Luke | Promises, paradise, and the vastness of love

Jesus rescues and redeems all people, and draws them into the presence of love. (Listen.)

Last week, the Baptist Union of NSW/ACT voted to effectively disaffiliate LGBTIQA+ affirming churches and disaccredit such pastors. It will also disaffiliate churches and disaccredit pastors who are committed to traditional Baptist values of freedom of conscience and congregational governance, and who on these grounds refuse to affirm a statement of marriage as the basis for affiliation.

It’s only the latest in a series of denominations to define itself against a group, and to then drive that group out of the organization: and it’s an old, old practice. It’s called the scapegoat mechanism, and it basically works like this: we label people as insiders or outsiders; righteous or sinners; wheat or weeds; sheep or goats; and we create a temporary sense of unity by joining together to drive the sinners out. Thus we establish ourselves, at least for a little while, as pure, righteous, worthy, and good—then the cycle starts all over again.

This way of seeing and sorting the world affects how we hear and interpret everything, including the Jesus stories. It especially affects how we interpret tonight’s story. To recap, Jesus is crucified between two criminals. Perhaps they were freedom fighters, perhaps they were simply thugs. Anyway, one mocks him; the other acknowledges his own sinfulness and asks Jesus to remember him; and Jesus replies, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

What we usually hear and assume is that the mocking criminal died condemned; while the other, having acknowledged his sin, died forgiven and guaranteed a place in heaven. To use the metaphor of the workers in the field, the repentant man never even goes to the field, let alone gets to work; yet here he receives the full reward simply for turning to Jesus immediately before his death.

So this text has generated a lot of writing and a lot of sermons about Jesus’ scandalous act of forgiveness, since he forgave even a hardened criminal who turned to Jesus at the point of death. Such forgiveness is certainly scandalous. But if we look closely, we might discover that it’s a whole lot more scandalous than we think.

The scandal is in the Greek. In English, we no longer distinguish between singular and plural when it comes to the word ‘you’; in Greek, the words are completely different. When we go back to the Greek text, we find a fascinating plural, a plural which is masked in English. For when Jesus says, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise,’ the first ‘you’ is plural. Now, he has been talking with both criminals. And so when he says that first ‘you’, he is addressing both of them. He is saying, ‘Truly I tell you both, or y’all, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

Paradise is simply a Persian word meaning garden. So Jesus is saying that they will be in Eden, perhaps, or the garden city of Revelation: whatever, it’s a garden, it’s beautiful, and it’s filled with God’s presence. It’s a place scented with thyme in the cool of the evening; it’s a place of good fruit; it’s a place of innocence and growth, diversity and renewal. And both criminals, indeed all people who hear these words, are promised life with Jesus in this garden. Today.

Of course, if we believe that forgiveness is a transaction—we repent, we ask for mercy, and only then will God forgive—then the Greek can’t be right. If we believe that we earn salvation through right beliefs or good works or correct behavioural codes or affirmations of heteronormative marriage, then it must be wrong. If we identify ourselves by our own holiness or moral rightness, then this is deeply offensive: because I’m saying that the repentant and the unrepentant are both welcomed into Paradise. How can this be?

Like everything, it goes back to our understanding of God. We talk about God’s unconditional love and acceptance, but most of the time, we live as if it’s conditional. If we just work hard enough, and do the right thing, and believe in the right way, and go to church—if we are just ‘good people’—then we will be loved and forgiven. Unlike those people over there, whoever those people are; but we know the usual suspects: Gay people. Trans people. Addicted people. Rebellious people. Dirty people. Divorced people. And women who speak aloud in church.

Of course, it is precisely these people who so often see and understand how the scapegoat mechanism works: Christ ends up outside the city gates, hanging on a cross, and too many of us alongside him. Perhaps that’s why so many of us here insist that God’s love is unconditional. It’s not a transaction and it’s not about being good. Instead, God is love: for that is the nature of God, and God loves not just the religiously righteous but sinners; God loves the goats, unconditionally. We follow Jesus because he shows us just how far this love goes.

This is the final week in our year of Luke, and this, the final text that we will hear in this cycle. By now, I hope that we’ve picked up the major themes of Luke’s story: Jesus brings joy; Jesus brings forgiveness; Jesus brings love; and these gifts are explicitly given to those whom the world continually rejects. For these are the promises which were sung around his pregnancy and birth by an unwed teenage mother, by heavenly beings, and by stinking shepherds who weren’t welcome in town or temple. They were proclaimed in the synagogue at the outset of his ministry as he announced good news for the poor, release for the captive, recovery of sight for those without vision, and freedom for the oppressed, and as he insisted that these promises were fulfilled in their hearing. They were seen in his teaching and healing ministries among sick people, bleeding female people, Gentile people, and many others excluded from full participation in religious and social life.

