My niece and I were out at a family function when she started to wiggle and get all squirmy. She looked up at me and said, "TT, I really gotta go." So, I gathered our things to find the nearest restroom when suddenly she was still, as quiet as a mouse. Her countenance fell as he eyes wandered the concrete floor. Before I could ask what's wrong, she slowly lifted her eyes and said that she'd wet her pants. I discreetly gathered our things and went home to get her cleaned up.
As we pulled in the driveway, I went to the backseat to unbuckle her, and her head was dropped in shame. She didn't say a word. I smiled, reached in, and tickled her and as I watched her light up in laughter, I knew that she wasn't expecting love in a moment of shame, in a moment of guilt. I learned something about the love of God that day. I learned of the effects of grace and saw a glimpse of God's heart for us. If I can be honest, looking back at my life, I have found more grace than I probably should have expected to.
There are times that we are old enough or at least spiritually mature enough to make better decisions or avoid mistakes but still somehow, someway we manage to "wet our pants," for lack of a better phrase. And in those moments, God never calls us out and chastises us with guilt or shame. Instead, God meets us in our mess, reaches in and tickles us back to joyous life. God takes us in, cleans us up and we return having experience the love and grace of the One who truly loves us.
This grace is what we see shared with some unlikely ones, some unnamed criminals in Luke 23. Who were they? Was their crime committed jointly? Did they really deserve death? I mean, what exactly was their crime? Whatever their crime, I'd like to suggest that you and I can find our stories interwoven within their conversation.
Luke, as he pens this, sets the stage for readers telling us that these two were led with Jesus, possibly leading the way as they reasoned with themselves the punishment they no doubt felt they deserved. They approached to the place called the Skull or, as its Aramaic name translates, Golgotha; and there they took their place next to the Son of God and were crucified. They were set to die. And it is in this brief glimpse into their conversation with the Savior of the world that we find the heart of grace in what looks like the most unlikely places. In our time exploring this today, I want to highlight three places that we find grace both here in this story and in our own.
The first place we find unlikely grace is in the request for forgiveness. At some point between the soldiers getting these men all squared away on their crosses and scuffling over the Savior's garments, Jesus whispers a prayer. He says, "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing." There's enough forgiveness in that request to extend to us, I believe. Forgive the soldiers, forgive the religious leaders, forgive the criminals that bear their cross, and all who have and will take this moment for granted. Forgive them.
Grace is in the ability to forgive. What exactly does Jesus mean, forgive them? Is he aware of what is happening? He has been falsely accused, unjustly tried, and is looking in the face of death, yet his concern is for the ignorance of those responsible for his death. Forgiveness is a central theme in the gospels. Jesus himself forgave sins. He also emphasized that God's forgiveness is conditioned by the believer's willingness to forgive others. We see the beauty in grace as we see our own stories in the faces of those that seem to be the least of our concerns in forgiving. We are able to forgive when we understand that the image of God within us and others is never destroyed by what we have done, are doing, or will do.
The second place that we find unlikely grace is in simply talking with our Savior. Those moments of conversation look different for us all at different times in our lives. In many cases we are the criminal who tries to reason with Jesus by declaring that, well, if you are who you say you are then ... well, you can fill in the blank. Other times we are reflected in the criminal who realizes that God can will whatever God chooses to will. We recognize that we are indeed sinners who have fallen short of God's grace and that, though we have an opportunity to plead our case, the fact remains that we are guilty, and that we are left at the mercy of an unending love.
In both these responses from the two criminals left there to suffer with the Savior, I can see the beauty and privilege of sharing in that moment. Both criminals asked to be saved, but indeed the motivation was that of two completely different natures. One recognizing the opportunity at hand. One a skeptic, the other finding that mustard seed type of faith to ask, "Remember me." One admits no wrong, the other acknowledges his role in his predicament. One wants freedom from the cross to resume life as he intended, while the other recognizes the freedom of eternity in the Savior's everlasting kingdom. One receives nothing, but the other has gained all that he has requested.
