Sermon for the 18th Sunday next before Advent (The Feast of Christ the King and Toy Sunday): Penitence – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 20 November 2022 by The Reverend Robert Green. (Colossians Ch 1: v 11 – 20; Luke Ch 23: v 33 – 43)
Our Gospel Reading this morning takes us to the heart of our faith as Jesus hangs dying on the cross. There are two others crucified with him. One joins in with the derision and scoffing of the crowd trying to taunt Jesus by asking, “Are not you the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other rebukes him with these words, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Because of these words we have come to know him as the penitent thief, and tradition has even given him a name- St Dismas. Jesus reply to Dismas is: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
What faith- and what a reward!
Tradition over the centuries have added further associations with Dismas. He is venerated in the Roman Catholic church on 25th March, the same date as the Annunciation, the tradition being that Jesus died on the cross on the same date as his Incarnation. It has also been assumed that Dismas was on the right side of Jesus as depictions of a crucifix always show Jesus’ head tilting to the right, and thus facing Dismas, and tuning away from the other criminal.
Leaving aside the traditions we have an account of a conversion as Dismas expresses an awareness of sin, repents, accepts Jesus, and is given the promise of eternal life.
The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said: “To confess your sins to God is not to tell God anything God doesn’t already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the …bridge.” That is why at the beginning of our worship, we acknowledge in the Confession our failings and weaknesses in thought word and deed- and we repented of them, and received words of absolution. This is a key part of salvation for us as it was for Dismas. On the Cross he bridges the gap between him and Christ and in those short moments, he confesses, repents and is saved.
One of the obvious lessons from this account is that it is never too late to confess, repent and be saved. There are doubtless those who might wonder why, in that case, we simply live a dissolute life, and repent in old age. But quite apart from crossing our fingers and hoping to make it to old age, and quite apart from the fact that any eleventh-hour confession would be fake in these circumstances, for let’s face it none of us knows exactly when this earthly life is going to end. When is the last moment? As many Christian counsellors will tell you it is better to keep short accounts with God, and it is for this reason that even in the Book of Common Prayer in the Exhortation prior to Communion we have these words: “therefore if there be any of you who … cannot quiet his own conscience, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me or some other discreet and learned Minister of God’s Word and open his grief; that…he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding all scruple and doubtfulness.” It is for this reason that the Ministry of Confession is available in our churches, and as we approach Advent and the beginning of the Church’s year, it may be appropriate for some to avail themselves of this ministry.
The penitent thief speaks of Jesus’ Kingdom in his confession, and today is the Feast of Christ the King. What that kingdom means is proclaimed in our New Testament Reading from Colossians where Paul sums up the joy of living in Christ: strength, glory, endurance, patience, rescue from darkness, living in light. This is the good news of the Gospel. Jesus our King- our servant King- not only reigns from the Cross, but has suffered for our sake. He is in the midst of our suffering world; he is alongside us in whatever situation we have to go through because he understands the frailty of human nature. In his eyes, we are never broken beyond repair whatever we may have done or not done, and for ever long we may have done it or not done it, we can make peace “through the blood of his Cross”.
I close with some words from the song “The Servant King”, often sung in the cathedral on Maundy Thursday at the Blessing of the Oils. It was written and composed by Graham Kendrick:
Come see his hands and his feet,
The scars that speak of sacrifice,
Hands that flung stars into space
To cruel nails surrendered.
This is our God, the Servant King
He calls us now to follow him,
To bring our lives as a daily offering
Of worship to the Servant King.