On Good Friday, Christians often attend services of meditation and reflection in the seven words of Christ from the cross. ( for a clear and concise description of the Passion of Christ and the traditions Christians observe about it, see this BBC site.) Good Friday is a somber day. A day we think about suffering and death. Not an easy practice in our society which puts so much effort into happiness, or what passes for happiness.
The second word (actually the “words” are sentences) is spoken to one of the criminals crucified with Jesus and comes from Luke 23:43. “He [Jesus] replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Many, many words have been spoken and written about these few words. What, exactly, did Jesus mean? What does “today” mean? What does “Paradise” mean? What is the deep theological meaning of these words? People have used these words to try to explain what happens after death. Where do we go and when? This is the sort of sentence that keeps theologians employed.
These are all interesting things to ponder, and I have certainly taken part in similar discussions. But, in all our searching for clues about the afterlife, we might have missed something important.
These are the words of one dying man to another. One “justly” condemned, one “unjustly” condemned. On that Friday Jesus was dying with, suffering with, two other people. And he says the oddest thing. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” His words are not the words of a academic theologian, observing the suffering and offering learned reflection. These are the words of a fellow sufferer. These are the words spoken in the midst of dying. The One who suffers and dies with us, assures us this is not the end.
He tells us this, not as a wise teacher, not as a wonder-worker, not as a healer- although he is all these things. He tells us this as a fellow sufferer. He tells us this as one who knows what it means to suffer and die. In the very act of dying comes the word, the promise, the proclamation; “today you will be with me in Paradise”. In spite of all appearances, this is not the end. There is more we cannot yet see, cannot yet know. The One who suffers and dies with us will journey with us to paradise. What ever paradise is, where ever it is, when ever we go, Jesus goes there with us.
No matter what our circumstance, no matter how hard, no matter how hopeless it seems, Jesus has been there before us and will go there again with us. He will go there again with you and with me, no matter what. And Jesus gives us his word of hope, in the midst of suffering and dying. His word of hope, this is not the end. Paradise lies just ahead and Jesus goes there with us.
On this day when we contemplate suffering and death, the one who walks with us offers a sentence of hope “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”