Weekly Meditation: 20th November 2016
I once saw a drama in church in which two angels were waiting in heaven for the first person to benefit from Christ’s sacrifice. The crucifixion was taking place, and the angels had a red carpet out to receive whoever arrived first to experience eternal life through the saving grace of Jesus. It would be someone important, the angels thought, a king perhaps, or a great leader. They were understandably aghast to see a bedraggled, not-very-well-spoken thief staggering in. It was, of course, the robber to whom Jesus had said the words, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:43).
Grace is always shocking; it should be; it is an almost complete reversal of what we think is right and proper. A Seventeenth Century poem attempts to grasp the paradox of a thief admitted to heaven:
Say, bold but blessed thief,
That in a trice
Slipped into paradise
And in plain day
Stol’st heaven away.
How couldst thou read
A crown upon that head?
What text, what gloss?
A kingdom on a cross?
The Bible does not tell us what the thief saw in Jesus, but something prompted him to make a simple statement of faith, ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom’ (23:42). In some way he recognised true kingship in the man on the cross beside him, even though this king wore only a crown of thorns. Recognition brought the thief to repentance and faith, and through this he received grace. In a last act of thievery, he grasped at something to which he had no right, and received it for his own.
Paul grapples with the same amazing doctrine in his letter to the Colossians. He writes of believers whom God has ‘qualified’ to share in eternal life, being rescued from ‘the dominion of darkness’ and brought into Christ’s kingdom (Colossians 1:12-13). They are not qualified by their own works; it is God who qualifies them. Like the thief before him, Paul recognised Christ’s kingship, the truth that he has ‘the supremacy in everything’ (1:18). The kingship of Christ was not merely for his glorification; it was specifically so that through him God could ‘reconcile all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven’. It made it possible for a thief who had no good works to his name, and who had lived a worthless life, to be received into the presence of Almighty God.
Before Jesus was born on earth, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was inspired to speak of God’s purposes in sending Jesus. John would prepare the way, giving people ‘the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins’ (Luke 1:76-77). Because of God’s mercy, Jesus would come as a ‘rising sun from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death’ (1:78-79).
This has always been God’s purpose. Through Jeremiah he promised to raise up ‘a King who will reign wisely and do what is right and just in the land’ (1:5). This King would be in marked contrast to the false ‘shepherds’ of Israel who were ‘destroying and scattering’ God’s flock (1:1-2).
All these Bible passages are filled with God’s love, reaching out even to the most desperate people in the most hopeless situations. In offering grace to a common criminal, in himself submitting to crucifixion, in wearing a crown of thorns, Jesus turned kingship on its head, abandoning any trappings of earthly power, and demonstrated the overwhelming power of sacrificial love.