Text verse: Ephesians 2:8
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God
The lectionary for this week has us journeying to the place called the Skull where they crucified Jesus and two criminals, one on His right and one on His left. It’s a very appropriate reading for this Sunday, which marks the death, the end of another lectionary, liturgical year. Next week is the first Sunday in Advent, which is the start of a new liturgical/lectionary year.
And so we find ourselves at the Cross, at the end, with three men who know that they won’t touch the ground beneath them until they are dead. And on that ground around them are people grumbling, ..............mocking,.................... and some just looking and listening.
As we look and listen from a distance of 2000 years, you will notice two things that are repeated:
The first is the idea of salvation, which seems to permeate the scene.
“He saved others, let Him save Himself” say the Jewish leaders.
“Save yourself” say the soldiers.
“Save yourself and us” says one of the criminals.
And this is what it’s all about for most of us – save yourself if you possibly can – look out for Number One – be concerned primarily with yourself, your own welfare and your own well being.
So while Jesus is doing His saving work, this word, save……save……save is being shouted out from every place.
The second word or phrase we notice is: “King” and “King of the Jews.” This in fact, is a coronation service taking place, but only two people seem to be aware of it – Jesus and……one of the criminals. And its that criminal I want to focus on, because he recognizes Jesus as King and he ends up saved by Jesus the King, on his deathbed.
Behold our KING
This sinful person finds favour with God……that should have us shouting: "Amen! Alleluia!" That a sinful person should find favour with God can only be described as grace upon grace. How does he “achieve” this salvation – I will show you that it is the same way you and I do, namely, he is saved because of his faith.
Why does God choose to save him – for no reason other than that He just wants to, not because the criminal deserves it.......... this undeserved mercy is what we call grace.
You and I can experience the same grace and salvation day by day by day. Isn’t that good news? Our text reminds us that it is by grace we are saved through faith.
What kind of faith is it that saves? It is easier to first say what kind of faith does not save before describing the faith that saves.
- Many people believe in a god or in gods and this is not surprising because the world as we look at it points to a God who made it and sustains it. But this belief/faith in a god does not save.
- The devil and the demons believe in God. It is on the lips of demons in the gospels that we hear, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God” and in Acts “These men are servants of the most high God who shows you the way to salvation.” So the devil believes in God, but it is not a belief that saves. Many people have a belief in God that goes no further than the belief that the devil has in God.
- The disciples of Jesus had faith in God, they believed in a God who could heal the sick, give sight to the blind, raise the dead, because they had seen that God at work in their midst in Christ. But that faith doesn't save either.
Don’t settle for a faith that only believes all these things of God in Christ.
So what faith does save – a faith in Christ that doesn't just believe the facts about Him, but rather a faith which changes your heart. A faith that changes you at your very essence. This is what we see in the criminal. The other Gospel writers tell us that he also cursed Jesus at first, but Luke shows us that his heart changes through his experience of Christ on the Cross next to him. And here we see the key element to saving faith: it is based on a Jesus, a Messiah, a King...... who suffered and died.
It sees being put right with God (we call that justified) as something which someone else, Jesus ,did for us when He died on the Cross. The criminal hanging next to Jesus, sees, in the way Jesus is dying,....the criminal sees the Promised Messiah, the promised King, that he had heard about in his life, ....................he sees the suffering, dying Jesus as King, Christ the King, and realizes, more than the disciples had, that death is not going to hold this King. He obviously sees the resurrection by faith before anyone else, because he says, “Remember me, Jesus, when You come as King.”
Isn’t that beautiful – do you want to say that now: “Remember me, Jesus, when You come as King.” It's a proclamation of great faith.
And Jesus says to him……OK!!!
And we see here, how by God’s Grace we are saved by faith.
Faith in a dying, dead, raised again and living forevermore Jesus, who does everything to put us right with God.
That is grace upon grace. That is amazing grace.
Now, what exactly is this salvation?
Firstly, it is something we experience, here and now. We don’t wait until we are dead to experience this salvation. Salvation IS……for you and for me……NOW.
What is it that we are saved from?
In a word, we are saved from……sin. We are not saved from suffering……from struggle……from pain……from disease……from death. You see, none of these things separate us from God. Only sin separates us from God – it puts us “in the wrong” with God-- which is why it is so important to see and believe that what Jesus did puts us “in the right” with God.
We are saved from sin and from the guilt associated with it and from the fear of punishment that goes with it.
We are saved from sin.
We are also saved from sinning.
Let me ask you this: Do you have to sin?
I’ll answer for myself: As I reflect on the week that has passed……the truth is – I didn't have to sin. The truth is that if I really let God’s Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, if I let that Holy Spirit truly reign in every part of my life, there is not a habit, a willful sin or sinful desire that need gain victory over me. That is the truth for me, and that is, I suspect, the truth for you too.
I don’t have to sin, neither do you, that is the TRUTH.
Now, through the ages, people have had many objections to this truth; that we are saved by faith purely because of God’s Grace. Many find it scandalous that a thief under execution should be saved by God; that a prostitute like Mary Magdalene and a wicked tax collector like Zaccheus should be saved by grace through faith. That someone like Saul of Tarsus should experience this grace and so on and so on and so on.
Worst of all, scandal upon scandal, that someone like Cedric Poole should be saved by grace through faith……but…… he is and so he stands before and proclaims with Wesley, with Luther, with Paul that it is by grace that you are saved by faith.
So what now?
The thief teaches us that when we come to the Cross, the ground is level……we are all sinners in God’s eyes.
True repentance has me realizing that, compared to Jesus, I am a sinner. “We are getting what we deserve, but He has done no wrong.” We are all on death row, and true repentance has us recognizing that we deserve to die. That should leave us feeling hopeless, which in fact we are because there is no court of appeal. All that would happen in a heavenly court of appeal is we would compare ourselves to other sinners.
“Your honour, compared to Mr Hitler, I’m not so bad.”
“Cedric, I don’t compare you to Mr Hitler; I compare you to my Son, Jesus. How do you fare up compared to Jesus, Cedric?”
“I don’t your Honour.”
An earthly judge would then say: “Well, sit down and shut up.”
But in Heaven, Jesus will jump up and say:
“Father, this one asked me to remember him when I come as King. He turned to Me in his hopelessness and trusted Me to get him through this very moment.”
And God will say: “Ah……why didn’t you say so Cedric? Come on in because it is by my grace that you are saved by your faith.”