“Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
We’ve been singing those words to a simple melody the past few Sundays during communion; we will continue to do so through Maundy Thursday this week. It may be that you found both the words and music monotonous; you may have found them meaningful. It may be that you had no idea where they came from, what they meant, or why we might be using this chant from the ecumenical monastic community of Taize, France.
They come, of course, from Luke’s version of the passion narrative. We heard them a few minutes ago. They are the words of a criminal, spoken on the cross to Jesus as the two were being crucified. On the surface they may not seem particularly interesting or important; but I think that when fully understand, they help us understand what Luke is trying to convey to us in his story of Jesus’ death on the cross.
Consider this. In all four gospels, there is only one other time when someone addresses Jesus by name in this way; only one other time do we encounter someone speaking so intimately, so familiarly with Jesus. That other occasion is also a time when someone in need asks Jesus for help, the beggar in Jericho who asks Jesus to heal him. (Every other time Jesus is addressed by name in the gospels, it is by his opponents). But in this instance, what is the criminal asking Jesus for? Not salvation, forgiveness, but simply, humbly, to be remembered. The word that Jesus speaks in response is more than he could have expected or hoped for, much more than he deserved—“Tonight you will be with me in paradise.”
Luke’s passion narrative is a tale that takes us into the heart of God’s love, even as Jesus walks from the Triumphal Entry to mount of Calvary. It culminates with that exchange between Jesus and the second criminal, but along the way there are other moments of tenderness, moments when Jesus shows his compassion for all those who are taking part in the story. At the Last Supper, he tells his disciples that he is among them as “one who serves.” Only in Luke is it said that Jesus miraculously heals the ear of one of the soldiers who has come to arrest him. He offered words of comfort to the women of Jerusalem who were wailing and beating their breasts as he was being taken to the place of crucifixion. And at the crucifixion itself, he prays on behalf of his executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
As we listen to the passion narratives, as we prepare for Good Friday, we are inclined to focus our attention on the event of the cross itself—on Christ’s suffering and what it means for us and for the world. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Around 1000 years of Christian reflection, both theological and on the level of personal devotion, points us toward the cross. But I think a too-narrow focus on the cross diverts our attention away from where the gospel writers, and perhaps Jesus himself was pointing us. ,
We want the cross to be about us, God’s reconciling work, offering us forgiveness of our sins and redemption. Of course it is about those things. But it’s not just about us. It’s about the whole world. On the cross, Jesus offers forgiveness not just to us but also to our enemies. He offers forgiveness to those who have not asked for it. Indeed, he offers forgiveness to those who do not know they need it.
Sometimes, we may be in a similar place—our sins so familiar and ingrained that we don’t even recognize them; our need for forgiveness so profound that we cannot express it. Sometimes it may be that we are so blind to our own need that we cannot say the words, “Father, forgive me.” Then, it may be enough to pray, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
The same is true of those around us, friends, family, those sitting in the pews next to us. The same may be true of those we work with, those who walk the streets this morning or sit in coffee shops, oblivious to what we do here; unaware that this is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. They may feel content in their lives; but it’s likely have deep spiritual needs that are going unmet, that they sense the absence of God in their lives.
The cross is life for them as it is for us. The cross is God’s love for them as it is for us. It was love that brought Jesus up against the Roman Imperium. It was love he shared when he prayed for his executioners. It was love he showed when he replied to the criminal’s plea, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
The love and joy we experience when we hear Jesus’ words of comfort and salvation are offered not just to us but to the whole world, offered to those who are seeking and those who have no idea of the need. Our experience of that love and joy are not for us alone but for the whole world.
In his death, Jesus Christ offers salvation not to us alone but to the whole world. When Jesus offers forgiveness to his tormentors, he is doing more than showing them love. He is also showing us what it means to follow him. The great hymn that we heard in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, that great hymn in praise of Christ’s humility and self-emptying; Paul introduces it with these words, “have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.” It’s a call to us to imitate Jesus Christ. And what better way to imitate him, than to offer God’s love to the world?