Even though we are more than a month past Easter, I’m still reflecting on the story from Luke’s gospel that I heard on Good Friday – the one about the criminal who asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his Kingdom.
I’m curious about the man’s personal story. What was his crime? Did he believe in God? Did he believe Jesus, the man hanging next to him on a cross of his own, was really the Messiah?
Luke offers us frustratingly few details. We don’t know the crime, or crimes, the man committed. We don’t know for sure what kind of life he had lived. We don’t know if he was a lifelong believer who had followed Jewish law, or if this moment on the cross was a last-ditch “deathbed” conversion.
And yet, when we look at this story, we see how little Jesus was concerned with these details.
Jesus didn’t ask the man who was being crucified beside him about his crime or his sins.
He didn’t demand that the criminal confess and repent.
He didn’t require that the man make a declaration of his faith.
He didn’t inquire if the man had been properly baptized.
Jesus didn’t ask the man a single question or request a single point of clarification. In that moment, as the two hung side-by-side on their separate crosses, Jesus simply reiterated the promise he offers each one of us: “You will be with me,” Jesus said.
Religion tends to put a lot of rules and requirements around our faith. Depending on our denomination, we have specific doctrine that defines what is and what is not a sacrament; at what age we should be baptized; who should and should not be allowed to receive Communion; who should and should not be allowed to marry in the church; the method one should use to confess and repent of one’s sins, and so on.
Yet few, if any, of the rules and regulations that are important to us as Christians today seemed to matter much to Jesus. In fact, few of the rules and regulations that comprised the religion of his own time mattered to Jesus. He befriended the outcasts; he ate with the sinners; he healed on the Sabbath; he insisted that the first would be last and the last, first.
Jesus broke all the rules.
What mattered to Jesus first and foremost was relationship. When the criminal asked to be remembered by Jesus when he entered into his Kingdom, he was expressing his desire to be with God. In that moment, nothing else mattered to Jesus – not the criminal’s past, not his faith history, not whether he’d met the requirements of religious law. Nothing mattered to Jesus but the man’s desire for relationship with him.
Doctrine has its place. It offers us rhythms, boundaries and structure. But I also believe God is much bigger than any of the doctrine we create in an attempt to explain or understand him. We like to try to contain God and define him in a way that makes sense to us, but the truth is, grace does not make sense. Limitless, no-strings-attached love does not make sense.
As Jesus demonstrated on the cross, God desires more than anything to be with us, in spite of our flaws, in spite of our failings, in spite of our many mistakes. “You will be with me,” Jesus tells us, and in the face of that promise, all “ifs, ands or buts” fall away.
This post ran in the Lincoln Journal Star on May 12, 2018.
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