Sunday, April 22, 2007

Beginning with the Resurrection: Homily for 3 Easter

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Amen. (Rev. 5:12)

During these great fifty days of Easter we enter deeply into the mystery of the Resurrection, joining the heavenly chorus singing praises to Jesus, the Lamb that was slaughtered. The vision of Revelation, like the encounters of Paul and Peter with the Risen Christ, remind us that the Lamb that was slain is somehow still a living presence and no mere pious memory. In the words of Archbishop Rowan Williams: “The Church is not ‘founded’ by Jesus of Nazareth as an institution to preserve the recollection of his deeds and words; it is the community of those who meet him as risen and the place where all the world may meet him as risen.”[i]

All of Christian faith and life begins and finds its meaning in the encounter with the Risen Christ. We must begin with the Resurrection, for it is Jesus Crucified and Risen who gives us the means to know and accept ourselves, to make some sense of ourselves and of our world, to tell our story in a way that is coherent and hopeful. It is the Risen Christ who is the source of creative transformation that gives us a new self and a new creation, a new birth, a new way of being human.

But be warned: the encounter with the Risen Christ is not all sweetness and light. Jesus does not come to us as a dead friend, a comforting memory, but as a living stranger: unrecognizable, disconcerting, as one who undoes us and remakes us.[ii] The Resurrection blinds us like Paul, renders us uncomprehending like Peter. In other words, the Risen Christ does not come to us on our terms, subject to our control, in order to affirm us as we are. We undergo the experience of encountering the Risen Christ in spite of ourselves, resisting being drawn into the sphere of the Resurrection’s transformative power.

We see something of the form and power of the Resurrection, and our resistance to it, in a compelling scene from the movie, Blood Diamond. Dia Vandy, a ten-year old boy in Sierra Leone, has been kidnapped and pressed into being a child soldier by Revolutionary United Front rebels. After unimaginable brutalization, including torture and addiction to drugs and alcohol, he is brainwashed into become a machine gun-brandishing killer. He becomes complicit in a terrible regime of violence and death.

Dia Vandy has forgotten who he is. For all intents and purposes, his family is dead and he can no longer discern in himself the traces of the identity they had given him; he is unable to see himself as the object of love, as the vulnerable, precious human being that he is. The well of love within him has dried up. What is left is an unfeeling, self-destructive and terrified shadow of his true self.

What he does not know is that his father, Solomon, is still alive and has not forgotten him. Against all odds and at great risk to himself, Solomon refuses to abandon his son to this terrible fate. He searches tirelessly for his son, daring to enter the rebel camp by night to reveal himself to Dia and bring him home.

At first, Dia refuses to recognize his father, so enslaved has he become to the world of violence he now inhabits. He cries out, “Traitor, traitor,” betraying his father to the rebel leaders. Solomon grabs his son and attempts to escape with him. Dia resists, and in the climactic moment of the film, turns a gun on his father. Solomon looks at Dia directly in the eye, and tells him, “You are Dia Vandy, son of Solomon Vandy. You are a good boy. Your mother misses you and is waiting for you. It is time to come home.”

Then, and only then, there is a flash of recognition: Dia is able to see Solomon for who he is; not one come to condemn him, but to forgive him. And even more important, through this experience of forgiveness, Dia is able to begin to truly recognize who he is: he is not the addict, the unfeeling slave he has become, but rather the good boy that he was created to be, loved beyond his wildest imaging.

This is the form taken by the encounter with the Risen Christ: the form of the forgiving victim, betrayed, abandoned, persecuted, who comes to liberate our desire for life and love from its bondage to fear and shame. As we undergo this encounter, this experience of forgiveness and acceptance, we become able to acknowledge the reality of our life and our world as it is; our hearts our broken. But in that breaking of the heart, the possibility of becoming someone more than we thought we were emerges; someone far more true to the image of God in which we were created.

