March 20, 2016 “The Example” – Luke 23:33-38

Luke 23:33-38
“The Example”
March 20, 2016 – Palm Sunday

“Let me have the rod for a second,” Howard asked. My elderly landlord, the fellow who first invited me to a Covenant church, was with me out in a boat on Worster Lake in Potato Creek State Park in Indiana. I was learning to cast with my first fly rod. Howard took it from me and said, “You’re dropping the rod back too far. Do it like this, back to 10 o’clock and forward to 2 o’clock.” Then he swung the rod back and forth, sailing the line, first behind him, then out in front, laying it down perfectly on the water.

I needed to hear the directions and I needed to see how it’s done. Fly casting did not come naturally to me, nor does it to most people. You can read all the books you like about it, but you need to watch someone do it and then take the rod in your own hands and try to imitate what that person did. A whole lot of the most important things in life are like that. It’s true in spiritual life as well. We need both instruction and example.

For the past few weeks we’ve heard a lot of the Bible’s instruction on forgiveness. We’ve heard how God is forgiving and how we are supposed to be like that, to forgive others, even our enemies. We’ve heard Jesus teach us to forgive as God forgives us, and tell stories to motivate us. Last week we heard Paul teach the same thing. We’ve heard that forgiving others is connected to our own forgiveness. Most of us have learned to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We’ve got all the instruction, but we also need the example.

Along the way in this series, I’ve offered you examples of forgiveness. The second sermon in Lent was about Joseph forgiving his brothers, laying down his anger and his opportunity to get even, refusing to take God’s place in punishing them for what they did. In the same sermon I recounted the news story about NBA coach Monty Williams forgiving the woman whose careless driving killed his wife. In another message I told you about Miroslav Volf’s father and mother who forgave the soldier whose carelessness led to the death of Volf’s brother, their five-year-old son.

You can think of your own examples from the news or your own life. There’s the Amish folks in 2006 who almost immediately offered forgiveness to the man who shot five of their children in a school in Lancaster County, who went that very night to his mother’s house to offer love and urge her to stay with the community. And just last year the members of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston forgave Dylan Roof who came into a Bible study and shot their pastor and eight other members.

We’ve got plenty of examples, but today as we enter the holiest week of the Christian year, we encounter the example, our best example of how forgiveness is done. There in verse 34, we hear words even more incredible than parents forgiving murderers of their children. We hear Jesus praying for His Father’s forgiveness for those who are crucifying Him, torturing Him, mocking Him. We see the One who taught us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek showing us just how it’s done.

You might wonder why, on Palm Sunday, I jumped ahead to a piece of our Good Friday text. Why didn’t I read about Jesus on the donkey and children singing hosanna and the crowd waving palms? The answer is that this Sunday in the church year has a dual role. It’s Palm Sunday, but the Christian calendar also calls it Passion Sunday. It’s an old meaning of “passion.” It’s suffering and death. Even as we remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem in triumph, we look ahead to what He came there to do, to suffer and die on the Cross and be raised again for our salvation.

It’s in the midst of Jesus’ passion, in the middle of His suffering, that He offers us the deepest and most profound example of forgiveness. It’s the example that Monty Williams and those Amish folks and those church members in Charleston were following when they forgave carless or murderous offenders.

Jesus on the Cross is the example for us in much smaller acts of forgiveness as well. Jacob responded to my sermon blog this week by noting that he found it particularly difficult to forgive offenses done like the crucifiers did, in ignorance. “Thoughtless hurts are the hardest to forgive,” he said. It’s painful to realize someone was unjust to you without even noticing what she did.

We might hear this word from the Cross, the first of what are sometimes called “The Seven Last Words” of Jesus, as a kind of excuse for Jesus’ executioners. They didn’t know what they were doing, so they cannot really be blamed for it. As I said last week, offering excuses for someone is not the same as forgiving that person. If a co-worker in your office brings her cat to work, not knowing you are deathly allergic to one even in the same room, you might brush it off, telling yourself she didn’t know what it would do to you. But that’s not the same as forgiving her. For that she would need to have intended to drive you into anaphylactic shock by bringing her pet.

Yet we all know that legal cliché that “ignorance is no excuse.” Many, many offenses committed in ignorance are still punishable by the law and there is still some measure of wrongdoing. If you run a red light because didn’t see it, you are still guilty for not seeing it. If you didn’t know you would cause your co-worker an allergic reaction, you are still guilty for not asking about allergies first. Jesus’ tormenters didn’t know that He was the Son of God or that He was innocent, but they were still guilty of cruelty and not paying attention to the Man they were putting to death.

So when Jesus prayed to the Father asking forgiveness, “for they know not what they do,” He didn’t mean to give the Jewish authorities or the Roman soldiers a total pass. He meant to ask His Father’s true forgiveness for their very real offense of being unwilling to see the truth about Jesus’ identity and character.

Their ignorance shows up graphically in the second part of verse 34, “And they cast lots to divide his clothing.” That thoughtlessness, that failure to look honestly and truly at the Man hanging above, lets them kneel there beneath the pain and the blood and play a game. It’s the kind of thoughtless ignorance which still happens all the time wherever suffering and bloodshed is blithely ignored by those who witness it.

There is definitely something to forgive in those many “thoughtless hurts,” as Jacob put it. Like Jesus we can see mitigating circumstance in the ignorance of someone who wrongs us, but we also realize that that ignorance, that thoughtlessness is itself an offense and needs to be forgiven. And as Jacob says, that’s hard. That’s why we need this supreme example of our Savior hanging from bleeding hands yet speaking grace.

