That Jesus was crucified between two criminals, “one on His right, and the other on His left,” recalls two earlier incidents in His life and ministry, both of which are quite important and shed light on the significance of this second Word from the Cross.
On one occasion, the two sons of Zebedee, James & John, came to Jesus with a request, that they be allowed to sit, “one on His right, and the other on His left” when He came into the glory of His Kingdom. In response, Jesus catechized His disciples to understand that He would come into His Kingdom, His power, and His Glory, by the way of His Cross. He also indicated that His disciples would share His Cross and His Kingdom by way of His Baptism and His Chalice. But, as for those on His right and on His left, that would be for those for whom it had been prepared.
And here now on the Cross, ironically enough, is the fulfillment of that Word, as the two criminals are crucified with Jesus, “one on His right, and the other on His left.” For so is He, the King of the Jews, numbered with transgressors in His glorious Passion, even unto death.
The world cannot comprehend this Glory of Christ the Crucified, but it is for this purpose that He has come from the Father and returns to Him. Already at His Baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus has taken His place with poor, miserable sinners, such as you, in order to associate sinners with Himself, and to reconcile sinners to His God and Father in His crucified and risen Body. Hence His reputation for welcoming sinners and eating with them. For like St. John before Him, and like the holy Apostles who will follow after, He preaches repentance and forgiveness of sins.
It is no different for you or anyone else, when He calls you to take up the Cross and follow Him, to be baptized into His death, and to rise with Him to newness of life in faith and love.
His Cross is indeed the decisive way and means by which all of these things are accomplished, and the decisive measure by which all people are finally and forever divided. For you know that, when the Son of Man comes in His Glory and is seated on His glorious Throne, He will separate the sheep from the goats, “one on His right, and the other on His left.” In the middle is the One who was crucified for their transgressions and raised from the dead for their justification.
So, then, if He is numbered with transgressors and hung on the Cross for their transgressions, it is clear that this Hour of His Passion is the defining moment in all of history. His Cross is the line in the sand between those who are righteous by grace alone through faith in Him, and those who are condemned and sentenced as unrighteous under the Law.
Confronted by that momentous event — the Crucifixion of Jesus the Christ — one of the criminals who is crucified with Him is called to repentance and brought to faith. By the Word and Spirit of God, he makes a beautiful confession in the midst of his suffering, and in the face of his death.
According to the Law, he rightly judges himself a sinner, deserving of nothing but punishment. Yet, by faith in the Gospel, he acknowledges that Jesus is God and King, that He is righteous and suffering innocently, and that, even now, He is on His way to victory and has the power to save. Whatever that man’s crimes have been, he knows the promise of the Resurrection and the life everlasting, and he fixes his hope for that life on Jesus.
He calls upon the Name of the Lord. He prays that Jesus will remember him when He comes into His Kingdom. And in this way that poor sinner lays hold of the fact that Yahweh remembers His people with forgiveness and deals with them according to His mercy and steadfast love. Dying to himself, he perceives and confesses the profound theology of the Cross, that God the Lord is not absent from but revealed in the Sacrifice of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son. That is a mighty faith indeed, in the most unlikely and yet most appropriate of places.
And Jesus responds with those familiar words of grace: Amen, Amen, it shall be so! Today you shall be with Me in Paradise. There is God’s resounding “Yes” in Christ Jesus.
His Kingdom is not of this world, but is the Paradise of the New Creation. He enters upon His reign by returning to His Father via the Cross, and in doing so He brings Man back to the Garden. What is more, it is entirely by grace. It is granted freely, not to those who work hard and keep their noses clean, but to those who own their faults and acknowledge them in humble repentance, who call upon the Lord by faith in His Word. Thus, to the man who is rightly punished for his crimes, Paradise is given as a gift by and from the Cross of Christ
This beautiful Word of the Gospel, such as Jesus speaks from the Cross to that one repentant thief, is a Word that He speaks to you, as well, also from the Cross, down through the ages in His Church. And it is just as sure and certain, just as comforting and precious, for you as for that man.
The Lord Jesus does remember you in mercy and forgiveness. He remembers the Name by which He has named you in your Holy Baptism, and so does He call you by name back to Himself day after day. He remembers you with His Word of the Gospel, which He preaches to you in love, that you should thus believe in Him and live by His grace. He remembers you in the Holy Communion, as He gives to you His Body and His Chalice, that you should Feast with Him in His Kingdom.
And when you are brought to an awareness of your sins, and you are sorely accused by the devil, and you are suffering the consequences of your crimes, the Lord Jesus remembers you by calling you to repentance and speaking His Word of Absolution through your pastor. He stretches out His hands to the right and to the left, to gather you to Himself, to bless you with His Spirit, and to grant you His free and full Salvation. None of this according to your merit, but according to His mercy.
When Jesus thus remembers you in each and all of these ways and means of His grace, He is not simply thinking about you — nor recalling you, as though He had ever once forgotten you — but He is actively present and close at hand to love you and to save you. He is by your side upon the plain with His good gifts and Spirit. He is hung beside you on the Cross, dying with you here on earth, that you should also be with Him, where He is, and live with Him in Paradise forever.
As He was numbered with you in your transgressions and your death, so are you numbered with Him in His righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. For He was counted as a criminal, Himself, so that you should be counted as a beloved child of God in Him and glorified in His Resurrection.
Now, to be sure, He does not yet remove the Cross from you in this poor life of labor; no more than He would come down from the Cross in order to save Himself from death and the grave. Instead, He gives you the promise of His Resurrection and His Life by the way of His Cross and Passion.
Think of that repentant criminal, who prayed for mercy and received it. He was not rescued from the Cross; he continued to suffer, and he died. Yet, by faith in Christ the Crucified, he was brought through his suffering and death into the glorious Kingdom of the Son of God.
Recognize in this example that the Cross you bear in your life on earth, your suffering in the flesh, and finally your death from this vale of tears, are no indication that God has forgotten you or cast you away from His presence. For one thing, you are crucified with Him, and He with you. He is not far away from you but shares your Cross and suffering. So also do His death and yours serve the purpose of putting sin to death and into the grave. You are crucified to yourself, to your sin, and to the world, that you should rise and live with Jesus in His Kingdom and His Righteousness. Even as your mortal flesh perishes, so do you enter, both body and soul, into Paradise with Him.
Cling to His Word and promise, to His resounding “Yes” and “Amen” in answer to your prayer of faith. Remember Him, as He remembers you. For He is faithful, and He will surely do as He has promised. Indeed, already in His Church on earth, in the Holy Communion, Jesus brings you into His Paradise — into His glorious Garden of Eden, made brand new and better than ever — by feeding you with the Fruits of His Cross, which is the Tree of Life. As always, His Cross is at the center, in the midst of the Garden, not for death but for life on the right hand and on the left.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.