Sermon (2 of 4) Preached by Fr Nicolas Stebbing CR at St Mary, Bourne Street, London on Good Friday (6 April) 2012
“Do you not fear God since you are under the same sentence of condemnation and we indeed justly.”
“We indeed justly”. That is what a thief said but it could have been us. It is dangerous to stand before the Cross looking at Jesus. It is a place of honesty, a place where we cannot cover up the things about ourselves that we don’t really want to see. We all have things in our lives which we don’t want to see and we live busy and active lives which keeps our attention away from them. Before the Cross, we look at Jesus and he looks at us and his look asks us to be honest.
That is how it was for the thief on the Cross. He was not a good man. He was probably a rough, violent man. He had probably lived a criminal life. Now he was caught. He had been in prison several days, maybe several weeks – a filthy, dirty Roman prison. He was starved, beaten. Now he was nailed to the Cross. In pain, thirsty and knowing he would soon die. It is hard to be good in such a place. One thief wasn’t. He shouted at Jesus, mocked him for doing nothing. We can understand that. How do we behave when things go wrong? Do we take it calmly and gently? Do we admit it is our fault? Do we notice that it is much worse for others? Or are we so concerned for ourselves that we shout and scream at anyone – at God – to put things right? We can understand that thief.
It was different for the other thief. Something had happened to him. Perhaps he knew Jesus from the past. Perhaps Jesus had tried to turn him from his criminal ways and had failed. Now he knew Jesus had been right. Or perhaps he had just watched Jesus bearing all the pain in silence. Jesus had looked at him. When Jesus looked at people things happened. It is clear his look went right through them. He looked at Zachaeus up a tree and Zachaeus repented and gave away most of his wealth. He looked at Peter across a court room and Peter burst into tears. Jesus’ look made people face the truth about themselves. This thief knew he had no right to ask for anything. He had done wrong and was justly condemned. He could not complain. He could not be angry at the injustice of God. God was not unjust. If he asked for justice that is what he got – death on a Cross. So he doesn’t ask for anything, except one thing: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” That is extraordinary – it was all he wanted now, that someone so good, so holy so lovable as Jesus should remember him. He would not be forgotten.
One day each one of us will die. There is no escape from death. Doctors may delay it; good nurses may make it less painful but one day each one of us will go out into the dark – alone, without protection, without possessions. Everything we have built up in this world, we leave behind. All the deceits, the cover ups, the pretence at being better than we are, that is over. When we die we can only be ourselves. We face the truth about ourselves. We look at the good things and the bad things about our life and maybe wish it had been different. We look out into the dark on the other side of death and hope that Christ will be there to receive us.
Of course we don’t have to wait until that moment of death before we look honestly at ourselves. We can do that now. Faced with Christ who died because of us, we really must look honestly at who we are and see what he is dying for.
It starts as a painful process. We stop pretending. We put aside the conceit, the attempt to look better than we are. We put aside the self justifications, the excuses. We admit that we have been wrong. That is the truth of the matter. We have often been wrong. Often we have been wrong by accident. We didn’t mean to but we got on the wrong side of things and stayed there out of pride. Sometimes we deliberately chose what was wrong and pretended it was right, because we wanted it.
It is painful to admit that. It is painful to take away the coverings and admit the truth and feel sorrow and regret. It is painful to see how much we have hurt other people with our stupidity and selfishness and greed. It is even more painful to know how we have hurt God. That is what the penitent thief found. In all the physical pain, the worst pain was knowing how he had failed in the eyes of Jesus. He saw how Jesus loved him; how Jesus had hoped for him. He saw how much good could have happened in his life and it was all thrown away. Now there was only the cross and a shameful, degrading death. He was honest enough to know that he could blame no one else. He could not cling to pride or pretence when he hung naked on a cross. He could demand nothing, expect nothing. He could only ask that Jesus would remember him well.
What he got was beyond anything he had ever dreamed of. “Today you will be with me in Paradise”. What begins in pain ends in joy. We shall find that too when we finally have the courage to look honestly at ourselves, see the truth, be sorry, repent and ask that Jesus remember us….and of course he will. He will welcome us in.Love bade me welcome but my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin;
But quick-eyed love observing me grow slack
from my first entrance in
Drew nearer to me sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
“A guest” I answered, “worthy to be here.”
Love said, “You shall be he.”
‘I, then unkind, the ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes, but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but `I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not” says Love, “who bore the blame?
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says love, “and share my meat.”
“So I did sit and eat.”
Nicolas Stebbing CR