Thursday, March 24, 2016

Do Not Presume One of the Thieves was Damned

Sermon preached on the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016  at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, New York:  John 19:1-42

          When I was in college in Plattsburgh, I became friends with a local family who attended the same church I did.  The father of the family happened to be an Episcopal priest who was the protestant chaplain at Dannemora State Prison (yes, the prison that was in the news not long ago).

          On the grounds of the prison is a very beautiful chapel dedicated to St. Dismas, the good thief.  Early Christianity was fascinated with the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus, and gave them names:  Dismas, the good thief, and Gestas, the bad one.

          These names are taken from the fourth century apocryphal gospel, the Gospel of Nicodemus.  In that apocryphal gospel, after Jesus has died, Dismas goes on to accompany Christ on his journey to Hell to redeem the dead. This occurs between his death and the resurrection.  It is what is referred to when we say the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended to the dead,” or, in more traditional language, “he descended into hell.”

          Luke’s story of Dismas and Gestas seems obvious.  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.[1]

          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 (3:18-20 & 4:6).  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.”  I mentioned its sneaking into the Apostles’ Creed, but it also plays a part in Christian art—especially Orthodox icons.  Orthodox icons of the resurrection do not show an empty tomb with a triumphant Jesus.  No, Orthodox icons of the resurrection are really icons of the harrowing of hell.  The icons show the results of this visit to the dead, 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 of Jesus’ entering hell, 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 a few years ago, 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.

          As Luke tells the passion story we are meant to appreciate the words of the good thief and reject those of the bad.  But who among us has never asked his question in some form or another:

If you are God, why don’t you do something to get me out of this mess?

          Gestas was a sinner, yes, indeed, but no more so than you or me.  We judge him at our peril.  The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was as much for him as for anybody.  If he was in hell, Jesus and Dismas were there to lift him up among the redeemed.

[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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