Two others died on crosses with Jesus that Friday, according to Luke.
The old translations of the Bible mistranslated the Greek word used to describe them so Christian legend came to call them thieves. Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is now number one on everybody’s best seller list.
Aslan is right that the two men who died on crosses with Jesus were not thieves but probably zealots and revolutionaries. Today we might call them –this is my word not Aslan’s– today we might call them insurgents.
Insurgents are patriots who fight against occupying forces much more powerful than they are. They fight not to win battles, which would be a lost cause, but because they hate oppression and they hate the oppressors and they hate those who collaborate with oppressors.
Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire so militarily advanced that Israel could never defeat them in battle but, lost cause or not, the most radical zealots fought and maimed, wounded and killed whenever and wherever they could.
The zealots hated the Romans. The Romans hated the zealots. The Romans reserved for zealots the worst, most painful, most humiliating form of punishment: execution by crucifixion.
As Reza Aslan argues, the two others dying on crosses near Jesus were most likely zealots. Aslan emphasizes their passion for social justice. He does not emphasize that they probably would have had the blood of Romans and Israelite collaborators on their hands.
In Luke’s story of the conversation between the zealots and Jesus, the crowd who’d come to watch the crucifixions is mocking Jesus and one of the zealots joins them. He mocks Jesus. The other zealot sides with Jesus. He says to the first zealot: You and I are guilty of what we are accused of doing and and deserve our punishment. But Jesus has done nothing wrong and does not deserve to die like this.
This second zealot says to Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Part of the reason Luke tells this story is because he wants to convince us that even though he died the death of a zealot, Jesus was not one. There was no blood on Jesus’ hands. Instead his blood is our hands … all we who crucified him or stood by and did nothing, do nothing. This is Luke’s point.
So the controversy that Reza Aslan raises in his book is not a new one. Luke was already trying to address it in his gospel written only a generation or so after Jesus’ death.
What particularly interests me this morning is Jesus’ response in Luke’s story to the second zealot who asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.
Jesus answers: “Amen, I tell you that today you will be with me in paradise.”
Today you will be with me in paradise.
There is a sermon I have been trying to preach for a number of years now. It is a sermon a member of my church back in Washington, DC, asked me to preach.
She was a fascinating person as so many of those who attend my church are. As a young woman she had been recruited to Washington when the federal government was growing rapidly and every office was looking for young intelligent single women to move to DC to be secretaries because they needed someone to, well, actually do the work.
She had grown up in a small rural town in the south, studied at a local small Christian college for a year or two. She was very bright. Someone in Washington knew someone at her college; she wanted to see the world. She ended up in Washington organizing the calendar and life of someone important in the government.
She never married but over the years she developed a wonderful community of friends who became her family: People from the apartment building she lived in, people from the little pub where she spent Friday nights.
A gay friend from the pub first brought her to our church. I mention this only because it amused her so that a gay man was the one to bring her back to church. She once told me her friends were all the people the church she grew up in had told her never to associate with: people of different races and nationalities, gay people, people who had been divorced, people who were a bit cynical and who liked to tell slightly risqué jokes, people who would have been lonely without each other.
One day the friend she attended church with called to tell me that she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. She had only months to live.
I called to ask if I could visit. She said she didn’t really need me to visit. She had friends to talk to. She didn’t really need me in her living room, she said.
But, if I wanted to do something for her, she said, this is what I could do: I could preach a sermon on a certain topic. The topic she wanted me to preach a sermon about was what happens after we die.
Her request left me fairly speechless. This is not what we focused on in the seminary next door to this chapel when I attended it. What happens after we die?
She has long since died and I trust knows more about the answer to her question than I do, but I have been trying to preach her sermon ever since in one form or another … without much success. But I keep trying, especially when I get a new audience to try to talk about it with, like you.
For a religion based on the story of a resurrection, the Bible really has relatively little to say about what happens after we die and what it says is not very systematic nor frankly is it very consistent.
The Gospel of John quotes Jesus saying his Father’s house has many dwelling places and he will go to prepare a place for us. His disciples get confused during this conversation and, as so often happens with the Gospel of John, when I try to study the passage too literally I get confused too. (John 14:1-9)
Already at the time the Bible was being written people –even Christians– were having a hard time with the idea of resurrection. What is it exactly that is resurrected? The Apostle Paul tries to explain it. The dead will be raised imperishable. The perishable must put on imperishability and the mortal must put on immortality. (I Cor. 14:35-58) Unpack that.