Jesus’ dying forgiveness also makes it plain, as Craig wrote on my blog, that there is absolutely no excuse for building a case for anti-Semitism on the grounds that the Jews killed Jesus. For one thing, as I’ve already implied, it was Jewish leadership and Roman authority together that hung Jesus on the Cross. But even more than that, even if it were true, and it’s not, that Jews alone were responsible, Jesus forgave them. How in the world can you and I do less?

The truth is, as we will remind ourselves even more deeply this Friday, is that the Gospels want us to see we are all implicated in Jesus’ death. We all crucified Him. As my favorite Passion hymn makes me sing:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee!

This Friday evening as part of our worship we will have a piece of wood out there in our narthex with a hammer and basket of nails. You will be invited to go in some moments of silence and drive in a nail in order to drive into your heart this truth. You, I, everyone on earth is guilty of that Death. It’s not just the Jews. It’s not just the soldiers. It’s all of us. And the great, gracious, glorious good news in verse 34 is that Jesus forgave us, forgave everyone who put Him on the Cross.

Holy Week and Good Friday roll around to help us remember and face this fact, that you and I are as much in need of that gracious prayer from the Cross as the chief priest was, as Pilate was, as the soldiers were. Our usual ignorance or thoughtlessness about that truth is no excuse. Jesus sees our weakness in forgetting our guilt and it fills Him with compassion, but He also sees our need to be forgiven for it. So He prayed for you and me as much as He prayed for anyone back then.

Remembering that “Father forgive them,” is also for us, we can also see how much it needs to be our example. You and I are forgiven and saved and we are saved to learn to forgive like we are forgiven. And that’s exactly how Christians have always understood this. The very first Christians believed and practiced this forgiveness.

It turns out that this sentence I’ve focused on out of the crucifixion narrative this morning has what you might call some “textual issues.” Your Bible may have a footnote that says something like “Other ancient authorities lack the sentence “Then Jesus said, ‘Father forgive them…’” What that means is that among the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, of the Gospel of Luke, some of them include that sentence and some don’t. There are a handful of verses like this throughout the Bible, including lengthier passages. So people, Bible scholars, wonder whether it really belongs there.

The fact is that there is no real question among most Christians that Jesus’ last forgiving word really happened, that it really is part of the story. Most of the best manuscripts do have it or it would have been left out completely and moved to a footnote itself. Jesus said it, and Acts chapter 7 proves that His followers made it their example.

Stephen was the first Christian we’re told about who died for his faith. He was one of the original deacons of the church in Jerusalem. He was arrested for talking too much about Jesus, and at the end of Acts 7 an enraged high Jewish council dragged him outside of the city and began to stone him to death. Stephen’s last words were taken from Jesus’ own last words. In Acts 7:59, he prayed “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit,” just like Jesus commended His own spirit to the Father. And then in verse 60, he prayed for those throwing rocks at him, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Then he died, the first of countless Christian martyrs to come after him.

Of course Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them.” The proof is there in Stephen and in all the Christian forgiveness offered to undeserving persecutors down through the ages. It’s the example that has demonstrated its power over and over. And it’s the example we desperately need to follow now.

I saw a newsletter this week that said one of the UO campus ministries is going to host a forum on the question, “What’s Wrong with the World? The Problem of Evil and Its Solution.” I immediately remembered the story told about G. K. Chesterton, that the London Times once sent out an inquiry to famous authors of the day asking them to reply to the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?” Chesterton is supposed to have written back:

“Dear Sir,

I am.

Yours, G. K. Chesterton”

More than anything else our world needs people like Chesterton and Stephen who know that what’s wrong with the world is sin and that it starts with their own sin. Our sad, broken planet cries out to see and hear people who understand what it is to be forgiven and who are trying to follow their Forgiver’s example.

I hope anyone who has been attending here very long knows I hardly ever say anything too political, especially avoiding any suggestion of how you are to vote. But this morning I have to say that our country and our world so much needs the message of this verse, the forgiving grace of God in Christ our Savior, that we really must question a potential leader who says he has never asked for forgiveness and who proclaims that the way to deal with our enemies is to kill their families. That is not a Christian spirit and I doubt that Christians can justify supporting it.

Frustration and fear are in the driver’s seat around us, and I honestly doubt there will be any political solution to the situation. Our political options only seem to get worse. But there is one option that Christians have always chosen, which has always brought good out of seemingly impossible situations. And that option is to follow the Example, the example of the one Man who actually did exactly what He taught others to do.

In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, Jesus taught His followers not to hurt back when they’ve been hurt, but to turn the other cheek. And just as was prophesied hundreds of years before in Isaiah 50 verse 6, Jesus offered His cheeks and His back and even His face to those who hit Him and mocked Him and spit on Him. In Matthew 5:44 Jesus taught, “Love your enemies.” Here on the Cross, He did it Himself. As St. Bernard said, “The crowd cried out, ‘Crucify!’ but Jesus cried out, ‘Forgive!’”[1]

That’s our example. Way too often we don’t live up to it. But this holiest week in our calendar is here to help us see our example again, to view Him clearly, to hear His own dear voice forgiving us and welcoming us to be with Him. By that same grace, may you and I look and listen well, and then follow Him wherever it leads.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] H. D. M. Spence-Jones, ed., St Luke, vol. 2, The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), p. 240, translation mine.