In our gospel reading today, we have a passage that is usually read on Good Friday. Jesus is crucified between two criminals, with a fair amount of dialogue packed into a few verses. Some of that dialogue is about Christ’s Kingdom. Today is Christ the King Sunday in our church year, hence we have this scene from Golgotha – also called Calvary, the skull shaped hill in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified.
If you’ve been paying attention to sermons from this pulpit, you will have noticed that Good Friday finds its way into every sermon, no matter the Sunday and no matter the preacher. There is good reason that the Apostle Paul declared “I am determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” That’s because Good Friday is the day of all days for Christians.
Yes, there is Christmas, soon to be upon us. Christmas is about God being with us, God becoming a man to walk along side of us. And yes, there is Easter. Easter is about God going before us: Jesus Christ going ahead of us to trample down death, as we say in our Book of Common Prayer Funeral liturgy.
But Good Friday is about God being for us in the slings and arrows of this present life, which the bible describes as “this present darkness.” Good Friday is about Jesus Christ dying for our sins, taking our place on the cross. Good Friday is the day Jesus fulfills the demand of God’s law for us, so that we can begin to live in the freedom of grace.
Jesus speaks two crucially important sentences from the cross in this passage. The first is “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” As you probably know, Roman crucifixion was the most barbarous form of execution ever devised, designed to torture and humiliate those who were deemed to be human scum, or somehow less than human. And yet Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them.”
Who are the “them” in his prayer? The soldiers who nailed the spikes in his wrists and feet? The ones who cast lots to divvy up his clothing? The people who just stood there watching? The leaders who scoffed at him, saying that if He was really the Messiah, he should save himself? The other soldiers who mocked him, ridiculing his so-called “kingship”? The criminal hanging on his right, or perhaps his left who derided him?
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Is the “them” Pilate, or Herod, who authorized his crucifixion? Or the chief priests and the crowds who clamored for his execution? Or the thunderous crowd who demanded Barabbas’ release, rather than his own? Or maybe Judas who betrayed him? Peter who denied him? Each one of his disciples who abandoned him? The Pharisees who plotted for his arrest?
I would think the answer has to be “yes”. All of them. Father, forgive them. All of them, but not just them. How about us? “Them” is us, too. Go home today and listen to Johnny Cash’s version of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord”. The Carter Sisters sing hauntingly in the background. Listen to that that rendition of this classic gospel song and the only answer you can give is “yes.” Yes, I was there when they crucified my Lord.
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” These words from our Lord are absolving words. They are comforting words. They are understanding words. These are the words that have the power to untangle the Gordian knot of our victimizing and victimhood, our deception and arrogance, our bigotry and solipsism. In word and deed, Jesus Christ forgives our sin, whether our sin is mundane or devastating.
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” There is more in these words. Not only do we receive divine forgiveness for what we know we do wrong, we are forgiven for the wrong we do that we are not even aware of or over which we have no control. The subconscious lust and animus that tinge even our best works are met with a kind of blind divine love. In other words, we are totally forgiven not just for what we do, but also for who we are.
A character named Mr. Head in a Flannery O’Connor short story realizes that he was there when they crucified his Lord. He and his grandson, who lives with him, are country people. They make a trip to the city and get lost. They argue and the boy runs off. He piles into a lady and knocks her down. When Mr. Head turns the corner and sees the lady berating the boy and the look of shame and terror on the boy’s face, Mr. Head tells the lady that he’s never seen the boy before.
Mr. Head had considered himself an upright man, but then the horror of what he’d done, the horror of forsaking his own grandson undoes him. “He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it…. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time…. He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at the instant to enter Paradise.”
In this moment Mr. Head is like the man Jesus addresses in his second sentence from the cross. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Forgiveness means nothing in the abstract. When you have hurt someone and they forgive you, you need them to look you in the eyes and grab your arm. You need to know that you are individually forgiven. You need more than just a blanket forgiveness, you need a specific forgiveness.
Most of you know that when I was 19 I was driving recklessly and crashed. My best friend, Drew, was in the car. He told me to stop driving like I was. He told me he wanted to get out the car. I didn’t listen. I crashed and Drew lost his right eye.
When the horror of what I’d done came upon me in the hospital, I needed to see Drew, who was in a room down the hall. When I walked in, he looked at me with his one good eye, grabbed my arm, and said, “I love you and I forgive you.”
Something like this happens to one of the criminals on the cross. Although Jesus is Himself experiencing the extremis of crucifixion, He turns to thief on the cross beside him and forgives him. Beneath his crown of thorns, Jesus looks this particular man in the eye and says “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
God’s general forgiveness is made particular in this man, a man who is guilty, a man who in his own words is “justly condemned”. That the man is criminal – representing the worst of us – is no coincidence. For as St. Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Virgil asks, “what region of the earth is not full of our calamities?” The answer is no region. And there is no region for which Christ did not die. And there is no person for whom Christ did not die. Christ died for all. And Christ died for you. That is why we call Good Friday “good.”