Sermon on Luke 23:32-38
Series on The Seven Last Words from the Cross
The First Word
February 25, 2007
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.
This past Wednesday marked the beginning of the season of Lent in the church calendar. And no, Lent is not that stuff that you have to periodically empty from that thing in your clothes dryer. That stuff is spelled l-i-n-t not l-e-n-t. Lent is a period of forty days (not including Sundays) of preparation just before Easter. Traditionally, it was the time when new converts to the faith underwent an intensive time of fasting, prayer, and repentance before their baptisms on Easter morning. But it is a time for us to focus on similar aspects in our lives, and to prepare ourselves and our spirits for the resurrection.
But Jesus didn’t just magically ascend into heaven after he finished teaching his followers all that he could, did he? He didn’t hitch a ride on a fiery chariot that took him back up to heaven where he could sit lazily on a big throne. He didn’t fly up into the clouds like Superman. He was brutally tortured and killed by a horrible death on a Roman cross alongside two other convicted criminals.
The resurrection came only after the crucifixion; life came only after death, Easter only after the brutal events of Holy Week. This year during Lent, I want us to take a look at Jesus’ last words from the cross—there were seven sentences in all if you combine the gospel accounts. We will look at a different statement by Jesus from the cross each week up until Palm Sunday.
This morning, we will look at the first of Jesus’ words from the cross. These words are found in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” It is important to note that Jesus spoke these words in a prayer to God the Father as he was being crucified. And yet, Jesus prays that God the Father might forgive the people who just a few minutes before took a mallet and three nine inch nails and hammered them through his wrist and feet! The same people who were gambling over his clothes as he hung there naked with his only covering being his own blood—Jesus prays for their forgiveness! It’s incomprehensive how anyone could even begin to think about forgiving the ones who put him through that pain, with the sound of his own flesh ripping and his own bone splintering fresh in his ears!
That’s not the way we operate, is it? Our order of operations is not to offer forgiveness immediately. The way we operate is to first get a lawyer and second to get even. Then after, and only after the check clears, do we even begin to move on past the wrong that was done to us. Somewhere way down the line, maybe sixth or seventh the word forgiveness might rear its ugly head.
How strange of Jesus to offer forgiveness to his executioners immediately. In fact, it gets even stranger because the soldiers didn’t even ask for forgiveness. Jesus’ executioners didn’t come to a sudden realization that they were executing the wrong rabbi and then grovel at his feet for forgiveness. They gambled at his feet to see who would get his possessions. And yet, Jesus prays for their forgiveness in spite of the fact that they don’t ask for it or even want it.
This too is incompatible with the way we operate. I mean, we might forgive someone if they acknowledge the wrong they did to us and offer a heartfelt apology. I can’t tell you how many times I had to apologize repeatedly to my parents as a child before it sounded like I meant it. But Jesus forgives preemptively and in spite of the fact that his executioners don’t even realize they have done anything wrong. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” How curious of Jesus to bring together forgiveness and ignorance, and to forgive in spite of ignorance; to forgive even though the one being forgiven isn’t sorry for what they’ve done.
There’s a lot we can learn from this first statement by Jesus on the cross. Simply the fact that his first words are words of forgiveness is primary. Too many times our first thoughts are about getting revenge, or about proving we are right and almost never are they about forgiveness. Forgiveness is primary. The business of the cross is the business of forgiveness. Secondly, we are to offer forgiveness even if the person who has wronged us doesn’t ask for it—preemptive forgiveness. It doesn’t matter if that person isn’t sorry for what they’ve done to you. Jesus doesn’t tell us to forgive only if the person who wronged us is truly sorry for their actions. Jesus doesn’t say anything about conditions of forgiveness but shows us by his very example on the cross that forgiveness is an issue about how you treat the other, not about how they treat you. Thirdly, this is nothing new to us. This should not be so shocking to us that Jesus shows us to forgive unconditionally and preemptively. We pray about forgiveness each week here in this sanctuary and anytime we pray the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we do not offer this same sort of unconditional and preemptive forgiveness, we are not offered that same unconditional and preemptive forgiveness. Forgiveness is not something that we can just have to ourselves and not offer to others.
Forgiveness is so important that even in his death, Jesus offered it. The first last words of Jesus are about forgiveness—not about money, not about theology, not about sin, but about forgiveness. It’s so easy for us to distance ourselves from Jesus’ words sometimes. I mean, we weren’t there with the hammer and nails in hand. We didn’t toss the dice to gamble over his clothing. We didn’t press that crown of thorns into his head. It is so simple for us to play the innocent card and to believe that we are not nearly as bad as the people who killed Jesus. When we hear his final words “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” we can keep all of this at a distance. But when we see ourselves as the sinner that Jesus was forgiving, we hear his words more along the lines of “Father, forgive us; for we do not know what we are doing.” And Jesus continues to forgive. There is never any doubt about that. But the question is do we? Father, forgive us. Amen.