“Who Do You Say That I Am?”
Week #4: Healer
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
March 10, 2018: Lent 4
The season of Lent is slowly winding down, and as it does, we come closer and closer to the cross. We heard once again from the gospel of Luke today of the long walk Jesus took carrying a cross from the inner part of Jerusalem to a place called The Skull. Along the way, when the cross became too much to bear, a man named Simon was pulled from the crowd to carry the cross for Jesus. When the mob reached Calvary—which was literally the garbage dump for Jerusalem—Jesus was nailed to the cross, and two criminals were crucified with him, one on each side. Jesus wasn’t crucified between two candlesticks in a sacred place. He was crucified on the rubbish dump outside the city wall. He was crucified in such a cosmopolitan place that the sign above his head—“This is the King of the Jews”—had to be written in three different languages. He was crucified in a place where soldiers gambled, where smut was talked, and where criminals shrieked in agony as they died. It was an ugly place and an ugly thing, meant to entertain and frighten. The crowds loved a good show with lots of blood, but they needed to be reminded that Rome was still in charge.
It was a horrible scene. The soldiers gambled for Jesus’ clothing. The crowd shouted at Jesus, “If he is who he says he is, he should be able to save himself!” The soldiers tormented Jesus and the other men, mocking their suffering, offering spoiled wine for their desperate thirst. Later, one of the criminals joined in the fun of taunting Jesus. He said, “If you really are the king, for real, why don’t you just save yourself? And while you’re at it, save us too!” The other criminal, obviously the wiser of the two, yelled out, “Man, shut up! You deserve what you’re going through—this guy doesn’t” Then, turning to Jesus, this wiser criminal pleads, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus’s reply is exactly what we have come to expect from Jesus. He says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
We’ve been exploring images of Jesus this Lenten season, images that help us to answer when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” When we hear the story of Jesus dying between two criminals, one of whom is offered a place in paradise, the image we are presented with is of Jesus as a healer. It is unfathomable to imagine that Jesus could offer anything to anyone in the last excruciating and desperate moments of his life, but even in the pain and agony, Jesus healed the criminal hanging next to him. But what did this healing do and why did Jesus do it it all?
Healing is all over the Bible. In the Old Testament, healing is primarily a physical thing. When God dropped a swarm of poisonous snaked on the Israelites because they just wouldn’t listen to God and follow Moses, God gave Moses a way to heal those who were bitten. God told Moses to make a serpent out of bronze and set it on a pole, and anyone who was bitten could look at the snake on the pole and be healed. This is a physical thing: poisoned to not poisoned, on the edge of death to fully alive. There are other stories of healing in the Old Testament, too. Elijah resurrects a widow’s son who had been dead for a few days. Naaman, the commander of the King of Aram’s army, was healed of leprosy after following advice from Elisha. The long-suffering Job was healed of gross sores after he went toe-to-toe with God. King Nebuchadnezzar had epileptic seizures, and when he looked to heaven, his body became completely still. Nearly all of the healing in the Old Testament is physical.
Now when we crack open the New Testament, healing is also a physical. A woman who suffered from a hemorrhage for decades only needed to touch Jesus’ cloak and she was healed. Jesus healed plenty of men and women in the synagogues, all of whom had some type of physical illness or deformity. But several of Jesus’ healing encounters in the gospels bringing healing not just to the body, but to mind also. Take, for example, the possessed man who was living in the tombs in the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus arrived one day by boat, the man rushed from the tombs, fell down on the ground in front of Jesus, and cried out, “What would you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth. I beg you, do not torment me” There is really no way to tell what kind of spirit or spirits possessed the man. He might have had epilepsy like King Nebuchadnezzar; he may have had multiple personality disorder or schizophrenia. Immediately, Jesus told the spirits to depart from the man and into a herd of pigs, which quickly turned and ran down a cliff into a lake to their death. When the towns people came to see what all the commotion was about, the gospel of Luke says that they found the man sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.
Clothed and in his right mind. It was a lot that the man was no longer a physical threat to the community. But the biggest change took place in the man’s mind. For years this man was locked away in the tombs with dead bodies—can you imagine what that did to his mental health? When Jesus sent the man’s spirits into the pigs, the man was released from all the years of fear and isolation and anxiety that kept him locked away in the tombs. Now, clothed and in his right mind, the man was free to live a somewhat normal life. He could freely engage with his neighbors. He could build relationships or rebuild the relationships that were lost. The man could go about life just as God intends: unbound, set free from anything that lurks in the dark places of the tombs.
It is this sort of healing that Jesus offers to the criminal hanging at his side. There is not much help for the criminal, physically speaking. But Jesus can offer freedom, healing, for his soul. We don’t know why the criminal was sentenced to death, just that he was convicted of something worthy of death. He had a past, a very dark one to be sure. This is not the sort of person you want your kids hanging around with and he is not the sort of person you expect to be sitting at the banquet table in heaven. But then Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” In other words, Jesus says to this man ‘I don’t care what you’ve done. I don’t care which side of the tracks you grew up on. I don’t care who parents were or weren’t. I don’t care if you’ve robbed, cheated, stolen, committed adultery, lied, been addicted to something, or have sold your body. Today, when I enter my kingdom, there will be a place for you.’