When Dia recognizes Solomon, he bursts into tears. The full weight of what he has become can finally be acknowledged because it can be forgiven. What has been lost can be grieved because something new is coming into being. The bonds are breaking, his heart is expanding, and the desire for relationship so long denied is now bursting forth. His tears are the sign that he is alive again to his own humanity.

That is what it is like to recognize the Risen Christ. The fear of dying and the shame of being alive that bind our hearts, constricting our life and our capacity to love, are seen for the lie that they are. We are not what we have become. We are so much more, and we can see that “more” reflected back to us in the gaze of the forgiving victim.

I believe that it is fear and shame that blind us to the encounter with Jesus Crucified and Risen. We resist this encounter because it will require us to change and grow in ways we can not imagine or control. As Sebastian Moore says, “We fear the unknown. Especially we fear becoming someone we do not yet know. To liberate the desire for this becoming is to come into the perfect love that casts out fear. I have discerned in myself – and have found others in agreement – the curious fact that I dread not needing the things I now think I can’t live without, more than I dread actually losing those things. Any takers? If you agree here, you have an excellent example of our fear of spiritual growth – a fear stronger than the fear of deprivation. Who really wants to feel like Jesus?”[iii]

This is the fear of the child dreading not needing the night-light even more than turning it off. This is the fear of the alcoholic who dreads not needing alcohol even more than not drinking it. It is the fear of the woman who dreads not needing her lover even more than the end of the relationship. It is the fear of the end-stage cancer patient who dreads not needing to live even more than dying. We cling to those things that define our identity, making us feel safe and secure, even as they stifle our growth and prolong our suffering.

This is what makes Dia initially unwilling to recognize his father: having adapted to survive as a child soldier, he is terrified of the transformation necessary to allow him to both acknowledge his past and transcend it. It is rather like the disciples in John’s Gospel, who after the Crucifixion of Jesus, go back to Galilee to take up fishing again. The suffering that real transformation entails is too much for them, so they go back to what they know, settling for who they have been rather than undergo their heart being broken to become someone new.

Of course, Jesus will not leave them alone, any more than Solomon could leave Dia alone. He comes to forgive them and so empower them to become more than what they are willing to settle for. So Jesus questions Peter, “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” Are you willing to be transformed by the relationship that I desire to have with you even if it brings you to your own cross? Are you ready to grow into someone far greater than you think you are?

Our encounter with the Risen Christ does not leave us unchanged. It liberates our desire to become who we are truly meant to be: to become Christ. Jesus tells Peter, “If you love me, then feed my sheep. Become the Good Shepard that I am. Become me. You are not who you think you have become, a disloyal coward, trapped in your fishing nets. You are the rock upon which I will build my church.”

Just as Dia was invited to grow up to become like Solomon, so we are invited to grow up into the fullness of Christ, to be united with the mystery in which we are given our true identity. And like Solomon, our mission is to seek out the Dia’s of the world, to hold open for them the possibility of forgiveness and to invite them home. Are you willing to accept this invitation? Are you ready to have your heart broken open? Do you trust the person God is creating you to be enough to grow into that identity?

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Amen. (Rev. 5:12)

[i] Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, p. 74.

[ii] Paraphrasing Williams, p. 74.

[iii] Sebastian Moore, Jesus the Liberator of Desire, p. 19.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Desire, Death and Sin

