Growing up, I always loved Easter, but always thought that my family went a little overboard on the traditions. In retrospect, I am grateful for my mom’s intentionality in keeping Christ as the focus of the holiday. Every year, she made us memorize her favorite Easter song, watch the entire video series: Jesus of Nazareth, and spend Good Friday reflecting on the cross and the Gospel instead of watching television or playing with electronics.
And, sure enough, every year, I remembered what Easter was all about:
“E is for the early dawn when Christ arose that day, and left us so a new life could begin.
A is for the angels who rolled the stone away
S means that He suffered for our sins
T is for two thieves who hung beside Him on the tree
E is for His everlasting love
R is for the righteousness He gave to you and me.
Yes, Easter comes from our dear God above.”
Aside from being one of the few songs I can sing in tune without music, it also ingrained something into my heart and mind. I have always been mysteriously fascinated and haunted by that “T”. The two thieves who hung beside Him, who were they? What was their story?
Unlike Jesus, these men were not innocent. They did something worthy of death in the eyes of the authorities, and lived their lives as criminals. Yet, through these two men we see perhaps the most simplistic and beautiful story of salvation.
“Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ,save Yourself and us.”
But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “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.”
And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” – Luke: 23:38-43
Both men are guilty, both deserve death. One uses his last moments to mock Jesus, and the other uses his final words to admit his sin, recognize the innocence of Christ and the power of God, and ask that Jesus remember His name. He uses his last moments to begin a relationship with Christ.
Jesus invites him in, and assures him that his confession and request is enough… that today as he exits this world that he will enter paradise and continue his relationship with Christ there.
Yesterday, I wrote about the elements of beginning and sustaining a healthy relationship with Christ, but we must not forget that salvation is simple, as simple as the faith of the thief on the cross. This man did not recite a sinner’s prayer, he was neither sprinkled with nor dunked in water as a profession of faith, he never spoke in tongues, he did not have a New Testament to read daily, and he had the opposite of a life of good deeds. Yet, Jesus tells us that assuredly he was saved. This man believed that Jesus was who He said He was, he recognized his depravity, and he asked Jesus to remember him. He put his faith in Christ, and that was enough to save His life.
Jesus himself says: “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven” Matthew 10:32-33. And so, one thief disgraces Christ while the other defends Him. One man gets the death he deserves while the other enters into eternal life in paradise.
It’s that simple, but also that complicated. This tale is beautiful, yet haunting because the truth is that we are not in our last moments, or at least most of us aren’t. We have most of our life yet to live, and more opportunities to deny Christ. That ability to mock and deny him scares me because we are all capable of doing it. That is why we need all those elements of growth and discipline that I wrote about yesterday to support that faith which we know to be true, so that we can boldly acknowledge Jesus before men… but we must also remember the simplicity of the Gospel, that it is by grace through faith that we are saved (Ephesians 2:8-10).
The truth remains that I could have been saved when I was 5 and began singing “Jesus, Remember me when You come into Your Kingdom” every time I realized that I needed God. The truth is that a simple confession and request is enough when it is sincere. I cannot pinpoint my salvation because I cannot know when this deceitful heart was first sincere in its acknowledgment of Christ.
I do know that sixteen years after my first request, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if these were my last moments, “Today, I would assuredly be with Him in Paradise”. After years of traditional Lutheran Easters, my constant prayer is still my favorite hymn. It only has one line and a simple tune, but they are the most beautiful words I have ever spoken: “Jesus, Remember me when I come into Your Kingdom”.