Father, Forgive Them

LENT THEME: “The Seven Last Words of Christ”

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased;
listen to him!”
– Matthew 17:5

The last words a person speaks as they leave this life are often poignant and meant for close friends and family.  The last words Jesus spoke from the cross are no different.  For centuries, the faithful have taken inspiration from these words to compose beautiful music and artists have imagined the scene.  What do Jesus’ last words reveal to us about the depths of the heart of God?  Do we hear hope in these words to help us face our own struggles?  This Lent we will look with fresh eyes at the magnitude of what Jesus has done for us and how his final words lead us to new gratitude and a desire to follow the way of Jesus.

Tonight we begin with Luke 23:32-38: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”  If we listen to this word from Jesus, we first hear, “You are forgiven.”  Then we hear, “Can we talk?” Our relationship with God is not predicated on our awareness of what we’re doing and who we are and what this all means and what were our motives.  Our relationship with God begins with God and forgiveness that comes even before we realize that we need to be forgiven.  “Prevenient grace,” we may call it. We confess our sin not to receive forgiveness but rather because we are forgiven. Father forgive, we didn’t know.


“Father, Forgive Them” [i]
Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Ash Wednesday

Luke 23:32-38 (NRSV)

Jesus speaks his first words from the cross, not to us, but to God.  For three years, he has spoken to us; preaching, teaching, exhorting, and instructing us.  Here, on this Friday afternoon, as we nail him to a cross, Jesus turns from us and speaks to his Father: “Father, forgive them, they didn’t know.”  Roman soldiers, Jewish Sanhedrin, raving mob – how did each of you decide to murder God’s Son?  Well, we thought we were standing up for law and order.  We believed we were supporting good biblical values.  We were just soldiers obeying orders.  We had this gut feeling.  We weren’t actually in charge of the proceedings, it was done by the government.  Everything was done according to the best legal advice.

Isn’t it curious that the very first word Jesus speaks in agony on the cross, is “Father, forgive”?  Such blood, violence, injustice, crushing pain, and ripped flesh nailed to the wood.  With all the possible words of recrimination, condemnation, and accusation, the first thing Jesus says is, “Father, forgive.”  Earlier he commanded us to forgive our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  On the cross, Jesus prays for forgiveness for his worst enemies, those who resist the Good News, “Father, forgive”US.

Let us pray…Lord, you come to us with words of hope and healing, mercy and forgiveness.  Too often we reject your Good News.  Guide us today as we seek to understand what your last words have to say to us.  In Jesus’ name, we pray.  Amen.

Imagine for a moment, at the creation of the universe, God did not say, “Let there be light,” but rather, “Let there be forgiveness.”  There will be no order out of chaos, no new creation, no life from death, no reconciliation between us and God without forgiveness first.  Forgiveness is the first step, the bridge toward us that only God can build.  The first word into our darkness is, “Father, forgive.”  This must always be the first word between us and God, because of our sin and because of God’s eternal quest to embrace us.  Forgiveness is the price God is willing to pay to be with people like us who, every time God reaches out to us in love, turn away or ignore.  Here on the cross, God the Father had a couple choices.  One, God could abandon us.  God could have said, “All right, that’s enough.  I did everything I could to reach toward them, gather them in, save them, and bring them close, but when they stooped to killing my Son, that’s it!”  Two, God the Father could have abandoned God the Son, handed him over to our sinful hands.  God could have left the Son hanging there as a helpless victim of our evil.  But neither of these are real options for our God, the God revealed to us in the Bible.  God the Father cannot be separated from God the Son.  God the Father stays with the Son and, in the suffering and horror, gets us in the bargain.  God the Father stays with us and gets a crucified Son in the bargain.  There, from the cross, Jesus is doing what he did throughout his ministry.  God the Father, by receiving Jesus’ plea for forgiveness of us, is doing what the Father and the Holy Spirit always does – reach out to sinful humanity.  This is a dynamic testament to the action of the Trinity – The Son is doing on the cross what the Father and the Holy Spirit have done throughout the history of the world; he is simply intensifying it through the cross.

So, the first thing we hear is, “You are forgiven.  Then we hear, “Can we talk?”  It is an interesting move from “Father, forgive them,” to “They don’t know what they’re doing.”  And I don’t think Jesus is saying, “Father, forgive them because they should not be held culpable; they don’t rationally know what they’re doing.”  Instead, I think he’s saying, “Father, forgive them, for among other things, they don’t know what they’re doing.  Thank God our relationship with God this day does not depend on our awareness of what we’re doing and who we are and what this all means and what were our motives.  Our relationship with God is determined by God.  That’s pre-emptive forgiveness.

Remember all the stories of Jesus walking around Galilee before this day came.  He repeatedly approached people to say, “your sins are forgiven,” and “go and sin no more.”  Almost nobody ever asked to be forgiven.  Jesus knew that without forgiveness being the first word there would be no meeting between God and humanity.  We get the sense that forgiveness precedes repentance.  Most of us lack the courage, the sense to confess, without the prior knowledge that our truthfulness about ourselves will not, by God, destroy us.  So, Jesus offers forgiveness from the cross, long before our truth-telling begins.  Followers of Christ do not confess sin in order to receive forgiveness, but rather because we are already forgiven.  “Father, forgive them, they don’t know.”

That this is the first word of Jesus is curiously at odds with us.  For us, if we forgive at all, it is a distinctly secondary word.  First, “let the offender ask for forgiveness, say that he is truly sorry, then comes forgiveness,” – maybe.  At Calvary, nobody asked to be forgiven.  Nobody said, “I’m sorry,” or “Oops, I guess we’re executing the wrong rabbi, forgive us.”  And yet Jesus said first, “Father, forgive.”  Jesus forgives because they/we don’t know our sin as sin; we are unable or unwilling to recognize it.  “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”

Today, as we re-imagine that Friday, as Jesus hangs from the cross, we ponder the enormity of our sin, our cruelty, our stupidity.  This day, as Jesus speaks his first words from the cross, we ponder the enormity of his grace.  There is still time.  “Father, forgive us.  We didn’t know.”  In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[i] This worship series is based on the book, “Thank God It’s Friday” by William H. Willimon, © 2006 by Abingdon Press, Nashville