In his ministry, Jesus once declared, “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners”. Now, we Episcopalians sometimes get a little jittery around the word “sin.” And I believe we are justified in feeling that way. The word sin has been co-opted over the centuries and used to denote an act that is some ethical, moral, or legally religious transgression against God. And with that definition, sin has been used to make many people feel or believe that they are inherently bad. But in its original context, the use of the word sin is less about the inner core of a person being “bad” as it is about when, even after our best efforts, we “miss the mark” of the goal that God has set for us. In other words, “sin” is not really about our nature. Sin is more about our efforts to live up to God’s expectations and about when we fall short of those expectations.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus was spending the last hours of his life between lost thieves. One of the thieves on the cross nearest him began to speak. Tradition holds that his name was either Gestas or Gesmas. Gestas (or Gesmas) hatefully picked up the sarcastic chant of the religious leaders and asked Jesus, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”. He was asking Jesus for salvation, but it was not the salvation of his soul that he sought. Rather, he sought salvation from his own punishment. Gestas wanted Jesus to prove he was the Messiah so that he, Gestas, could be saved from his punishment.
Suddenly, the other thief broke into the conversation. Tradition says that his name was Dismas. Speaking to Gestas, Dismas said, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong”.
I can’t help but wonder, what could have caused Dismas to respond in this way? What was it that reached through the pain of his circumstances and touched him?
Well, we actually know nearly nothing about Dismas. We know nothing about his family, his career, the demons that ate at him, or the ideals that may have once inspired him. All we know is that he was a convicted thief, and, after rebuking Gestas for his words to Jesus, he made a simple request, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
As far as we know, Dismas had only known Jesus for a few hours. And there’s nothing in the gospels to suggest that prior to this Jesus had said anything to either of the two criminals. The only thing we do know is that earlier, Dismas had heard Jesus speak about forgiveness. And I can’t help but wonder if perhaps that was the key that opened the door of Dismas’ heart. Because while the effect that sin can have on us is great, it cannot compare with the power of forgiveness.
However we define sin, most basically sin has to do with our relationship with God and with the world and other human beings. Sin comes into our lives when we forget who and what we are. We are part of God’s wondrous creation, and yet we have long wished to be equal with our Creator.
The psalmist, speaking of the nature of human beings, wrote, “Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor”. We sin because we have been given such a high place in creation and that fact tempts us to want to be equal with God.
So, instead of allowing God to be the center of our life, we try to put ourselves at the center of creation. And so, we “miss the mark”. Because when we are the center of creation, we’re no longer able to love our neighbor as God would have us do. We stray from God’s plan for us and ultimately become separated from God. We say and do things against our fellow human beings, all because our only focus is on ourselves. We become anxious about life. We sense that, somehow, we are alone and lost. When we forget that we are part of something greater than ourselves, we become fearful because we encounter so much that we cannot control.
The Garden of Eden story is actually a parable about this great truth. We were created to be God’s “image,” God’s representative, in creation. But, rather than be part of God’s creation, we chose to try to be the masters of God’s creation. God gave us paradise, and we rejected it in search of a greater sense of self which, ironically, was there for us all along.
And as we have all learned throughout our lives, there are consequences for the choices we make and for the actions we take based on what we choose to believe. Choosing to put ourselves first rather than putting God and God’s creation first means that when we are in trouble, when we are in need, we end up feeling alone because we have not learned what it really means to be directed toward, to lean on, to be focused on someone or something else as the center of our life.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that rather hoaky bumper sticker — “Jesus Is The Answer!” My reaction, whenever I see it is, well what’s the question? Well, I think for many of us the deep-down question we are always wondering about and to which many of us wind up turning toward the end of our lives is, “Can I be forgiven?” Can I be forgiven for the things I have said and done that have harmed or brought hurt to other people or to God’s creation? Can I be forgiven and be released from the burden of carrying the guilt I feel for the wrongs I have done or that have been done on my behalf or in my name? Well, that, I think, is the question to which “Jesus” is the answer.
When we hurt someone and we want to make amends, we can say we’re sorry and we can offer gifts that express our repentance. But we know, in our heart, that the only way for the relationship to be restored is for the one who has been wronged to offer us their forgiveness. It is through that power of forgiveness and reconciliation that new life is born. And that is what we celebrate on the Sunday of Christ the King, when we celebrate Jesus Christ as the center of our lives.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation is the message of the cross. In Jesus’ words, “forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” we are given an opportunity to have a new relationship with God. As strange as it may seem, it was only Dismas, the dying thief, who shows any signs that he caught a glimpse of that reality that day of Jesus’ crucifixion.
There is a story about the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Paris, who, on one occasion stood in the pulpit of Notre Dame Cathedral and preached a sermon built entirely around one story. The story told by the Archbishop had taken place 30 years earlier.
There were, he said, 3 young tourists who had come into that very cathedral. All of the young men were rough, rude, and cynical persons, who thought that all religion was a racket. Two of the men dared the third to go into the confessional box and make a made-up confession to the priest. The two bet that the third young man didn’t have the nerve to do as they dared. The third young man took up the dare, went into the confessional box and tried to fool the priest. But the priest knew that what the young man was saying was a lie. There was a tone of arrogance in the young man’s voice. After hearing the confession, the priest told the young man his penance. The priest said, “Very well, my son. Every confession requires a penance, and this is yours. I ask you to go into the chapel, stand before the crucifix, look into the face of the crucified Christ and say, ‘All this you did for me, and I don’t give a damn!’ “
The young man exited the confessional and went over to his friends, bragging that he had done as they dared. The other two young men insisted that he finish the performance by doing the penance. The young man made his way into the chapel, stood before the crucifix, looked up into the face of Christ and began, “All this you did for me and I … I don’t … I don’t give a ….”
At this point in the story, the archbishop leaned over the pulpit and said to the congregation, “That young man could not complete his penance. And that young man was this man who stands before you now to preach.”
That’s the miracle of the cross. That is what we celebrate on Christ the King Sunday. When we begin to understand the love of the cross, we want to change our relationship with God. We simply cannot remain the same. We want God at the center of our lives, and we want to be forgiven for not doing that sooner.
When Dismas was touched by Jesus’ love, he did not ask to escape the cross. He did not even ask that the consequences of his actions be taken away. Rather, Dismas cried out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!” He simply wanted to be with Jesus. Literally, his words say, “Let me not be lost from you. Remember me when you come into your kingdom!” Because in Jesus, Dismas saw the possibility of a new fellowship with God.
Forgiveness ushers in reconciliation, and reconciliation changes how we understand who and what we are. When we are brought into fellowship with God through Jesus, our old ways become new ways in relationship with God. And once again, God is the center of our life.
“Today you will be with me in Paradise,” says Jesus. Not tomorrow or a thousand years from now, but today – this very moment! “When the pain is over,” says Jesus, “you will not be alone. I will be with you. And you will be with me forever.”