Monday, March 30, 2015

Sermon: Luke 23: 34 Cross Words: Forgiveness

A person’s dying words can say a lot about the person. When life is coming to an end, it’s as if everything is intensified, what really matters is brought out. The story goes of one death row prisoner in the state of Utah, who was about to be executed by firing squad. Asked if he had any last requests, he wanted a bulletproof vest. In a slightly different vein, the novelist and all round witty Oscar Wilde declared as he lay on his death bed: ‘Either this wallpaper goes or I do.’

Dying words say a lot about a person. Through this Holy Week, we’re going to listen in to Jesus’ dying words - his cross words. They’re not cross words, in that they’re angry words, but rather, they’re the words spoken from the cross. What do these words tell us about Jesus? What do they mean for us?

Tonight we begin with the first of the ‘words’. In our reading we heard of the events leading up to the cross. Jesus had been arrested, and tried by Pilate (and Herod). Pilate declares that he is innocent. He has done nothing wrong. So Pilate proposes to ‘punish him’ and let him go. But the crowd are whipped up, crying for his crucifixion. So Pilate agrees. Jesus is led away in the greatest miscarriage of justice. An innocent man, who had done nothing wrong, facing the death penalty. The sinless one, being slaughtered by sinners.

They make it to the place of the skull. And Luke simply tells us that ‘they crucified him.’ Those simple words cover the pain and horror of what was involved in the death of the cross. The word excruciating was made up to describe the particularly fierce pain ‘out of the cross’. Yet, as Jesus was crucified, as the nails were put in his hands and feet, as the cross was lifted up, he doesn’t cry out in pain or anguish. Nor does he issue threats or call down curses on those involved. Instead, he speaks these words: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’

The first word of Jesus is a word of forgiveness. But did you notice who Jesus is speaking to? He doesn’t say: ‘I forgive you...’ Rather, he is speaking to the Father. As Jesus suffers the horror of the cross, he is praying. He asks the Father to forgive them.

The whole way through the gospels, Jesus shows that he is God’s Son. He was sent by the Father into the world to achieve our salvation by proclaiming the kingdom. To reject Jesus is to reject the Father who sent him.

Earlier this month, the American ambassador to South Korea was attacked. A man pulled out a knife and slashed his face and arm, so that he needed 80 stitches. The ambassador felt the pain, but it was an attack on the USA. Jesus is God’s ambassador, his sent one. To attack and kill Jesus is to demonstrate your rejection and opposition to God.

Yet Jesus doesn’t call on the Father to give them what they deserve. He doesn’t want them to suffer payback. Rather, he appeals for the Father to ‘forgive them.’ Don’t give them what they deserve. Instead, give them mercy and grace.

This is what Jesus himself had taught his disciples to do. Earlier in Luke’s gospel. Jesus says: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.’ (Luke 6:27).

This forgiveness is first and foremost for those who were there that day, those involved in the crucifixion. Jesus says that ‘they do not know what they are doing.’ The soldiers knew what they were doing. They were hardened Roman soldiers on duty in rebel Israel. They were putting a few more radicals and criminals to death. They knew their job and they were good at it. Crucifixions were a great deterrent, to discourage other people from trying the same acts of crime or rebellion.

But they didn’t fully understand what they were doing. The man on the middle cross was no ordinary man. As Peter declares in Acts 3, the middle cross was occupied by ‘the Author of life’; he is the ‘Lord of glory’ according to Paul (2 Cor 18). They didn’t know what they were doing. Jesus pleads pardon for their sin.

But the scope and scale of forgiveness is bigger than those who were there that day. The New Testament is clear that Jesus was dying for our sins. By our sins, we too put him on the cross. We too have rejected the God who made us and loves us, choosing instead to go our own way. We have rebelled against God, in effect wanting him to die.

We too are responsible for the death of Jesus. But that wonderful word of forgiveness is for us as well. By his death on the cross, Jesus pleads for our pardon, our forgiveness. It took his death to bring about our forgiveness.

Before we were married, I used to go over to Scotland to visit Lynsey. In church on the Sunday morning, I would get a little poke, to remind me to watch out during the Lord’s Prayer. You see, over there, they don’t say ‘forgive us our trespasses...’ They say ‘forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’

This word of forgiveness means that our debts are cleared. We are no longer liable for the debt of our sins. But debts that are cleared have to be paid by someone. Imagine you owe someone money. Either you pay for it, or someone else will have to. Perhaps a friend steps in and pays your debt. You’re now debt free, but your friend has paid the price themselves. (And even if your friend cancels your debt, then they have paid it themselves by forgoing the money they deserve).

This is what the first word is all about. Jesus has stepped in and paid our debts himself. He has taken the burden of our sins on himself. He has satisfied the price of our sins, so that we can go free.

That’s good news. It’s something brilliant to take away tonight - right now, you can be free from the burden of your sins. But if we have known this joy for ourselves, we’re called to pass it on to others. Forgiveness isn’t meant to end with us - it’s something to share freely, because we have received freely.

As we’ve already heard in the Lord’s prayer, we say ‘forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’ Do you remember the parable Jesus tells about the man who owes a huge debt, ten thousand talents, millions of pounds sterling. He pleads for mercy, so the king cancels his debt. The king forgives him, and suffers the loss himself. The man is delighted. His debt is gone. But when he goes outside, he finds a fellow servant who owes him a hundred denarii - a couple of pounds. He demands payment in full, there and then, having forgotten the mercy he was showed seconds before.

We, who have received God’s mercy in forgiveness, should also be known as the merciful, who show forgiveness to those who hurt and harm us. It is the way of Jesus. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at Cross Words, the Holy Week mission in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Monday 30th March 2015.

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