Christ the King (C/RCL): “Christ the King, Dismas and Us”
November 19-20, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
Have you ever heard of a Dismas Club? One of our church friends who grew up in Paterson told me there were several Dismas Clubs there, sponsored by Roman Catholic parishes. These were social clubs created for boys who seemed in danger of getting in trouble with the law, following some wayward path, having their lives go to hell. The person I spoke with believes they’ve disappeared in Paterson. However, I Googled Dismas Clubs and discovered they still exist, but maybe in a different form with a different emphasis. There’s a St. Dismas Prison Ministry Society whose mission is “Prisoner Reintegration and Aftercare Programs Services and Support.” Dismas Clubs International is under its wing and describes itself as:
a group of volunteers that have struggled in life, coming together in action to help those in the community that are struggling or feel helpless.
Keeping kids out of trouble in the first place is the ideal, but helping ex-offenders successfully reintegrate into society is important, too.
So why “Dismas”? Well, Dismas is one of the names assigned to the “good thief” crucified next to Jesus, a man mentioned only in St. Luke’s Gospel. (We heard it on Palm Saturday and Palm Sunday and we also hear it today, as we celebrate Christ the King.) The name Dismas doesn’t come from Scripture. It comes from a piece of fiction written a couple hundred years later, called the Gospel of Nicodemus (AKA The Acts of Pilate).
Poor Dismas – we call him that to call him something, but we don’t know if that was really his name. We also call him the good thief, but we don’t know if he was a thief! Matthew and Mark call him and the other criminal “robbers,” but the Greek word doesn’t necessarily mean thief. All we really know is that he’d done something terrible that the Romans judged a capital crime meriting capital punishment in the form of crucifixion: state-ordered, excruciating execution.
The name Dismas shows up in another non-Scriptural and fanciful work called the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy. There we find a legend that Dismas and the other person crucified with Jesus (who gets named Gestas), are part of a band of robbers who waylay the Holy Family as they flee to Egypt to escape murderous King Herod who had ordered the slaughter of all Jewish boys two and under. Jesus is just a baby or toddler. As the story goes, the brigand Dismas sees the Christ Child and immediately loves Him. He pays his fellow robber Gestas 40 drachmas to leave the family unharmed and says to little Lord Jesus:
“O most blessed of children,
if ever there come a time for having mercy on me,
then remember me and forget not this hour.”1
It’s a tender legend that seeks to explain why Jesus would look with love and mercy upon the criminal hanging next to Him: because the criminal had once had mercy upon Him and His family. Jesus’ mercy would make sense then. But the point of the whole Gospel, not just this particular Gospel, is that Jesus’ mercy doesn’t make sense!
Salvation is not a matter of “One good turn deserves another.” If Jesus were “nice” to us by forgiving our sins because we were “nice” to Jesus in some way, we’d have earned Jesus’ love and merited His mercy. Then forgiveness wouldn’t be a gift; it would be a reward. That would be works righteousness, not “justification by grace through faith apart from the works of the law.” GRACE: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense: God’s love that comes to us as pure gift and not reward.
Isn’t that great?? Or not. Well, truth be told, maybe it’s great when it comes to Jesus’ relationship with us but not necessarily with the other guy. Speaking of whom: whattabout that fellow Dismas, or whatever his name is – he did something so terrible he’s sentenced to death, and he gets into heaven?? Doesn’t that sound like a helluva thing? He passes through the pearly gates right along with Mother Teresa, Francis of Assisi, St. Paul, the Mother of our Lord? Where’s the justice in that??
There we go again. Our salvation is not a matter of justice; it’s all about mercy. If it weren’t all about mercy, we’d all be lost. We may not have done anything that’d get us convicted of crime in a court of law. But we’ve all done selfish, hurtful, deceitful things (and left undone holy, healing, necessary things) that assure us of a guilty verdict when it comes to sin.
“Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” For God’s sake, Lord, remember me. But please don’t remember my sins. The older we get the more likely it is that we’ll bump into someone with whom we share an awkward episode. The boss that fired us. The employee we let go. The parent of the other kid on the sports team, the one we blew up at when he got on our last nerve one too many times. The former neighbor on whom we called the cops. The family member we haven’t seen for ages, for good reason: the one who’s the black sheep. Or the one who considers us the black sheep. “Dear Lord, don’t let them recognize me. Don’t let them have seen me. Maybe I turned the corner in time. Don’t let them remember me.” But Lord “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” But please don’t remember my sins.
Forgiveness is rooted in love. I am so grateful for the presence of a crucifix in our sanctuary. It’s our visual reminder on Christ the King weekend, on Palm Sunday, on Good Friday, and every time we see it that Christ stretched out His arms on the cross and said to each one of us: “I love you this much.”
The gold cross, the empty cross, reminds us that our Lord died, was raised from the dead and now reigns in glory. The crucifix reminds us that we have been bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20). Forgiveness is free to us but did not come cheap. Our Lord paid the price with His life. That’s how much He loves us, as we hear in the hymn from Philippians:
He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, becoming human! ... It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death – and the worst kind of death at that – a crucifixion.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth – even those long dead and buried – will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11, The Message)
Our salvation is rooted in suffering love. Forgiveness of our sins is grounded in God’s mercy. “Jesus, remember us when You come into Your kingdom” – for love’s sake. For mercy’s sake. Grant us Your grace, that for God’s sake, we may also forgive one another as we have been forgiven.
And whenever we feel that too much sin has sullied our life, too much unholy water has passed over the dam, too much guilt lays at our door: remind us of our brother Dismas who recognized You as the last grains of sand ran out of his hourglass and humbly asked: “Jesus, remember Me when You come into Your kingdom.” He was nailed to the wood of a cross, he was nearing his last breath, but it was not too late. Convince us that it is never too late, for anyone. When our time comes, may we also hear You say to us: “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
1William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (rev. ed., The Daily Study Bible Series, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 286.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham