Sermon: The Thief on the Cross

Wednesday in the Fifth Week of Lent
Listen to the Sermon here.

Note: This sermon is adapted in large part from a series of sermons by Martin Luther and published under the title “Sermons on the Passion of Christ.”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

As the sun beat down on the hill of Golgotha, two thieves were nailed to crosses on either side of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. The first thief had always been a sceptic. Despite hearing the rumours surrounding this man’s teachings and miracles, he never believed them. The thief watched and listened to the crowd gathered around the crosses. The Messiah was supposed to free them from the Romans and establish a kingdom on earth. But, the religious leaders were confident that messiahs were not crucified.

The thief joined his voice with those standing at Jesus’ cross’s foot. What an embarrassment to die next to this lunatic. “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” the man shouts at Jesus. Not even a condemned criminal had any respect for Christ the King. This thief was an unbeliever who refused the salvation next to him. He mocked the only Savior that there is. Even in the despair of death, he’s full of hatred and mockery. His salvation is next to him, but he refuses to see it. In that Jesus, he could have found pardon for his sins, acquittal before God, and the promise of Paradise. But he would not have it. Instead, he mocks Jesus even in death.

But there was another thief who was fully aware of his wrongdoings. He admits that he must now pay the ultimate price for his sins. The fear of impending death overcomes the other thief. And amid his pain and the shouting of the crowds, the weight of his sin envelops him. He knows that he has no ground to stand on. He must acknowledge that he has nothing to offer to God, no good deeds or personal merit to outweigh his bad. He even reprimands his fellow convict. His response is humble and honest: “We’re getting what we deserve for our actions, but this Man hasn’t done anything wrong.” He openly admits that the gruesome fate he faces is well-deserved.

What’s truly astonishing, though, is that this criminal can maintain hope despite his deep sense of guilt and fear of divine retribution. He didn’t give in to the overwhelming scepticism and mockery directed at Jesus by those standing by, including both the secular and religious authorities. The whole world was offended at the sight of Christ on the cross and refused to acknowledge His significance. Even Jesus’ disciples, with some standing by the cross, had lost all hope.

This thief on the right overcomes the obstacle of doubt and dares to call Christ, hanging beside him on the cross, his Lord and King. He defies the world’s opinions. He disregards what others might think and boldly proclaims that Christ is the eternal ruler. His words are clear: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” He acknowledges Christ as Lord recognizes His Kingdom and pleads for Him to remember him upon entering it. It was clear that neither of them would live to see the evening. Yet, he believes that Christ is the Lord of eternal life.

Looking at Jesus on the cross to his right, he sees a man who has done no wrong. Yet Jesus dies as if he had done everything wrong, forsaken by God, condemned, persecuted, mocked, ridiculed, damned. Jesus did not look like any king, much less the King God promised to Israel. He looked like a defeated man laughed at by his enemies. Jesus looked like a criminal who was being put to death. Yet the penitent thief believed he was the Messiah, Savior, and King. He trusts that this man can save him—perhaps not in this life, nor from this death, but that He has the power to do what He says.

You might wonder how the thief on the right managed to get such faith. He heard Christ’s prayer on the cross. The thief did not believe what his eyes and human reason told him. He believed and clung to the word of God alone. He believed in the prophecies of the Old Testament, which said that the Messiah would suffer (Isa 53; Ps 22). He believed that Jesus was the Son of God when he heard him say, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”

And then comes the prayer of faith. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the man whispers. This is how faith prays. The thief asks for nothing but to be remembered by Jesus. He doesn’t ask to be saved from the cross, spared his suffering. The criminal knew that all men would see Jesus as the universe’s King, and he wanted Jesus mercifully to remember him on that day of judgment. The thief’s confession and prayer are the same things God uses to sustain the Christian Church today. Even if all else falls apart and entire churches cease to exist, there will always be a small remnant who confess their sins and professes His name before the world.

And from the lips of dying Jesus, the repentant criminal heard these words that promised the man something more significant: “Truly, I say to you, today, you will be with me in Paradise.” This story offers comfort. The guilty one is pardoned before God and justified for Jesus’ sake. Though the world has found him guilty and sentenced him to die for his deeds, and justly so, the Son of God has declared him righteous, fit for life in Paradise. Though he dies for his crimes, he is pardoned for his sins by the Sinless One. The man dying next to him has promised him eternal life. His death sentence becomes a life sentence, thanks to Jesus.

Those who receive Christ’s mercy are sinners who confess their transgressions and earnestly seek forgiveness. These people will find grace and mercy. Christ’s prayer, “Father, forgive them,” matches His actions; He endures suffering so sins may be forgiven. As He hangs on the cross, our Lord shows the power of His suffering and the extent of its benefits. Christ proved that His suffering aids all repentant sinners who, like the thief on the cross, believe and confess that He is an eternal King. Through His agony, death, and resurrection, He has secured the forgiveness of their sins, their salvation from eternal death, and a place for them in His everlasting Kingdom.

This story is a tangible example of what the Redeemer won through His suffering. He took your sin upon Himself. He does not want us to remain in sin and continue our wrongdoings. He suffers for sinners so they don’t have to stay in sin and can be transformed and become righteous and holy. The truth is we are all robbers who deserve death for our sins. We are all liars, murderers, thieves, and adulterers, every one of us. There is no distinction. All have sinned, all fall short of the glory of God, and the Law of God condemns all. The wages of sin is death. We deserve it. We all do. No one escapes it either since we all must face death one day. Jesus didn’t say anything to the other thief. Jesus’ silence over the other thief offers no comfort. He stands condemned by his own words. The same goes for us if we refuse to repent. The gifts of salvation will not reassure us on our last day if we reject them. How can Jesus remember you in His Kingdom if you refuse His Baptism, His word, His Body and Blood, and refuse to live a Christian life?

Follow the example of the penitent thief. The thief on the cross repented. He confessed his sins and trusted in Jesus, believing that God, through Him and for His sake, would forgive his sins and grant him eternal life. Turn to the cross—to the suffering of Jesus for us—and the weight of your sins is lifted. We have a Crucified King. We have a King who forgives sinners. We have a King who promises eternal life to the repentant. So, repent while there is time. If we repent like the penitent thief, we have the promise that Paradise is ours! Where Jesus is, that’s where you can find the Kingdom. Where Jesus is, that’s where you can find your King. Christ is our King, and he will be our King forever. Never cease turning to your King and praying: “Jesus, remember me.” Hear and hold His promise: “You will be with me in paradise.” Then you too will be able to die with Your King in peace, whispering: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And you will enjoy a blessed rest until the day of resurrection, the Final Easter dawns, the Easter day that will have no end.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

%d bloggers like this: