Student welcome - Why being good isn't good enough - Luke 23:32-43
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me tell you about Alice Pitts. Alice arrived at university to study Modern History. And this is the way she described what happened to her in that first week, Fresher's week, 'Despite the fact that I come from a Christian background, where both my parents are committed Christians, the full meaning of Christianity never got through to me. I thought it was about going to church, being good and saying your prayers at bedtime. When I started as a student, I began going to one of the town centre churches out of force of habit. It was full of students. One morning after the service the women next to me turned round, her face shining with joy, and said, `Isn't it wonderful that there are so many people here this morning to worship Jesus?' Her words made me aware of the gulf between us. She had something- a real living faith- that I did not have. I felt a fraud for being there and stopped going to church after that.'
Well, we shall come back to Alice's story a little later on because it doesn't end there, but I would suspect that her experience isn't all that uncommon. Her view that being a Christian is simply a matter of being good lies behind the frequent jibes levelled at Christians - `You think that you are better than other people. The church is full of hypocrites' - carrying the implication that Christians aren't all that good after all. It is based upon what I call the `Gold Star' approach to religion. Let me explain what I mean. When I was at junior school, the teacher hit upon a brilliant idea to get lazy tykes like me to do some work by introducing a chart which she put on the wall. This had all the names of the children in the class the left hand side, with a horizontal column beside each name. If a pupil produced some good work, up went a red star in the appropriate column. After five red stars, a gold star was awarded and it was the ambition of all of us to get as many gold stars as possible. But for some reason the gold stars were sexually biased, because it was always the girls that seem to get more of them than the boys. But that is the way many people, including Alice Pitts, see Christianity- a matter of getting as many gold stars as possible to qualify for heaven. And here is a test question to apply to see whether that is what you think. The question is this: 'Just supposing you were to die and come before God, and he were to say to you: `Why should I let you into my heaven?' How would you reply? Think about it for a moment. Perhaps your reply would run something like this: `I go to church. I pray. I have helped out with needy children. I am not as bad as Hitler. I am
basically good. So why shouldn't I come in?' In effect you are asking God to tot up the gold stars. Is that what you would do? Now let me tell you why God could never accept that.
For a start it would exhibit the most appalling discrimination on God's part, because it would mean that God is only the God of good people. Those who just happen to be fortunate enough to have the right upbringing taught the right manners, having had the right parents and teachers. But what about the rest of us who have not had such good circumstances to thrive morally, those living on the sink estates for example?
Secondly, it is difficult to see how this divine accounting system can work. What is the relative value of the different acts so that the gold stars can be toted up against the back marks? Is one lie equal to helping two old ladies across the street? Or is one little old lady equal to two lies? And what about motives? If one little old lady is worth ten points, do I lose two points if I was going to cross the road anyway? Do I lose two more stars if she is rich and has an attractive granddaughter? And why do Christians think they have a monopoly on the gold star system, unless they think they get extra ones for enduring church services? No. The whole system is quite stupid.
But thirdly, it reveals the most appalling presumption on our part for it assumes that it is we and not God who sets the standard for entrance into his presence. But by definition that is God's prerogative, not ours. And what is God's standard? Well, it is perfection; Jesus said so himself, `Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.' By that criterion the most celebrated philanthropist the world has ever known is just as much a failure as the most wanton serial killer. After all failure is failure. If the pass rate for the exam in 40% the one who got 39% fails just as surely as the student with 3%. So if being good is not good enough for God, then what is? How can we know this God now as we live in this world and remain with him for ever in the next world, if, to be frank, our behaviour, including our religious behaviour, switches him off?
Well, the answer is to be found in that passage from Luke 23 and the account of those three men hanging on their respective crosses. In particular we need to listen in to the desperate conversation going on with ragged breath, between the two on the outside and the third one in the middle.
Now we might think that what we have here is what we see in any occupied country; the occupiers, in this case the Romans, making an example of the downtrodden occupied. Just like the Nazis in France would round up some innocent civilians from a town in which the Resistance had just launched an attack upon German soldiers and put them to death, to deter further attacks, so Pontus Pilate decides to do the same with these two men on the left and right of Jesus. Not so. Luke says they were `criminals' - v32. Matthew in his account tells us they were robbers, bandits; the sort of person who would not think twice of approaching you in a dark alley and leaving you bruised and bloodied to get hold of your wallet or purse. These were not nice people. You would not want to live with these men, let alone die with them.
Now they say that tragedy reveals character. But their tragedy revealed they didn't have any. What did they do with their last breath? Well, they took the opportunity to vilify Jesus. As if his hanging on a cross was not enough pain for him. As if the jeering and the barbed comments of the crowd were not enough to demean him, they too joined in- v39 `One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ (that is King)? Save yourself and us!" Matthew tells us that for a good while both thieves played the taunting game. "Some King you are hanging here with us." "Life is tough on Messiahs these days eh?" "Come on what about a miracle now, Galilean?" "Ever see nails this size in your Dad's workshop Jesus?" The sneers were interspersed with curses and groans.
Now, don't you find that surprising? You would expect it of the Pharisees, who hated Jesus guts because he put them to shame. You would expect it of the crowd who were being whipped up into a howling mob baying for blood. You might even expect it of the Roman soldiers whose efficiency was dependent upon their cruelty. But surely, not from these two? Can you imagine 2 POW's turning and taunting a third POW as they face the firing squad? No wonder the Romans had these two up on a cross. Their only value was to serve as a public spectacle. Strip them naked so people will see that evil can't hide. Nail their hands so that people will see that the wicked have no strength. Hoist them high so that parent's will point and tell their children, "That is what happens to you when you do wrong."
