The Good Thief
Ave, Crux, Spes Unica! (Hail, O Cross, Our Only Hope!)

by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador

Preached on the Feast Day of the Holy Cross (September 14)

I’ve been to Rome twice and of all the churches I visited there, the Basilica di Sancta Croce in Gerusalemme (The Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem) is my favorite. The church was built by the Empress Helena in the fourth century within her imperial palace to house the sacred relics of the passion and the crucifixion of our Lord. The relics of the Cross, a nail that pierced Jesus’ body, a thorn of the crown of thorns, and part of the title (titulus) that bore the inscription “Jesus King of the Jews” are all enshrined in a chapel. While the relics of the passion are the centerpiece of the chapel, what fascinated me was as you walk through the corridor on the way to the chapel of the relics, you cannot help but notice a large relic enshrined in a glass by the wall of the corridor that simply bore the inscription “pars crucis boni latroni”- part of the cross of the good thief. We know the story of the good thief who was crucified along with Jesus.

I like the story of the good thief for at least two reasons. It reminds us simply that love, grace, goodness and life- not sin, evil, and death and violence- have the final verdict on human hopes. Secondly, while the thief himself felt he deserved judgment, condemnation and the sentence of death for the life he lived, Jesus offered forgiveness and love unconditionally. There was not a word of condemnation on Jesus’ lips. Jesus was not concerned about weighing the scales of justice; he was just concerned that the man be forgiven and loved in the final hours of his life. Jesus’ love was not preconditioned on anything.

Today is the feast of what we call Holy Cross Day. While Holy Week concentrates on the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, today’s feast is more focused on the joy of salvation Jesus brought to the world by his cross. It is indeed a joyful day to be reminded that we are simply loved and offered salvation for no other reason simply because it is the nature of God to love us unconditionally. In a society that puts a premium prize on merits, accomplishments, and riches, it is a countercultural message to hear that we cannot earn our way to God’s heart by our own accomplishments, success, or wealth or what have you; God’s love is simply a given, freely given. One of the optional readings scheduled for today’s feast came from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” No one can boast of earning God’s love, Paul says. No matter who we are, God simply loves us. Conversely, even when we think that we somehow do not deserve God’s love and mercy because of what we have done, or what we are doing, when we judge our lives to be a failure, God’s love is always there. God does not withhold his love from us. It is never taken away. I recently read a book called “The Junkie Priest”, about a real life priest, Daniel Egan, who dedicated his life and ministry to the homeless, the drug addicted and those engaged in prostitution. The book opened with an inscription from Shakespeare, “There is some soul of goodness in things evil.” When we see only sin or evil in others or in us, God does not fail to see goodness. Egan had this prayer he said: “Dear God, junkies aren’t really junkies, they’re your children, all of them.” When we see “junk” only in others or in us, God sees only his children.

Yet, this message also carries with it a certain challenge. Because love is never earned and because love is taken away from us, that should never excuse us from doing work in the cause of justice and peace. We give thanks to God for his simply becoming like Christ. And we become like Christ when we imitate him in his life of loving service as Paul said in his letter to the Philippians-“ Let the mind of Christ be in you, though he was God, he did not think much of himself as a VIP, a “somebody”, no, not a VIP, not a somebody, but as a servant of all.”


© 2010 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a gay Filipino priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

The Relic of the Cross of the Good Thief - Basilica di Sancta Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome, Italy.

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