Sebastian Moore argues that desire, our progressive connection with the mystery in which we find our identity, occasions crises of growth in which we must die to our ego to embrace a more truthful and compassionate sense of self-in-relation. He goes on to say that
It is impossible to deal with the growth crises of desire without thinking about death - for death is what we are talking about when we describe the swallowing up by the mystery that characterizes a severe crisis. Let us never forget that the incomprehensibility of God, which can be experienced philosophically with pleasure, can be for the mystic the darkest of nights, and for the bereaved lover death in the soul. It is quite erroneous to think that we do not experience death until we die. If we have lived at all, we know it well. And our memory of having come into fuller life through it should affect the way we think about our certain final death. And if a person's growth is a progressive liberation of desire, and if the person's life moves inexorably toward death, then it would seem natural to regard death as the climax of this process . . . The liberation of desire would then be the meaning of the ending of our space-time confinement. (Jesus the Liberator of Desire, p. 22).
Contra Freud, death is not the final equilibrium, the end; it is the final passage into union with the mystery in which our desire is liberated. This is the truth revealed to the disciples in their encounter with the Risen Christ. Yet, we experience a pervasive resistance to the growth crises that liberate our desire from bondage to the ego; we fear change and so we fear death. Here, Moore makes an important distinction between our normal resistance to change, to ego-death, and sin, our willful refusal of ego-death. He notes that
. . . dying to ego is not the same as dying to sin. It is the dying to present ego-consciousness, a kind of consciousness that is indispensable but comes to a point where growth demands that we move beyond it, at which point sin tries to keep it in place. So dying to ego is dying to sin's anchorage, sin's pretext that one is only human. The fully liberated human being is one in whom the death to ego, undeterred by sin, proceeds with far more vigor. The sinless person dies to ego a great deal more totally than we sinful people do . . . (pp. 31-32)

The difference between sin and the reluctance we experience in face of a challenge to grow is that sin systematically prevents the challenge from presenting itself. Sin idolizes the ego at its present stage of development, whether of the individual or of the whole society, and declares this to be the reality of things. It does this for the individual: The way I have come to see myself and be comfortable with myself - my tastes, my preferences in friends, my sense of gender identity - that is who I am, period. It does it for society: The homogeneity, the like-with-like, of a class, a race, a gender, in which there is nothing wrong per se, gets absolutized into elitism, racism, sexism, and the like. (pp. 32-33)

There is an important difference between the fear of the unknown which is characteristically and beautifully human, and saying that the known is enough. The latter is the pervasive sin of the world, the denial of desire . . . It is the opposition to change in a family, a class, a nation, a race a gender group. Underlying it, assuredly, is the fear of the unknown, of the love into which we are being drawn. But to the extent that that fear is recognized, change becomes possible. Thus the explosive confrontations of the racial drama of the sixties in the South mark the beginning of change - as does the crucifixion of Jesus. A really sinful situation is without fear, except in the unconscious. It is characterized by a huge complacency, a triumphant assertion of the status quo that is unaware of its vulgarity and banality. Some find it epitomized in the shopping mall. (pp. 34-35)
Well, I think you get the picture. There is a certain amount of fear and suffering that accompany normal human growth, that is simply unavoidable. If we are to die to self, to move beyond infantile ego-consciousness into the expansive and embracing love at the heart of the mystery in which we are, there will be challenges and suffering. This is different from the suffering due to sin, the refusal to undergo the progressive death of the ego that liberates our desire for realization of our union with God and God's creation. That is the suffering of the addict, who refuses to grow, and it is the suffering of the poor of the earth, the victims who are denied opportunity to grow so that other's can maintain the status quo.

This, I think, provides us the sense in which we are to understand the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom: the healthy fear that accompanies the risk of vulnerability and love as we find ourselves by giving ourselves away. It is not condemnation that we are to fear, but the process of letting go into God, the realization of the identity that God is giving us that is a kind of death. It is the fear of jumping off a cliff. Sin is the refusal to jump, to acknowledge and move beyond our fear. It is the refusal to allow our hearts to be broken.

Jesus did not refuse the suffering that comes with union with God. He died to ego but without needing to die so sin. We must die to both. How Christ crucified and risen gives us the grace to undergo both of these deaths is at the heart of Moore's theological project.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


I am belatedly "discovering" the work of Sebastian Moore. His Jesus the Liberator of Desire is a brilliant blend of philosophy, ascetical theology, and psychology focused on Christology. Nearly every other sentence sparks a sense of recognition: "Yes, that is what I believe," or "Thank you for putting into words what I've sensed but haven't been able to articulate."

