“Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:42-43).
The crucified thief shared our way of thinking. “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” No telling when that might be or when he thought it would be. But he did not expect it too soon if for no other reason than that crucified daydreamers do not overnight become kings with kingdoms! It was the future—the distant future—which the penitent thief had in mind when he spoke. But now again, look at the reply. “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” What had been hoped for the future is here as a present possibility. You can, of course, reply that since both the thief and Jesus Christ were about to leave this life, it would have to be that very day that they were together in paradise. But this misses the point. If these same words had been spoken by our Lord to the penitent thief at a time and place when each of them still had fifty years to live, they would have meant the same. For these words do not refer so much to the place to which they were going, by virtue of their common death, as to the new relationship into which they had entered by reason of faith. “To be with me in paradise” is not primarily a promise for the future, but a possibility for the present.
For to be with Jesus Christ, whenever and wherever it takes place, is to be in paradise. It is an experience that doubtless will become more perfect and complete when we have passed beyond the limitations of this mortal life. But that does not preclude its beginning here now. Heaven, as we call it, is not a totally distinct realm from earth into which we will be translated by the fact of death. It is an experience that interpenetrates the experiences of our mortality. There is no heaven, no paradise possible in another world for those who have not begun, however imperfectly, their experience of it here. The dying thief did not begin his experience of paradise after he had drawn his last breath in this world. He began it at the moment he recognized in his dying companion, the Lord and Master of his life. And when his spirit left his body for that other world, it was simply to go on in greater realization of something which had been already, though for a very short time, begun here. Those who live victoriously, though they wait in great hope and expectation for the final triumph of God’s grace, live even more in present experience of what that grace in Christ can do in their lives here and now.
Adapted from Bread and Wine (Howard Hageman)