"Father, forgive them"-Palm Sunday, Luke 23:1-49
Surely the climax of our dramatic passion reading from the gospel according to Luke is the moment of Jesus’ death. Luke writes, “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.” I find it incredibly moving, even to the point of tears…as we pause…create and maintain silence at this very point in our own dramatic reading…our own enacted reliving of Jesus’ passion each year in this service…as we did just moments ago. As I narrate the passion each year…it is actually hard for me to go on after the silence…because of the finality of it…the heartbreak it…the depth of it…a place beyond words of Jesus’ very real, very painful sacrifice…giving his life…for the sins of the whole world…even yours…even mine. Surely forgiveness, offered in Jesus’ death, comes at a cost…at a real cost…one may even say forgiveness, at least from the power of sin, requires a death…nothing less than Jesus’ death on the hard wood of the cross. In a sense, one might even suggest that forgiveness and death are inextricably connected forever on the cross
So again surely the climax of Jesus’ passion is the very moment of his passing…his dying which again ushers in our forgiveness for all the myriad ways we indeed betray God…who is love. This sin includes but is surely not limited to our blindness toward, or at the very least, our unwillingness to enter into human suffering…our hurtful actions or unloving feelings toward others whose lives are connected to our own…typically in order to gain something for ourselves or protect ourselves in some way…and also our often sinful abusive posture toward ourselves…that looks like caring poorly for our bodies and allowing our shame to convince us that we are not good enough…that we are unworthy of love and belonging. And these are, of course, just a few expressions of how sin takes hold and expresses itself in and through our lives. And I mention them not for the sake of wallowing in self-pity or to elicit a confession or feelings of guilt…but simply to say that sin is indeed alive and well, in the lives of all people, and thus the forgiveness that God offers in Jesus’ death is indeed for something. It is indeed needed, good beyond measure, grace-filled, and life-giving…an act of true love.
I have said twice now that the climax of Jesus’ passion is his death…indeed…but maybe the most familiar words Jesus shares in the midst of his dying…after being nailed to and hung on the cross, at least from Luke’s telling, are, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” According to Luke’s description of Jesus’ passion, these are the very first words Jesus utters from the cross. Thus I think they are worthy of our attention. Yes, the climax of Jesus’ passion is his death…but the point…the purpose of his death…seems again to be about forgiveness. Further as we dwell on Jesus’ cross…specifically the suffering and death he there endures…we see clearly that forgiveness is not cheap or easy. Just the opposite, it requires giving up something real…something that matters…forgiveness can be full of pain and travail and loss…perhaps forgiveness, if it is to be authentic and whole and lead to new life, to new or renewed relationships…requires a death…and the grief that then surely follows.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved [that’s us], clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Now I love Paul’s lofty and lovely rhetoric. I’m all about being God’s beloved chosen one…and can totally get down with compassion, kindness and so forth…but if the cross tells us that forgiveness requires a death and the grief that follows…then I am less sure about the forgiving each other piece…just as the Lord has forgiven me. And yet indeed our call is to be like Christ in all things…maybe especially in our willingness to be forgivers…just like Jesus in his most vulnerable moment on the cross. For as the title of one of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s books reminds us, there is “no future without forgiveness”. Surely Jesus thought this to be true so much so that he was willing to die for it…for forgiveness’ sake…for the sake of our forgiveness…and further for the hope-filled future it inaugurates.
Now forgiveness is certainly a value shared among many in our world…Christian or otherwise…and yet that is not always evident if we really pay attention. It seems like our world is much more interested in an eye for an eye…we call it justice…but I believe this sort of justice is something different than the justice scripture speaks of…instead I think our world seeks a modicum of peace and a sense of justice being served primarily through consequences and punishment…if you do me harm I, or the system on my behalf, do you harm, then we are somehow even…balance in the universe between the light and the dark has been restored. But again what sort of future is that…it doesn’t look to me to be very life-giving and love-filled…it seems more akin to an eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind or some such. It feels like retribution or worse…revenge. I think, as followers of the one went to the cross, we are called to a different sort of justice that has reconciliation at its center…and requires forgiveness, which is never cheap and easy…for it requires a death and the grief that follows…but promises a future life full of renewal…even reconciliation.
In her new book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown tackles the topic of forgiveness for the first time in her written work. And in doing so she shares an “aha” moment she experienced in listening to her priest at the time talking about forgiveness, Joe Reynolds, the retired Dean of our Cathedral in Houston. He shared an experience of counseling a couple who were contemplating divorce following an affair by the husband. Brown writes, “They were both devastated by the potential end of their marriage, but she [the wife] couldn’t forgive him for betraying her, and he [the husband] couldn’t seem to forgive himself either.” She continued, “Joe looked up and said, ‘In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die. If you make a choice to forgive, you have to face the pain. You simply have to hurt.’” You see for a relationship to be renewed, to be reconciled or even for two people to be able to walk apart in a way that leads to healing and hope for new life-giving relationships…forgiveness is indeed required…but first something has to die and something has to be grieved. And that work begins by truthfully telling and hearing one another’s stories…the truth of what caused the hurt must be stated plainly and truthfully…acknowledged as such by all involved. Naming the hurt, however large or little, allows us to begin to take ownership of it. Like with any loss, any death you have to feel the pain, experience the emotion, to begin to have some sort of power over it. And then we must grieve that pain, that loss…that loss in trust…that loss of what the relationship used to be…for it will indeed look like and be something different in the future. Time travel to undo some wounding or betrayal is simply not possible…we have to let that false hope go and instead grieve what was…to grieve what has been our understanding of one another…together and individually. Then and only then can forgiveness be authentically offered…and then and only then can forgiveness be authentically accepted. Brené Brown continues, “Given the dark fears we feel when we experience loss, nothing is more generous and loving than the willingness to embrace grief in order to forgive. To be forgiven is to be loved.” (Rising Strong, 149-150)
Surely there is no greater expression of God’s love for each of us than his very life offered, even in death, for forgiveness’ sake…our forgiveness…for on the hard wood of the cross Jesus stretched out his arms, as wide as arms can be stretched…literally…that we all might come within the reach of his loving embrace…all this dying and the grief that follows is for forgiveness’ sake…our forgiveness. And though our Easter celebrations remain a week away and today we remember that Jesus indeed died, and grief indeed follows…we can’t help but remember that in doing so a bright Easter future is ushered into our world…a future found through forgiveness…that promises renewed relationships with God and between one another…even with ourselves…life-giving relationships…reconciled and healed and whole…like Jesus’ own body that exists the empty tomb…the great move from death to life.
Finally following Jesus’ own death forming forgiveness, we now do this work in our own lives…just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive…for the sake of the futures that lie before us…all of us. It is never easy…it always includes loss…it always includes grief…but forgiveness is made possible…a future through forgiveness for wounded and wound-er alike…and it always results in renewal for a new sort of life…in healing and hope and connection…for following death and grief…forgiveness, offered and accepted, always points us to Easter. Amen.