An interesting scene unfolds as Jesus hangs dying on the Cross. It takes place when the thief turns to Jesus and begins to recognize, in this amazing profession of faith, who He actually is.
Let's start by recognizing that there is no shortage of rumors about who this Jesus character is. Everyone's heard of Him, even the Roman guards who are charged with crucifying Him. To varying degrees, almost everyone around Jerusalem considers His story in one way or another. Maybe He's a great teacher. Maybe He's a prophet. Maybe He's John the Baptist come back to life. Maybe He's a lunatic. Everyone has their opinion, their thoughts, their theory. So it's not much of a stretch that the thieves seem to have heard about Him.
But at this point, it seems that most, if not all, have given up on Him. They can't bear to watch the crucifixion. They haven't all gathered at the foot of the Cross. His mother is there, weeping. And one of His friends, John, is with her, but it's hard to say whether John has come willingly or reluctantly, whether his support, at this point, is more for the man or for the mother. The other disciples? We have no idea where they are.
Peter denied Jesus three times in the courtyard. It's safe to say he probably cannot bear to be at the hill, hanging his head in shame as his Lord hangs His body crucified. Judas has already hanged himself in the field. There are nine disciples then unaccounted for, and we're left to wonder what these men who gave up everything to follow Jesus are doing with themselves.
Maybe everyone is just holding their breath, disciples and devotees and detractors alike, waiting to see what happens next. They're probably all expecting some miracle, some phenomenal act of God that will blow that Cross to smithereens and bring Jesus safely down off of it. The words that He said about three days...they don't even understand, they don't know. But something has to happen, right? So maybe everyone is just hunkered down, waiting for Jesus to come back to them. You know, less bloody and stuff.
And then, this thief....
And then, this thief looks at Jesus as they both feel the life slowly draining out of them, and he says something for which we often praise him, but have we stopped to consider this at all? "Remember me," he says. "Remember me."
It's an odd scene, to say the least. One dying man looks into the eyes of another and says, "Remember me." Remember you? Remember you for what? Any other dying man might be indignant. I'm dying here. You're dying there. You want me to remember you? For what? For that whole five minutes longer than you that I might live? For another couple of hours?
It just doesn't make a lot of sense, on the surface of it. And even if we turn it over to the cultural idea (which has existed in some form since the beginning of time in various places and peoples) that the dead can somehow advocate for the living, it's absurd even in this understanding for the dead to give themselves to the dead. That's not how the belief works. One man never says to the other, "Let's meet up in the afterlife for the benefit of my having lived."
So what we're left with, then, is perhaps the boldest statement of faith in all the Gospels, and most of us miss that. Peter said there's no way Jesus would ever need to die, that he would defend his Teacher to the death. And then denied Him. John calls himself "the one Jesus loved," and he's there, at the Cross, but he's comforting the soon-to-be-grieving mother. He, too, thinks that death is the end. Judas has hanged himself because he's just given an innocent man over to death and thus ended the ministerial journey of Jesus, or so he thinks. Nine other disciples simply cannot be accounted for. They cannot watch this Man that they've given their lives to die this way, and they're already worried about what His death says for them. Are they next? Are they fools? Is there any life they can go back to?
For the twelve most faithful men in Jesus' story, the story is over. But for this thief, this criminal, this convict, it's only just beginning. Remember me. From one dying man to another, Remember me.
Man, that's incredible.