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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Luke 23:32-43
“Which Side?”
November 24, 2013 - Christ the King

         The big steel door slammed behind me and I got nervous. It was my first time inside a state penitentiary. Like the Monopoly board says, I was “just visit­ing,” there with a Prison Fellowship ministry team. But at the entrance the guards made me empty my pockets. Everything went in a tiny locker.

         So as I entered the recreation area where the service was held, I felt naked. No ID. Other than my clothes, what did I have to prove I wasn’t an inmate? What if there was a horrible mistake, and the guards refused to let me out? I felt this unspoken urge to clarify, “I’m not one of them. I just came to pray for them. I don’t belong here!”

         Maybe you’ve volunteered for an Egan Warming night and felt like that. You make sure you’ve got your little masking tape nametag on, just to be sure, just to be absolutely clear, that you’re a volunteer, not one of the guests. You’re different. You’re going to go home in a bit to your own warm, comfortable bed.

         Our text this morning asks me to consider the Gospel truth that there really is no difference between me and those inmates from whom I wanted to distinguish myself. At the Cross of Jesus Christ, there is no distinction between you and the poor, between us and all the troubled, suffering, sinful people around us.

         There were two men nailed up flanking Jesus. We would like to think we are not like them. They were both criminals, “malefactors,” in the King James Version, literally “evil-doers.” And that term meant then exactly what it’s come to mean again, terrorists. Matthew and Mark call them by a word that usually means “robber,” so we talk about the “thief on the cross.” But they were violent criminals, enemies of the government.

         So Jesus was crucified between two insurrectionists, rebels against Rome, terrorists who had plotted and probably murdered. Jesus was hung in the middle of them because He was also accused of rebellion. He was supposed to be calling Himself a king, the leader of a government, a kingdom, violently opposed to civil authority.

         How we hear this story would change a bit if we substituted “evil-doer” for “criminal” in verses 32 and 39. How would it sound to talk about Jesus’ conversation with the “terrorist on the cross?” These were not just petty thieves, pickpockets or purse snatchers. These were brutal, vicious men, ready to use cruel means to achieve their goals. And as far as their guilt went, there was no difference between them.

         Verse 39 shows us the terrorist on one side keeping up his vicious brutality, even to another dying man. His words are filled with cynicism and sarcasm, “Are you not the Messiah?” “Weren’t you supposed to lead the rebellion?” he implies. “Save yourself and us!” he demanded, mistakenly believing that Jesus could not do it. This is a cruel man who intends to die being cruel, even if only with words.

         On the other side hangs the terrorist of verse 40, just as much a violent man, just as much a brutal killer as the man opposite. The only difference is that on this side of Jesus there is another perspective. The second man recognizes first that they are all in the same situation, they are all condemned men. And he has begun to think about God, at least to be sorry for his crimes, for the terror he has committed.

         So here on this side of the Cross of Jesus is a man who in verse 41 is ready to acknowledge, “And we indeed have been condemned justly.” He and the other terrorist have done all the things they were accused of: “we are getting what we deserve.” The crimes are real, the sentence is just. Those two are hanging there for the same good reasons we lock up people who plant bombs or fire weapons in a mall. In that regard they are just the same. There is cruel, ugly sin and guilt on both sides of Jesus.

         We hear the other, most significant difference between those two sides of the Cross in verse 42, when that troubled, regretful terrorist speaks directly to the Man in the center and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

         Jesus’ kingdom. That’s been the joke of the day. Mark tells us the soldiers put a royal purple robe on Jesus and a crown of thorns, laughing and spitting on Him, calling Him the “King of the Jews.” Luke tells us in verse 37 that they kept it up at the Cross, offering Him sour wine as if they were serving some noble lord, telling Him that if He were a King, then He ought to be able to save Himself. And of course, there is that little plaque nailed above His head in verse 38, which was supposed to display the crime for which He was condemned. All it said, in three languages, was “This is the King of the Jews.”

         Luke doesn’t tell us why the second man responded differently. He doesn’t explain what that one terrorist saw in Jesus, why he knew that the Man hung between them was more than He seemed. We’ve no idea really why that criminal decided to take the kingdom of Jesus seriously instead of cynically. All we know is that one out of the two men, equally guilty, equally vicious and sinful, chose to turn and ask to be remembered when Jesus arrived in that kingdom which seemed so impossible and far away right then.