Even at the point of death by execution, he keeps to these themes. He shows nothing but love and forgiveness to the crowd which demands his death, to the leaders who scoff at him, to the soldiers who humiliate and torture him, to the criminal who mocks him. ‘Father,’ he says, ‘forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ Forgive them all.

Again and again, Jesus shows that love and forgiveness are not meted out in little doses to those who earn them; instead, they are poured out lavishly and abundantly upon friends and upon enemies, upon the just and upon the unjust, upon the righteous and upon sinners. There is nothing anyone can do to earn this love and forgiveness; and there is nothing anyone can do to render themselves unworthy of these gifts.

God knows the ugliness smuggled in every human heart; God knows the violence of the world; and yet God loves, and loves, and loves. And it is because God loves that Jesus invites us to live differently. It’s a way we call the kingdom; it’s a way of good news for the poor and oppressed, in which peace and freedom and gentleness and forgiveness are foundational cultural norms.

Clearly, this is not the world we mostly live in now; nor is it the world much of the institutional church is trying to insist upon. And as long as we try to earn God’s love and prove ourselves righteous, we will never embody the kingdom. As long as we preach that one criminal goes to heaven and the other goes to hell, as long as we insist on defining insiders and outsiders, wheat and weeds, sheep and goats, we will not be living in God’s culture.

But if we can admit that we too have a tendency to be goats in sheep’s clothing, yet are loved and forgiven, and if we can accept that this love and forgiveness are extended to everyone, then we cannot help but participate in God’s joyful kingdom-culture. For we will no longer need to use others to demonstrate our own righteousness, nor will we need to judge them or use religion as an instrument of oppression. Instead, we will be free to love friend and stranger wholeheartedly and abundantly, just as God loves them, and just as God loves us.

For those of us convinced of our own righteousness, this is the scandal of grace. It is offensive to us that grace is unearned; it is a scandal to us that grace is doled out in infinitely large measure to friend and enemy, straight and gay, repentant and unrepentant alike.

But to the rest of us—to those of us who have looked in the mirror and caught a glimpse of our own ugliness—this is all good news. For we cannot heal ourselves, nor can we make ourselves worthy; but we can accept the forgiveness which is already ours; we can accept and be filled with God’s love.

And when we do this, when we open ourselves to the gift that is already given, we are transformed from the inside out. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are remade into the image of Christ, and we become part of God’s cultural renewal as it unfolds here on earth. This, then, is life in abundance: a life of wholeheartedly participating in God’s kingdom-culture, a kingdom which is already here, a culture which is among us now. Today, we can spend time in the garden; today, we can be in Christ’s presence; today, we can drink from the fountain of life and eat of the very good fruit: and so can everyone else.

Which leaves us with a question: Does God’s generosity make us angry? Or can we enter into it with joy?

Again and again, Luke describes the kingdom as a party. It’s a wedding banquet; it’s a father holding a feast for a long-lost son; it’s a widow inviting her neighbours over: and all are welcome. The queers and the conservatives; the men and the women; the elders and the children. Whether insiders or outsiders, people of faith or people of no faith, righteous or sinful: the Lamb has been sacrificed for them all.

If we find this offensive, we can try to shut this party down: but we will never be successful. We can mock it to the death: it will rise again at dawn. We can kick out all the people we don’t consider worthy: but God will lead them back through another door.* Even then, we can stand there with our arms crossed tight, mocking the host, criticising the other guests, hating the music, and turning down the supper of the Lamb.

Or we can be in the midst of the wildly diverse crowd with our red shoes on, making new friends and honouring their stories and sharing love and tears and forgiveness. We can be dancing and singing and talking and laughing, and handing out bread, more bread, and pouring wine, more wine, and greeting every other guest with an embrace.

Take, eat—or turn it down: God’s scandalous party is going on all around you. It is always already happening. Whether or not you participate is the only choice you have: because everyone, absolutely everyone, is in the room. Thanks be to God. Ω

*Of course, for many of us, Sanctuary has been that alternative door.

Reflect: Do you find this expansive view offensive or liberating? Why?

A reflection by Alison Sampson on Luke 23:33-43 (Year C Proper 29) given to Sanctuary on 20 November 2022 © Sanctuary 2022. Photo by Vadim Fomenok on Unsplash.

Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. This week, we’re having a cold snap. But in the garden roses are in full bloom, tussocks of poa are sending forth great spouts of burgundy-tinted seed, and dragonflies are everywhere. The peace of the land be with us all. Amen.

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