There was once a man sentenced to capital punishment by the state.
The authorities decided to kill him for political reasons, because he undermined their laws with effortless and controversial leadership. They were afraid of a revolution, and afraid of being deemed irrelevant.
They managed to convince the governor of the region to approve of the execution, claiming it would apparently please the people, and help cement all their positions of leadership.
The governor questioned the prisoner, demanding he explain himself, but the man stayed silent. The governor had heard that this convicted man had in fact encouraged and cared for the people he’d encountered, hurting no-one – so he questioned the accusers and also the public. ‘Are you sure you want to execute him? You are allowed to free one prisoner – you can free him, if you like.’ ‘No!’ they said. ‘Free the other man – the murderer – instead. We want this man dead.’
So the governor let the execution go ahead. Troubled by something he couldn’t place, he publicly washed his hands clean of the man’s blood.
Three men were executed at once. Two thieves, and the third man – officially accused of blasphemy. They were paraded and shamed in front of the city. The students, friends and loved ones of the third man followed him, crying.
As the guards prepared him for death, the third man prayed to his God: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’
One of the thieves, about to be executed beside him, began to yell abuse. ‘Didn’t you claim to be the Christ? Some Savior you are. Save yourself and save us!’
The other thief, however, stopped him. ‘Don’t you fear God? You are receiving the same sentence as him! And we deserve this, but he doesn’t. He has done nothing wrong.’
The second thief, hanging to death beside the innocent man, said ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
And Jesus said to him “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
And they were executed.
So we fast forward approximately two thousand years. We fast forward into the technological revolution, where we have found so many new ways to save ourselves, and this planet, and so many new ways to destroy it all, too. We’ve built vehicles, we’ve built planes. We’ve flown! We’ve been to the moon. Past the moon. We’ve built machines that think for themselves. We have discovered atomic structure, we have discovered that the universe is expanding. We know about dark matter, dark energy. We know how to heal so many diseases, we know how to eat for health. We have extraordinary industries, we live until ninety, and we keep all our relationships inside a little metal box that connects us with any person and any information instantaneously.
Oh, we have come so far, haven’t we?
We have discovered so much – we have seen so much. Technology has taken us to extraordinary new heights in understanding the structure of this planet, and what we can create within and upon it.
But my God we are hurting.
We are still discriminating, still abusing, still stealing, still enslaving. We are still hoarding, we are still withholding, still starving. We are still condemning, we are still rejecting, we are still judging. We are still getting addicted, we are still getting depressed. We are still beating, still betraying. We’re still killing each other.
Technology has solved so much. We have changed everything in two thousand years, and yet we have not changed the strange and inescapable emptiness of the human heart.
To summarize Billy Graham – technology has not solved these three things: human evil, human suffering, and death.
Two thousand years later, we (and yes it is we, as humanity) are still ready to execute men and women. Our answer, for wrong-doing and for fear, is the death penalty. Sometimes it is in the legal system of our state or nation. Sometimes it is just war. But we justify it.
They hurt us? They threaten us? They shall be eliminated.
Two Australian men – Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, are currently sentenced to death in Indonesia. They were drug smugglers. They are expected to be executed imminently. Both have been imprisoned for almost a decade, and over that period of time, have done something that the worlds’ overall judicial systems have not been able to achieve in thousands of years: they’ve changed.
Our people, and our government, have pleaded with the Indonesian government to no avail. Friends of mine, close to these men, are valiantly waging wars against misinformation on the internet, in the hope of stirring people to rally harder, or even reconsider positions of judgment.
These are the lives of two extraordinary, generous leaders – two men who have planted peace and love and seen the fruit borne of such practices. They have repented, they have been rehabilitated, and they have gone on to set other people free from pain, addiction and crime. While they are still alive, there is a chance for clemency. I don’t have enough stats to prove to you here how politically and legally this trial and verdict are actually grossly unfair, but I can assure you that they are.
I want to offer a message of peace, in support of these men – I want you to know that this doesn’t have to happen, for justice to be served. I want you to know that there is another way. I also want you to know that if this does happen, love still reigns. That the work these men have done stands forever. You cannot kill love. It rises again.
We are all going to die. Each of us will have an opportunity to pass away – it won’t always be pain free. It won’t always be in our timing. We don’t have a say. No-one gets to live on earth forever. What gives us a say over the death of any other human? I’m overwhelmed by the sheer arrogance of that position – of elevating, deifying ourselves to have authority to claim the death of another person. As if our own mortality can’t be touched. As if the blood washes right off our hands. As if we won’t one day also give up our spirit, and won’t be held accountable for the lives we have extinguished. We give ourselves the right to murder. It is an extraordinary aspect of our humanity – of our evil.