But whilst the Romans could stop their movements by nailing their hands and feet to a post, they could not silence their tongues. And so these two men will die as they had lived, attacking the innocent. But in this case the innocent does not retaliate. In his case, tragedy does reveal character.
The One who had opened the eyes of the blind- Jesus-now had his eyes almost blinded, as puffed up, marked red and blue from the beatings, he strained to see. The One, who had enabled the cripple to walk, was now a cripple himself, with legs paralysed pinned to a cross. Admittedly, he wasn't much to look at, why he hardly seemed like a human being at all with the skin hanging off his back and the crown of thorns pressed firmly on his skull, face smeared with blood. But that was not all that the thieves saw. Matthew tells us that Jesus uttered these words: `Father, forgive them for they do not realise what they are doing.' In other words, they saw a man at peace.
Now for one of the thieves his heart remained hard and he continued to hurl the abuse. And when you think about it, that is a perfect picture of human sin. Sin is not an unfortunate slip, a regrettable act; it is a posture of defiance against God. Like everyone else in Jerusalem at that time, this thief would have heard of Jesus teaching, his miracles, the transformed lives, testimony after testimony that this was no ordinary man, but God in human form. And like we do every day, he does on his last day, and not only ignores God, but despises him. Do not tell me it is not so.
But a change took place in the other thief, he recognised something his partner in crime refused to recognise and what that is we have there in v 40 : `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." Do you know that in that statement we have the heart of what Christians call `the Good news', the `Gospel'? It is the acknowledgement that I am wrong and Jesus is right. That I have failed and Jesus has not. That I deserve to be punished and Jesus deserves to be set free. So maybe, just maybe, he is the King after all, someone human but divine. And so the thief cries out `Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.' Then the heavy head of Jesus turns, their eyes meet, and he hears the words he never expected to hear, words of pardon, words of grace, words of hope: `I tell you the truth, today, you will be with me in paradise.'
Now, how could Jesus make such an offer that even this man could not refuse? Well, because of what was taking place on that cross which was hidden from human eyes. Remember, Jesus is innocent and the thief is guilty. Jesus does not deserve to die, but the thief (and all of us as we rob God of his glory and each other of love) do deserve to die? It is at this point that a miraculous exchange begins to take place. Imagine, if you can, the sins of the thief begin to be transferred over on to Jesus. Small flecks of sin at first, then huge jet black flakes clinging to him, covering him in layers of moral filth. Every evil thought. Every vile act. Every cutting remark which revolts God covers his Son. And then at the same instant, the purity of Jesus lifts and covers the dying thief. A sheet of moral radiance raps around his soul. And so as God the Father looks down from heaven, he sees his Son covered with the sins of the world and his moral indignation is poured out on him, punishing sin. He looks down on the thief and sees the moral purity of his Son, and the thief becomes a son to him. And what happened to that thief is what happens to all who like him put their trust not in themselves, but in Jesus. The apostle Paul puts it like this: `He (Jesus) who knew no sin became sin, so that in Christ we can be put right with God.' (2 Corinthians 5:21). When God sees sin, he can't ignore it. He must punish it or assume it. That is what he has done in Christ.
Now can you see what Christianity is about? It is not about morality and rules with us scoring points to be rewarded. It is about relationships and a love to be enjoyed. It is about our rebellion and God's amnesty.
Those who rebel against their maker like the other thief, choosing to live their own way, not God's way are set on a collision course with him on Judgement day. And that includes good, upright moral people who throw the Gospel of mercy back into God's face and say, `No, I have decided that my good living, my religious deeds, my pleasure, is enough for me and should be enough for you God.' All of us are like that. But God has declared an amnesty as we see with the second thief. The rebellion has been paid for by God himself. All rebels can go free, but only those who acknowledge their rebellion and ask for the royal pardon, `Jesus remember me when you come in your kingdom.'
Well, it must have come as some surprise for the angels in heaven on that Good Friday to see the first person entering into the glorious presence of God, being not a philosopher like Plato, not a rabbi, not an Archbishop- but a foul mouthed, self centred, greedy thief. Of course that is what he was, but not any longer. His mouth is full of praise, not scorn. He heart is full of love, not greed. His life is full of service not self. It does come as a shock, doesn't it? to know that heaven is for bad people and hell is for good people. That is what the Bible teaches.
And that is what Alice Pitts was to discover, for in her story she goes on to say this: `The following term, there was a Christian Union mission and I went along out of curiosity. For the first time I realised that Christianity is all about a relationship with Jesus. Our sin separates us from him, but he took the punishment we deserve, dying in our place so that our relationship can be restored. Provided we ask for forgiveness and are prepared to turn from our old ways and give him control of our lives, we can have a relationship with him and receive eternal life. Later that evening I also read a booklet which made it clear that none of the excuses for delaying in dealing with this were valid. I realised that sitting on the fence was impossible and unrealistic, and to do so would be a decision against Christ. That night I became a Christian.'
Now let me ask whether that is true of you? I am not asking whether you are good, but whether you are forgiven. 1 am not even asking whether you are religious, but whether you have a relationship. Have you ever come to that point in your life where you have had the courage to look into your own heart and see what is in there and sickened by what you see, say `I want that dealing with. 1 want forgiving. I want a new start. I want to get back in touch with the one who made me and sent his Son to die for me'- have you done that? Because if not, then whatever you are, you are not yet a Christian. And tonight you have a straight choice facing you. You can be like the first thief, boasting of your so called independence all the way to the grave- cursing God. Or you can be like the second thief and take the Carpenter at his Word, when we call out to him; he says `I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.'
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