Words to the Cross: The Word of Faith
When was the last time you heard a really good, riveting TESTIMONY?
We see testimonies all the time on TV, don’t we? I think particularly of the Kansas City car dealer, “Thoroughbred Ford” as one example of customer testimonies. When a Thoroughbred commercial comes on, you’ll see Jerry and Louise stand stiffly in front of the camera saying, “We like Thoroughbred Ford because they gave me more on my trade-in than anyone else.”
Then the camera will cut to Sam and Delilah saying, “They treated us real good at Thoroughbred Ford!”
But I am not talking about a Thoroughbred Ford commercial or the thing that happens in a courtroom, in front of a judge and jury. I am talking about the time when someone stands up and makes a passionate, personal statement about their faith.
Each week when I stand up here and talk to you in this thing called a “sermon,” I try to make sure that I include something personal… something about how this week’s subject hits “close to home” for me.
But I’m not talking about something you might hear from a professional preacher… I am talking about something one of YOU might offer.
In my ministry – especially my work with the addiction recovery program – I have been privileged to see several very powerful testimonies.
Every one of them is unique, but there are usually a few elements they share in common. They usually begin with someone who is very much in command of their situation. Things are working well… their relationships are all healthy and loving… they are professionally fulfilled… and their teeth are as white as can be.
And then something happens that changes all of that. You can use any number of phrases to describe that moment: the roof caves in, the wheels fall off, the chickens come home to roost… but it all adds up to the same thing; their good, orderly life is suddenly a smoking wreck by the side of the road.
All seems lost with no way out… UNTIL! By some unexpected intervention the light of faith pierces their darkness, the scales fall off their eyes and they walk out into the bright sunlight of FAITH in Christ.
One of the most powerful testimonies I ever heard was the testimony of Daryl Burton. Today, Daryl is one of the associate pastors at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. But just a few short years ago, Daryl was in prison, serving a life sentence for murder.
Daryl was arrested, tried, and sent to prison in 1984 for a crime he did not commit. He spent 24 years behind bars, making appeal after appeal for a review of his case… all to no avail. It was only because of the recent development of the science of DNA analysis that it was finally proven that it was impossible for Daryl to have committed the crime he was imprisoned for.
I don’t know about you, but if I had seen 24 years of my life taken away from me – completely unjustly – I think I would be more than a little bit angry. I might feel as if SOMEONE needed to pay for the injustice I had suffered… either financially or emotionally. I might be bitter.
But Daryl was none of that. During his time in prison, Daryl examined his soul and found there was something missing. Prior to his arrest, Daryl was not a murderer, but he was not what you would call a model citizen, either. While in prison for those 24 years, Daryl discovered that what he needed more than anything in his life was JESUS.
And as he will quickly tell you, that discovery has made all the difference.
Today we are taking a look at someone who probably has a powerful testimony of his own to give… except that he never got the chance to give it.
Today we are talking about one of the two thieves that were crucified with Jesus on that fateful Good Friday. We are only talking about one of them because – as far as the biblical record tells us – only ONE of those thieves had a testimony-worthy experience to share.
It is interesting… all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion talk about the two thieves being crucified beside him, but it is only Luke’s gospel that describes the one thief’s “conversion” experience. Matthew says, “Then the two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.” (Matthew 27:38, NRSV), and a little later adds, “The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.” (Matthew 27:44, NRSV).
Mark – always known as a man of few words, says, “And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left…” (Mark 15:27, NRSV), with John offering even less commentary, “There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.” (John 19:18, NRSV.)
It is Luke alone who tells the story of the “deathbed conversion” experience of one of the two criminals. Luke is never specific about their crimes, calling them only, “criminals,” but makes it very clear that these two other men had VERY different feelings about the man who was hanging there with them.
In verse 39 of the 23rd chapter of Luke, we read these words, “One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.’” (Luke 23:39, NRSV). The fact that Luke says that this guy “kept” deriding Jesus tells us that both of them had been participating in the jeers and taunting originally.
But then… something happened to the second criminal… Something that is never really fully explained… Something powerful and life changing. Suddenly this man stops taunting Jesus and turns to him and says, “But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of 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.’” (Luke 23:40-42, NRSV).
And then of course you remember the words Jesus used when he responded. Jesus turned his head toward the man and said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
So what do you think happened? What was it that turned this man around? Why was it that HE had a complete change of heart and recognized Jesus for who he was, while the other man apparently didn’t? You notice that he said, “WHEN” you come into your kingdom,” not “IF.” In the blink of an eye, this criminal on the cross became a person of faith.
These are questions we will never have the answers to. But we can use these questions to prompt us to ask other questions that we might have more insight into.