Paul finally admits that for now we see only through a mirror dimly. For now we know only in part. (I Cor. 13:12)
In the Book of Revelation, which you’d think might be the most helpful part of the Bible on this topic, we don’t even go to heaven so far as I can tell. Heaven comes down to earth. (Rev. 21:1-7)
The writer of the First Epistle of John is the most honest and vulnerable and agnostic — What we will be has not yet been revealed, he writes. What we do know is this: When he is revealed, we will be like him. (I John 3:2)
Other religions seem much more knowledgeable and concrete. Tibetan Buddhism describes exactly what happens to us during the first 49 days after we die.
Vedic Hinduism’s Garuda Purana describes what happens after we die in perfect detail including the dark tunnel we pass through as our soul moves from our old body to our new body. The direction we travel in the tunnel is due south.
The Koran says we will enter heaven through one of eight doors depending on which of eight religious practices we prioritized during our life on earth.
Our Bible, in contrast, seems to give us only hints and poetry.
Which is why as I decided to try this sermon one more time I came to focus on Jesus’ words to the zealot on the cross. Jesus says to him “Amen. I tell you that today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The word Paradise appears only three times in the New Testament. It is a word, scholars tell us, that has a different connotation than heaven. Heaven is a reference to fulfillment, completion, culmination, resolution, the end. Heaven is when and where God’s will is finally fully and completely done.
Paradise is a reference backwards … back to the garden … back to Eden … back before history began … before Cain murdered Abel (Gen. 4:8) … before Hamor raped Dinah (Gen. 34:2) … before Shem made Canaan his slave Gen 9:25) … before we learned prejudice and racism and sexism and homophobia and xenophobia and greed and dominion and the fear that if I share with you there may not be enough left over for me.
Jesus says to the zealot whose life is defined by oppression and hate but who reaches out in kindness to him as they hang on crosses together, today you will be with me where and when the world has not yet turned into what it has become.
He says: We are going back to before we were wounded and before we began wounding others until the whole world became a world of woundedness and violence. We are going back to the garden.
I am not sure. I don’t know. I don’t know if we are going forward towards heaven or backward towards Eden … but there is something I find hopeful about the idea of being with Jesus in paradise. There is something appealing about the undoing of all we have done to hurt each other and to hurt the earth. There is something appealing about the undoing of all the pain I have caused, all the good I’ve left undone.
First John says: “The world and its desires are passing away but those who do the will of God live forever.” (I John 2:17)
The world and its desires are passing away.
Fred Buechner says people don’t pass away. It is the world that is passing away … the world and its desires. Hate is passing away. Greed is passing away. Ignorance is passing away. Prejudice is passing away.
The world and its desires are passing away but you and I –the you and I created by God in the garden to be companions to one another, the you and I before we began to murder and rape and enslave each other– the real you and The real me will live forever.
If I could preach this sermon to the woman who asked me to preach it I would tell her that the hate and fear the church she grew up in tried to teach her is passing away but the love she discovered with her gay, divorced, irreverent neighbors and her friends at the pub, this love she opened her heart to will never pass away.
Carol Zaleski in a lecture at Harvard reported that six years before his death America’s greatest philosopher William James received a questionnaire from one of his former students.
One of the questions was “Do you believe in personal immortality?”
James answered: “Never keenly, but more strongly as I grow older.”
The next question was: “If so, why?”
James answered: “Because I am just getting fit to live.”[i]
The world damages us so. Not the world God created; the world we have created. It teaches us to hate those who hate us until we all hate each other. It teaches us to be suspicion of those who seem different from us until we are suspicious of everybody. It teaches us not to trust until we are all distrustful of each other. It teaches us murder, it teaches us rape, it teaches us domination.
But, take courage, because the world and its desires are passing away. Even the part of the world that lives inside of me and inside of you is passing away. Even the part of the broken, messed up world that lives inside of me and inside of you is passing away.
As we make our way back to the garden or forward to heaven, whichever it is, I so want to learn how to trust, how to forgive, how to accept forgiveness, how to be unreservedly generous, how to love with all my heart. On the day I die, I want to finally be ready to live.
[i] Carol Zineski, “In Defense of Immortality,” First Things (August/Septembver 2000) Find on the web at http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/in-defense-of-immortality-26.
Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Pastor
Foundry UMC, Washington DC