And it is precisely why Jesus allowed his execution to take place. It is why he did not fight, did not defend himself, did not assert his own rights.
Because what else would we do, if there was a God, and that God showed up in human form? How else would we treat someone that claimed that he was there as a light, to show humanity the way to peace and to love – to tell the world ‘You’re doing it wrong –but here, let me give you the way’?
Of course we would kill them.
He let us kill him – because in his pacifism, and then in his forgiveness, he actually unraveled death, and it was that act that broke through, and finished it.
We have been shown a way of peace – and what’s more, we’ve been presented with a person of peace, a spirit of peace – to lead us and show us how to live lives without violence, without hatred, and without human suffering in the form we’ve always known it.
Jesus was executed so that no other human being had to be. But that unfortunately doesn’t mean they won’t be.
Grace is so unbelievably difficult for us to understand. We don’t work this way, usually. Basically: you get everything, and you get it for free. No strings. Grace can’t be earned. There’s no atonement. There’s no work involved, on your part, at all. It’s someone else coming in and cleaning up the mess. That someone doesn’t just remove your guilt, they fix the broken things – they reconcile the broken relationships. They use every ugly experience to turn you into a more beautiful person.
Like turning a dark, concrete jail into an art studio, for example.
No matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, in grace, you are lifted to your feet in righteousness and splendour. It is the outpouring of a love so huge, that it swallows up the hate.
As humans, we can do horrible things. We hurt other people. We act in fear and hatred, not in love and kindness. We make mistakes.
In grace, we are eventually taken to court, and we expect to be condemned – we expect to be sentenced to death, and when we get there we discover that nothing we have done has been held against us. We are cleared of all guilt. We are not going to be destroyed. Instead we are offered freedom, eternally. And we ask the judge why we won’t be punished, why we have been granted this, and he tells us that someone else has offered to be executed in our place.
If we accept their offer, we can live.
I know that if any person on death row accepts this offer, the promise remains true – no matter what happens – no matter the outcome of the earthly appeal. The true court date is later. The second thief died in body beside Jesus, but rose in spirit alongside him.
Death has no sting. Not anymore.
This is an excerpt from Andrew Chan’s testimony (as quoted from here):
“Just before my court date, I remember reading Mark 11:23-24, where it says that if you have enough faith you can say to this mountain, ‘Be removed’ and God will do it. So I said, ‘God if you’re real and if this is true, I want you to free me, and if you do I’ll serve you every day for the rest of my life.’ I went to my court hearing and they convicted me and gave me the death penalty. When I got back to my cell, I said, ‘God, I asked you to set me free, not kill me.’ God spoke to me and said, ‘Andrew, I have set you free from the inside out, I have given you life!’ From that moment on I haven’t stopped worshipping Him. I had never sung before, never led worship, until Jesus set me free.’
Andrew Chan has hanged beside his God, as the first thief – ‘You said you were the Christ?! Save us!’ and then as the second thief – ‘Remember me, Lord’. He is known and understood by a God who also surrendered his own spirit to capital punishment, in order demonstrate love.
Love does not return empty from where it has been sent out. Love has overcome the world. They can execute these men, despite the act being morally, legally and politically deplorable, but they only take the body. They do not take away the beauty, the dignity and the legacy that these men have sown into the hard concrete of Kerobokan, and the healing, rehabilitation, and tenderness they have reaped, as if flowers in soft soil. The love they have poured out upon Indonesia, upon Australia, upon the lowest, the most hated, the most rejected of criminals – that love counts for something. What they have done does not go unseen, and it does disappear into the ether. They have been the light, in the dark place. This world is so much better for them being in it. They deserve mercy, and they deserve life.
They have lived lives of integrity, and of freedom – the freedom that only comes with a heart that is willing to change. As many of us remain caged by our own pain, our own selfishness or our own foolishness, these men are free, even behind bars.
They are alive, even in their death sentences.
On the third day after the executions, students, friends and loved ones visited the tomb of the third man. When they arrived, they discovered the stone at the entrance had been rolled away. The linen wrappings that had been on his body were lying on the ground. No-one understood what had happened, and almost everyone left.
A young woman was left standing outside the tomb, crying. As she cried, she stooped and looked inside. Two angels sat inside the tomb.
‘Dear woman, why are you crying?’ they asked her.
“Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”
She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognise him. “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?”
She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”
“Mary!” Jesus said.
She turned to him, and she saw him, and she cried out, “Teacher!”