The Church: A community of re-membered criminals…a reflection on Luke for Lent

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‘Baghdad Christ’ by Wes Campbell was painted at the time of the attack on that city with ‘shock and awe’. Millions of people walked in the streets, petitioned governments, held prayer vigils, resisted the lie about weapons of mass destruction, attempting to stop the bombing and invasion of Iraq. The cry of anguish at such destruction and human death and suffering is uttered by Jesus on his cross, for every person abused , tortured, and murdered. Here God suffers with those who suffer. That cry of anguish also refuses to believe that this death is the only power at work here. God is present, and by taking on the suffering opens up the way into a different future, free for life.

‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom’ are the words of a Taize chant, familiar to the church in many parts of the world. What may not be so well known is the context from which the words come and the remarkable gospel word which arises from that context.

They are words which are unique to the gospel of Luke and form part of the conversation between Jesus and the two criminals in those final fraught hours of Jesus on the cross (Lk 23:32-43).

This ‘death-bed’ conversation has a special place in this gospel; it brings to a climax the unfolding of the good news which begins with the genealogy of Jesus and ends with the Easter event of death and resurrection, threading its way through the much loved and much better known stories like ‘the Good Samaritan’ and ‘the Prodigal Son’.

First of all, it is helpful to understand that, at the heart of the good news for Luke is his claim that, in Jesus of Nazareth, God has intervened decisively in the history of the human story with the lavish gift of a new humanity. A way of life where burdens are lifted, failures are wiped out, wounds are healed, that which plagues our humanity is disarmed, and condemnation is replaced by invitation.

That is the force of Luke’s genealogy of Jesus which he traces back to Adam, the archetype of human life and the failed story of humanity’s disobedience with all its consequences.

What Luke wants to make clear is that the birth of Jesus constitutes the beginning of a new archetypal humanity which is represented in, and gifted through, this Jesus. Far from being a biography of Jesus’ progress through life, Luke writes a ‘gospel’, a confessional declaration about what he has seen and wants others to see about the transformational significance of the man Jesus.

The many and varied stories which are then reported by Luke are stories which, in one way or another, are about the unexpected invitation and the promise of new life.

Because this new life comes as pure gift and can only be received as such, it is most strikingly expressed in the lives of those who are broken, beaten and defeated, and who have no ground upon which to stand in the presence of God or society.

Equally, it is rejected by those who cannot face the fact of their own need for life or who are offended by the graciousness of God in giving life to such undeserving and disreputable human specimens.

The story of the criminal’s conversation with Jesus just before Jesus’ own crucifixion is perhaps the most striking of all illustrations of the gospel-writer’s declaration of the seemingly impossible gift of a new humanity in Jesus Christ.

There are two criminals who are crucified with Jesus, one on either side. As the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing, and the people mock and deride Jesus, calling on him to show his messianic power by saving himself from crucifixion, one of the criminals lends his own voice to the scoffers, saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’(v39). This prompts the second criminal to enter the conversation.

Chastising his compatriot, he declares that their own sentence of crucifixion is perfectly justifiable, ‘for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds’(v41). In other words, in the estimation of this criminal, and in the estimation of the society, the right and proper destiny, both for him and for the other criminal, is death on a cross. In comparison he sees Jesus as an innocent victim who has done nothing wrong.

He then turns to Jesus and utters those familiar and chanted words: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’. Jesus replies: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’(42-43). With these words, Jesus dramatically redefines the ultimate destiny of the criminal.

The one who, according to his own estimate and according to the estimate of the society in which he has lived, rightly deserves death, Jesus has determined that he will receive the abundance of life represented by the word ‘paradise’.

Rather than this encounter with the two criminals being an incidental historical event just preceding Jesus’ own death, it is a conversation which embodies, in a striking way, the very heart of the gospel which Luke wants to declare.

In Jesus Christ, God has intervened into condemned human life and radically redefines it as an act of pure and undeserved grace.

The criminal discovers about himself what can only come as gift. Standing against every judgement which he or the world might reasonably and rightly make, and coming at a point which marks the end of all human possibility for the criminal, a dramatically new word is declared.

This same criminal is judged to be worthy of abundant life and not eternal death.  It constitutes the utter re-membering of an utterly dis-membered life.

For Luke, this brief and intimate conversation between two convicted men marks the end of Jesus’ public ministry. It also signals the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Namely, that henceforth all human destiny is transformed from death to life, erasing and reversing every dehumanising judgement which we might make of ourselves, or which the world might make of us. All dis-membered human life is re-membered into abundant life.

In a sermon preached on this passage from Luke’s gospel, Swiss reformed theologian, Karl Barth, makes the claim that as a consequence of the conversation between Jesus and the condemned criminal, anyone who would see themselves as part of the church community must ‘get in line behind the two criminals’. (Barth K, Deliverance to the captives London: SCM 1961 77-78).

The church is the community of people who, standing in the shoes of this criminal, are invited to live by the unexpected gift and promise of life, standing as contradiction to how they and their society might rightly and reasonably condemn them.
The implications are literally world-shattering.

Randall Prior
Principal of the Uniting Church Theological College.

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