Man in the Middle
Each year, some part of the story of Holy Week grabs my attention in a new way. This year, it was the criminals on either side of Jesus’s cross. Matthew and Mark have the two criminals joining everyone else in heaping insults and scorn upon Jesus, adding to the general consensus that this is a very poorly performing Saviour. He saved others. Let him save himself. If you’re the Messiah, let’s see some action! Some “king.” Come down off that wretched cross if you are who you say you are.
Luke’s version is a bit different. In his telling, one of the criminals adds a more personal twist to the insults: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The other one, however, pleads for mercy. Maybe he started with insults. Maybe as death grew ever closer his tune changed. Who knows? But in the end, he says, We’re getting what we deserve, he says. This man has done nothing wrong. And then he looks at Jesus and says the words that all of us probably say in different ways at some point or another in our lives, when we come to the end of ourselves, when we have failed one too many times, when our faith is flagging and our hope seems weak… Jesus, remember me.
These criminals represent two common approaches to God. One response wants a God who does our bidding. It clings to its own self-interest and self-righteousness. It is interested only in a God that validates its own expectations and assumptions about the world and how it works, about God and how God works. What good is a God on a cross? What good is a God who hangs there dying impotently? Why would anyone bother with someone who delivers such poor results? Save yourself! And us, while you’re at it! The other looks at Jesus and sees goodness, truth, beauty, love, innocence, and—somehow—hope. There is a humility and a helplessness to this response. It knows that it has done wrong and cannot appeal to its own merit. All it can say is, Jesus, remember me.
Jesus hangs there in between these two oh-so-human responses, between we who demand a God on our terms and we who slowly come to realize that God on God’s terms is what we actually need. Jesus hangs there. The man in the middle.
Three days later, Mary sees a stone rolled away. And she weeps. What have they done with the man in the middle? She peers through her tears back into the empty tomb. And she sees two angels where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head, one at the foot. What an interesting detail to note. And what an interesting symmetry. When Jesus dies, he has two criminals for company. Two criminals that could represent all of humanity. And three days later, there are also two figures. Two angels. But here, there is no man in the middle. There is no body where a body should be. And in place of insults and mockery, a question: “Why are you weeping?”
The innocent one who was condemned to death by “righteous” men, who prayed “forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing” as he died, has left death behind, has changed the course of history forever. He has become the man in the middle… of everything. Of God’s story. Of history. Of our individual stories. Of reality itself.
And so, on this Easter Sunday we once again joyfully proclaim the good news of the man in the middle. The man who hung and died between two criminals, between mockery and a cry for mercy. The man who flipped the script by offering mercy where condemnation was expected. The man whom death could not keep down. This man is the one in whom our God is most fully and truly and finally revealed.
And this man now stands in the middle of all that is. His resurrection is the epicentre at the very heart of reality forever redefining what is possible in our world and in our lives. The empty tomb stands in the centre of all reality. It shines like a searchlight in all directions, into past, future and present, pointing a way through darkness and death.
It shines stronger and truer than all the bad news of our newspapers and our lives, all the wars and gloomy forecasts about the future of our species and the planet, all the afflictions we and those we love endure, all the human lives that death temporarily steals away from us, all of the apparent victories of darkness that we are all too familiar with.
In all cases, both great and small, Jesus’ resurrection life is the light by which we learn see and to live by the unlikeliest of futures for ourselves and for our world. Death is no match for the risen Christ. The man in the middle is mighty to save. The man in middle is the risen Lord of all.
This is the good news of Easter. And it is the very best news.
Excerpted from a sermon preached at Lethbridge Mennonite Church, Easter Sunday, 2022.