Message: Give Me Your Sins (Living Crossways With The World, pt. 1)
Scripture: Luke 23:32-34
Date: March 9, 2014
As I have been working on this series of messages focusing on the words that Christ spoke from the Cross, I have spent some time reflecting on this whole issue of last words. We give great credence to last words. We assume they are truth because the dying have nothing to gain from telling a lie at that point. So I have been reflecting some on what I might say just before the moment of death. Of course, many do not have any warning that death is imminent and so they don’t have the chance to say what they might have planned. So the better strategy might be to speak as though every word we speak might be our last.
I try, for instance, to make sure that the last words I “speak” just before I fall asleep at night is a prayer, just in case I don’t wake up the next morning. Now that, I know, sounds a lot more morbid than it need be. But you never know. And so I pray: “Thank you, Lord, for today. Shape tomorrow to your glory.” And there are those whose last words are so notable that they have been remembered throughout history. Two of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, died on the the same day, July 4, 1826. In later life, the two had become bitter rivals and it has been reported that Adams’ last words were words that reflected the fact that they had buried the hatchet in the end and rekindled their friendship. Adams words were: “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” Marie Antoinette, on her way to the guillotine, was reported to say to the executioner: “Pardon me sir. I did not do it on purpose”. It was reputed to be her confession. But, of course, there was no pardon coming. In fact, it was later revealed that she spoke those words directly to the executioner because she had accidentally stepped on his feet on the way to the guillotine and it’s never good to make your executioner angry. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, uttered these words of hope and assurance as he died, “Best of all, God is with us.” Those are the kind of last words that I would like to say if I have the chance. But I think the best that I found are those of the Roman Emperor Julian, who spent much of his reign in the fourth century, trying to repeal the Empire’s official endorsement of Christianity but failed. Reportedly his last words were: “You have won, O Galilean.” Referring to Jesus. I wonder how many others, down through history, could have shared those words in the end. Certainly Pontius Pilate; Caiphus, the high priest; the Jewish King Herod. They thought they had won when Jesus went to the Cross, but in the end, faced with Resurrection: “You have won, O Galilean.” In truth the church can not rest until all of us in our own lives come to that moment of confession and affirmation where we admit: “You have won, O Galilean”
And so we come to these last words of Jesus from the Cross. Now to understand how important it was to Jesus to speak these words, we need to understand how physically hard it would have been for Him to speak them at all. It is thought that death on the cross, in the end, came through suffocation. The pressure of hanging on the cross caused fluids to build up around the heart and lungs, and the lungs to contract. So the person on the cross would struggle to get any oxygen and would constantly gasp for any breath. The only way that Jesus would have been able to talk would have been to pull himself up by the spikes that were through his wrists so he could expand the diaphragm enough to get the words out. It would have been incredibly hard and painful. So these words were obviously important. They were not just random thoughts on his part. They were designed to convey powerful messages, literally with his last breath.
And so, Jesus pulls himself up on the cross, and gasping for breath, and wincing from intense pain, he looks at all of those who had gathered to watch Him die and He says: “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” Of course, the first question that we ask is exactly who Jesus has in mind when He talks of forgiveness. Because there are certainly several possibilities here. By immediately following up his identification of the two others that Jesus was crucified with as criminals with the prayer for forgiveness, Luke is implying that they are the ones that need forgiveness. Next week we will talk about Jesus opening paradise to them, and so it certainly seems that Luke understands these words to be directed on behalf of those. Or it could be the soldiers who are gathered at the foot of the cross who He has in mind. The ones who beat and whipped him and mocked him on the way to Calvary and who have now placed him on the cross, driven spikes through his hand and feet, and set the cross upright for all to see. Even after all of that they mock Him and gamble for His possessions. Is He looking at the soldiers when He talks of forgiveness? Or maybe His gaze has fallen on the small contingent from the Sanhedrin, priests and scribes and pharisees, who are gathered there to make sure that everything goes according to plan. Perhaps He had those in mind when he spoke of forgiveness. Or perhaps he was looking directly at the Apostle John, who appears to be the only disciple that is there at the Cross. Maybe Jesus is praying for the Disciples that are scattered and hiding, who have betrayed and denied and deserted him. Forgive them, in their ignorance.
