She was riding a bus on the West Side of Manhattan, when a man sat down beside her. As she glanced over, she thought. I recognize him! He’s famous. She was even sure she knew who he was. He was an anchorman, one of the really famous ones. So, with confidence she asked. “Aren’t you Tom Brokaw?” And with an ironic smile, Peter Jennings, the then anchor of ABC News, said. “No, I’m the other guy.” It’s been 25 years since that happened, I still love that story.
Interestingly, Jennings didn’t take offense. They even had an engaging conversation about bias in the news. Now, Genevieve may not have recognized who exactly Jennings was. But it didn’t have any terrible consequences, maybe some mild embarrassment.
But sometimes, what you don’t recognize, who you don’t recognize can destroy your life. What if the folks who lost everything in Bernie Madoff’s swindles had recognized him for the criminal he was? What if someone, anyone had recognized that the young man who killed 14 children and 3 teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas had such an act inside him? But let’s not even get that complicated. If you could just recognize who had Covid or not, that would be a big help. But here’s the stunner. You can’t even recognize if you have Covid. You’ve gotta get a test to make sure.
And that where the hard truth comes. Too often, we can’t recognize the truth around us because we can’t see the truth within us. Too often, the lies that others tell us happen because of the lies we’ve already told ourselves. But how do you see that truth? How do you fight the enemies of truth that have outposts right in your own head? How do you recognize the truth of what’s really going on, what’s really going on inside of you? In this story, Jesus points the way. Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.
So, how does it happen? How do you recognize the truth? More crucially, how do you not get caught up in what is not true, in what could even lead you to destruction? In this brief moment as Jesus dies on the cross, he shows you. You recognize the truth only when you face how far you still are from it. Only then, can truth save you, but save you it does.
In this story, one person recognizes the truth, and the other doesn’t. But to understand how stunning this recognition is, you have got to go a little wider, to look at the whole story of Jesus’ death. In that whole story, only two people recognize who Jesus is, see what is truly happening in his death. And the first one who sees it is the criminal in this story, someone so outside of the law, of society that he is dying at its hands. And ironically, the other one who does, is a soldier, a commander of the very men who kill Jesus.
The religious authorities don’t see it. Heck, they think by killing Jesus they’re the good guys. The Roman rulers don’t see it. But you kind of expect that. Jesus and the religious leaders didn’t exactly get along. And the Romans, if they thought of him at all, didn’t think much. But get this. His own followers, his companions for three years didn’t get it either. Not one of them got it. Not one.
Who did? This criminal, and a soldier, two folks totally on the outskirts of the whole picture, total outsiders to the whole Jesus story. And yet they become the ones who get it. Why? Well, when you’re living on the outskirts, often truth becomes easier to see.
After all, if you’re living on the inside, you often have an investment in not seeing the truth. Why? Often the truth will just tell you you’re wrong, and that things need to change, as painful as that might be. And who wants to hear that? Yet that’s exactly what you need to hear, even as painful as it might be.
Many years ago, when I first studied to become a preacher, I felt I had become so enlightened about how unfair the church had been to women, how things needed to change. And knowing that truth felt good, even made me feel a bit superior. But that Christmas, our family traveled to visit with family in North Carolina. And after dinner that night, I commented to my younger sister how sad it was that Uncle Charles, a conservative preacher, was so blind to what I was seeing.
The preacher Bill Coffin put it well. Jesus said, “The truth will set you free,” but first it makes you miserable. After all, if you want to know the right way, you’ve gotta first face the fact that the way you’ve been taking isn’t it. Only then, can the change come. As the writer and psychiatrist Scott Peck put it. “The truth is that our finest moments are more likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled.” Why? “It is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”
Yet even in the discomfort, you have a choice. You can choose to stay in the lie or face the truth. In this story, you have two criminals dying with Jesus. Both are dealing with misery, with a life gone sadly wrong. Why does one see the truth and the other doesn’t? That other criminal doesn’t see the truth for the same reason, a lot of us don’t.
Near the beginning of the pandemic, Damian Barr, a writer in England sent out a tweet that got quoted around the world. He wrote simply:
I heard that we are in the same boat. But it's not that.
We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.
Your ship can be shipwrecked and mine might not be.
Or vice versa…..
Some are in their "home office". Others are looking through trash to survive….
Some have experienced the near-death of the virus, some have already lost someone from it, and some believe they are infallible and will be blown away if or when this hits someone they know.
Some have faith in God and expect miracles during 2020. Others say the worse is yet to come. So, friends, we are not in the same boat.
And what those sentences say about the truth of this pandemic, speak a different yet still powerful truth in this story. You see. Jesus and these two criminals were all facing the same storm of crucifixion, but they weren’t all in the same boat. Those two criminals had lived lives that led them there, to those crosses, to that sentence of death. But Jesus had not. They might have faced the same storm, but Jesus sat in a far different boat. But only one criminal was willing to face that truth, to face that only one person didn’t deserve to be there, and that person wasn’t him.
When you face the truth, your biggest temptation will always be to blame someone else, to avoid looking at your own boat, at the choices you took to get to where you are. But when you do get honest about your own boat, that’s when the help comes, that’s when the hope comes, that’s when the change comes.
For in this story, this criminal makes a crazy request. He asks Jesus. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This criminal sees what no one else can. He sees Jesus is the King, the rightful ruler, the one who can save him. And Jesus does. Jesus tells him. “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” That word, Paradise appears only two other times in the New Testament. In one, the apostle Paul talks about being taken up into Paradise and seeing and experiencing things of God he could never express. And in the other, it appears in Revelation, as a description of the paradise of God, where humans will once again eat from the tree of life. And Jesus is specifically inviting this guy, this criminal there. I love the way the writer Krish Kandiah puts it. Jesus is turning up for his inauguration as King of heaven, and he is bringing a convicted criminal as his plus-one. You see, that’s the truth.
Why do we avoid facing the hard truths about ourselves, the ones no one likes to see? We fear. We fear rejection. We fear what our failures or faults or mistakes say about us, that somehow, they show we’re not worthy. But here Jesus tells you. You are worthy. My love has made you worthy. And no mistake you make can take that worth away. No ugly truth can make you less beautiful to me.
And the more you know that truth, the more it frees you to face without fear, every flawed place, every wrong direction, every dark place in you. For in the light of that love, you wake up inside this beautiful truth. There is no truth that you need fear, when you know the truth of his love. And I know of no one who put that better than a Christian named St. Simeon who lived a thousand years ago, and wrote this:
We awaken in your body, O Christ, As you awaken in our bodies.
I wake up inside Your Body Where all my body, all over,
Every most hidden part of it, Is realized as joy in You
And You make me, utterly, Real,
And everything that is hurt, everything
That seemed to me dark, harsh, shameful,
Maimed, ugly, irreparably Damaged, is in You transformed
And recognized as whole, as lovely, and radiant in Your light.
And the more you see that truth, the more Jesus frees you to see them all. So, is there a truth you’ve been avoiding, a rut you need to break out of, a lie that you need to let go? Let Jesus show you the truth. Let Jesus set you free.