Sunday, April 16, 2017

the good thief and the birth of hope at Easter

May my words be in the name of the Holy and undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we have come to the end of our journey through the desert; our 40 days in the Wilderness has come to an end and we have emerged from the desolate places into a wonderful oasis, the joyful Paradise that is Easter Day. And why is it that we rejoice – because the Lenten Fast is over? No; for it would make no sense to fast for the sole purpose of rejoicing when we cease to fast. We rejoice because Christ is risen – and what it is that his Resurrection means for us.

And what does that Resurrection mean for us? Well, consider a man, justly condemned to death. The morning for his execution comes and he is taken from his cell. And then as he stands at the foot of the steps of the Gallows, instead of being forced to ascend, he is instead set free. Would not such a man rejoice? Of course he would – and yet what Christ has given to us through our Baptism into his Church is even greater than that. For that condemned man must one day face death again in some other form. But we, through our Baptism have gone beyond that; for by his Resurrection Christ has destroyed the power of death; and what was once the end of Life has now become the Gateway to Eternal Life.

And this Eternal Life is something that he offers to all, no matter how terrible as sinner they may have been, what crimes they may have committed, provided they Repent and through themselves upon Christ's mercy. To know this, we have only to think about the life of one person who was also at Calvary with Jesus, a person whom we may forget about as the pain and sorrow of Good Friday are left behind in the joys of Easter Day.

That person is the man who also hung on a cross on Golgotha with Christ. We often refer to him as the 'Good Thief' – but his crimes were surely greater than mere theft, for we have his own words recorded for us in St Luke's Gospel telling us that he was justly condemned. Tradition has given him the name Dismas, and St John Chrysostom tells us that he was both a murderer and a bandit, a man who preyed upon anyone unlucky enough to cross his path, robbing them not only of their goods but their very lives.

A terrible man, then, who has earned his terrible fate – death on a cross. And yet this is the one who rebukes the other criminal who hung on our Saviour's left, asking him does he not fear God, admitting that his crimes are deserving of death, and then turning to Christ, asking him that he remember him when he comes into his Kingdom. Why should such a wretched man do such a thing? Well, St Augustine put forward an interesting idea concerning this matter. He wondered if perhaps this was a man who had been previously baptised. It is of course only a speculation – yet it is a compelling thought. Perhaps this man had once followed Christ – and then turned away from him to go back to his life of Evil. And then after many terrible crimes, after much shedding of innocent blood, he is caught, condemned, and his sentence of death is carried out. And then as he hangs on his cross, his life beginning to ebb away, he recognises his former master. Perhaps the nearness of his own death causes this man who was once a follower of Christ to understand something that all the other disciples, even the Apostles themselves, failed to understand …he alone sees through the Cross to the Resurrection and the Empty Tomb … he alone sees that the suffering of the man beside him does not indicate failure but a triumph.

It does not really matter whether it was because he was former disciple or simply a deeply sinful man blessed with a sudden flash of divine insight that caused him to ask Jesus to remember him. Whatever his reason, he received as his answer the wonderful words – truly, I tell you that this day you will be with me in Paradise - by which Christ meant Heaven, as St Ambrose assures us. The criminal on the cross is blessed to hear our Saviour himself assure him that that very day, the moment his sufferings in this life were ended, he would enter into the divine glory which is eternal life.

Dismas, the Good Thief, is also sometimes called the Penitent Thief; and his penitence reminds us of something important – the very thing we celebrate this morning. And that is that it is the birth of hope into the world. The Resurrection of Christ from the dead tells us our lives are more than what we see around us; it tells that by our Baptisms we are born into the hope of Eternal life. It tells that however far we have strayed from the path that God calls all his children to, repentance offers the hope of salvation and eternal life. Dismas, as St Gregory of Nyssa tells us, was bound to his cross, with only his heart and his tongue under his control. Yet this was freedom enough for him to recognise Christ as Lord, freedom enough to accept him as his Saviour. This tells us that no matter how our own lives seem to hem us in, we have that Freedom also – a Freedom that opens to us the Hope that Christ offers – a hope that I pray that all here will joyfully embrace this day and always. Amen. 

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