But I’m not sure that we’re asking the right question when we ask who Christ had in mind when he prayed for forgiveness. I think the better question is who he didn’t have in mind. Gathered there that day were the opposition and the antagonists, the indifferent and the devoted, but all of them were sinners. All of them were estranged from God in some way. And so are we. I believe that what Christ was doing when He spoke the first word was actually issuing an invitation. It was the invitation to bring our sins to the Cross and let Him pay the price. You see, there was someone else that God could see from the Cross and that was you and I. The last word that He spoke from the cross is really the first word of faith. William Willimon calls it preemptive forgiveness and he writes:
There, in forgiving from the cross, Jesus is only doing what He did throughout His ministry. And the Father in receiving the plea for forgiveness of us by the Son, is only doing what the Father in the power and the resourcefulness of the Holy Spirit constantly does – reach out to sinful humanity. The Son is doing on the cross what the Father and the Holy Spirit have done throughout the history of the world, only intensifying it, focusing it, through the Cross.
By trying to determine who it is that Jesus had in mind when He spoke this word from the Cross we are doing two things. First, we are implying that there were some there who were not deserving of forgiveness. What would make the thief on the cross more deserving then the soldier who wielded the hammer and the spikes? Why would John be more worthy to be forgiven then the high priest? And why would we be more worthy of forgiveness then any of those? And the answer from the cross is that no one is more worthy of forgiveness than anyone else. Because none of us are worthy. Not one of us is worthy for Jesus to rise up, summon all of His strength on the cross, and speak a word of forgiveness on our behalf. And yet because He loves each one of us that’s exactly what He does.
This concept of forgiveness is cross ways with the world because it teaches forgiveness as the primary word, the first act. The WORLD teaches that for forgiveness to happen conditions need to be met – there needs to be an apology (repentance in church terms) and a request to be forgiven or pardoned. But on the cross Jesus offers forgiveness before there’s any sense of remorse. Forgiveness is not a response. Forgiveness is the first word. When we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion we say that “God forgave us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love for us.” Premptive forgiveness. It is the first word of faith that invites us to give to Christ all of our sin so that He can be the atonement for it all, even that which we are yet to know about. This word is not just an offer to forgive those who were responsible for Him being on the cross in the first place. The forgiveness that comes from Christ is not specific to certain individuals or circumstances. It is for everyone in all circumstances. On the Cross Jesus invites everyone to come under His umbrella of forgiveness. It is not an invitation to come and be forgiven as much as it is an invitation to acknowledge that you have already been forgiven. Jesus will not be our Savior some day. He has already saved us. Because Christ died on the Cross, you are forgiven – even when you don’t know what you’re doing. He went to the Cross in order to forgive us because to be reconciled with God, to live with Him forever, we must first be forgiven. Wiped clean. Essentially sinless. And so Christ says, bring me your sin, let me bear it for you, so that you can live with God forever. Willimon goes on to say it this way:
Forgiveness is what it costs God to be with people like us who, every time God reaches out to us in love, beat God away. So the Father unites with us through massive forgiveness. On the Cross, Jesus prays Father forgive them because the Son and Father are one and both (are willing to) take us in the bargain.
We are made cross ways with the ways of the world through the unconditional love and forgiveness of Jesus on the cross.
And then secondly, with this word, Jesus becomes forgiveness on the Cross and calls us to do the same. The message and the messenger become one. Stay with me here. Most of us tend to compartmentalize our faith. We think we need to set aside time to pray – time to love – time to serve – time to forgive. But I think what Jesus teaches is that true discipleship means that we become our faith. We become prayer. We become love. We become service. That there is not a time in our lives when those are not appropriate and are not a part of what we do. And so this word from the cross is not an invitation to just be forgiving people. To be persons who offer forgiveness on the world’s terms. It is an invitation to become forgiveness. It’s not something we do when the situation is right. It is something we are because the situation is never really right. Should those who gathered at the foot of the cross been forgiven? Was the situation right? They were still engaged in the very behavior that Jesus was forgiving them for?
