Friday, March 29, 2013

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Homily preached on Good Friday, 2013, at Grace Episcopal Church, Cincinnati, by Ken Lyon.

My reading today is taken from the Gospel of Luke—Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry.

Luke 23: 33-34a: When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. ‘


What a day! Jesus hangs before us on a cross! It’s the day we call Good Friday.

What a week it’s been! It started with a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

What a life it’s been!

Born 30-odd years ago, Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a town up north in Galilee, where he apparently took up his father’s trade as a carpenter.

Just about three years ago, Jesus came south to the Jordan River not far from Jerusalem to hear John the Baptist preach. John was saying that people should turn their lives around because the Kingdom of God was imminent. John washed people in the Jordan River as a sign that they were cleansed of past misdeeds and were preparing to live in God’s Kingdom. John also preached that there was a person coming after him who would bring in that Kingdom.

As Jesus listened to John, there came a moment when he realized that he was that person John was talking about. In a flash of insight, he heard God himself saying, “You are my son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” In that moment, Jesus’ life was changed.

It took a little while—40 days alone in the desert according to the Gospels—for Jesus to discern what his new life would be about. Then, inspired as never before, he returned to his home territory up in Galilee. There he preached the good news that the Kingdom of God was near.

Jesus said many things about what the Kingdom would be like, but, in Luke’s account, perhaps this passage captures it best:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. … Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. … But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. … the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’

And Luke records that he taught his followers to pray thusly:

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.

As a result of his preaching up there in Galilee, Jesus developed a large following.

One day, people came to him saying that they’d heard that Herod—the man who ruled over Galilee, the man who had cut off John the Baptist’s head—that Herod wanted to kill him. Jesus responded that it wasn’t right for a prophet to be killed anywhere but in Jerusalem.. And Jesus began heading for Jerusalem.

As he headed for Jerusalem, he began telling his disciples about how he expected things would end—with his death—but they didn’t get it.

Now, Jesus planned his entry into Jerusalem to remind people of the entry into the city of the kings who had ruled in Jerusalem before foreign powers had taken over. He arranged to ride in on a donkey, echoing the prophet Zechariah: “Lo your king comes to you triumphant and victorious …riding on a donkey.” His followers lay down their cloaks as had been done for the ancient king Jehu. And they shouted, “ Blessed is the king….”

And the powers that be in Jerusalem got the message.

The Romans saw this man being proclaimed as king to be a direct threat to Pax Romana—the peace that the Romans had brought within their empire.

The Jewish authorities--who were charged by the Romans with managing their people and keeping the peace--were caught in the middle, between the followers of this Jesus person and the Romans. They reckoned that it would be better to sacrifice this one person than to risk Roman wrath coming down on the whole population (and in this, they were prescient—because that’s exactly what happened during the Jewish revolts 30 and 80 years later, and finally—once and for all—100 years later).

If the way he entered Jerusalem sealed Jesus’ fate, he didn’t make things any better when he publically predicted the destruction of Jerusalem, and when he went into the Temple grounds and drove out the merchants who were selling things there.

And so it’s no surprise that today—Friday--we find Jesus has been condemned to be executed and is now hanging on a cross--the instrument that the Romans had used so many times before to quell insurgency.

And it’s at this moment of excruciating humiliation and pain that Jesus climaxes his ministry by saying, “Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

I’ve been told that every great story can be said to have a single sentence that all of the rest of the story is written to lead to. And I think that, for Luke, this is the sentence: Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing.” I think, for Luke, this is what Jesus’ life and death was all about. For Luke, perhaps this is the reason that Jesus had to die the way he did—so he could say these shocking words from the cross to those who crucified him, and to all the world.

The more I think about these words, the more troubling they become.

We’re all familiar with the idea that if we confess our sins and ask forgiveness, that God will forgive us. But with these words, Jesus asks God to forgive people who haven’t admitted they’ve done anything wrong—and will never do so. Yet here Jesus asks God to forgive everyone involved in his death even for those who never will.

Who is Jesus asking God to forgive?

· Jesus asks forgiveness for Roman soldiers who nailed him to the cross. Jesus says that they don’t know what they’re doing, but if you had asked them, they would have told you that they knew perfectly well what they were doing. The shallower of them would have said they were following orders. But the more thoughtful would have said that they were protecting themselves and the other citizens of the area from the anarchy of revolt and the mass killings that would result. But Jesus asks God to forgive them anyway. And that same forgiveness would apply to all Roman authorities.

· And the Jewish authorities? What about them? Jesus asks God’s forgiveness for them, too. And this is particularly interesting for me, because as I read the Gospel accounts, it’s as though the writers of the Gospels hadn’t quite been able to internalize the radical forgiveness that Jesus asked for on the cross. For throughout the Gospels, the Jewish authorities get nothing but blame for getting the Romans to crucify Jesus. But no matter--they, too, are forgiven.

