Criminal on the Cross: Confession

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on May 29, 2016)

“Jesus, Remember me…when you come into your Kingdom.” The words to that song we just sang come straight from the mouth of the criminal who was crucified next to Jesus.

We sing that song just about every time we gather for our once a month Taize service, and the singing of that song often feels to me like the heart of the service. It’s the time when we can choose how to respond to God: to offer confession or prayers, to gather at the front around a physical wood cross, or to eat bread dipped in grape juice as a sign of our need for God.

Why would we sing the words of this criminal? In part, because it acknowledges our need. Our need for rescue. Our need to be remembered and not forgotten by Jesus. Our need for a hope of something beyond this experience of life, this wounding, sometimes self-sabotaging, mistake- and sin-filled life.

We’re digging into Luke 23 and into confession today. I wasn’t originally going to have us look at this part of Luke, with Jesus on the cross with two criminals, but on Monday I made the change. I knew I wanted us to embrace confession as a way of preparing the spiritual soil of our lives. In all honesty, confession has been so incredibly life giving to me…it has, more than just about anything, brought vitality in my life with God, my relationships with others, and is the means by which I have seen more change in me than just about anything else.

But I haven’t really thought of the criminal on the cross and how well he exemplifies the breadth of the word “confession”. There are two major parts of confession, and we’ll see them both. One aspect of confession is admitting when we’ve done wrong, coming clean and agreeing with God that our behavior is destructive and doesn’t meet what God desires of us. We think of this part of confession most often, I think, because of courtroom dramas where the killer confesses, or because we picture a Roman Catholic confessional booth. A big part of confession is admitting when we’ve done wrong and expressing remorse and a desire to change.

Another major part of confession in the spiritual sense is to confess or testify or proclaim the true nature of Jesus. This sense comes out in places like Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This part of confession is agreeing with God that Jesus is Lord of all creation, God in the flesh. It is what we proclaim as the heart of our faith.

The common thread to both of these aspects of confession is agreeing with God.

The first part is agreeing with God about ourselves, and the second part is agreeing with God about who Jesus is. Confession in both of these ways is absolutely essential to living with Jesus in charge of our lives, and both aspects of confession are on full display with one of the criminals who is crucified next to Jesus, the one the song stole the words from. Turn with me to Luke 23, and read along as I read verses 32-43.

For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals–one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”
The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
There was a written notice above him, which read:this is the king of the jews.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him:“Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. ’”
Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:32-43, TNIV)

I don’t think I had ever noticed before that both of the criminals ask for the same thing. They both ask Jesus to be saved. Granted, the first does it sarcastically and to mock Jesus, but they both ask to be saved, and only one is given the promise of paradise. It’s a reminder to me of something very obvious to some of us, but which needs to be said as clearly as possible from time to time: our response to Jesus has eternal consequences.

If you’ve listened to me more than about 3 or 4 times, chances are you’ve heard me talk about God’s unbreakable love for every person. Chances are you’ve heard me talk about Jesus and his persistent pursuit of every person on the planet. I’m a bit of a broken record about these themes! And I will keep being so.

Yet there’s another piece that also must be said. God’s love was equal for both of these criminals. The power of Jesus’ death and resurrection was great enough for both of them and for all of us. But the spiritual reality, the practical reality, the life reality is this: every one of us does need to respond and accept that love and transforming power, and both of the aspects of confession are essential parts of that response.

In the broader context of Luke 23, many are mocking Jesus.

It’s by no means just the first criminal. Soldiers, rulers, jeering people saw Jesus nailed to that cross, and to them it was proof that he was not truly sent from God, that he was a fraud. Seeing Jesus on the cross made it impossible for them to confess him as Lord, made it impossible to agree with God that Jesus was Savior.

The first criminal is the crystal clear example of this anti-confession, this inability to accept and agree that Jesus is the way of salvation. Verse 39 says the criminal hung there, on a cross like Jesus, waiting to die like Jesus, and he used that time to hurl insults and mock Jesus. “Aren’t you the Messiah?” (With clear indication that he doesn’t believe that to be true.) If so, “Save yourself and us,” you big fraud.

And just as he rejects agreeing with God about who Jesus is, he also rejects accepting and agreeing that he is a criminal, that he has done wrong. At the very least, he is choosing not to focus on it, not to use the last moments of his life to express remorse for the things he’s done wrong. Instead, with his last breaths, he chooses not to look inward, but to look outward and mock Jesus.

That is such a natural example of human nature. We do not like admitting our wrong. We would rather shift the focus from that uncomfortable introspection, and blame or mock others, just as the first criminal does. Criminal one is the anti-confessor, in both senses of the word, refusing to agree with God about who Jesus is or about what he himself has done to deserve this punishment of death.

But the second criminal is a perfect mirror, a brilliant example of both aspects of confession.

First he confesses and agrees with God that both criminals have done wrong, both are deserving of this punishment. Verse 41. “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” That’s confession. Rather than blame or attack, it’s a clear admission of wrong.

Then comes the confession and proclamation, the agreement with God about who Jesus is: “But this man has done nothing wrong!”

This is remarkable! Three on the cross, seeming by all appearances to be guilty. Many, if not most of the crowd look at Jesus on the cross and see it as evidence of his failure to be from God. But this second criminal sees a huge difference; he agrees that two of them deserve it, confessing his own wrong in the process…and he agrees with God that Jesus is different, has done nothing wrong.

