Below is the transcript from my July 21, 2019 sermon. It’s based off Luke 23:27-34.
I’m going to open today by giving you one of my two closing points. Forgiveness is a difficult thing. It’s difficult because we want to make it about the person we’re forgiving, but it’s really about who we are and who we serve. Keep that in mind as we move forward.
The passage we read out of Luke 23 this morning is one of the more heartbreaking stories in the New Testament. Jesus had been condemned to death and was on his say to the cross. He was followed by a crowd, most of whom were cheering the condemnation of someone they considered a dangerous upstart, but the women who’d travelled with Jesus during his ministry were also following along mourning and lamenting. On his way to die Jesus turned to these women and uttered a remarkable statment, “Don’t weep for me. Instead, weep for yourselves and your children.”
Why did Jesus say this? It seems that Jesus is speaking to a general reality which he illustrates in Luke 23:31. Jesus, and his message, were “green wood” which didn’t easily burn – but the powers of this world conspired to try to see both Jesus and his message torched in the face of “real” power. If these powers did this to Jesus, even though throughout Luke it’s pointed out that the leaders were fearful of the people’s infatuation with Jesus 1, then what would happen once Jesus was gone? Jesus says the women should mourn for themselves because, when the “dry wood” began to burn under the fury this world is able to unleash 2, people would look for death by being covered by the mountains and hills rather than be forced to continue to deal with the fire.
So, nearly 2000 years later, how are we to deal with the powers of this world venting their fury today? How are we to respond when we are deep in grief at the seeming powerlessness of the “green wood” of Jesus’ Kingdom to stand against the fires of rage – visible when a political gathering in North Carolina performs its best impersonation of 1930’s Germany with the chant, “Send her back?” The temptation is to meet force with force, which is we’re seeing in the Persian Gulf at this moment – that’s the way of this world, after all. But there is a better way, and we’re shown what it is in verses 32-34.
Jesus is led out with two criminals, and is crucified in the center between the two. And in this moment Jesus utters a prayer which should resonate through the very core of the Church and into eternity itself, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
This prayer wasn’t about whether or not the Jewish leaders, or the Roman executioners, were “worthy” of forgiveness. It was about who Jesus is, and who his Father is – a forgiving power who wants to redeem people from the fires which burn humanity and torment God’s image. Fires which, by the way, are of our own design.
“Father, forgive them” should be the legacy of the Church. Sadly, it too often isn’t – and we see that in our history of crusades, religious wars, sectarian hatred, and churches which become tied to nationalist power instead of critiquing it. And, confronted again with the rise of overt evil in the world, Jesus’ disciples need to make an active choice in this moment to pick his legacy as our path forward. “Father, forgive them.”
And if we choose Jesus’ legacy and live out that prayer, what are we to do with those those who have become agents of the devouring fire of this world’s fury? Interestingly enough, we have an example in the book of Acts which has ties to the very prayer Jesus offers in Luke 23:34. In Acts 7:60 Stephen is being stoned to death because of his testimony, but prays as he nears his end, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” This prayer, with striking similarity to Jesus’, is uttered while a man named Saul looks on giving approval of the proceedings.
Saul then went on a tirade against Jesus’ disciples, dragging them before the authorities. He thought he was doing God’s will and defending the traditions of his people when, in reality, he’d become an agent of that very fire Jesus warned the women about. But that wasn’t the end of his story. In Acts 9 Jesus appears to this vengeful persecutor and calls upon Saul to recognize him as Lord and repent. Jesus didn’t write Saul off, he said, “You need to change.” And when the persecutor bowed before the Lord of Creation Saul became Paul, a champion of the very faith he’d try to destroy in his fury.
Saul’s story should also should be part of our legacy. We are witnessing in our day and age a growing tide of totalitarianism, abroad and at home. And as we see people swept up into tides of evil, convinced by rhetoric that evil is really righteousness, it’s tempting to write folks off as irredeemable. But in times like these Jesus’ prayer, and Saul’s example, need to be kept in view.
First, praying that God forgive people who are swept up into evil isn’t about them, it’s about who we and who Jesus is – and if Jesus wants to save people from the fires of their own creation how can we want less? Second, we can’t lose hope – the power of God to redeem and forgive in Christ can overcome even the worst fire of this world’s fury. The Kingdom is needed, now more than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. And when the fires of worldly fury begin to seek out the green wood of Jesus’ message, walking in the way the Kingdom isn’t a “safe” space to be. Will we dare at this time to be its presence? Will we dare to be Christ’s presence, pointing to life instead of death? Amen.