“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The words of a thief on a cross.
“Thief” isn’t really the right word, though—he was no pickpocket, no petty thief. He was a violent bandit who had, by his own admission, been “condemned justly.” He was a sinner, and he knew it. He was, as Luke puts it, a “criminal.”
He was right where he was supposed to be, hanging on a cross.
But he also knew that Jesus was not where he was supposed to be. Jesus was not a violent bandit, he was not a criminal, he was not a sinner. He had done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve a cross.
And so he came to Jesus’ defence when the other criminal on the cross began to mock Jesus, to scorn him. “This man has done nothing wrong,” he rebuked the other bandit. “We deserve what we’re getting, but Jesus doesn’t!”
He knew something was different about Jesus. Could it be true, what they said, that he was the King of the Jews? Could he really be the Messiah, bringing about God’s kingdom? But if so, what was he doing dying on a Roman cross? It made no sense—but still he believed.
And so he called out to Jesus, one crucified man to another: “Jesus! Jesus! When you come into your kingdom, remember me!”
“Jesus, remember me.”
Isn’t this the most basic cry of faith?
“Jesus, I don’t completely understand who you are, I don’t really understand what you are doing, but there is something about you, Jesus, something that points beyond the harsh realities of life and death. Please, remember me!”
Even more, isn’t this the most basic longing of human existence?
When we strip away all our pretence, all the collected debris of our lives, isn’t this what we long for, deep in our souls? To not be forgotten? To be remembered?
Don’t we all, when we breathe our final breaths, want to be assured that someone, somewhere, will remember us? Our names, our stories, our hopes and dreams—that these will not be forgotten, but will live on? Don’t we all, when it comes right down to it, want our lives to matter to someone?
At the deepest level, each one of us is that thief on the cross: we are broken sinners who have broken others, we are desperately in need of mercy, desperately wanting to matter.
And the crucified Jesus looks us right in the eye and says the same words to us that he said to that condemned criminal: “Not only will I remember you—you will be with me.”
We want to be forgiven. Jesus gives us paradise.
We want to be remembered. Jesus gives us his presence.
This post is excerpted from a sermon I preached on November 20, 2016, at Morden Mennonite Church, for Eternity Sunday. Image: Titian, “Christ and the Good Thief.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.