A Word from the Cross

The text of the sermon, based on Luke 23.33-43, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 20, 2022.


Next week on the First Sunday of Advent, we will begin a new church year and declare anew our hope in the coming of the Messiah.

Today, the Last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Christ the King or the Reign of Christ Sunday, we conclude our current church year and proclaim again that Jesus, our Messiah, who has come, is Lord of the Universe.

So, today, it is fitting that we refresh our understanding of how Jesus exercises his lordship. Not (never!) by threat or by force. Always through the power of self-sacrifice. So, today, it is fitting that we reflect on his death; his dying for us. In this, I bid that we focus on his word from the cross.

Jesus, who by a disciple was betrayed, by another denied, by all, deserted, on false charges, arrested, at a fixed trial, convicted, and then crucified, uttered this prayer on behalf of those who were killing him: “Father, forgive them.”

Throughout his ministry, Jesus embraced, embodied love. Forgiveness was as natural as breathing. Thus, in the agony of his dying, Jesus gives voice to this truest expression of who he is: “Father, forgive them.”

Still, his other words mystify me: “They do not know what they are doing?”

The disciples betrayed, denied, and deserted Jesus. The religious and political authorities conspired to kill Jesus. The crowd scorned Jesus. The soldiers crucified Jesus. They all knew what they were doing!

But maybe not…

The disciples, terrified of being captured, ran away. Maybe Jesus would call on God to rescue him. It didn’t happen. But the disciples couldn’t have known.

The authorities, perhaps misunderstanding Jesus’ proclamation of the nearness of God’s kingdom as a threat to the social order, acted out of ignorance. If so, then they didn’t know.

The crowd, overcome by mob-mentality, having lost all capacity for rational thought and action, didn’t know.

The soldiers followed orders. Jesus had been convicted as a criminal. That’s all the soldiers needed to know.

But, at a deeper level of human being, how could they all not know what they were doing?

The disciples knew Jesus was in the kind of trouble that leads to death. At least one member of the authorities had to question Jesus’ guilt. At least one person in the crowd had to be unaffected, uninfected by the hostility aimed at Jesus. At least one soldier had second thoughts about the legitimacy of the death sentence.

Or so I’d like to believe. And if so, then they, at least, some of them, did know.

But, at the deepest level of my human being, I confess that I don’t…can’t know completely what I’m doing.

Always, I live – think and feel, intend and act – in a given moment. Always, consequences follow; none of which, in that given moment, I can know.

And, always, I live within larger contexts. Most of which, most of the time are beyond my control…

My societal context, vast and complex…

My relational contexts, involving others, you who have hearts, minds, and wills of your own…

My institutional contexts, secular and sacred, with long-established, rules and regulations, rites and rituals, which I did not design, but which I’m obliged to follow.

Therefore, even when I know what I want to do…should do, I may not be able to do it. And even when I, with intention, resources, and opportunity, am able to do “it”, I may not be clear what “it” is. Therefore, always, I, honestly, distressingly am aware that I don’t know what I’m doing.

Maybe that’s the point.

The disciples, authorities, crowd, soldiers, none of them and none of us knows completely what we’re doing. Therefore, we all, always and in all ways, need forgiveness. Therefore, forgiveness must come from an eternal reservoir. The constancy and enormity of the need demands an appeal to something, anything bigger than we are…

Even, apparently, for Jesus, who prayed, “Father, forgive them.” Jesus, in the most wretched place imaginable, conscious of his innocent suffering and dying, needed to call on Someone bigger than himself to grant forgiveness to the guilty perpetrators of his senseless murder.

So, on this Sunday marking the close of one church year and the advent of the next, this is the heart of the gospel, the good news. We don’t know what we’re doing. Therefore, we know we need forgiveness. To give and to receive. We also know of limits of our mercy. Therefore, we know we need power greater than our own.

As Jesus prayed, so let us pray: God, forgive them and us.

© 2022 PRA

Illustration: View from the Cross, James Tissot (1836-1902)

#forgiveness #Fatherforgivethem #wedontknowwhatwearedoing

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