Pastor Chris Matthis
Ascension Lutheran Church, Littleton, Colorado
Midweek II, March 4, 2020
Sermon: Words of Life from the Cross: The Forgiving Word
Text: Luke 23:34
Focus: Jesus forgave us while we were still his enemies.
Function: That they would gladly forgive others as Christ forgave them.
Locus: “We daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us” (SC, 5th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer).
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. Listen to the words of Jesus:
“Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments” (Luke 23:32-34, ESV).
C.S. Lewis, the famous Christian apologist, once wrote that “everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive…” We want to be forgiven but not do the forgiving. When we are wronged, we experience much difficulty forgiving our offenders. Sometimes we even get a sick satisfaction from being hurt by others. A victim mentality can give us a sense of entitlement, which, in turn, feels empowering. Righteous anger is intoxicating.
But Jesus does not want that kind of power. Even “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6-7). If anyone ever lived who had a right to get even Steven with his enemies, surely it was Jesus of Nazareth, the only truly innocent person to exist. But that wasn’t Jesus’ way.
During the days of Jesus’ itinerant preaching, a Samaritan village refused to grant him welcome. The disciples were incensed that their teacher should be regarded as persona non grata, so they asked him, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54). (First of all, I must say, I am quite impressed by the faith of James and John, whom Jesus referred to as Boanerges, that is, the Thunder Boys. I am not as certain that if I were to call for lightning to blast my enemies, it would actually happen).
Perhaps you are surprised by the disciples’ bold request. After all, these are the disciples—Jesus’ inner circle, the best of the best. But it actually makes quite a lot of sense for me. I have been angry enough to pray for God to destroy my enemies. Pastors even have a special terminology for our critics and opponents whom God calls home to heaven: “Blessed departures.” Sometimes the best way to deal with conflict in the Church is just to pray for a few more “blessed departures,” as King David does in the imprecatory Psalms. Don’t forget: pastors are people too.
But rather than allowing the disciples request to call down fire from the sky, Jesus rebukes them (Luke 9:55). The New Testament doesn’t tell us what he said, but perhaps he reminded them of some choice words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). Or maybe he urged them, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Or maybe he just looked at them and sighed before saying, “Really, guys? That’s what you want to do? That’s what you think I’ve been talking about this whole time? You guys disappoint me.” Discipleship is, after all, often one step forward and two steps back.
Yet most of the disciples who defended Jesus’ honor so vociferously were not to be seen or heard of at the crucifixion. The only ones at the cross were Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother Mary, and John. (At least one of the Thunder Boys had enough fire in his belly to brave the cruel public execution of Jesus). When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, all the apostles fled. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered…” (Zech. 13:7; cf. Matt. 26:31).
But Jesus didn’t hold that against them. If we were betrayed or abandoned like that, we would probably nurse our pride and brood bitterly on how bereft we are in this world. Jesus did not. Instead he prayed for them. He prayed for the Jewish priests who mocked him. He prayed for the Roman soldiers who nailed him to the cross. He prayed for us all. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
And isn’t that the truth of it? Most of them, we don’t really know what we’re doing. We don’t have a clue. Sometimes when my children behave badly, I ask them, “Why did you think that was a good idea?” To which they shrug their shoulders and say with downcast eyes, “I don’t know.” They don’t know. They really don’t. And neither do we. In Psalm 19, David asks, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Ps. 19:12). In other words, “Who really knows all the time what he or she does wrong?” Certainly not you or I. We don’t know ourselves well enough to understand even our worst motives.
The Apostle Paul echoes this same sentiment in his letter to the Romans: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:15, 19). In other words, Paul finds himself in a lot of doodoo because he doesn’t know what he does or why he does it.
So Jesus looks down on our wearisome world, and from the cross he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And the amazing thing is that Jesus prays this prayer not once, but repeatedly—over and over and over again. “Father, forgive them. Father, forgive! Forgive them, because they don’t have a clue what they are doing.” (The Greek grammar makes quite plain that this prayer is a repeated action through use of the imperfect instead of present tense).
“Father, forgive them…” Father, forgive me! And Father, help me to love and forgive my enemies. I know they don’t deserve it. But I don’t deserve it either. That’s the wonderful thing about God’s forgiveness: you cannot win it, earn it, buy it, or steal it. You can only receive it. Grace is given only as a gift.
Jesus prayed on the cross for our heavenly Father to forgive your sins. And the miracle of it all is that he did. Now God’s forgiveness fills our hearts and overflows, spilling into the lives of the people around us. How can we forgive? Because Christ first forgave us. How do we forgive? In the same Jesus forgave us: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:31-32).
As Christians, we are called to forgive as God forgave us. How did God forgive us? Fully, freely, and unconditionally. And he didn’t even wait for us to apologize or get our act together first. Instead, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). While we were sinners, while we were enemies, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:10). “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die” (Rom. 5:7, NIV). That most daring deed of dying for bad men is precisely what Jesus did for you and me. Now he asks us to do the same. As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That little word “as” is the fulcrum for an awful weight. “As” means “the same” and “to the same degree.” We love because God first loved us. So also we forgive, because Jesus forgave us first. He forgave our sins by his death on the cross. And as he died, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In the name of the Father and of the Son and of ✠ the Holy Spirit. Amen.