He is well worth quoting at length:
I have long been persuaded that desire is not an emptiness needing to be filled but a fullness needing to be in relation. Desire is love trying to happen . . . Desire does not spring from a sense of emptiness, it is true. But there is in it a sense of incompleteness. As I experience it, it is still in the process of becoming desire, it is still finding its subject. It is still getting a "who" . . . and thus the notion of a person as a relatedness - which gave Augustine his breakthrough on the Trinity - becomes more deeply rooted. The desire whereby I am drawn to another is partly constituitive of who I am. To be drawn to another is to become more myself. (p. 18)
Now, this strikes me as very counter-cultural in the West, where the individual is defined over-against the other rather than in relation-to the other. To be given my identity in relation to others is not something against which we must struggle, but is how the self comes to be at all. It is in relationship that the fullness of who we are comes to expression, overflows.

Of course this scares us to death, because our identity is not something under our control, but rather is something in the process of unfolding as it is given to us. Moore again:
Fear is of the changing of the ego that the progressive unfolding of desire brings about. We fear the unknown. Especially we fear becoming someone we do not as yet know. To liberate the desire for this becoming is to come into the perfect love that casts out fear. I have discerned in myself - and have found others in agreement - the curious fact that I dread not needing the things I now think I can't live without, more than I dread actually losing those things. Any takers? If you agree here, you have an excellent example of our dread of spiritual growth - a fear stronger than the fear of deprivation. Who really wants to feel like Jesus? (p. 19)
Jesus liberates us from the fear of becoming who we are in relationship to others (and to the Other). Moore is restating in contemporary language the anthropology (and pathology) of desire elucidated by St. Paul in Romans. What is striking to me about this is the re-framing of our typical sense of "emptiness" as " repressed fullness." The appropriate metaphor for the human condition is not that of an empty bottled that needs to be filled (the metaphor that advertisers would have us adopt), but rather that of a full bottle that needs to be emptied - that is ready to burst from being stopped up. This has many practical, pastoral implications, I think, in addressing problems as diverse as addiction and global climate change.

We are killing ourselves and the planet by trying to fill an empty bottle. We are trying to solve the wrong problem. We need to empty the bottle, to let go, to give ourselves away to others rather than continually taking from them. As we do so, we discover that the "bottle" is bottomless. A final quote from Moore for today:
The development of desire is a progressive changing of what is desired and who is desiring. That which demands and shapes this changing is the trust-relationship with the mystery in which we live . . . The need to change and grow is the need of this dialogue to deepen. The need for this process to come to a full transformation stems from the ultimacy of the mystery that initiates it. For the finite to become one with the infinite is a total transformation . . . Human identity is in the mystery that we call God. We become who we are to the extent that this mystery is working on us, changing us. (p. 19)
It is this full transformation, this undergoing of union with God that is the way in which we become our selves; it is this process of becoming into which we are baptized in Christ. Moore has a lot more to say about death, suffering, and sin as these relate to this process. More on Moore later, I hope.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Threats Real and Imagined

I have to confess a somewhat masochistic streak: I lurk on Stand Firm far more frequently than is healthy. I recently came across a comment on a post there that reiterated the tired rhetoric of the religious right, to the effect that the "gay agenda" constituted the greatest threat ever to the Christian religion and its institutions. Now, this would be funny were it not so commonplace. It betrays a remarkable ignorance of the extent to which gay men and lesbians historically and presently have been crucial to the maintenance of Christian religious institutions, particularly male clergy. And organists.

Seriously though, I think there are any number of real threats to Christianity and creation that cry out for our attention. Global warming and climate change is probably number one on the list. While some on the right wing of the Church decry our commitment to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, what they fail to realize is that this commitment comes from a recognition of the real threats to Christianity, Christian institutions, and, more importantly, the human project on this planet: the poverty, disease, and oppression that destroy the people of God and the earth that sustains us.

If Christ is the Savior of the world, then his Body, the Church, should be committed to Christ's project of saving (healing) that world, no?

