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.”
One of the gifts God gave me, or perhaps one of the curses, is empathy.
If you are also an empathetic person or at least know someone who is, you know what I mean when I say it is both a blessing and a curse.
It is wonderful to feel what others feel because it makes me at least try to be kinder or more considerate. I still fail many times, but it doesn’t take much for me to imagine what someone else must be going through. Empathy also ensures that my emotions are always in the right sphere.
If you spend any time with me at all, you’ll know that I spend most of my time laughing. I love to laugh, but I also have very poor laughter control, which is a surprisingly bad quality in someone who wants to be a pastor. Imagine with me, for a moment, all the ways that could go very wrong. Still, the fact that I tend to absorb the emotions around me keeps me from bursting into uncontrollable laughter at very inappropriate times. In those ways and others, being empathetic is a blessing.
But in many ways, it is also a curse. For example, I cry when I see those ASPCA commercials, ready to drive down there and tell them to throw as many sad kittens and puppies in my car that will fit. Sometimes, even happy things make me cry. Empathy means that I cry a lot.
On a more serious note, though, empathy can also be exhausting. I hurt not only for my friends and family, but for people I do not know. My heart breaks when I read the headlines and see the gruesome reality of the world we live in. I haven’t watched a newscast in months because I can hardly stand to anymore. There is so much that happens in the world that is heart breaking, and sometimes I have to turn away from it.
I realize that being able to turn away, to escape, is a privilege. So many people around the world are the ones who are suffering the effects of starvation, poverty, homelessness, racism, sexism, homophobia, war, disease, genocide, and countless other unbelievable tragedies. They have no choice but to stay focused on these things because they are living them.
As guilty as I feel when I’m driven to the point of withdrawing, I also realize that this is a very human thing to do. Most people have a threshold for the amount of suffering they can witness. Most people turn away from the world’s worst pain and suffering at some point in their lives.
This is very human.
But, friends, we serve a God who is not human. We serve a God who is not like us, and we know that because of the cross.
The cross tells us that we serve a God who does not look down from paradise in pity and turn away from the worst the world can do. Instead, the cross tells us we serve a God who dives in headfirst, who gets down and dirty with us, who grabs a hold of us with human hands and steadies us, and who goes to the cross in order to bring us back into paradise. This is a God who chooses to become human, who does not turn away but instead stares suffering and death in the face, and wins.
From the cross, Jesus says to us, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” What the cross accomplishes is the very same as what Jesus says: when all is said and done, when we have laughed and cried, been healthy and sick, embraced and turned away, rejoiced and suffered, and finally when we come to die, we are promised paradise by the God who does not turn away from our sin and our brokenness.
We find this promise in the very beginning, when God walks with human beings in the garden. And we find this promise at the very end. The book of Revelation records a vision of this paradise:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making everything new.”
My hope and my prayer for all of us is that the work of the cross makes everything new, and that we can take hold of the promise of paradise spoken to us by the God who is nailed to the cross.
Grace and peace,