         It takes a little leap, it takes knowing a bit of how God sees sin, it takes some honesty like that of the second terrorist on the cross, but you and I and everyone on earth is hanging there with them. They were no different in regard to their guilt, and neither are we. We were all like Jeremiah said, sheep who’ve wandered away. We were all like Zechariah sang to his infant son, walking in the dark, in the shadow of death. We were all like Paul pictured the Colossians, living under the power of darkness. That’s every human being, every one of us. The only difference is how we see that Man who came to hang in the middle and how we respond to Him.

         There were two hockey players in the first group for which I was a teaching assistant during graduate school. They were taking a required course, introduction to philosophy. I could see right away they weren’t going to do well. Their eyes glazed over as the other students entered into discussion about moral relativism and Kant’s categorical imperative. The first two quizzes they each wrote were about the same, equally bad, failing. These young men were athletes, not scholars. They knew how to swing a hockey stick and block a sweep up the side. They had no clue how to pick up a pencil and counter an argument. I figured I would have to fail them both.

         But early the third week of class I heard a knock at my cubicle door and I opened it to find one of those hockey players. He said, “Hey man, I just don’t get this stuff. What should I do?” I invited him in and we talked about the reading. I tried to show him what to look for as he read. He listened, he asked questions, and that Friday he wrote a barely passing quiz. He came back to talk again, he kept asking for help, and in the end he squeaked by with a C- and passed the class. The other hockey player failed.

         They were both the same, equally poor students, equally likely to fail on their own. But one of them asked for help. That was the difference. And that was the difference between the two sides of the Cross, between the two terrorists, the two sinners like you and I, who hung there. One of them asked for help, asked for Jesus to do whatever He could for him. And Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

         Which side will we be on? Let us choose the side where we acknowledge our failure, where we admit we deserve punishment. Let us choose the side where we turn to the Man who came to hang there in the middle with us, and ask for help, for forgiveness, for the grace to enter into His kingdom which we don’t deserve at all.

         We are going to give thanks in a few moments. We will praise God and thank Him for all sorts of things, from the food we’ll enjoy in a little while to warm homes, children, friends, jobs. At the heart of it all, let there be a sense, a deep understanding, that ultimately we deserve none of it. Yet as we find our Lord hanging out in the midst of all our sin and stupidity and the pain we both cause and suffer, we can ask for help and He gives it. He accepts and welcomes us into His blessings.

         A long time ago I heard Garrison Keillor tell a story about a prayer at Thanksgiving dinner. I can’t find the recording, I didn’t see this particular story on-line, so I’ll just tell it my way. It’s Thanksgiving and the family sits down. An elderly fellow, let’s say the grandfather, I don’t remember, is asked to say grace, to give thanks.

         So everyone folds hands, closes eyes and bows heads, and he begins. He thanks God for the food, and for the hands that have prepared it. He thanks Him for the loving family sitting around this feast. He says thank you for another year of life, for good health, for a decent crop, and for the Jorgensen’s new litter of kittens.

         There’s more. He goes on thanking and the kids get fidgety, they peak out above their folded hands at the little crystal dish full of ripe olives and smell the warm yeast of the rolls and their mouths water and they wonder when he will be done. But grandpa keeps at it, this catalogue of thanks, for clean water, for trees and sky, and for a free country in which to worship God and enjoy all these blessings.

         Just when it seems he will never end and the family will faint from starvation with all that food in front of them, he says, “And most of all, Lord, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ, who came to die on the Cross for our sins, for my sins…” With that, the frail old man begins to sob, to weep and he can’t go on. Then one of his sons reaches over, puts a gentle hand on his arm and says “Amen,” and they all dive in, with “Pass the gravy,” and “She took too many olives!” and all the rest of the usual hubbub of Thanksgiving.

         As you and I get ready to sit down around tables full of food, as we list off our own wonderful catalogues of blessings, may we remember that we are no different from the criminals who hung there with Jesus, no different from any sinner who has ever lived, no different from an old man who had to weep to think that Jesus died for him, to forgive his sins. Our only hope is to turn to Jesus, to ask for His help, for His hope, for His kingdom. And let us give thanks that He makes no difference between us, but welcomes anyone who turns toward Him into paradise forever.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated November 24, 2013