11-21-19 - Today

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

Popular culture suggests that, at the moment of our death, we will “cross over” to our eternal dwelling, where we are welcomed by those we have loved in this world. This notion has been greatly aided by popular songs, like Far Side Banks of Jordan. (Here, with June and Johnny…)

The Bible offers a more sober view, starting with prophetic texts about the “Day of the Lord,” Jesus’ own references to a great sorting at the final judgment, and Paul’s eloquent depiction of the sleeping dead rising “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” (I Cor. 15:52; No, it’s not the zombi-pocalypse... it's resurrection.) This line of interpretation suggests that at death we go into rest, like the “sleep” mode on our computers, to be reactivated when the “trumpet shall sound.”

And here is Jesus, confusing us all with this promise to the repentant thief dying next to him on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” It is a bit surreal, this recorded conversation among three men dying a ghastly, torturous death: 
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

Some years ago I heard Charlie Grady, who runs youth anti-violence initiatives, speak. He spent 27 years in law enforcement, during which he arrested some pretty hardcore criminals. Once, he was in a restaurant and saw two men he’d sent to jail come in. Soon enough they spotted him and clearly recognized him. He began to sweat. Then the waiter approached and said, “Those guys would like to buy your table a round of drinks.” He accepted, and then raised his glass to them. At that point they came over and said, “We know now you were just doing your job. We were the ones doing wrong – it was your job to catch us and put us away. We know that now; we’re not the same people.”

That’s quite a story! That’s pretty much where this thief is. Hanging there next to a man he knows to be good and holy gives him a true perspective on himself. And when we see ourselves clearly, we start to see a lot of things more clearly. That is the beginning of repentance – clear vision. It’s not everyone else’s fault, even if some have contributed. It’s us.

And when we speak from that truth, we create space for grace to come back to us. Even on the cross, Jesus is able to extend that grace to a fellow-sufferer. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Shortly, all three of them will be dead. They will no longer dwell in this world. In the face of that, in brutal pain, Jesus promises not only paradise, but his own presence. What a promise.

Do you have a confession to make, or one to hear? Has anyone been trying to get your attention and let you know they have had a change of heart, are truly sorry – and maybe you haven’t been able to give them the chance to show it? A risk, yes, but forgiveness is a big gift to grant or withhold. As recipients of grace, can we extend it?

One day we will be with Jesus in whatever realm it is that we call Paradise. Whether that is at the moment of death, or at some other time in a realm that is timeless, we will know that we are with him. As Gillian Welch sings, in terms less sentimental than June and Johnny, 
“I will know my savior when I come to him by the mark where the nails have been.”

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