that our salvation is by grace, and that we spread that grace through our witness. I imagine that criminal on the cross had likely encountered some of Jesus’ disciples, everyday folks that were irrevocably changed by grace in such a way that it could not be contained. As his life breath was expiring and humility fell over his spirit, that grace finally penetrated his heart. I also know that Johnny was exposed to that same light and grace as a teenager. My hope is that he will be exposed to it once again. Not because his actions deserve our love and encouragement, but because the same healer that refused to give up on us, giving us life, can work the same miracle in him. May the church be the church.
-- Pastor Justin
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!