Truly, I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.
Huh, I thought, as I considered what to say today. Unexpected words to an unlikely person – Our Lord speaks to a thief, to a man who had nothing to do with him until that moment, either for or against. Not a disciple, not an apostle, not a Pharisee. An unknown thief who admits his own sins, understands their consequences, and speaks out for an innocent man at the last possible minute receives eternal life.
Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, I mercy asked, and mercy found.
Sobering, isn’t it? Because that exchange turns everything we so often believe about salvation upside down.
Oh, we pay lip service to the ‘anyone can be saved right up to the last moment’ – unless you’re a diehard Calvinist, of course – but that isn’t what we practise. Just watch and listen to how often we claim to know whether or not someone is saved and will go to Paradise, or, even more egregiously, how often we put ourselves in the Lord’s place, claiming that we know exactly what they need to do to be in Paradise with Him – as if G-d wasn’t at work in their lives already.
How often that ‘knowing’ has to do with their lives looking exactly like ours: same denominational team shirt, going to our church as often as we do, praying like we do, sharing our political ideology, hating the same people we do.
My most recent experience of someone else’s certainty about my spiritual life was Ash Wednesday, when, after a couple of months’ absence, I went to mass down the road. Just as I sat down at my computer, less than 30 minutes after the end of mass, an email from one of the priests hit my inbox:
As you know, Holy Communion is – amongst other things – a celebration of union with all who believe the same Faith, both across the globe and across history. You, yourself, have told us that you frequently attend a non-Catholic church on Sundays. If this is the case, then I must ask you not to present yourself for Holy Communion in a Catholic Church. If, on the other hand, you no longer attend non-Catholic churches on Sundays and Holy Days then, like anyone else who has returned to the Faith, you are of course most welcome.
May G-d bless you during this holy season.
Suffice it to say, G-d blessing HIM wasn’t what first came to my mind. But once I could see past the shock and ensuing anger, my first thought – and almost the first sentence in my written response to him - was, You can’t make that judgment; you have no idea what my spiritual life has been for the last two months.
But more critically, as a Catholic who believes in the Real Presence - that communion IS the body and blood of Christ, I saw that with his request that I accept myself as excommunicated latae sententiae, he was literally placing himself as a barrier between me and G-d.
In that moment, I understood that every time we judge someone’s faith journey, every time we insist it look like ours, every time we try to force theirs into a shape that WE think is right, we place ourselves as a barrier between another and G-d. Can there be any greater sin than that?
As with all sin, it is born out of fear and ignorance: fear that our own journey may not be the right one or that we are faltering, and ignorance of how G-d is working in their – and our - lives. We tend to forget that salvation is a relationship, a process…not a fixed point.
But this Maundy Thursday, which coincides with the Jewish holiday of Purim, when nothing is as it seems and G-d delights in turning all things on their heads, let’s turn that fear and ignorance upside down.
First, let us focus on the one journey to G-d we truly have any business conducting – our own. Let’s face our fear, destroy our ignorance by taking that hard look in the mirror, shining the light in dark corners, build our relationship with G-d rather than stand in the way of someone else’s. Christian, convert thyself.
Then, let’s turn our way of encountering others upside down – instead of trying to bring them where we are, let’s do as Our Lord does from the Temple to the well to the cross next to Him: meet them where they are. Let us listen deeply, hear their story, hold space for them to discover how G-d is speaking in their lives. Let us help them find their path to G-d rather than have them walk ours.
Because the G-d who created a dynamic, interconnected universe containing supernovas, plankton, and everything in between is hardly likely to be found waiting at the end of a single path for a certain type. Instead, a G-d so profligate, so extravagant, will be found everywhere, unfolding in everything, delighting in surprising us.
Just as He did a few weeks after Ash Wednesday, when, after said priest saw me in the Lady Chapel whilst I was praying, I received an email from him. Having a no-holds-barred draft left over from our earlier correspondence, I rolled up my sleeves as I opened the email, ready to go all in – then read:
After you had finished your devotions I looked for you in church and in the lodge to say hello but I couldn’t find you. I hope you are well.
And I knew I had a choice: stand between him and G-d, or give up my chance to show him what’s what – and let me tell you, that draft email WAS a masterpiece - and walk beside him. No, he had no idea how G-d was working in my life. But then, I had no idea how G-d was working in his. What I do know is the conversation that emerged from his two sentence email, the child of correspondence fraught with hurt and anger, moved us both towards G-d, not away.
V’nahafoch hu – it was turned upside down. But that uncertainty, that flipping, is nothing to fear. On the contrary, as the Maccabeats remind us, it is cause for celebration:
So raise your glass if you see G-d in hidden places,
He's right in front of you…
…emerging all the time to say those unexpected words to unlikely people: Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise. May we be among them.