Good Friday Sermon| March 21, 2008| Rev. Rolf Preus
Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Jesus was an innocent man. He was hanging on a cross between two convicted criminals who were guilty of the crimes for which they were being put to death. Jesus had done nothing wrong. He was suffering as a guilty man, though he was an innocent man.
It is not a dignified posture to be hanging on a cross. The death was designed to bring shame. That’s what it did. Who would embrace such shame willingly? Certainly not the guilty men who were being crucified on either side of Jesus. Crucifixion was not only a shameful way to die; it was also very painful and slow. It was death by gradual asphyxiation. It becomes harder and harder to breath. Sometimes the executioners would show a little mercy by breaking the legs of the condemned men so that they could not push up with their feet in order to get badly needed air. Shortly after the legs were broken, the crucified man would die.
Jesus is being shamed. He is suffering. His face is covered with blood and his body is wracked with pain. Dying next to him are two men who are suffering the just penalty for their crimes. One mocks Jesus. “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” The other rebukes the mocker, saying to him, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.”
“This Man has done nothing wrong.” That is not a confession of faith. It’s an observation that even unbelievers concede is true. Did He not show mercy to those suffering from disease and demon possession? Did he not raise the dead and give them back to their loved ones? Did He not condescend to express fellowship with outcasts that nobody would stoop to help? Did He not respond to curses with blessing? Who can accuse this Man of any wrongdoing? No one can. Jesus is innocent. He is pure. He is holy. And He is being shamed as if He were a criminal. The assertion that Jesus has done nothing wrong is not yet a confession of faith. That comes next.
“Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’” He calls Jesus Lord. In His suffering and shame and torment, Jesus is Lord. It is as Jesus is suffering that the criminal sees Jesus as his Lord. While he is dying next to the dying Jesus, his heart is changed. Earlier he had joined the other criminal in mocking Jesus. Now he repents of his unbelief and embraces Jesus as his Savior.
“Remember me.” What a bold prayer! What does this man know about Jesus? How in the world can he think that a broken, humiliated, shamed, and dying man could give him anything at all? How could such an obviously pathetic failure bring another obviously pathetic failure into the joys of Paradise? The man saw Jesus through the eyes of faith and he saw his Redeemer. St. Paul tells us what that dying thief saw, in Galatians 3:13, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’).” The man saw Jesus cursed. In seeing Jesus cursed, he saw his own curse removed. In seeing the innocent Jesus suffer, he saw Jesus wrapping himself in the sins of the world and becoming the curse in the place of all sinners. Listen to how Martin Luther describes what that man witnessed:
Therefore Christ not only was crucified and died, but by divine love sin was laid upon Him. When sin was laid upon Him, the Law came and said: “Let every sinner die! And therefore, Christ, if You want to reply that You are guilty and that You bear the punishment, you must bear the sin and the curse as well.” Therefore Paul correctly applies to Christ this general Law from Moses: “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree.” Christ hung on a tree; therefore Christ is a curse of God.
And this is our highest comfort, to clothe and wrap Christ this way in my sins, your sins, and the sins of the entire world, and in this way to behold Him bearing all our sins. When He is beheld this way, He easily removes all the fanatical opinions of our opponents about justification by works. [They] dream about a kind of faith “formed by love.” Through this they want to remove sins and be justified. This is clearly to unwrap Christ and to unclothe Him from our sins, to make Him innocent, to burden and overwhelm ourselves with our own sins, and to behold them, not in Christ but in ourselves. This is to abolish Christ and make Him useless. For if it is true that we abolish sins by the works of the Law and by love, then Christ does not take them away, but we do. But if He is truly the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who became a curse for us, and who was wrapped in our sins, it necessarily follows that we cannot be justified and take away sins through love. For God has laid our sins, not upon us but upon Christ, His Son. If they are taken away by Him, then they cannot be taken away by us. All Scripture says this, and we confess and pray the same thing in the Creed when we say I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who suffered, was crucified, and died for us.
This is what that wretched criminal believed. This was why he dared ask Jesus to remember him. This is faith. Faith asks Jesus for His personal favor. “Remember me. I don’t need anything more than your promise that you won’t forget that you died for me. You are dying for everyone. If you are willing to forgive your tormenters and to pray for those who so horribly mistreat you, surely you are shedding your blood for me and will also be merciful to me, a poor, lost criminal who is suffering justly for his crimes.”
The man was right. He knew Jesus. Jesus responded by giving the man his solemn word: “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” There was no in between place between earth and heaven where the repentant criminal would have to go. Jesus said nothing of a place where he would need to be purged of any remaining sin. If anyone needed Purgatory, it was this man. He was guilty of a capital crime and had only a short while earlier been mocking Jesus along with the other criminal. He had not had the time to do anything worthy of note, to say nothing of reward. But Jesus promised him heaven immediately upon his death. The criminal’s body was tossed out into a common grave for criminals to be burned in a fire, but Jesus promised the man he would be in heaven that very day. When a Christian dies, his soul is in heaven with God immediately. The risen and glorified body is reunited with the soul on the last day. But we don’t have to wait until then to enjoy the joys of Paradise with God.
I have a question for you this evening. Can a deathbed repentance take away a whole life of sinning? Can a person spend his entire life away from God, living in sin, never repenting or even expressing regret for how he has hurt other people, and then, by repenting at the last minute, get rid of all his sins? The answer is simple: No, he cannot. A deathbed repentance does not undo a whole life of sinning. In fact, it does not take away a single sin
But Christ’s death does. The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son cleanses us from all sin. This is what that man saw and believed. He saw the anguish of the innocent Man and there he saw his God. It was in the suffering of the God-man that all sin was washed away. The repentance of sinners doesn’t take any sin away. Rather, it is in repentance that the forgiveness purchased by Christ’s blood is received.
This is what we do right here and now. This is how we prepare for the joys of Easter. We repent. We confess to God that we have sinned against Him by disobeying his holy commandments. We refused to love him with our whole heart and have loved ourselves instead. We have put our own wants above our neighbor’s needs. We have failed to do for our neighbor what we would want him to do for us. We have loved ourselves first and have defended our sins. We are guilty. We admit it. We confess it. We are helpless to do anything about it. We cast ourselves on the mercy of God. We plead nothing but the blood shed for us. We claim nothing that is any more meritorious than what that dying criminal claimed. We were joined to the death of our Lord Jesus in our baptism. We have received Him in His holy Supper. We have heard His words of pardon. We have seen Him bear the curse. So we bow before him this evening in grateful adoration, asking him to remember us sinners now, and in the hour of our death. Amen.