This afternoon I visited Winchester Cathedral to enable my daughter Natasha to complete some drawings for a project on religious art. While we were there I went, as I always do, to make my pilgrimage to the tomb of Jane Austen. She is probably one of the writers who has most influenced me. Whether or not you enjoy her stories, no one can deny that she is a past-master at creating lifelike characters.
I read once again the familiar inscription on her tombstone, and noted, as I always do, how its final paragraph grated on me. But it struck me today – Easter Saturday – that this weekend of all weekends, there is a good reason for pondering those words and asking if they ring true.
Here is the inscription:
In Memory of Jane Austen, youngest daughter of the late Revd George Austen, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian.
The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections.
Their grief is in proportion to their affection, they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her Redeemer.
To these accolades we could add her faithful trust in God throughout dashed hopes of love and marriage, and her patient fortitude in the face of a painful, prolonged and early death, possibly due to Addison’s disease. But whenever I read this, I ask myself whether it was Jane’s “charity, devotion, faith and purity” (irrefutable though they were) that rendered her acceptable in the sight of her Redeemer. And in the Easter story, I believe we have the answer.
Crucified alongside the Lord Jesus there were two thieves. One of them, by his own account, was being crucified “justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds”. He had nothing to recommend him to Jesus; certainly nothing that could be described as “charity, devotion, faith and purity”.
In fact, he had only three things going for him. One was that he knew his need. He did not try to stand on his own merits, because he knew that he had none. He had lived a life of dishonesty and very probably violence. So heinous were his crimes, he acknowledged that he deserved to die. Secondly, he recognised the holiness and sinlessness of the man on the cross next to him: “but this man has done nothing wrong.” And thirdly, he had faith and believed that this was no ordinary man, but a King whose reign would extend even beyond the jurisdiction of death, and so he asked, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”
Jesus’ response might have been, “After the life you’ve lived? You have GOT to be joking!” If personal virtues like Jane Austen’s were necessary to make us acceptable to our Redeemer, this is what He would have had to reply. But see what He actually said, without hesitation: “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” This is not just good news; this is absolutely amazing news for people who, like me, have not attained Jane Austen’s heights of saintliness. Even without a catalogue of good deeds, this man was acceptable to God, not because of what He had done, but because of what his King was doing at that very moment.
St Paul tells us that God has made us “accepted in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1.6) In other words, I’m accepted not because I have done enough to make myself acceptable to my Redeemer, but because Jesus is the Father’s Beloved, and has done everything necessary on my behalf. In fact, Paul even goes so far as to say that on the cross Jesus exchanged my sinfulness for His righteousness: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5.21)
I am well aware that I fall short of the example of Christian living that I see when I read biographies of Jane Austen. I also think I maybe compare pretty favourably with the thief who was crucified next to Jesus. But thank God, I am not assessed in relation to either of these standards. I am acceptable to my Redeemer because He made me, and He loved me enough to rescue me by giving me His own righteousness, even when I had fallen hopelessly short of His glory.
It’s a popular slogan, but it’s nonetheless true: Jesus thinks I’m to die for.