This is a homily I’m preaching at Trinity Congregational at a worship service at Trinity Church Congregational in Bolton, MA, on Good Friday at noon.
The Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ, according to St. Luke, from chapter 23…
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” – (Luke 23:39-43)
As my wife has heard me say a number of times lately, I’ve been really excited about Good Friday. It’s one of the few days in the Christian calendar when it is perfectly legitimate to send the congregation home utterly depressed. Today is the one day out of the year that we focus this intently, together as the Church, on the crucifixion and death of our Lord. It is a day to watch and pray, to weep and mourn.
But even in the midst of this dark day, as we remember the seven last sayings of Christ, we now come to this moment reported by St. Luke. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” What we have here is a moment of light in the midst of great darkness. Where, on the surface, everything looks ruined and over, Jesus still has some words of hope.
What exactly does he mean by paradise? A popular thought is to assume that the thief on the cross would be going to heaven with Jesus. But that’s not quite the full picture of what’s going on here. To understand this better, we must first remember that the New Covenant is still being inaugurated, so we must look at the Old Covenant to set the stage for what’s going on. In the Old Testament, death was a big scary unknown. Psalm 30 expresses this concern:
To you, O Lord, I cry, / and to the Lord I plead for mercy:
“What profit is there in my death, / if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you? / Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me! / O Lord, be my helper!”
It wasn’t all negative; there was hope in death even then. Among his disputes, Job proclaimed:
I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
There was a hope in death: a Messiah would come and make God visible to everyone, including those who are dead! That is what we see Jesus promising to the thief hanging on the cross beside him.
Wait a minute, we ask, what’s all this about Paradise? Here’s the thing. In the Old Testament, the souls of the dead went to a place we know little about other than its various names: Sheol in Hebrew, Hades in Greek, the Pit, the Grave, the Lower Parts of the Earth, or (in Luke 16) Abraham’s bosom. In short, the dead go to “the place of the dead.” It was a mystery, and not a very exciting one, at that. But Jesus changed that when he died and, as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, “descended into hell” or “to the dead.” That murky unknowable place received three more souls from the hill of Golgotha, and one of them was God. For the first time ever, God showed up in the place of the dead! Wait, God can’t die, what’s going on here? The key here is remembering who Jesus is: the God-Man. Fully God and fully man, Jesus Christ died on the cross, and the Lord of life entered into the place of the dead. As that great hymn by Charles Wesley puts it:
Amazing love! How can it be, / That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies: / Who can explore His strange design?
Imagine the souls of Noah, Job, Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob, King David, Isaiah & Jeremiah & the other prophets, and all the others who trusted in God and awaited the Messiah, when Jesus shows up in their midst. What a joy finally to behold him! What a party that must have been for God’s faithful departed. What a paradise death must have become!
So Jesus wasn’t just assuring the thief on the cross that he was getting a special go-to-heaven-free deal; Jesus was telling the world that death was about to become a paradise. And the only reason that could be, is because Jesus, God himself, was about to arrive there! To this day, we need not fear death. It’s still a dark and scary place in terms of not knowing exactly what lies between death in this world and the final resurrection in which we put our hope, but now we know that God himself has been there and transformed it forever.