Sebastian Moore has identified what I take to be the real threat we face, that which undergirds the maintenance of all the other death-dealing forces arrayed before us: the loss of hope and of community. "The world to which the Christian story no longer speaks," writes Moore, "is a world in which individualism has deadened the nerve of a common hope that has been unforgettably quickened, traumatized, and re-enlivened with the joy of God." (Jesus the Liberator of Desire, p. x)

The is surely true in the West, where our growing consumerism, social mobility and consequent isolation, our very "success" has reduced our world to what we can make, sell, buy, and control. It is a small world indeed, without connection, without mystery, and without hope. Community, and particularly the memory it carries, is the source of hope. The Church, if it is to be about the work of saving, healing, must create communities capable of memory and therefore of hope: the memory of the Forgiving Victim who sets us free from our isolation and fear and obsession to be for others in healing community.

Just yesterday I found myself in conversation with a young man, Sam, after our Taize worship service. He had become interested in contemplative prayer and was looking for a place to practice silence in community. He intuitively recognizes and longs for what we need to counter the real threats we face: a willingness to acknowledge the mystery at the heart of things, to give up our quest for control, so that we can be present to others in their vulnerability and need. He wants to know Christ, to die to self so that Christ may live in him!

Sam is pointing the way forward: compassionate service grounded in contemplative community. He understands the real threat. This is the way forward for those of us "who are suffering a double oppression: of a worn-out but still discouraging secularism, and of an ineptly resumed ecclesiastical tyranny." (Moore again) So, let us ignore the comic attempts at control exerted by Pompous Primates and patiently awaken the latent hunger for mystery and meaning within the secular culture that finds us curious if not frightening. For it is the loss of hope that is the real threat we face.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

On Class Fairies and Resurrection

Thus says the Lord,

“I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.” Amen. (Isaiah 65:18)

This morning I want to try to explain what it means to say that Jesus died to save us, and describe the shape of the Resurrection in our lives. There will be very little that is original in what I am about to say and I hope nothing unorthodox, although the WAY in which I say it may seem unusual to some. Here, I will borrow an insight of James Alison, who argues cogently that Jesus saved us by becoming the equivalent of the “Class Fairy.”[i]

You all know what I mean by the “class fairy.” In my elementary, middle and high school years in Indiana, his name was Michael Clark. Michael (never Mike – that would have been far too butch) was a little guy with glasses. He didn’t quite lisp, but there was a certain hurried, superior, smarmy tone to his voice, as in “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

Michael was smart, but he couldn’t throw a baseball to save his life. He sang well enough, but walked with a little swish. It was actually painful to watch him run. He never caused anyone any harm, yet he was the kid who got pushed around on the playground, was always picked last when choosing teams, and was forced to endure whispers of “faggot” – or worse – when he walked down the halls.

I realized early on that Michael served a very important purpose. He occupied the place of shame in our social world so that the rest of us could feel normal and acceptable. He reinforced our sense of being right and good by defining for us what it meant to be bad and terminally “uncool.” We needed Michael very badly. Our sense of identity and security depended upon him.

While I never teased Michael to his face or threatened him like some others did, I quietly mocked him and treated him with contempt to reinforce my own sense of belonging to the “in crowd.” Being class fairy was a kind of impurity, and I didn’t want to be tainted by association. I didn’t want to get anywhere near the place of shame that he occupied.

“Now, nobody goes voluntarily into that space of being cursed,” observes Alison. “The person who is put there feels all the pain and shame of ostracism, of being cast out, of loss, of different forms of death. It feels like being destroyed, and that’s exactly what it is. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about such suffering, pain and loss: the identity which the group is giving that person is one of nothingness and death. Any of us would do anything we could to avoid such a fate, including making . . . sure that it’s someone else who occupies that space in our group, and if that fails, then we are pushed kicking and screaming into that place and are destroyed by it.”[ii]

I was certain that if I were to be under the same curse, occupying the space of shame in which Michael lived, I would die. As far as I was concerned, Michael was dead. He was socially dead and on his way to literal death. After all, who could survive under such conditions?

