SERMON from 2-17-13: “Last Words From The Cross: ‘Father, Forgive Them…'”

This is the first of a seven-part series for the Lenten and Easter season. I got the idea from my father-in-law, who serves as Senior Pastor at Mesa First United Methodist Church, downtown Mesa, Arizona.

Luke 23.32-34 (CEB)

32They also led two other criminals to be executed with Jesus. 33When 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.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.

Last Words From The Cross: “Father Forgive Them…”

Why? This question is important.

Why are we going to spend seven weeks studying the final words Jesus uttered, as the life is literally draining out of him? Aren't we saying – by placing so much emphasis on his last words – that these words are more important than all the others he spoke? Do these words hold special truths for us as it pertains to our observance of lent – and our lives, in general?

The answer one must give is “no.” Technically, the significance of Jesus' words don't change simply because they happened at a particular time in his recorded ministry. These gospels began to be written no less than 30 years after his death. This was in the time when the stories of Jesus would have been passed down orally. There's nothing wrong with this, but we all know what happens when we play a game of telephone.

So, what we have contained within the gospels is an account of Jesus' life and ministry that is the result of what people have remembered of him over the span of an entire century. In that case, we have many people who will have carried on the legacy – and eager to record the highlights.

Don't get me wrong here. I am – in no way – saying that we cannot take seriously the information contained within these texts. On the contrary, I am saying that we should take them very seriously. All of them. We cannot arbitrarily take those passages we want, arrange them in our own ranking system and expect them to hold some greater significance than any other.

However, there is nothing wrong with looking at passages of scripture – based upon categorization of subject matter or chronology – and seeing if there is something significant that comes from it. In fact, we never know what it is we might learn about God or ourselves in the process. Since all the passages we will be covering are connected to Jesus death on the cross – and the lenten season ends with the triumph of Jesus over the cross – I don't think there's anything wrong with considering these words together.

With that in mind, let's start with a particular thing recorded in Luke that Jesus may never have said.

What do I mean? If you have one handy, want to open one form the pew or just want to trust me – and look it up when you get home (I trust that's what you all do anyway) – take a look at the last chapter of the gospel of Mark. You'll find something interesting.

First, Mark was the first of the gospels to be written. It is the shortest and most potent of the gospels. The theory within biblical study is that the writers of Matthew and Luke used Mark as a jumping-off point. John – due to it's structure being so wholly different than the others – is considered, well, wholly different than the others. So, Mark was the earliest of the gospels.

Second, it contains within it my favorite version of the Great Commandment – Mark 12, to be exact.

And lastly, it has a bit in it that was added on for content. Go to chapter 16, and you will find (most likely) a section that was added. It has passages about Mary Magdelene, Jesus appearing to the disciples and Jesus imparting the Great Commission. These passages conveniently allow Mark to be read like the other synoptic gospels – that is, Matthew and Luke (not John). It is widely believed that these extra verses were added later, in order that the message of the early church would seem more cohesive. It doesn't make the message any less true or important, but you now know a little more about how biblical literature can work.

Our passage today contains a similar eccentricity. If you still have your Bible's open – or are taking notes so you can look later (hint, hint) – take a look at verse 34. The same double brackets that are around the added portion of text in Mark 16 appear around these last words of Jesus. “Father forgive them, they don't know what they are doing.”

According to the scholars battling this out, there is a dispute about whether or not this is original to the text. However, there is agreement about the fact that Jesus is praying to the “Father.” Apparently, in Luke, the way this phrase is inserted and understood is very characteristic of the language used in Luke. So, as disputes over scripture go, this is very mild.

What we can't dispute, however, is how powerful an image it would have been for Jesus to be seen as forgiving the people who had delivered him to this place, beat him severely and continued to mock him as he died. Blood streaming down his face. Sweat sneaking into and burning his eyes. All the while, he is sweltering under the midday sun.

This forgiveness is very Christ-like, so to speak.

Now, this could take a very “children's sermon” turn here and devolve into a scenario where I tell you that “Jesus forgave the people who hurt him, so you should, too.” Certainly, this is a lesson that was taught by Jesus and important for us to learn. However, it doesn't seem significant enough, does it? If Jesus is taking time away from the process of painfully dying to forgive the people who put him in that position, shouldn't this lesson sound a bit more significant?

Maybe, though, it's not about the words sounding more significant. If we are going to be honest with ourselves, aren't there times that we wish it were just the right word? I mean, don't we just sit back – sometimes – and hope that the words we hear will magically change something within us? We hope that this book we read will transform our lives in a tangible way. We pray that we might hear a word from someone that would make our living – especially our living the life of faith – easier.

Unfortunately, that's not the way it works, is it? That sermon we loved can only change us if we put the words to use in our lives. That book is only going to help us as long as we are willing to let our behaviors truly be affected by it. That piece of advice is only going to help us if we put in some effort.

In short, it's not about how significant the words seem, it's how willing we are to put in the work to allow the words to change who we are.

For example, arguably, the first sermon in Christian history was given shortly after Jesus' words here. One of the criminals being punished alongside Jesus feels so stirred by the events taking place – and Jesus' show of forgiveness – that he decides he needs to speak up. Can you imagine? He has the option of just ignoring the goings on and slowly allow his life to end. However, he speaks up.

“Don't you fear God? We have done our crimes and are now suffering their consequences. This man, however, has done nothing wrong. Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Don't we all wish sermons were that short?

In the darkest and most challenging time of his life, this criminal allows Jesus' words to change him. For our lives to be similarly changed, we must be willing to put in the effort to change because of the words.

There are no magic words. The magic happens when it is words that spur us into action.

Jesus may not have said them. I think we need to allow for that possibility. What we don't have to allow for is that these words aren't amazing.

There's really not much more to say about them. They speak for themselves. They aren't the only of Jesus last words from the cross, but they are certainly important for us to hear.

And thanks be to God for our hearing them.



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