As Jesus said these words, the weight of years of judgment, of denied opportunity, of brokenness and pain must have lifted off of the criminal’s shoulders. For so long I’m sure he had been told that he was not good enough. I’m sure he had been denied the chance at a better life because his past was so sketchy. I’m sure he heard over and over that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. If Jerusalem society then was anything like our society is today, then I know he was turned away from every job interview because we might forgive but we never forget. And then Jesus, bruised and bloody and suffering the same fate, tells him that all of that is gone, wiped away, healed, and he can expect unimaginable joy and peace in the kingdom that is coming. You’re not your past, Jesus says to the criminal, you are who I say you are, and today you will be with me in paradise.
This brings us to the second question we started out with today—why does the criminal receive healing, or anything at all, from Jesus? Well, because the criminal opened himself to receive new life and transformation from Jesus. After the first criminal taunted and tested Jesus, the second spoke up and reminded the other, and the crowd, that Jesus was innocent. This very simple act of compassion engrafted the good thief into the life of Jesus. Jesus was wrongly convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death by a Roman governor who had no backbone. The criminal knew this, and just in saying something, by recognizing out loud that Jesus was a pawn in a much larger game of evil and darkness, this man was planted firmly on God’s side, the place where all can truly set free. Did the criminal deserve it? No. Did he earn it? No. But he showed himself to be willing and open to the power of God in his life, and Jesus met that willingness and openness with total release.
I know that that is a lot to take in, but I’ve been there and I know that this is the truth of how Christ’s healing works. You see, I had a classmate in seminary named Anthony, and as luck would have it, we had just about ever class together our first year. From the moment we stepped into the classroom together, we were at each other’s throats. Different backgrounds, different understandings of Scripture and theology, and polar opposite understandings of the church made us quick enemies. Anthony heard a call to be a seminary professor and he looked down his long, pointed nose at anyone, namely me, who heard a call to pastor a church. And one time after he gave a boring and lengthy explanation of some doctrine none of us had ever heard of, I looked down my long, pointed nose and said, “I just have one question about that: who cares?” If we were ever paired into a small group together, there was an audible sigh from the other group members. Oil and water? Maybe. More like jet fuel and a flame thrower: put us together and something is going to blow up.
On a Friday towards the end of my first year, I was in the seminary chapel for our weekly communion service. That chapel was a haven for me, a real place to rest and soak in God’s presence. Communion was served differently that day, though. Normally, communion was served by intinction, with everyone moving forward down the center aisle to the bread and cup. This week, however, small loaves of bread and small cups were placed at the end of every other aisle. The idea was that each worshipper served the person next to them starting at one end, then person at the end would turn around and serve the person behind them, and that person would serve the person next to them and so on down the next pew. Simple enough; I was sitting with friends. But do you know where in the pew I was sitting? Yup, at the end. And when I turned around to serve the person behind me, do you know who sitting behind me? Yup. Pointy nose and all.
In an attempt to keep my head from exploding I said, “The body of Christ broken for you, and the blood of Christ shed for you.” I’m not going to lie and tell you that it was easy or that I was miraculously commandeered by the Holy Spirit; I’m not entirely sure what actually happened in that moment. But I said those very sacred words to someone I liked and respected so very little. And we even sort of smiled at each other when we left the chapel that day. And from then on, there wasn’t as much friction between me and Anthony, and I stopped cringing when he walked into a room, and I didn’t have a pit in my stomach any longer whenever I heard his voice. Whatever hate and ugliness I had inside melted away after I served Anthony the body and blood of Christ. That moment, that simple act of compassion where it came from, put me on the side of God, into God’s presence, and from that moment on I was healed.
My brothers and sisters, the healing that Christ offers is not the vending machine sort; Christ does not dole out new eyes or ears or hearts or full bank accounts or nice cars, no matter what the televangelists might tell you. Jesus Christ isn’t a genie in a bottle and we can’t summon him by saying his name three times. Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is the bruised and bloody and broken Son of God hanging on a cross at the landfill, assuring a criminal that he will have a place in paradise. This Jesus offers healing to the criminal because, desperate and ugly as he and his past may be, he had the wisdom to think of someone other than himself. This Jesus beckons us from the cross to go and do likewise. He invites us to reach out with compassion and care, with concern and love to those in our midst who hang painfully from their own crosses. In this, Jesus tells us, we will find healing for our bodies and souls. As Martin Luther King Jr., said from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, “All of us are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny…I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” Healed is what God wants us to be. Whole is what God wants us to be. God wants these same things for all people, and we can only get there if we go together.
In this week that has just past, million of hearts were broken. It happened when someone heard, “It’s malignant.” It happened when someone heard, “I don’t love you anymore.” It happened when someone heard, “There’s been an accident,” or, “We did all that we could.” Maybe someone you know heard these words. Maybe you heard them. Millions of hearts broke this past week, and millions more will break in the days ahead, but Jesus says, “Today. Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Today the Lord is reaching out to us all with healing and freedom and transformation beyond anything you could ask for or imagine. Are you in need of the Lord’s healing today? Are you willing to accept it? Are you willing to acknowledge the broken and dark places within your life so that the light of Christ shine into them? Are you ready to accept this healing by extending a hand of friendship to an avowed enemy or a kind word to the nastiest person we know? Will you sit with the lonely and the lost and stand in solidarity with those who are constantly being trampled? Will you? Can you?
My friends, starting today, at this very moment, may we live as St. Francis once prayed: healing from hatred by sowing love, healing from injury by giving pardon, healing from doubt by living in faith, healing from despair by clinging to hope, healing from darkness by shining light, healing from sadness by being people of joy. May it be so for you and for me and for all of creation. Amen.