So things were left there when we graduated from high school. I was sure I’d never see Michael Clark again. Fast forward eight years. I’m finally making my first tentative forays into accepting myself as a gay man, albeit a very closeted one. I’m in a gay bar in Chicago and who do I run into but Michael Clark. I’m nearly speechless with surprise (and shame at being discovered); oddly enough, he doesn’t act the least surprised to see me.

But what really astonished me is that, while I’m all tied up in knots with fear and shame, he is completely relaxed and welcoming. Not only does he not throw my hypocrisy in my face, or hold the past against me in any way, he doesn’t even seem aware that I’ve done anything wrong: all that is forgotten. Instead, he is excited to invite me into becoming someone entirely new, free to occupy the place of shame in which he has been living with a complete sense of peace, freedom, and even joy.

I thought the place of shame was a tomb and that I would find Michael Clark’s dead body there. But the tomb was empty. Here he was, standing in front of me, happily employed raising money for a nonprofit and happily married to his hunky blond husband! More than that, while I had fled from the place of shame to Chicago, Michael was just visiting. He and his husband had bought a house on the same block where he had grown up in our hometown. He was no longer defined by the place of shame; in fact, he was redefining it in light of the new creation that he was becoming, someone loved and loveable with a tremendous capacity for compassion and forgiveness.

Thus says the Lord,

“I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.”

Now, what I want to suggest to you is that God comes to us in Jesus to willingly occupy the place of shame. Rather than being the one who justifies our normal way of creating human identity and morality with good and evil being defined over against each other so as to set up insiders vs. outsiders, pure vs. impure; rather than offering blessing and curse; rather than being a god who requires sacrificial victims; God comes to us in Jesus in solidarity with outsiders, the impure, society’s victims, as one who protests the usual way of constructing human identity and security at the expense of others.

In his life and death, Jesus reveals to us that with God there is no curse, only blessing; no condemnation of sinners, only forgiveness and the opportunity for new life; no sacrifice, only mercy. By occupying the space of shame freely, without fear or resentment, but peacefully, gracefully, and openly, Jesus demonstrates the vulnerability of God. Through his death on the cross, Jesus saves us by making it possible for us to see that our vulnerability can give rise to compassion and therefore healing; our vulnerability doesn’t have to be the source of fear and shame giving rise to rivalry, violence, and death.

God comes to us in Jesus to transform the space of shame, so that it no longer need define us as insiders and outsiders, which is a nice way of saying oppressors and victims. In his Resurrection, Jesus takes the form of the forgiving victim, allowing us to acknowledge the mendacity of our dependence upon class fairies to give us meaning by showing us our complicity in the mechanism of curse, yet without condemning us. The Resurrection takes shape in our lives as we come to accept this forgiveness and no longer seek to define ourselves over against anyone or anything; accepting instead the identity that God is giving us as a people loved just as we are, just because we are and not in terms of anything else.

As we come to participate in this new identity that God is creating, our former way of life, formed by the space of shame, is forgotten. It doesn’t hold any power over our imagination. We are too busy delighting in what we are becoming, too preoccupied with the joy of sharing in God’s great project of healing the world, to be defined as, or over against, the class fairy.

This was the great gift that Michael Clark gave to me, good Catholic boy as well as class fairy that he is: the sense that just maybe I could occupy the space of shame with Jesus, and transform it from the inside out into a place of creative and compassionate potential for becoming human, becoming vulnerable as God is vulnerable. Maybe the place of shame, of crucifixion, could actually lead to Resurrection.

Thus says the Lord,

“I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.” Amen. (Isaiah 65:18)

[i] See, for example, James Alison, “the place of shame and the giving of the Spirit” in Undergoing God: dispatches from the scene of a break-in (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2006), pp. 204-209.
[ii] Ibid, p. 204-205.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Today you will be with me in Paradise

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Amen. (Luke 23:39-43)

On Palm Sunday we are given a preview of the Passion narrative, the story of Jesus’ death, which we will explore more deeply and with growing dramatic intensity as we journey the way of the Cross in the coming days leading to Easter. The Church, in its wisdom, has given us the Passion narrative in full today, so that we might make it the source of our meditation throughout Holy Week. As we prepare to do so, I invite you to begin with the story of the two criminals executed along with Jesus.

