Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD?
Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol
or swear by a false god.
They will receive blessing from the LORD
and vindication from God their Saviour.
‘Come now, let us settle the matter,’
says the LORD.
‘Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.’
Who on earth could belong in paradise?
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? 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, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’ Luke 23:39-43.
He was now so sick that the Governor had approved the removal of his handcuffs. No longer were two Prison Officers required. One was enough, and he could wait outside the hospice room, allowing him to die with dignity. As the cancer had got its grip the prisoner had moved from his cell in HMP Brixton, to a hospital ward and now to a room in a hospice. It was the middle of the night and I sat on the edge of his bed as we looked out on the falling snow. The streetlamps lit the flakes as they fell and settled on the branches of nearby trees. ‘I’m scared’, he said. He’d long turned his back on the Christian faith of his upbringing. ‘Did you know that God could look on your life and see you as pure as that snow?’ I asked. He wanted to know how that could be possible. I explained. Later, I asked if he would like to pray the Lord’s Prayer with me. He said he would. Never have I heard, ‘Forgive us our trespasses’, cried out with such urgency.
The criminal on the neighbouring cross recognised how that could be possible on the first Good Friday. Despite his personal agony, he was aware that the man in the middle was the focus of the crowd’s attention. The local bigwigs had shown up to scoff. The military had their fun. Nailing him hadn’t been enough. Even the other criminal joined in the mockery. He had just enough time left to hurl some abuse and grab a final headline.
In the midst of this mêlée, the scales fell from our criminal’s eyes. He recognised the innocence of Jesus. But more than that: he recognised not only his purity but his divinity. And his own guilt and just judgment. When Jesus appeared at his most humiliated and weak, our criminal recognises the scope of his majesty and power. ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
You may scoff at the scope of Jesus’s grace. The first person to trust in the crucified Lord Jesus is a criminal. Really?! If that sticks in your throat, you need to be reminded that throughout Luke’s Gospel it is the lost, and life’s losers, who are drawn to Jesus. He welcomes them. He transforms them. That is his mission. ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:31-31). It is only the self-satisfied who meet Jesus and miss out.
Are there some in society you consider to be beyond the reach of Jesus’s love and grace? If so, you have lost sight of the magnificence of Jesus. You have also lost sight of your own spiritual bankruptcy. You may have once cried out for grace, with our criminal, to the crucified Jesus. Maybe your inner Pharisee now tries to blend your better bits with his grace as you hope for paradise. You began on your knees. You have developed a strut. In reality you echo only half of the criminal’s affirmation. You delight in Jesus’s purity — but are rather pleased with your own too.
Or, less perilously but more painfully, your Christian walk lacks confident joy because your awareness of your less lovable bits leads you to question your place in paradise. Progress in holiness is slow and you fear, if not outright condemnation, at best begrudging acceptance. Reflect afresh on the magnificence of Jesus. Remember his mission. He came for the lost, he came for life’s losers. The door to paradise is marked ‘Sinners Only.’ By his grace you belong there.
If your trust is in him you have been washed whiter than snow. Delight in his grace. Grow in his grace. Know that you have a place in paradise. You too have cried out ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’ He has hidden his face from your sins, and has blotted out all (not a few, not some, but all) your iniquities. Live in the light of your assured place in paradise.
Questions for Reflection
1. Is there a type of person you would be horrified to meet in paradise? If so, where is the deficiency in your theology?
2. What stops you delighting in your place in paradise?
3. What would it look like to live in the light of your assured place in paradise?
God our Father,
in your loving kindness you sent your Son to open the door to paradise:
help us to grasp the breadth of your grace,
that our attitude to others and ourselves would be transformed,
and that we would live in the light of our place in paradise,
through the magnificence of our Lord Jesus Christ
who loves and reigns with you, in the power of the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and always,