Saturday, April 4, 2015

The penitent thief

Tonight I preached my first sermon in Pijin.

Several of the "cell groups" around Kudjip conducted special meetings in the run-up to our Easter service tomorrow.  Veteran missionaries Dr Bill McCoy and Dr Jim Radcliffe each took a night of sharing.  With some trepidation I accepted the invitation to share as well.

For a couple of weeks I considered what I might share on.  The center of the Biblical story revolves around this time we celebrate in Easter.  Should I reflect on Christ's teachings, His death, His resurrection?  What part of His story did I feel drawn to?

In the end, I could not escape one of the peripheral figures in the crucifixion.

You see, there were three crosses.  Christ and two criminals died together.  So often I think only of Christ's death and how it affects my life or those around me.  But I forget about the two individuals who experienced that moment more closely than anyone else.  And one created a testimony that has lived on for generations.

In Luke 23:32-43, the physician apostle details what happened around Christ as He died.  Bystanders mocked him, leaders scoffed at him and soldiers tore his clothes.  He hung upon a tree, bleeding and suffocating whilst begging God to forgive his executioners.  Even another victim of the same agony berated him.  

In the midst of it, one person spoke truth.  A truth I couldn't let go of more than two thousand years later - as I lay on a neighbor's porch looking across the mountainous jungles of the Kane valley in a remote corner of the globe.  A person whose story and life go unnamed, but whose heart I realize I must learn from.

One of Jesus' Golgotha neighbors, a man without a name and simply labelled a "criminal" sees the real Christ.  He knows his own past of hurt and sin, but recognizes Jesus and becomes the first saint in his new kingdom.  He never preached a sermon, healed a sick person or planted a church.  But he saw his own place of need and accepted the great forgiveness that God offered him.

The penitent thief - who hung next to Jesus, suffering the punishment of his society for crimes he committed during his life.  Yet received a grace far beyond the agony of the cross he bore, while others mocked the perfect man beside him.

"'Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?
And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds;
but this man has done nothing wrong.'
Then he said to Jesus, 'Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom'"
-Luke 23:40-42

When our first-born, Anna, was about two years old we began reading through a children's bible every night before bed.  One night, as we looked at the illustrations depicting Jesus dying on the cross, faces from the crowd pointing and laughing stood out.  My two year old said, "Look at those bad people laughing at Jesus" and I agreed.  Then the words of a hymn came to me:

"Behold the man upon the cross, my sin upon his shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers"

I had to correct myself and my daughter.  Those people weren't as bad as they were blind.  Really, I am among the scoffers who see Christ's death as a sacrifice only in hindsight - when I in fact take the time to recall it.

Above Kudjip station

So which cross am I going to carry?  The cross of Christ I don't presume to undertake and I believe God set it aside for His son alone.  That momentous burden could only be taken by Jesus.  But I look at his companions in crucifixion.  And I know my cross - the cross of one deserving death, who needs redemption.  I remember that Christ said I could not follow Him without a cross of my own.

So I carry the penitent thief's cross as I attempt to serve others in gratitude to Him who rescued me.