There was a time when Peter came to Jesus and asked Him how many times he should forgive another person. He knew that the Rabbis taught that you should forgive another 3 times. Peter said, “How about if I forgive 7 times? Isn’t that enough?” And Jesus says, “No Peter. Not 3 times. Not 7 times. But 70 times 7 which was a ridiculously high number because Jesus wanted Peter to know that there were no restrictions on forgiveness. “You should always forgive.” When we follow Christ, even to the cross, we become forgiveness. I have to confess that I have always been troubled by what I perceive as a duel message when it comes to the cross. On the one hand we’re taught that Jesus went to the Cross, so that we would not have to. That He suffered and died for us, so that we would not have to. But we also have Jesus’ own words that say to be His disciple we must be willing to “take up our cross” if we are to follow Him. So which is it. I have always sought clarity here. But as I studied for this message, it occurred to me that what Jesus meant when He said take up your cross was that we are to take on what He took on when He went to the cross. He became forgiveness on the Cross. And we are to become forgiveness if we are truly to follow Him. Sometimes it is hard to speak a word of forgiveness, just as it was for Jesus on the Cross. Sometimes forgiveness becomes the cross we bear – not a physical cross – It is a spiritual one. So we are not just to be persons who are willing to forgive if certain conditions are met. We are to become forgiveness just like Christ. And often that means preemptive forgiveness. Forgiving before our brothers and sisters even know that they are in need of forgiveness. Not once or three times or seven. Always. Just as the only way we can be reconciled to God and live forever in His presence is through His forgiveness, so it is with human beings. When we forgive we are reconciled to one another and we live in community together. In a book entitled Cries From The Cross, Leighton Farrell writes:
In our better moments we almost understand that the only way we can learn to live together is to forgive. In our better moments we almost comprehend the love of God in Christ. In our better moments we almost believe that love is the greatest thing in the world. In our better moments we almost understand what Jesus meant when He said: “Father, forgive them.” Could I, while being stoned to death for my beliefs, say “Father forgive them”? Could I while being mauled by the lions in the coliseum say, “Father, forgive them”? Could I while being burned at the stake for translating the Bible so that all could read it, say, “Father forgive them”? I don’t know. Could you?
Ultimately that’s the question that this first word confronts us with. Jesus became forgiveness for our sake, so that we could become forgiveness for His sake.
Martin Niemoller was a very prominent pastor in Germany in the 1930’s when Adolph Hitler was rising to power. He saw the evil in Hitler from the very beginning and became one of the leaders in the Anti-Nazi movement. He warned against Hitler at every opportunity. Eventually he was arrested and he was placed in the Nazi Concentration Camp at Dachau, where he became known as Hitler’s special prisoner. What that meant was that he was placed in a cell where, while being treated well himself, he could witness first hand all of the atrocities that were being carried out against other prisoners and know there was nothing he could do about it. It was the greatest torture of all. Day after day he watched as Nazi guards beat prisoners and withheld rations and then marched them off to the gas chambers. A gallows was constructed outside of his window where the more prominent prisoners were taken and the whole camp was gathered to watch them be hung as an example of what happens to the enemies of Hitler. Niemoller could hear them as they cursed the guards and Hitler and cried out to God before the trap door was opened and they hung suspended gasping for air and life. For eight years Niemoller was subjected to this “favored” status, always believing that his day would come. But the camp was liberated before they could put him to death. And in writing about his experience, Martin Niemoller wrote this:
That gallows became my most reliable teacher. There were questions in the back of my mind: What will happen, I wondered, on the day they lead me out there and put me to the test? When they put the rope around my neck, what will be my last words? Will I cry out, “You criminals, you scum, there’s a God in heaven and you’ll get yours.”? Or will I be able to say with Jesus, “Father, forgive them.”? And then he writes: It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. In fact, He is not even the enemy of His enemies. God turns enemies into friends by forgiving them, loving them and saving them.
On the Cross Jesus became forgiveness in the face of those who would be his enemy and then called us to do the same. Some of those who gathered at the foot of the Cross mocked Jesus and said, “He saved others. Surely He can come down from the Cross and save himself. Then we’ll believe in Him.” And, no doubt, Jesus could have saved Himself but instead He pulled himself up, enduring the pain, with all the strength He had left, and simply said, “Father forgive them”. Because you see, the Cross was never about saving God for us. It was always about saving us for God. It was never about Jesus descending to live among us. It was always about Him pulling us up to live with Him forever. And what seems like the last word before death – “forgive”, really was the first word of our eternity. Father forgive them was Jesus cry from the Cross for all humanity, for you and for me.