It is possible that no biblical verse causes more unintended theological debate than Luke 23:43: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Cuz we’ve got this whole theology of resurrection—you’re asleep in Christ and raised at the last—but apparently one of the guys crucified with Jesus gets an all access pass to heaven. And we say in the Creed that Jesus died and descended into Hell. But he told this guy they were headed to Paradise. Now, I don’t know, and maybe the old AC/DC song is right, and “Hell Ain’t A Bad Place to Be,” but something’s not adding up. And the thing is none of this is what Luke intended when he wrote that Jesus said this.
What is Paradise? What does Jesus mean? Paradise is a Persian word. Paradise is the king’s garden, or the king’s forest. It is a place of rest and recreation. When Jews translated the Bible into Greek, they used that word, Paradise, for the Garden God plants in Eden. And so it enters the vocabulary as God’s Garden, God’s place where all is how it is supposed to be, the place of God’s rest. What exactly Luke thought about resurrection versus afterlife, I don’t know. The idea, here, is Jesus tells a man, today you and I will rest from all that has happened. We will take a break from what is happening.
What is happening is something very wrong. It’s Triple Crucifixion Friday here at Skull Stadium, or “The Skull” as we call it. I don’t care who you’re crucifying, crucifixion is messed up. Jesus says as the soldiers attach him to the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” It expresses Jesus’ observation: these people do not see a problem with crucifying someone. That can be changed. Take the crowd in the passion. The crowd is malleable. On Palm Sunday, the people praise Jesus. Out of the blue when Jesus is before Pilate they cry out “crucify him,” which is a big change of heart. By the time Jesus dies that afternoon that same crowd walks home beating their breasts, upset and what happened (and probably at their role in it). People can change. How do you get to thinking that crucifixion is okay, or not okay? It has to do with the stories we tell about who we are.
The stories we tell about who we are—they’re real. We tell them, believe them, and act accordingly. They’re still stories. They don’t necessarily match the facts. For example, I used to live near Baltimore, MD. Baltimore is kept going on the story that literally everything that happens is part of a conspiracy against the Baltimore Ravens football team. Everything. Traffic signal breaks. Rains on Tuesday. It’s a conspiracy against the Ravens. It’s not true, but it is the story the city tells about itself.
What’s the story that says crucifixion is good? It’s Rome’s story. Rome’s story is “peace through victory.” The world is primitive, chaotic, and dangerous. Rome’s republic is sophisticated, stable, and safe. Rome’s legions protect. Rome does not conquer; it brings peace and stability. Rome does not install puppet kings; it helps local government. Rome does not subdue rebellions and annex territory; it deals with disorder and civilizes the uncivilized. That’s the story. Roman power keeps the peace. Crucifixions demonstrate Rome’s power. Crucifixion is intentional overkill, so everyone can rest assured that Rome is stronger than the primitive, chaotic, and dangerous. Jesus says the soldiers crucifying him don’t know what they’re doing. He means they’re so immersed in Rome and Rome’s story that they think Triple Crucifixion Friday is good and correct.
The Sanhedrin is okay with crucifying Jesus, too. It’s all because of the stories they tell about themselves. They’re preserving their faith traditions. The Sanhedrin has multiple competing traditions. You’ve got Sadducees who say that only the Torah is, there’s no resurrection, and no worship outside of the Temple. You’ve got Pharisees who say the whole Bible is scripture, there is a resurrection, and temple purity rules apply to daily life. Both agree Jesus is dangerous. Jesus in the New Testament sounds like a Jew from outside of Palestine, who goes to synagogue but doesn’t keep all the purity laws, and who focuses on the Love Commandment over the rest. So, the Sanhedrin’s story is that Jesus is part of this threat to tradition. That’s the first charge they bring to Pilate: “We found this man perverting our nation.” So, crucifixion by Rome is okay because it lets us get back to normal.
We have stories we tell about ourselves. They’re real stories, but not necessarily true. We have a story that race is real. The biological difference is just melanin—skin pigment. But we have a story that light skin is normal. Dark skinned people are unpredictable and violent and stupid. That story is everywhere. Band Aids are meant to blend in, which they do if you have light skin. (Band Aid brand has gotten better about this.) Facial recognition software does not work well on dark-skinned faces, because the designers did not consider those “normal.” Our culture says whiteness is normal. We have this idea of whiteness and people either fit it or don’t.
We have a story about gender. It says there are two genders. It says they’re radically different. I’ve heard the claim that men differ genetically from women as much as men differ genetically from male chimpanzees. Well, yeah, the genes that control sex characteristics are the same in male humans and male chimps, but the ones that make a human, human, are the same in men and women. And those are big differences from chimps. We tell a story that says men are tough, scatterbrained, quick to anger, good at math, sexually aggressive, and women are weak, focused to obsessiveness, patient, bad at math, and sexually passive. These stories affect what we do, what we expect from others. These stories generate Ideals that get between you and me. I wind up relating to those Ideals instead of the real people.
Jesus does not seem to have those Ideals. For Jesus, it’s just him and his co-humans. Hanging from a cross, a man says to Jesus, also hanging from a cross, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Now, Rome only crucifies non-citizens or slaves who are rebels or committed violent crimes. That’s how Jesus is charged: “The King of the Jews.” Claims to be a king; he’s a rebel. This man crucified with him is also a non-citizen convicted either of violent crime or rebellion, and who considers his own sentence warranted. Jesus does not see a violent rebellious non-citizen male who fits all those ideas and the stories about them. He sees a human. Even dying on a cross, Jesus does not relate to the story about Violent, the story about Rebel, the story about Non-Citizen, the story about Male. Jesus relates to the person. And he offers him rest in God’s Garden.
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” We’ll get a break from this and be in the Garden God planted in Eden. Where things are the way God intends. Where it’s you and me, or God and me. That’s how it is intended. Where do things go wrong for Adam and Eve? They go wrong when the serpent convinces them that there’s a sinister story about God, that God’s lying to them, that God is a category or Ideal and not the person they know, that they can join God in that category or Ideal if only they eat the fruit. Satan separates the people from God, sets up stories and ideas about God. We buy into them. We lose Paradise. Jesus gives is again.
Here with Christ on his throne, the cross, on Christ the King Sunday, the end of a Church Year and the end of the Three-Year Lectionary, the last word—the takeaway is that Jesus gives Paradise. Rest from all the stories we tell about ourselves. Rest from Rome, from having to be stronger and holding others down. Rest from Sanhedrin, preserving what we think was tradition. Rest from Race, the idea that skin tone has meaning. Rest from Gender and the roles we think we must play. At the cross we are just co-humans and God.
Jesus gives us Paradise. It’s part of God’s promise to us in baptism: we are united with Christ in a death like his. We’re the one on the cross next to him, where we are just co-humans. And all the stories we tell about ourselves are crucified. And all the stories the world tells about us are crucified. And all the stories we tell about others are crucified. And Christ lives in us and for us, crucified with us, risen with us, and coming again with us.