For example, the story of the criminal’s “deathbed conversion” might cause us to ask, “How does CONVERSION work anyway? What causes a person to go from NO FAITH to FAITH?” Is it always a “lightning bolt/mountaintop” kind of moment like we saw with the criminal on the cross? Or can a conversion happen slowly and gradually… over time?
I am sure many of you here are a lot like me… I don’t really have a dramatic “conversion story” of my own. From the time I was born my parents made sure I was in church every Sunday. I went to Methodist Youth Fellowship in Junior High and High School and church camp during the summer.
Like many people my age, I drifted away from the church completely when I went away to college, but found myself drifting back into it later when I got married and had children. For me, there was no “lightning bolt” moment where the sky opened up and the voice of God spoke to me, and I looked up and said, “YES, Jesus! I believe!” Granted, my decision to answer God’s call and enter the ministry later in life was fairly dramatic and felt a bit like a “coming to Jesus” moment, but it really wasn’t a matter of going from “NO FAITH” to FAITH, like we saw with the thief on the cross.
Does that sound like your story at all?
So how do people like you and I talk about CONVERSION? And what does that have to do with our mission here as Mound City/Blue Mound United Methodist Church?
Maybe we can start to answer that question with a better definition of what we mean by the word CONVERSION. Maybe it doesn’t always have to be a matter of a person going from NO FAITH at all to FAITH IN JESUS. Maybe a better way to think of conversion is something like THE MOMENT WHEN JESUS BECOMES REAL to someone.
I like this definition because think it is entirely possible for a person to be a faithful “church attender” for a long time without having a real, firsthand relationship with Jesus.
It reminds me of the story of a man I counseled with many years ago at a previous church. This man was in a very distraught state of mind. He was in his mid-50s, had been laid off from his job and had now been out of work for more than six months. He was coming to the end of the money in his savings account. The resulting financial pressures were causing a lot of friction in his marriage.
He was really in a desperate state of mind when he came to see me and was looking for any kind of answer. But I remember being struck by something he said to me, after pouring out his whole story. He said, “I don’t understand it… I have been a faithful church attender here for 10 years. I have given 10% of my income ever since I started. I am involved in a Sunday School class and LOTS of volunteer activities here. After everything I’ve done, I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY GOD’S NOT HELPING ME OUT!”
“I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY GOD’S NOT HELPING ME OUT!”
I know he was in a very emotional state of mind at that time and was probably not thinking clearly, but did you hear that statement? It was amazing to me that someone who had been faithfully attending a Christian church for AT LEAST 10 years could still think of God as a sort of cosmic vending machine… the kind where we put our church attendance and service in the slot, pull the lever, and then stand back and watch jobs, financial security, and healthy relationships come tumbling down the chute.
I hate to be harsh about it, but THAT – to me – does not describe a faith where Jesus has become real to someone.
Jesus never promised us that all our problems would go away when we came to believe. He never said our salvation would smooth out all the bumps on the road of our life. In fact, what he DID say was almost the exact opposite sentiment.
In Mark’s gospel we see Jesus turn to the crowd and say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:34-36, NRSV).
When we talk about Jesus “becoming real” to someone, we are talking about someone becoming heir to a whole new purpose and meaning of life. We are talking about life suddenly having a new CENTER… a center that is no longer ME, but instead is HIM. We are talking about DYING to everything we once THOUGHT was important and being REBORN to the things JESUS thinks are important.
For the criminal on the cross, it took the event of facing his own death to bring him to faith in Jesus.
For the addict, sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom.
For all of us, it takes the sincere, heartfelt recognition that without Jesus at the center, our lives are utterly incomplete.
And so when I think of it THAT way – that is, when I think of CONVERSION as “Jesus becoming real” to someone – I suddenly come face-to-face with a startling realization: I suddenly realize that the person most in need of conversion is ME.
Yes, our stated mission as United Methodists is “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” But in order to MAKE disciples, we each first have to BE disciples.
WE have to be those who have heard the call to “take up our cross and follow me,” and then we have to actually TAKE IT UP! And FOLLOW!
WE have to be the ones who are willing to BE DIFFERENT from the world around us.
WE have to be those who love the unlovable, touch the untouchable, who shine light into the darkness that often seems so pervasive.
And then we have to be ready to answer – with passion and sincerity – when people ask us why we do what we do. As we are reminded in 1 Peter 3: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence…” (1 Peter 3:15-16, NRSV).
I agree… passionate, eloquent testimonies about how someone finally came to faith in Christ are exciting to listen to.
But I think you’ll agree… the BEST testimony any of us can offer is in the life we live.
Would you pray with me?