While the two criminals appear in each of the four canonical Gospels, Luke’s version is unique. In Mark and Matthew, both of the criminals taunt and reject Jesus. In John, the criminals do not interact with Jesus at all. Only in Luke do we have this contrast between the criminal who taunts Jesus along with the rulers and soldiers, and the criminal who recognizes Jesus as the Christ. It is a remarkable story. Why does Luke tell it in this way?

I think that Luke wishes to demonstrate the continuity between Jesus’ ministry and his dying. Even on the cross, Jesus reaches out to embrace the socially marginalized. Who is more socially marginal, more excluded, than a criminal being executed? Jesus, who stood in solidarity with outcasts and sinners, feeding them, healing them, welcoming them as children of God throughout his life, continues to do so until his last breath.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus already reveals himself to be the Christ here, on the cross, in his complete identification with the lost, the last, and the least. In so doing, he bodies forth the very love of God that embraces saint and sinner alike. In receiving this love, one criminal is moved to cry out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” For those who accept this love, Paradise can be found today, as Jesus tells the repentant criminal; no need to wait three days, or a lifetime, or for the end of time to experience the Resurrection. The kingdom of God is here and now, even in the midst of suffering.

Jesus, hanging on the cross, is already the Savior, the one who brings healing. Or, more properly, he continues to be the Savior, he demonstrates the truth of his identity consistently and to the end – and beyond. This is astonishing, but what is even more remarkable to me is that it is this criminal, despised and rejected like Jesus, who has the eyes to see this truth. Not the religious leaders; not the rulers of the world; not even Jesus’ disciples, his closest friends and followers; no, they remain blind. Some of them will come to see the truth in the light of the Resurrection, but it is only this guilty sinner receiving his just reward, who sees Jesus clearly even in his darkest moment.

But what is that he sees in Jesus? Here, I can only speculate, but I do so based on what we know of Jesus’ presence and similar responses it often evokes in others. I believe that this repentant criminal sees God in the face of Jesus, sees himself reflected in that face as the object of God’s love.

Archbishop Rowan Williams has written that “Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.” (The Body's Grace) The repentant criminal hanging next to Jesus comes to perceive himself as one who is desired and loved by God. He begins to see himself as God sees him. He stands at the entrance to Paradise.

Repentance, then, begins by seeing ourselves as God sees us. When we do so, we find the courage to acknowledge the reality of guilt and suffering and loss in our lives, without allowing these to define us; even in the middle of life’s crucifixions we remain held in the gaze of our divine lover and know that we are so much more than what meets the eye.

One of the criminals finds the courage to see himself whole, both good and bad, and receive the love that is offered. The other criminal refuses to repent, remaining locked in an identity that is determined by judgment and curse, unwilling to reciprocate God’s loving glances. This unrepentant criminal looks in the face of Jesus and can see only the projection of his self-hatred. He has not yet allowed God’s perception of him to penetrate his defenses.

We are, all of us, hanging on the cross next to Jesus as we enter Holy Week. That cross takes different form at different times in our life. Perhaps for you, the cross is a life-threatening struggle with addiction that spirals down again just when you think you’ve hit bottom. Perhaps it is a painful divorce that turns everything you thought you knew about yourself and your beloved upside down. Perhaps is it an unrelenting chronic illness, or simply the uncertainties and gradual losses that come with age; the fear that comes with losing control of our body and of our life.

We all have our crosses, our dire moments, when we despair of love and of life. But no matter how low we have gone, no matter how dark our night, it is precisely here, on the cross, that the most powerful transformation can happen. God loves you, right here, right now, as one whom God enjoys, whose joy brings God joy. There is Resurrection on the other side of the Cross. If you can but find the courage to cry out, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom!,” the response will be, will always be: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Amen.