This sermon was preached at a joint Good Friday service held at St. George's by St. George's, Comox and Cumberland United Churches, as well as Comox Presbyterian Church.
A few years ago, I was a chaplain intern at St. Paul’s hospital in Vancouver. It was the surgical floor, people were usually there for a few days, or a few weeks at a time, so short term stay. And when people aren’t in hospital very long, they often see less of a need for a chaplain. Because their biggest problem is being in hospital. And they know that’s going to be over soon.
But more often than not, people are going through stuff in their lives before coming to hospital. They bring that life with them. And I remember one middle aged woman who was there for kidney surgery, very short stay in and out. But two days before, her husband died of a heart attack, suddenly, out of nowhere. The surgery wasn’t bad, but the recovery was going to be hard. Just when she needed him the most to help carry her through this thing, he couldn’t. “I don’t know what to do,” she told me, “it’s the end of my whole world.” And this is the way that a lot of people describe the death of a loved one, whether sudden or not. “It’s the end of the world.” Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself. That the death of someone close to you has fundamentally changed life for you forever, that your world somehow ended. That life would never be the same again.
Death often means the end of the world as we know it. And like any other life, Jesus’ world ended on Good Friday, on a cross. We may know how the story eventually unfolds. Jesus did not just appear dead, or avoid it through some act of smoke and mirrors. Jesus did not emerge from the tomb with the words “gotcha.” The tradition has been very clear. The 4th century Apostle’s Creed says, “I believe in Jesus Christ, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” Jesus’ humanity was not just a mask. Jesus truly met and experienced death, like any of us.
Earlier this week, we joyously celebrated his entry in to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. His movement started with such promise, excitement, and power. But here in Luke’s account of the passion, Jesus has been betrayed, arrested, condemned and sentenced to death. He’s been led away to a place they call “the skull.” And he’s led along with two other criminals sentenced to the same fate. And there, the Roman soldiers will crucify Jesus. Here, at this place, Jesus will breathe his last. And commend his own spirit to God. God’s kingdom of mercy, forgiveness, healing, justice and compassion were alive and active, embodied, on the loose, bringing life and love to all who found themselves in his presence. But now he finds himself surrounded by the very powers of death who will wrench that very life from him. This is not only the end of the world for his movement and his followers, and the end of his life. “If you’re the Messiah, laughs one soldier,” take yourself down from the cross. This looks like the very end of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, the end of the world God has always envisioned for humanity. It’s the end of God’s good world. Death has its day and its way.
The world ends for Jesus. Jesus dies and there is no getting around it. Darkness, the powers of sin and death reign on this day. And there’s no getting around that, either. But you’ll notice something strange that happens right in the middle of the crucifixion. Jesus, if you remember, is crucified between two criminals. One on his left and on his right. One joins in with mocking Jesus, saying if he has the power to save, he should save himself and bring them with him. We hear the same in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion. But in Luke’s account, the other criminal who has been crucified beside him actually intervenes to defend Jesus. “Look, we’re getting what we deserve,” says the man, “but this guy has done nothing wrong.” And with that, the man turns to Jesus. “Jesus,” he says, “remember me when you come in to your kingdom.” In the midst of taunts and degradation of enemies, in the middle of his own death sentence. This man affirms his trust in Jesus and the kingdom he has come bearing.
Which is kind of crazy. Because this man is about to die. And so is Jesus. He doesn’t do this at Palm Sunday, at the height of celebration or expectation. But just before the moment of death. He trusts Jesus with his future when there’s no future in sight. The world’s about to end. And Jesus’ reply is no less crazy in that way. “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” It’s such a strange thing for Jesus to say. “You’ll be with me in paradise.” Paradise. Today, no less. Often in hearing these words, we’ve understood that this criminal, despite his misdeeds has faith in Jesus. So when he dies his soul will end up in heaven. Nobody really believed this at the time. When you die you die. And you’d have to wait for the resurrection at a future date. So Jesus must mean something other than his soul leaving his body for another place. The world for both of us is ending. But hey, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Today.
“Today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says. On this day. This God forsaken day, where there is no paradise in sight. But even on this God-forsaken day, in this God-forsaken moment on the cross, even in the midst of this moment where the worst that humanity can do is on full display. Even now, in the darkness, we see God’s power for life at work. If only a momentary glimpse.
When Jesus says “today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus is talking about a whole new world dawning. And it’s already begun. The man says “remember me when you come in to your kingdom,” Jesus tells him that it’s begun here and now. The Greek word that we translate as “paradise” is the same word used in the Greek Old Testament, as the word for garden. For Genesis. For Eden. A glimpse of God’s world mended and restored. That for this man who has no future, who stares death in the face, even now at this moment, even now he can experience the power and presence of God. Because in Christ, the seeds of paradise have already been planted. The cross, the cruel tree used to crucify Jesus is the first tree sprouting in the new creation. On this dark day, they may lay dormant in the ground, out of sight. Scattered at the foot of the cross. Even on this day of death, God’s power for life may hidden, but not destroyed. “This day,” Jesus says, “you will be with me in paradise.” Even on this day where the world has ended, a whole new world has begun. A New Creation has dawned.
And this is the same news for us this day, friends. This day is the dawning of a whole new world. That on this day of darkness. And every other day of darkness, every moment of darkness we face in our lives and in our world. Every cancer diagnosis, every broken marriage, addiction, and sin-sick soul. Every child who lives day to day in poverty on an empty stomach. In the ruins of every suicide bomb and drone attack. You may not see them. But in every moment of death and darkness God is already planting seeds of paradise. Even if you don’t quite know it yet, a whole new creation has begun. Even on this day.
So, friends. Take heart. Even on this day. Take courage, even on this day. Because the same God whose unbreakable love and blessing grabs hold of a criminal dying on the cross and will never let go, is the same God who grabs us whatever darkness we find ourselves in. And because of this, we, too, can experience paradise, even on this day. Because even with in the end of our worlds is the beginning of God’s whole new one. Whatever pain or sorrow, hurt or injustice we may face. We are able to face them head on, and with courage, knowing that the love and power of God is and will always be greater than anything we might ever face. Even dath. “Truly, this day, even this day, we may set our sights on paradise.”
This, friends, this is the only way we can call this Friday “Good.”