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A Modern-Day Thief on the Cross

It was almost midnight when I approached with foreboding, the large and white-painted complex. I recall looking up at the moon as I climbed stone steps toward the front entrance, apprehensive, – yes, fearful — of what this night might entail.

It was Sunday, Sept. 9, 1990, and I had been praying that I would be able to handle the responsibility facing me. Only God knew what lay ahead.

As the moonlight bathed the area in an eerie, dull glow I remember thinking how quiet the night was, despite hundreds of people nearby.

It was as if everyone were holding their breaths in anticipation. But, in anticipation of what?
Quickly stepping through the front entrance, I found myself blinking at the sudden bright lights. Moving fast, yet quietly, I followed down various corridors, up flights of stairs, and through several doorways before silently entering a small room.

A large wall clock showed it was twenty-two minutes after midnight when I saw Charles. He looked smaller than I remembered from our first meeting and talk a month earlier.

This time he was lying flat on his back on a gurney, a white sheet covering him from his feet to his chest. I could see intravenous tubes had been inserted into both of his arms.

A doctor was checking him. A minister, holding an opened Bible, was nearby. Charles appeared somewhat frightened, his eyes wet as he glanced my way and then looked back at the ceiling.
How odd, I thought, to sit here and do nothing in this desperate situation. But, there was nothing I could do, only watch and listen.

But, why can’t God do something! I know he can, so why won’t God act and do something! What is the meaning of this?

Jesus “are you the one … or are we to wait for another?”

“Lord act – act now, please,” I prayed silently, “before it’s too late!”

But, I was a blind witness. For you see, I came to realize as my blind spiritual eyes were opened – that God had already acted.

God had acted over 2,000 years ago first in a manager in Bethlehem and later on a hill called Calvary. God had acted through the birth, life, death and – yes — resurrection of our Lord and savior Jesus, the Christ.

God had already acted in Charles’ life, had rescued him and was setting him free. Charles had earlier repented of his sins.

“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he considered me faithful … even though I was formerly a blasphemer, persecutor and a violent aggressor,” chaplain Jack Hawkins read out loud from St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy (1:12-18), reporting that Charles had asked that at this hour these verses be read, “and yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus.”

“Just tell everybody I love them, and I have a peace and quiet heart,” said Charles, who had turned his head, smiled, and nodded at me and 11 other news media witnesses seated in a viewing room 10 feet away from the execution chamber at the state penitentiary in McAlester.

His last words were: “Praise God! Praise God!”

Convicted murderer Charles Troy Coleman, age 43, was pronounced dead at 12:35 a.m. from lethal drug injections designed to cause unconsciousness, paralyzes of the muscles used for breathing, and stop the heart.

Black straps had restrained Coleman’s tattooed arms, and his opened hands were held secure with white tape, both palms upward.

As the poison cocktail began to flow into his veins, he took a deep breath, followed by a light cough or gasp. His eyes closed and his lips slightly parted. His face turned blue. His wife wept.

The execution ritual had taken about 13 minutes.

Coleman had been convicted of the 1979 shotgun slaying of John Seward, 68, of rural Muskogee County, who along with his wife were murdered after apparently interrupting a burglary at a relative’s home.

Police stopped Coleman later that day for speeding and officers found in his pickup the victim’s billfolds and frozen meat stolen from the home.

While awaiting trial, Coleman escaped the Muskogee County jail and fled to Luther, where he cut the throat of a police officer and left him handcuffed to his patrol car. The officer survived.
Authorities said Coleman then stole a car from a man he shot to death in a Tulsa park. He was later recaptured after he handcuffed and abandoned an Arizona deputy in the desert.

Coleman had been on death row 11 years pending state and federal appeals.

He had found Jesus Christ as his savior while in prison.

“Charles is in a better place,” his wife said. “He’s with God and at peace. I don’t have to worry about him suffering anymore.”

I know some people pooh-pooh prison and deathbed conversions, but I submit to you that many of those in prison, those in hospitals, in war facing overwhelming odds and the reality of death – finally cry out to God.

It’s at such times — when there is no hope — that a loving God is there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. God was there for Charles and he was there, as well, for Charles’ victims in their moments of despair.

And, God is here for us today.

St. Paul said, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy: 1:15)

If Paul, who earlier had ridiculed the teachings of Jesus, persecuted the church and supported St. Steven’s stoning, and if confessed murderer Charles Troy Coleman can be saved and forgiven through the love and mercy of Christ, then there is hope for all people.

Because of the cross, there is no repentant sinner beyond Jesus’ saving embrace. This is wonderfully good and joyful news.

Memories of the conversion, execution, and yes — resurrection to a new life in Christ — of Charles Troy Coleman came flooding back to me as I pondered today’s scriptures for Palm Sunday, start of Holy Week.

Holy Week when we observe and commemorate God acting to save humanity through another execution — this one of his own precious and innocent son, Jesus our Savior.

Holy Week when Jesus humbly and lovingly washes his disciple’s feet — even Judas’ — and establishes the sacrament of Holy Communion at the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday.

Holy Week when Jesus is betrayed by Judas and abandoned by his friends before being arrested, humiliated, beaten, tortured and ultimately crucified on a horrific Good Friday.

Holy Week, when Jesus’ battered, bruised, pierced and lifeless body lies in the sealed, silent tomb on Saturday.

Holy Week when Jesus’ glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday changed you, me and all the world for eternity!

Jesus revealed the depth of God’s love for us during the first Holy Week. Now, may we show the depth of our love for God by following Jesus through his passion this Holy Week.

About the Author

For years, Robby Trammell was the leading investigative reporter for The Daily Oklahoman newspaper. For nearly a decade he was managing editor of the statewide newspaper until 2019 when he retired to a pastor in his denomination. Already a deacon, the sermon above was preached twice on Palm Sunday 2019

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