Week 5: Never Too Far- The Thief on theCross

Pages 186-191, Arms Open Wide: A Call to Linger in the Savior’s Presence

This Week’s Scripture:

“As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus…”

Click HERE to read Luke 23:26-49 on BibleGateway.com

The Lesson

You Can Always Come Back Home

One day when my son, Jeremiah, was three-years-old, he decided he had just about had enough of my nonsense.

“I’m going to run away!” he shouted at me. (Before shoving his thumb in his mouth because, you know, stress.)

But I had been headmaster of the parenting circus for awhile. I knew exactly what to do.

“Oh, okay. That is too bad,” I said. “I will miss you. Do you need me to help you get your things together?”

“No!” he shouted and stomped out the front door. I gently closed the door behind him and watched him defiantly head toward the neighbor’s yard. He took one last look over his shoulder, and then kept going.

I silently slipped out the door, and followed him. Once he made it to the neighbor’s yard, I saw his face light up at the sight of their toys. He tried out a couple, then stopped.

He gasped, cried out, and began to run home in terror of what he had just done.

I quickly stepped from behind the corner of the house where I had been spying on him.

“Jeremiah! I am here!”

“Mommy!” He ran and jumped up in my arms, buried his face in my neck and stuck his thumb back in his mouth.

“Hey, buddy,” I said softly. “How about we go home and I make you some warm vanilla milk?”

I felt his head nod in assent as it rested on my shoulder.

Once inside, I sat him on the counter as I warmed the milk, and added vanilla and two cubes of sugar. He sniffled occasionally, and kept sucking his thumb. When the drink was ready, I handed it to him and he took a sip.

“I was afraid,” he said.

“I know, but you were safe. I was watching you all the time. I am glad you decided to come home. I love you.”

And that was the last of Jeremiah running away from home.

What if I Wander Far?

I grew up with a lot of fear mixed in with my faith. I believed that there was some line out there and if I crossed it, God would have enough of my nonsense and slam the door to relationship with him forever. Anytime I messed up, I was convinced God was angry at me, and that I was a bit closer to that line.

It filled with terror and immediately began trying to figure out what I needed to do to get into God’s good graces again. I felt completely responsible for getting myself back home when I had run away from God’s plan for me.

Maybe you have felt that way too sometimes. If so, I have wonderful news for you. Jesus’s interactions with the thief on the cross tell us a different story. It is this-

You are never too far away for God to bring you back home again.

Read that carefully. It doesn’t say, “You are never too far away to come back home again.” (Although this is also certainly true. God’s door is always open to you.) It says, “for God to bring you back home again.”

He does all of the work. It is up to him, not you. As Dr. Jim Martin, one of my mentors would say, “Repentance is simply a willingness to be found.”

Dr. Kenneth Bailey has written about this too. The foundation of this teaching on repentance comes from a series of parables Jesus told in Luke 15- The Lost coin, The Lost Sheep, The Lost Son (The Prodigal Son). In each of these parables, Bailey teaches, the lost one was in no way responsible for restoration. That burden lay on the one who lost them- the woman who lost the coin, the shepherd who lost the sheep, the father who lost the son.

But the grace of God goes even further. I will never forget sitting on a boat on the Sea of Galilee as Dr. Jim pointed to the caves dotting a nearby cliffside. It was the site of Jesus’s healing of the demoniac, a man who had lived, bound with chains, in the tombs that filled those caves. A man so far gone in demon possession that he was utterly helpless to even seek freedom and healing.

“Sometimes,” Dr. Jim said, “God just goes and gets you.”

God just goes and gets you.

Bit by bit, I began to see a different picture of God and me when I have wandered far away. In this picture, I came to my senses once again, but when I, like my son Jeremiah, look around in terror and realize what I have done, I don’t have to find my way back on my own. Jesus is right there to take me back home.

He sweeps me up into his arms, calms my fears, and carries me back to safety.

Oh, what a Savior!

Behind the Story

There is precious little archeological evidence of the thousands of victims of Roman crucifixion, with one exception- an ankle bone with the nail still embedded into it. The nails were usually reused, but in this case, it seems the nail hit a knot in the tree and bent, rendering it useless for future crucifixions. I used this bit of archeology to help paint the back story for our thief. We have no reason to believe this ankle bone actually belonged to him, of course. This was simply a way to help tell the backstory of the mechanics of crucifixion based on solid archeological evidence. If you would like to read an article on the subject, you can find it on the Biblical Archeology website, HERE.

When I began learning about the archeology and history of crucifixion, I found there were some things that differed from the picture I had in my mind (formed primarily by religious art.) Here are a couple of things that surprised me-

  1. The Sedile- This was a pointed seat on the cross designed to cruelly dig into the buttocks of the crucified. It both increased their torment, and prolonged it. Resting on the sedile was the only way to release the pressure on the crucified’s person’s arms and allow him to catch a breath.
  2. The Cross was not very tall; It was most likely at about eye level. There just weren’t a lot of tall trees in Jerusalem for this purpose. The post, or tree, was permanent. The crucified person carried his own crossbar which was fixed to the tree.

Ancient Graffiti Tells Us What Crucifixion Was Like

This drawing from ancient Rome gives us the best description of what crucifixion looked like to those gathered around the cross. Notice that the ankles are nailed to each side of the tree. To read the article, go HERE.

The thief on the cross was helpless in every way. His time was short on this earth. There would be no way for him to pay restitution to those he harmed. No gifts left to give. All he had was a willingness to be found.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)

And Jesus’s immediate response-

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

Friend, I don’t know what you have believed about God. Maybe, like me, you heard a story about him when you were small that filled you with fear and you have spent a lifetime trying to shake it. If so, please take comfort in the thief’s story today. Remember this-

  • There is nothing you can do to separate you from the love of God.
  • God does the work of repentance and restoration, not you.
  • You have one job- Be willing to be found. Let him carry you back home.

Think About It

  • What did your faith tradition teach you about repentance? How has that teaching shaped your relationship with God?
  • Grab a journal and pen, and find someplace to be quiet. Ask God to show you what fears drive you to keep him at arms length. Write about them in your journal, be as specific as you can about what you believe and what you think the origin is of that fear. Now, write a prayer to God telling him all about it, and ask him to bring healing to this place. Ask him to help you see him as he really is, and trust his love for you. (If you continue to struggle and would like someone to talk to and pray with about this, I am here. Just reach out to me- sherrigragg48@gmail.com

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