· And Judas, who led the authorities to Jesus so they could kill him? Even though the Gospel writers never described Judas as other than derogatory terms, Jesus asks God’s forgiveness for Judas.

· Who else might Jesus have had in mind? I think he almost certainly had his disciples in mind, even though he certainly didn’t see them from the cross. Well, he did see a few of the women, and perhaps the man known as “the disciple Jesus loved.” But as for the rest--the twelve men closest to him—they were nowhere to be found. According to one Gospel, they were probably running all the way back to Galilee. What were they thinking, I wonder? Perhaps, “Hey, this is more than I bargained for. I didn’t sign up for this!” But Jesus asks forgiveness for them, too.

· Of those disciples, the story of Peter is especially poignant. Peter was the one who said, only a few weeks earlier, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And who, only the night before, had promised, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” But, as we know, when push came to shove, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. What was he thinking? Did he know what he was doing? Whatever. Jesus asks God to forgive him.

Well, that was then, and this is now. How does this event in Jesus life and death story apply to us?

It points to the radical nature of God’s forgiveness of us and of those in the world around us. The radical truth is: God forgives it all.

He forgives the things we—and those other people--are sorry about. But he also forgives the things we—and those others--are not sorry about. And further, he forgives the things that we—and they--are clueless about.

And we are expected to follow Jesus example--to practice radical forgiveness.

In my life, I’ve done things I’m sorry about. I’ve asked God to forgive me, and, in some cases, I’ve asked the person I’ve wronged to forgive me. In other cases, I haven’t yet gotten up the courage to admit I was wrong. And in some cases, it’s too late. Yet, God forgives it all.

In my life, others have done some things that hurt me deeply. There were times—most times, perhaps—that they didn’t realize what they’d done, or at least know the extent to which I was feeling hurt. Rarely did they ask my forgiveness. Yet, God forgives it all. I need to, too.

In the life of our country, we’ve done some terrible things. Slavery and our treatment of Native Americans would be easy examples. As a country, we’ve said we’re sorry. Sometimes, we’ve tried to remedy the situation. And sometimes, the remedies have caused more harm than help. No matter, God forgives it all.

In the life of our country, some terribly wrong things have been done to us. I think first about 9/11—the killing of 3000 people by 19 suicidal hijackers. If Jesus had been a passenger on one of those airplanes, what would he have said? “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing?” I think so. I still have much to learn about forgiveness. God forgives it all.

How can we get our minds around this kind of radical forgiveness?

Here are some forgiveness do’s and don’ts from an article by one Dr. Ray Pritchard.

a. You do not forgive because they understand what they did.

b. You do not forgive because they have suffered as much as you suffered.

c. You do not forgive because they “deserve” forgiveness.

d. You do not forgive to gain some personal advantage over them.

e. You forgive in spite of what they’ve done.

f. You forgive because of God’s grace.

g. You forgive because that’s what Jesus did on the cross.

h. You forgive because that’s what Jesus does for you.

It turns out that forgiving is good for us.

There is a part of us that believes in fairness. Our ability to accept the forgiveness that’s offered to us—our ability to forgive ourselves--is proportional to our ability to forgive others. There is real truth in this line from our Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us as we forgive others.” The prayer of St. Francis puts the idea thusly: “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”

So forgiving is actually a gift we give ourselves. As someone has said, “Forgiveness is unlocking the door to set someone free … and realizing you were the prisoner!”

And not forgiving hurts us. One saying that captures this idea very well for me is, “Refusing to forgive is like taking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”

Jesus on the cross sets us an impossible example of forgiveness: “Forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing.” The best we can do is try to internalize this idea in our daily lives. As we do so, we may come to realize that forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude. And our lives may become an adventure in forgiveness.

As I said, Jesus sets an impossible example. So, as we struggle to come up to that example and fail, keep in mind: God forgives it all.

In our Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, we find a prayer that I think captures the idea that God’s forgiveness is offered unconditionally whether or not we knew what we were doing—whether or not they knew what they were doing. If you’re interested in looking it up, it’s on page 393 of the red Book of Common Prayer in your pew.

For ourselves, we pray:

Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father;

in your compassion forgive us our sins,

known and unknown,

things done and left undone;

and so uphold us by your Spirit

that we may live and serve you in newness of life,

to the honor and glory of your Name;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I have modified this prayer so that we might use it to pray for others as well:

Have mercy upon them, most merciful Father;

in your compassion forgive them their sins,

known and unknown,

things done and left undone;

and so uphold them by your Spirit

that they may live and serve you in newness of life,

to the honor and glory of your Name;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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