The cross does not keep him from accepting Jesus as Lord! It’s a remarkable leap of faith…it is in many ways THE leap of faith, the one that all who want Jesus to remember them must figure out how to make.

One of the ancient church leaders, Maximus of Turin, was overcome by how remarkable this second criminal was:

“The Lord also correctly gives paradise to him, because on the..cross the thief confesses the one whom Judas Iscariot had sold in the garden. This is a remarkable thing. The thief confesses the one whom the disciple denied! This is a remarkable thing, I say. The thief honors the one who suffers, while Judas betrayed the one who kissed him! The one peddled flattering words of peace, and the other preached the wounds of the cross.” [Quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture]

“Remember me, Jesus! When you enter your kingdom.”

Do you see why we steal his words? This one phrase shows both parts of confession. I need you to remember me! I need your help! I need your salvation! I mess things up on my own, I know that, I admit it. I need you to remember me!

And “when you enter your kingdom” is the confession, the acknowledgement, the agreement with God that Jesus is bringing God’s kingdom like no one else can or will.  Joel Green writes: “Like other marginalized persons in the Third Gospel, the second criminal, this religious and social outsider, thus exercises astounding insight into the status and identity of Jesus.”

We are called to both parts of confession. And not as a duty…maybe it is better to say, we are offered the freeing opportunity of confession, to agree with God about our own failures and mess ups, to agree with God that Jesus is God in the flesh and offers the power for us to be changed.

This is our hope! Yes, God loves all of us no matter what…God has already done, through Jesus, all that is needed for us to be with God forever…but we see from the two different responses and the two different results of the criminals on either side of Jesus that our response to what Jesus has done is crucial, that it makes a difference for us now and forever. Confession is our hope!

I’ve been reading a new and very thick book on the Inklings, the famous group of Oxford Christians who met together from the 1930’s to the 1950’s.

Last November I got to visit one of their famous meeting places, “The Eagle and Child” (or the “Bird and Baby” as it is affectionally known.)


The most famous members are C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien, “Jack” and “Tollers” as they called each other. I’ve loved both of their writings since I was a kid, and have known about the Inklings for a long time, amazed to think what it would have been like to be part of that group!

So I visited The Eagle and Child with our daughter Natalie, and it’s our daughter Hayley who gave me this new book for my birthday.

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 10.19.36 PM

Just this week, I read in the Inklings book about Lewis’ allegory called The Great Divorce. Lewis imagined people dying, and their spirits or ghosts being brought on a bus to heaven, where everything is so much more real and substantial than these shades or ghosts.

The point Lewis makes is that they keep getting the chance to choose heaven, and they keep refusing. He’s not so much talking about what really happens after death; he’s using fantasy to highlight how important our choice is, how much in us has difficulty confessing. We don’t like admitting that the way we’ve been living our whole lives might be killing us. We don’t like admitting we need help, we need rescue, we need God. The Inklings book quotes what one spirit known as “the Big Man” says in the Great Divorce, and then these authors go on to give their own summary:

“‘I came here to get my rights, see?’ says the Big Man, ‘Not to go sniveling along on charity tied onto your apron-strings.’ Almost all hold fast to their sins, decline the offer of remediation and forgiveness, refuse the promised joy as an all-too-easy answer to their problems or an insult to their dignity, and eventually return to the grey town to be consumed by their resentments.” (The Fellowship p. 316)

Can you see how this is so often us?

Even good, church-going, super nice people like us. We don’t like being dependent, even when it comes to God. We’d rather earn our way. It takes courage and eating humble pie to admit: I’m not able to live my life as I would like, as God intends. I’m not able to keep myself from hurting myself and others.

This week I read an article posted by our own Eric Muhr, written by a woman named Leigh Finnegan. She writes about how we’re trained to not admit things, remembering what her grandmother taught her dad: “‘Never hang your dirty laundry out to dry.’ In other words, if you do something indecent, or experience any of those pesky feelings like grief or shame, be a good dear and keep it to yourself.”

But that isn’t the way of the second criminal, the way of confession. And, not surprisingly, research is starting to catch up to this truth. Finnegan goes on: “We now know that vulnerability — a.k.a. showing up as one’s true self — is essential to emotional well being…I know it sounds counterintuitive — mostly because the times I’ve had to share my shame story it felt akin to what I imagine being skinned alive feels like—but the act of confession holds within it the promise of freedom. It is truly the only thing that has ever allowed me to forgive myself and move on. And in that way, it has been a gift.”

I add my voice to this, as loudly as I can! Confession has been the way to freedom… back in college, when it was forced upon me, and since then through years of intentional practice. Even this very week, I can think of two examples off the top of my head where I had to practice it again.

My own embarrassment about a mistake I made caused me to snap angrily at someone in my family this week, and I couldn’t shake the guilt and the negative aspects of that until I went and apologized, admitting that I had behaved badly and not in line with how I want to act.

Or yesterday, when I had to go for a run, and I had to work through my feelings about two people who had said things that hurt me, that made me want to lash back at them. I wrestled with it for quite awhile on the run, but what finally got me out of the head-cycle of fury and stuckness was to repeat the Jesus prayer over and over again: “Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Well, would you look at that?

One of the oldest prayers in the life of the Christian Church, this Jesus prayer…it has both aspects of confession in it, confessing Jesus as God and admitting our own sins and asking for mercy.

Friends, so much points to how important confession is. May we see it as our hope of the promise of freedom! May we practice both parts of confession regularly and often, as difficult as it can sometimes be.

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