The cross is where the sins of mankind confront the grace of God,
and our choices determine which one dominates the other.


Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Jesus,
saying, "If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us." But the
other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not even fear God, seeing
you are under the same condemnation? We indeed justly, for
we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has
done nothing wrong."

Then he said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come
Your kingdom." And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say
to you,
today you will be with Me in Paradise.

                                                           Luke 23:39-43 NKJV, condensed

                                   Paradise, Undeserved 

Get this! A thief was the first person in the passion story who
spoke up boldly on behalf of Jesus! Just another one of the many
ironies surrounding the Good Friday events. There were two
criminals crucified with Jesus. Both of them were subject to
the same punishment, the same cruelty, pain and humiliation.
One behaved the way we might expect him to. The other one
surprises us.

Thief A followed the crowd of noisy rabble rousers. He echoed
their mockery of Jesus. Save yourself and while you're at it, save us
too. Show us your stuff. Come down off that cross. And don't forget us!

It would take him awhile to say that. We are told that victims of
crucifixion usually die from asphyxiation. That's because the way
the body hung on the cross made their lungs fill with fluids. As a
result the person could not breathe unless they pulled their chest
up in an effort to gasp for air. Soldiers could speed the process of
dying if they broke the victim's legs, thereby making it more
difficult to heave upward. If we were listening to this scene live
from Skull Hill, it would be very difficult, even painful, to endure.

Thief B had even more to say than thief A. After some thoughtful
observation, he realized the man dying in the middle was not like
any man he had ever known. So he strongly disagreed with the
words and attitude of thief A. Something about the agony of the
cross reminded him to be in awe of the Almighty. In an open and
honest confession, thief B defended Jesus as innocent and
identified himself and his partner on the other side of Jesus, as
guilty. Finally he was beginning to see the difference between
justice and injustice, between good and evil. The evidence was
so close, he could not miss it.

Then thief B made the most amazing statement of faith. On the
surface, there was nothing regal about Jesus. All three of them
were stripped, cursed, and hanging on Roman crosses to die. But
for some reason, this thief asked Jesus to remember him when
he came into his kingdom. Even though Jesus was slowly dying,
this thief could envision a future to which Jesus was headed and
he wanted to go there too. Take me with you, Jesus, wherever your
kingdom is.
Graciously Jesus replied, "Today you will be with me
in Paradise."

Paradise is a new word, not found in the Old Testament books.
Nor used up to this point in the Gospels. Having no precedence,
there is a bit of mystery about its usage. But Jesus indicated he
was going to this blessed place, and to the horror of those
religious authorities milling around until the end to make sure
he died, Jesus was going to take this unworthy criminal with him!

"You will be with me" is such a beautiful phrase. I suspect this
man throughout his lifetime knew much more rejection than
acceptance. He probably couldn't believe his ears as the words
of Jesus took him by the hand and walked him into Paradise.
Undeserving as he was!

Consider this! Thief B personified several distinguishing
characteristics of God's kingdom. He proved that the kingdom
is always at hand. He was contrite and humble, and left all those
years of excess baggage outside the door. He exemplified the
sinner entering the kingdom before the self-righteous. He
obtained the same promise of eternal life as those who followed
Jesus all their lives, even though he just squeezed in as the
hourglass emptied. Without doing anything to deserve it, he had
stumbled upon the treasure of meeting and really seeing Jesus.
Like fertile ground he opened himself up to the good seeds of
repentance, forgiveness and joy, and allowed them to germinate
and grow into a huge tree. And as we read his story, we stop in
its shade and eat from its fruit.

Paradise is a middle eastern word signifying an enclosed garden.
Like the garden of Eden at the dawn of creation where Adam and
Eve walked and talked with God before they succumbed to
temptation. After they sinned, they hid and were afraid. The
walking and talking ended. But whenever we are willing, God is
a God of new beginnings. In that sense, the message of Paradise
is one of restoration and reconciliation. It holds the promise
and the possibility--for all those who put their faith in king Jesus,
you will be with Me today and forever, walking and talking as God
intended from the beginning.


Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further
study or reflection.


Icebreaker:  If you could talk to Jesus about the conversation
                       from the cross in this text, what questions would you
                       like to ask Jesus?


Make a list of all the key words in this sentence, "Assuredly, I say
to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise."
            Elaborate on the meaning of each word on the list.


React to the exchange between Jesus and the two others crucified
with him.
            Do you like this story?   Why or why not?
            Did you want to clap your hands with joy for the second thief?
            Does the fact that he received full forgiveness offend or
                    upset you in any way?   Explain.


We want Jesus to forgive our sins. Those words are part of the
Lord's Prayer.
            But do you also want Jesus to forgive the sins of criminals?
            Are some people more deserving of a place in heaven than others?
            If so, what makes one person more worthy of heavenly reward
                    than another?


Is there anybody you do not want to see in heaven?
            Whatever your answer to this question, how would Jesus respond to--
                        your answer,
                        your attitude toward that person,
                        and the motivation behind your answer?


The thief went with Jesus to Paradise without ever having received the
sacraments of the Christian church or volunteering for any good works.
            What problems does this pose for Christian theology?
            Does this story threaten or strengthen basic Christian teaching?
            At a minimum, what is necessary for salvation?
            If you could put this passage into one word, what would it be?


In a world full of lies and uncertainties, Jesus told the criminal,
"You can be sure of this! . . ." 
            What does your faith in Jesus make you sure of?


Picture this!  Entering Paradise with Jesus by your side.
            Store this thought in your mind; take it into your heart.
            May it give you strength for daily living and comfort you in death.

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