Can I suggest that we are a mixture of both at times? Some days seeking grace from a place of pride, reasoning with our "but God" theologies. We say things like: But God, I have served your church for 'x' amount of years, why is my family dealing with this? But God, I eat healthy and exercise regularly, why am I fighting this illness? But God, aren't you God and able to make all of this go away? Aren't you the Messiah? Save yourself and save us, we often mimic the one.
Other days, we sit in solitude, thinking of the many transgressions we have committed against the Savior and the various occasions in which we crucify him continually. I'll reflect as I pass by accidents or visit hospitals or even the times a commercial comes across my TV screens late at night asking support for a hungry child.
We know our wrongs, but yet we look in our neighborhoods and recognize the privilege that we have to live as we do. We look in our lives and see the blessings of family. We can reflect in our worship services, recognizing that we are beyond blessed to worship freely. And we sit in those quiet moments of prayer, recognizing our privilege as children of the Almighty. And just as we are prepared to accept all that we rightfully deserve and admit our unworthiness, grace shows up and whispers, "I have already taken care of it."
I reflect on the beloved hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus. The writer declares that all of our sins and griefs he's there to bear. What a privilege it is just to carry, not some things, not most things, but everything to God in prayer. Oh, the eternal peace the criminal would have forfeited and the needless pain he would have had to bear, if he had not chosen to carry and share his heart's prayer with Jesus. It was in that conversation that the criminal no doubt experienced a love he'd never known.
That's where we find grace unlikely, in those uncomfortable sometimes almost forced conversations with Jesus where we truly learn to embody 1 Peter 5:7, casting all of our cares on Jesus, because truly, he cares for us.
Lastly, we find grace -- unexpected grace -- in Jesus’s response. The criminals must have gone on and on with one another thinking about what they did and did not deserve, and finally one says, "Jesus, remember me." Jesus hearing this, responds with the same heart of love that he has lived by. He says to the man, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise."
How beautiful is it to know that we are remembered? This response is one of immediacy, today you will be with me. Jesus extends salvation that is effective immediately. The criminal wasn't expecting to be saved from the crucifixion, but he did recognize that Jesus was expected to inherit an eternal kingdom and well, he wanted in on that.
The one who has power and authority to pardon exercises it here. How amazing it is to know that when we ask, God is so faithful to respond to us. Jesus models this beautifully. He extends salvation to this stranger just because of his asking. Even in his suffering, Christ's concern was that of the stranger next to him. I believe that when life bring us to a cross of our very own, we can respond in a similar manner -- offer forgiveness to those around us, have an open and honest conversation with the Savior, and wait for his grace-filled response.
"Today you will be with me in paradise," must have been a relief for this man. Thirteenth century philosopher and priest Thomas Aquinas wrote on the matter, and I quote:
“The words of the Lord (this day... in paradise) must therefore be understood not of an earthly or corporeal paradise, but of that spiritual paradise in which all may be, said to be, who are in the enjoyment of the divine glory. Hence to place, the thief went up with Christ to heaven, that he might be with Christ, as it was said to him, ‘That shalt be with me in paradise;’ but as to reward, he was in paradise, for he there tasted and enjoyed the divinity of Christ, together with the other saints.”
The beauty in such a response from the Savior is truly unmatched. Grace is always in Jesus’s response to us, and it's almost always unexpectedly.
There is something in us all that seeks comprehension in even the most incomprehensible situations. Although we know that we have been forgiven and given grace so freely of our Savior, there is still a part of us that attempts to somehow reimburse him. But that's the thing about grace, it keeps no receipts.
Yes, it is unlikely, unruly, and often unexplainable. It's pure, seemingly simple, and untainted by our desire for control. It is not based on or biased by our perceived track record of righteousness. It is a deliberate choice to see our faults and yet continually provide all that we need. Grace is forgiveness. Grace is the ability to come before the throne freely with our concerns. It is given as a lock without a key, because grace doesn't change its mind. Never held over our heads as a constant reminder of how unworthy we are, rather the posture that drives our gratitude.
As precious as a choice ruby, yet to be passed along selflessly. It is sufficient. Beautiful. Paid in Full and experienced at the cross by one who was once a stranger, now seated at God's table. Grace -- unexpected grace -- is a portrait of Jesus the Christ found in the strangest of predicaments. Receive it wholly, give it fully, and you too will begin to notice it in the most unlikely places.