Seven Last Words 07


"Father forgive them; for they know not what they do" - Luke 23:34

Recently I have been dipping into The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, paying particular attention to the words of hymns. The most striking discovery I have made is the extent to which the compilers of the hymn book we use, Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised (New Standard) have omitted beautiful verses from initial compositions which refer to Satan and to sin. I have some sympathy with the omission of Satan whose depiction with horns and a tail can be a distraction from our deeper understanding  of sin as deliberately distancing ourselves from God; but if we are to eliminate sin from our vocabulary, what is today about?

We must be careful to understand the relationship we have to God. Sin, as a symptom of our capacity to choose, is inevitable in imperfect humanity, but no individual sin is inevitable. We have to take responsibility, today is the day of responsibility, our responsibility to God and the responsibility which God, through Jesus, has taken for us.

Let us begin at the beginning. We were created by God so that we might choose to love freely; and, naturally, as human beings possessing, as Genesis picturesquely portrays it, the knowledge of good and evil, we frequently choose not to love rather than to love.

That is the essence of sin. There is not a ledger with sin on one side and virtue on the other; it isn't the outcome that matters. There are virtuous people captivated by their own goodness and there are struggling people torn between almost impossibly difficult choices.

Yet there are some Christians who walk in Our Saviour's Church of Forgiveness with a list in their hands, claiming to know from external appearances who is a sinner and who is saved. But they are forging disastrous caricatures of God's purpose. Nobody but God knows what we chose and how; they only know what it looks like; and what it looks like can be fatally misleading.

Today, then, is the day for facing up to our sin. But we must not face up to our sin in an intellectual way, admitting that the human race frequently chooses not to love; nor is it good enough to admit that we, collectively and individually, often choose not to love. This is the day to flex our notion of sinfulness so that it becomes alive in us as a self reproach instead of simply being a dispassionate social commentary.

Because I have chosen not to love, Jesus is hanging on the cross; because I have chosen to be proud, to give myself credit for an act well done, a thorn is pressed into my Saviour's head; because I have chosen to be cruel in what I say, my Saviour is being mocked; because I have used power instead of love, a nail is being driven into my saviour's hand; Because I have stood by instead of acting out of love, the crowd are standing by as My Saviour dies.

And yet, the searing mystery of this day is that the very sin I have committed can be forgiven because of what My Saviour suffered. Through His incarnation, passion and death, Jesus created the possibility of forgiveness for sin. His blood is the reservoir from which grace flows.

And as He hangs there, on the cross, He articulates the meaning of what He is doing through forgiving. He is ostensibly forgiving those who are throwing dice for His clothes but His forgiveness surely encompasses all of those who have been a part of this terrible human betrayal from Judas up until this moment of impending death; but that forgiveness spreads out in time and space from the cross to the whole world from the beginning to the end of time.

And the forgiveness which we hear granted through the waves of pain is not the cramped forgiveness we bring ourselves to utter through clenched teeth. This is not the cold forgiveness of duty, the fruit of severe moral schooling; this is the generous forgiveness of the one who has lived without sin. Jesus even goes as far as to excuse His persecutors and us: "They know not what they do" He says. True, those on the spot did not know what they were doing. They thought they were dealing with yet another zealot, another awkward customer in the tortured history of military occupation. Jesus had said He was the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God but He was not the first and no doubt He would not be the last. These were difficult times for the Jewish authorities. So to that extent Jesus was correct when He said that these people did not really know what they were doing. But can we plead the same ignorance when we sin? Do we know what we are doing?

Often at the end of the day I begin to examine my behaviour, to see where I might have done better; but so often there is an excuse, an extenuating circumstance, some mitigation. So often the decisions about loving and not loving feel as if they are at one remove; the sense of loving and not loving is not flexed, not tried.

So often the admission of sin does not hurt, it becomes an item on a salvific balance sheet. And why? Because we have come to know, deep in our psyche, that the reservoir of the blood of Our Saviour is the source of unending Grace. We forget the price that was paid; and we forget the part that we played; and that we play. We have absented ourselves from the drama; we are watching Our Saviour hanging on the cross as if it were a television programme; but it is not. We are there: we have pressed in the thorns, we have mocked our king, we have driven in the nails; and now we are watching, at a distance. And in those dreadful moments before death, we are forgiven.

Not for us the remission that we do not know what we are doing. I know. We know what we are doing but that does not mean we are allowed to assume that other people know what they are doing. If we are to be worthy of Our Saviour we must forgive in the absolute conviction that we are not entitled to judge those who sin against us. We must accept, that they are innocent, that we must leave them in the hands of Our Saviour as the intercessor between the Created and the Creator. forgiveness is not a statement of accounts where we magnanimously wipe the slate clean. In the truest sense it is not for us to forgive or withhold forgiveness except in the sense that we try to treat all of God's creatures as Our Saviour said we should treat them. We forgive in the sense that we have nothing to forgive.

Forgiveness belongs to God alone, made lively in the death of Our Saviour. And because forgiveness lies solely with God we will never be able to measure it. We tamper with God's prerogative at our peril. We may well have attained the knowledge of good and evil in an external, human sense; but we cannot measure forgiveness, we cannot match it with a deed.

We are not worthy to forgive. We are not worthy.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, as You hang upon the Cross full of forgiveness for the thief and for all who have persecuted You, forgive us our part in your suffering and death; may we struggle towards the Cross passing from cold judgment to warm forgiveness of all those who have injured us so much less than we have injured You so that we may be worthy of the fruits of Your sacrifice.