Last weekend, I sat with a 12 year old boy that desperately wanted to die. In reality, it wasn’t so much that he wanted to die, he just really didn’t think he deserved to live. He actually used those words. It was absolutely heartbreaking to hear the depths of his emotion and pain leave him with the conclusion that he did not deserve to be alive anymore. As we worked together through all of this pain, the thing that most quickly settled his turbulent heart was prayer. So he talked to God. He let God know what he needed, “to hear God’s voice clearly, in English,” so he could understand. I think many of us can relate to this feeling of despair and the need to hear God’s response clearly, I know I do.
When he was done praying, I asked him what he thought God’s voice would sound like. After he gave me some of the usual answers, I told him what I thought, that God uses the voices of the people in our lives to give us wisdom and tell us the truth. In this case, to tell him that he is loved and valued and necessary. The affirmation of who this boy is turned into the affirmation of who we believe in, who we know God is as embodied in Jesus the Christ. It was at this point in our conversation that my mind flashed to the image of Jesus dying on the cross and the conversation he had there with God, the accusers that surrounded him, and the men being executed beside him.
In this scene, we hear the answer to Jesus’ question as earlier heard in Luke chapter 9, “Who do you say that I am?” Those that surrounded Jesus as he died were caught up in who he was in comparison to themselves. They were caught in the “If…then…” language that left them with the mindset, we get what we deserve. This line of thinking relies on a perspective that focuses on what is owed to us because it has been earned in some way. Here, we hear Jesus named a criminal (v.33); the Messiah of God, chosen one (v. 35); and the King of the Jews (v. 38).
Yet despite those who called him these names, Jesus answers the question of his identity in his own way. Jesus shows us who he is, with no stipulations, no strings attached in his prayer and petition for the forgiveness of others (v. 34) and in his promise of paradise (v. 43).
Jesus didn’t say that the man next to him deserved to die, nor did he test him on whether he deserved paradise. Jesus did promise that they would be together in paradise that very day. That is something to hold onto. Though what we deserve or don’t deserve may waiver with history, context, lawfulness, and opinion; the person and promise of Christ will never change.
Humanity hasn’t changed much over these thousands of years. When we hear about an assault, crime, murder, war, or death, our collective thoughts quickly shift to whether or not it was deserved and why. The question is whether we will choose a perspective that sets us over and against others, or whether we will choose a perspective given to us by the person of Christ, one that relies on who Christ is for us?
Preaching on this text provides an opportunity to live together fully under the Reign of Christ with a practice of Law and Gospel. The law points out all of the ways we deserve death while the Gospel flips the rules upside down with a promise paradise and eternal life even amidst the death throes of sin. Here is an opportunity to see a life under the reign of Christ with new eyes; an opportunity to leave behind the old way of understanding self and God so that we may be reclaimed by the love of Christ, living with full reliance on who Christ is rather than who we are and what we deserve. This is a practice of confession and assurance of forgiveness. This is a practice of professing our faith in Christ and letting go of our grip on personal understandings and judgements.
No matter our age, we are faced with the pain of death, warping our perspective to focus on what we do or do not deserve. For those of us that put our faith in Christ, we are given the power to face down this pain with the truth that we are loved, forgiven, and accepted into the Kingdom of God, not because of anything we have done to deserve it, but because of who God is. My prayer is that the 12 year old boy that I spoke with last weekend, along with all of the young people I work with on a daily basis, will know this truth of Christ clearly, so that it reigns in their hearts with every step of their lives. My prayer is that this text is preached in a way that all may recognize the love of Christ, the person of Jesus, personally, so that lives may be freed and transformed. In this way, may we see the reign of Christ reflected through our very lives, God’s Kingdom breaking in.