Friday, April 09, 2010

Left Hanging?

Sermon preached on Palm Sunday at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Luke 22:14--23:56

All over the south—and this was true in Maryland even—you can see three crosses: in people’s yards, in fields, in front of churches. I’ve never been quite sure, but I think it’s a Southern Baptist thing. The Southern Baptist Church around the corner from St. George’s, Glenn Dale where I was had three crosses in its yard.

If you’ve seen them you know I’m not talking about little yard decorations. These things are twelve feet tall or more. The central one is always taller, and sometimes, at least it seemed to me, whiter.

What is the symbolism of the three crosses? Well, of course it comes from the Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—who tell us that Jesus was crucified with two thieves or bandits, one on either side of him. Matthew and Mark just mention them. In Luke they play a significant part in the story. They have their own scene, if you will.

These two criminals have caught the popular imagination from the beginning. The fourth century apocryphal gospel, the Gospel of Nicodemus, gives them names. The good thief is Dismas; the other one Gestas. Dismas goes on to accompany Christ on his journey to Hell to redeem the dead. This occurs between his death and the resurrection. I first became aware of the name Dismas when I got to know the prison chaplain at Dannemora State Prison in the North Country where there is a beautiful little chapel called St. Dismas.

Luke’s story of Dismas and Gestas seems obvious. In one sense it seems like a picture of the choice before each one of us. Be like Dismas and associate yourself with Christ or be like Gestas and reject him. If you accept him you will join him in paradise. If you reject him you will be left hanging.

There is a saying attributed to St. Augustine (although no one has ever been able to find it in his writings) about the two thieves that is intriguing and may open up another possibility:

Do not despair one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume one of the thieves was damned.

Now what these two lines mean depend on where you put the punctuation. The oldest Latin forms of it that exist do not have any punctuation. One assumes there should be a semi-colon after despair in the first line: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.” It doesn’t make sense any other way.

If you put a parallel semi-colon after “presume” in the second line, the line becomes a warning: “Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” But if there is no semi-colon it means an entirely different thing: “Do not presume one of the thieves was damned.”

What if that is what is being said? What happened to Gestas, the “unrepentant thief?” The Bible is actually silent. We assume that he went to hell. We have always assumed he went to hell. But do we need to reserve judgment?

Can the news be this good?

I spoke earlier of the Gospel of Nicodemus’ story that Dismas, the good thief, accompanied Jesus to hell to preach the good news to those trapped there. That story rose up among the first followers of Jesus after the resurrection. The First Letter of Peter refers twice to the story. It seemed to answer a question that troubled early believers. What happened to all those who had died before Jesus was raised from the dead? There was a special concern for Adam and Eve and for those who died in the great flood when God had destroyed the earth.

So the story was told of what Jesus did between his death and resurrection. It is sometimes called “the Harrowing of Hell.” The Apostles’ Creed mentions it simply as “he descended to the dead,” or “he descended into hell.” And Christian art—especially Orthodox icons—of the results of this visit usually show Jesus standing on the broken gates of hell. He is hauling up Adam with one hand and Eve with the other.

Our eyes might role at the quaintness of the story, but the image is a powerful one, and its meaning even more so. No place and no one is out of reach of the love of God in Christ Jesus. That, of course, would mean Gestas too, and, by the way, you and me.

A writer in The Christian Century last week, David Cunningham, commented on the story of the two thieves this way:

While we are busy dividing up the world into the saved and the damned, God is at work on an entirely different project: reconciling the world—the whole world—to one another and to God’s own self.[2]

The good news of the cross is this good: do not presume one of the thieves was damned. Do not presume that Gestas was left hanging.

[1] I found this in an article in The Christian Century by David Cunningham: “The Fate of the Other Thief: “Do not presume,” March 23, 2010, p. 30. The idea for this sermon came from that article.
[2] Ibid., p. 33. Cunningham teaches religion and directs the CrossRoads Project at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

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