Which thief am I?

33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

When does the penny drop?

I used to imagine, that those who had either rejected Christianity all their lives or had at least been indifferent to it, would, as they arrived at old age (if they had not lost their faculties) want to engage with Jesus, would want to take advantage of the offer
of resurrected life, which he makes to us.

After all, at the very least, it makes sense, as I think Pascal said – it’s reasonable, rational, to be a Christian – because if you are a Christian and Christians are right, you go to heaven. If Christians are, on the other hand, wrong, and there is oblivion after death, then you haven’t lost anything.

I used to imagine that at least that sort of thinking, would inevitably encourage people to start attending church, to start reading their Bibles, to start engaging with God, as the time of their death drew inexorably closer and closer.

I expected that when I went on final visits before death,  that there would be…confessions of sin, and I would be called upon to pronounce absolutions of them.

But the more that I have encountered older people in my ministry, I have found to my surprise, that mostly this is not the case.

Quite the reverse actually. Those who are complacent, remain complacent.

Those who are on their last legs, don’t see the visit of a priest to them as an opportunity to confess sin, to get right with God; but more as a time to talk about how their illness is progressing, almost as if the visit were a social one…

If I speak of the gospel, if I speak of the amazing promise that Jesus makes to carry the burden of our sinfulness; it’s as if I have said something indelicate, something which ought not to be mentioned, or something hopelessly naive or impertinent.

There is precious little recognition of personal sin, still less any death bed confessions.

I believe that these do happen, or so I am told by Christian nurses, but I have not seen them myself.

So perhaps we should not be surprised when we hear, as we have in the gospel reading today, the death bed reactions (as it were) of the two thieves crucified with Jesus.
One mocks Jesus.  The other worships him. One confesses his sinfulness. The other is indifferent to the only one who could make a difference to his situation.

Even when dying, in the company of the creator of the universe, even when death is inevitably round the corner, one thief cannot bring himself  to make peace with God, the other makes a decision to recognise his sinfulness and confess it to Jesus, a decision which totally changes his situation, for eternity.

We might of course say: ‘well why is that relevant to me?’ ‘I’m not a thief’, ‘I’m not a sinner’ or ‘if I am, my sins are trivial’, ‘I haven’t got anything to confess’ ‘I stand by everything , I have done, said or thought’

Well, If I ever think – ‘what have I got to confess?’ then I simply need to ask God,
to reveal my own sinfulness to me: in a moment of silence:  to ask him to put on my heart
the sin, which is endemic to the human soul…

My experience, is that the time between asking God to reveal my sinfulness to me, and a rather long list appearing in my mind of the things I have done, said or thought THAT DAY, is a split second… so I tend to try and clear down my sins by confession and repentance every day as I go to sleep….and resolve to be different the following day, to keep short accounts with God.

And in case you think: ‘well that’s you, Alex’ ‘it doesn’t apply to me’…There’s going to be something…Romans 3:23 tells us that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’.

And if our sin were not that serious, have you considered, why would God have needed to step down,  from heaven, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, to die a criminal’s death in agony on the Cross  to address the problem?

If we don’t recognise that our sin, your sin, my sin  is cosmically serious, then we are effectively saying, that Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross was pointless.

And of all the sins, pride is probably the worse….the sin of putting other things, of putting ourselves,  ahead of God in our lives.

The 10 Commandments place honouring God, ahead of murder, adultery and theft and its clear from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that what we think, what we carry in our hearts,
is as sinful as what we do.

So whether we take the view that the commandments are listed in order of importance, and honouring God is top of the list, or we take the view that all the commandments are of equal value, what we cannot do, it seems to me, is to say that stealing is worse than any of the sins that we, you and I, commit every day.

Indeed the real question, is not whether we are sinners, like the two thieves or not, but which thief we are most like?

Are we like the penitent thief, who Jesus promises will be with him that day in Paradise?

If so, whatever we have done, said or thought, however terrible, however minor, there is absolutely nothing to be worried about  because Jesus died, so that we do not have to carry  the eternal consequences of that sin, such wonderful news for anyone with any guilt about the past yes, the gospel is that amazing.

Or, on the other hand, are we like the thief who makes no confession of sin, and effectively mocks the sacrifice of the one person who could actually change his situation, for whom there will be an entirely different outcome….

We are one or the other…..

We need to engage with these issues now, while we can, we mustn’t leave it until it is too late…

Amen

 

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