Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
March 25, 2018
Luke 23: 33-34a (CEB)
When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
When Jesus was hanged on the cross, he bore upon his shoulders, his arms, in his nail-pierced hands the weight of the world. And certainly, that was the figurative weight of human sin, and we’ll talk about that more in a minute, but it was also a physical weight. Death by crucifixion was planned so as to make the criminal suffer in great agony for a good length of time before finally succumbing to death, usually through some combination of exhaustion, shock, and asphyxiation. The weight of the body and the pull of gravity work to make it extremely difficult to get air into the lungs until ultimately, breathing stops.
For it to be that difficult to breathe when being crucified, you can imagine how much more difficult it would be to speak. Because of the challenge of breathing itself, speaking while being crucified would require great effort as the victim would have to pull himself up by the nails in the wrists in order to expand the diaphragm enough to get air into the lungs, which would then have to be expelled through the voice box. For all of these reasons, words were scarce among the victims of crucifixion. Yet, even as he hung on the cross, Jesus spoke. And because he made that effort to speak, we can only assume that what he said was immensely important.
One of the first things Jesus said after he was hanged on the cross was, “Father forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing.” These words are central to everything that happens in Jesus’ crucifixion. We come this morning to the heart of forgiveness; to the act that makes forgiveness possible and at the same time models the forgiveness we are to offer. And Jesus’ message in this brief statement is immensely important; he would not have made the effort to speak if it were not so. These first words, not surprisingly, were a prayer. But what is surprising is what he prayed: “Father, forgive them.” So, for whom, exactly, is Jesus praying? Who was the “them” Jesus was asking God to forgive?
It’s not terribly difficult to deduce that Jesus was praying for the soldiers who had tortured him and crucified him and who were now standing at the foot of his cross and preparing to gamble for his clothes. Jesus was also most certainly praying for the crowd. This was the crowd that had called for Barabbas’ release and yelled for Jesus to be crucified instead. Luke notes that even with Jesus hanging on the cross they were still deriding him, shaking their heads, mocking him. Then there were the religious leaders – jealous and spiritually blind, they conspired with the Romans to kill Jesus. For all of these people – the brutal soldiers, the mocking crowds, the jealous religious leaders – for all of these Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.”
But it wasn’t just them, you see. There is someone else included in Jesus’ prayer, someone for whom Jesus was pleading from the cross for God’s mercy to be extended; that’s each of us. We are among the “them” Jesus was praying for as he said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Sure, we may not have been standing there when Jesus was nailed to the cross. We may not have called out for Jesus to be crucified. We may not have put our hands on him and beat him. We may not have mocked and derided him as he hung there. And yet, in some sort of profound spiritual sense, we were there. The entire human race was there at the crucifixion. The death of Jesus was an event that transcended time. Jesus’ prayer gave voice to what Jesus was doing on the cross. He was giving himself to God his father as an offering of atonement for all people. This sacrificial act was for those who had come before and for those who would come after just as much as it was for those who heard his words that very day!
It’s difficult to understand; how Jesus’ death on the cross made possible the forgiveness he called for, forgiveness for people at all times in all places. But that is indeed the weight he bore, and it was the weight of the entire world. In Jewish tradition, part of the ritual of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is that the people lay their hands upon a “scapegoat.” This began during the Exodus as the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. This scapegoat was burdened with a great weight, and as the people laid their hands on the goat, it was to signify the transfer of their sins to the animal. The animal was then sent out into the wilderness and was never seen or heard from again, presumably overcome by the burden or some predator. This ritual represented the total, absolute removal of the people’s sins. So it was that when Jesus hung upon that cross, our sins were laid upon him. And when he died, they were completely removed. The very moment that Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them…” it was done. In Jesus’ crucifixion, we see the greatest glimpse of forgiveness that there ever was as Jesus died under the burden of our sin; removing it totally, absolutely.
You and I were there when they crucified the Lord. In a sense, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive Clair. Forgive Joe. Forgive Beth. Forgive those in our churches and those on the streets. Forgive those in the suburbs and those downtown. Forgive those in our country and those on the other side of the world. Father, forgive them…” This is the power of the words Jesus cried out from the cross: They were prayed not only for those who stood by at the cross, but also for all of us—for all of humanity.
And the simple fact is, as we know, we need forgiveness. Before you and I were even born, God knew the sinful things we would do, and he forgave us in advance. On the cross, Jesus suffered and died to save us from our sins and to redeem us. On the cross, all the sins of the world—all the hatred, unfaithfulness, bigotry, and violence—all of those things were placed upon the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” When we see Jesus hanging there on the cross, we are meant to see the costliness of grace. Our sin is not a trifling thing. The Son of God was crucified for it. And because he was crucified, we are forgiven.