Sunday, November 21, 2010

Save Yourself – and Us!

Luke 23:33-43
Christ the King Sunday
November 21, 2010
William G. Carter

The church practices a strange kind of politics. We call today “Christ the King” Sunday. We sing of Christ as sovereign. We declare Jesus is raised in glory, higher than every authority. When the world says, “Prove it!” we point to a cross. This is strange politics.

All the other kings of the world do whatever they can to save their own necks – they lie to get elected and immediately start running for re-election. They colonize other lands and declare it is their “divine right.” They blame predecessors for all the problems, cook up crazy schemes, tax their subjects to pay for those schemes, make people fearful to keep them in power, and generally foul up the air.

Nothing new about that. In introducing the biblical books of First Kings and Second Kings, the Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann says the titles of those books should end with question marks: “Kings?” You call these ‘kings’?!?” They know nothing about governing all the people and pander only to their friends. They know absolutely nothing about the common good.

The church says, “Jesus refuses the crown that Satan offered in the wilderness” and then we point to the cross. Listen to what happens there . . . (read the text)


There are a lot of things going on in that story. Some of them specific, some of them symbolic. What draws my interest, again and again, is the brief prayer attributed to Jesus on the cross: "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing."

It is a Good Friday word. When ministers in a town gather on Good Friday, sometimes they decide to preach through the seven last words of Jesus. I feel sorry for the preacher who gets picked to preach on the moment when Jesus says, "I thirst." What more can you say about that?

At least this prayer from Luke 23 gives us something to struggle with, if only because there are many people who don't think that this verse belongs in the Bible.

If you followed the reading in a pew Bible, you might have noticed there is a footnote after Luke 23:34. The footnote says these words do not appear in many early versions of the Gospel of Luke. Back when scribes had to copy the Bible by hand, some scribes left out this verse. Maybe by accident, maybe by intent; we don't know what they were doing. All we know is that they left it out.

It could be, as Raymond Brown says in his commentary on the passion story, that there were some Christians who didn't want to believe Jesus actually prayed for the people who nailed him on the cross. Specifically some in the early church thought it was too favorable toward the Jews. So they told their scribes to take out that verse.

I don't know if that's the case, but I can understand how they felt. It is one thing to hear Jesus say, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you (6:27-28)." It's another thing to see those words put into practice. It is a hundred times easier to blame somebody than it is to forgive them.

Whatever the reason for its slippery heritage, the verse belongs in the writings of Luke, because Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, they don't know . . ."

According to Luke, that is the fundamental characteristic of the human race: we don't know. In Luke's second volume, the book of Acts, he tells a story about the apostle Paul. Paul stands up in Athens and says, “I passed an altar to the Unknown God, the One of whom you are ignorant. Let me tell you who that is: that unknown God is our Creator. That unknown God is the very One we all seek. And yet, we don't know him."

What was the testimony of the early church? Listen to what Luke says in the third chapter of Acts: "You and your leaders killed Jesus, the author of life, and you did it out of ignorance. You did not know." (3:14-17)

Or in the Gospel of Luke, in the Palm Sunday story, Jesus comes down the hill, around the bend, and sees the Holy City. And he weeps, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, if only you knew the things that make for peace. But you do not know."

So it’s no surprise that Luke (and only Luke) reports what Jesus said on the cross: "Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing. (23:34).” They are ignorant.

I don't know how you feel about that. Those of us who are parents tell our children, "Don't ever call anybody "stupid." Yet that is the blanket description given to all people everywhere. Agnostos, literally “they don’t know.”

For Luke, it doesn't seem to matter who we are. We can have doctoral diplomas hanging on the wall. Or we can graduate Magna Cum Laude from the School of Hard Knocks. Some of the people who put Jesus on the cross had advanced degrees in theology. Others were adjunct professors in Political Science. Jesus says of both, "They are ignorant." You see, it is one thing to know. It's another thing to know.

That is the ignorance of which Jesus speaks, the gap between knowing -- and knowing. It is possible to memorize all the Bible verses in the world, and still be ignorant. We can gain all kinds of practical knowledge and still not “get it.” We can enroll in Bible School and earn a four point average, and still miss the point. That is the problem.

"Forgive them . . . they don't know what they are doing." That’s the prayer of Jesus. O come on, now, they know what they're doing. They're getting rid of a trouble-maker. They knew about trouble-makers. They had a Bible. They read the prophets. They knew what happened to God's prophets, and they kept doing it themselves, in their own time and place. You see, it is one thing to know. It's another thing to know.

It’s tempting to think you and I have overcome the ignorance. This is the age of instant information, after all. We have more knowledge at our fingertips than any generation before us. If we don't know it, we can download it in a few seconds. Maybe the world’s problem is that it needs more education. What do you think?

I will never forget what they told me as they gave me a tour of the Lackawanna County prison. It was before it got a makeover, when it still looked like a scene out of a Dicken novel. The grim surroundings matched the grim looks in the prisoners’ eyes. We were told not to speak to anybody, just look at them. Back outside, one of the jailers said, "Our society needs to educate people so that they don't commit crimes and end up in a place like this."

Then we got in a van and continued the seminar in an office park. They took us to a sound-proof conference room and spoke of employees who steal computers, raid the loading docks, and take drugs. Those were white-collar problems. What is the solution? They said, “Education. Education is the answer."

Later on I began to wonder. What kind of education keeps people out of jail? When some people would rather die than give up drugs, is their problem a lack of schooling? I may be wrong, but I do not know a school in Lackawanna County that provides a class that teaches thieves to stop stealing.

Yet we keep believing the old line that we can make progress if we accumulate more knowledge, fund more research, build bigger hard drives. We stockpile our facts and nothing really changes. We know all kinds of information, but we miss the Mystery of the Gospel, that in Jesus Christ “all things hold together."

The more I think about it, the more I believe this is the crux of the matter. Jesus says, "Jerusalem, you did not know the time of your visitation." The King came into your town and you did not recognize him. You didn’t even notice him when he prayed, "Father, forgive them. They don't know."

What don't they know? They don't know who that is, hanging on the cross.

Let this be a reminder that, before we point fingers at people who did not recognize the God who came in Christ, we can miss him too. This is part and parcel of “not knowing.” In fact, there is never an occasion in the whole Gospel of Luke when a single human person affirms Jesus as the Son of God. According to Luke, the only ones who really know Jesus are the angels and the devils. Nobody else.

Luke says that, on the day Jesus rode a donkey into the city, the crowd shouted, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" (19:38) Just a few short days later, some jokers took a magic marker and wrote an inscription over his head on a two-by-four, "This is the king of the Jews." (23:28). They did not know who he was, nor did they know what kind of king God had crowned him to be.

And do we know? We cannot claim any superiority in this. The text is a warning to good, upstanding church people. We are not better than anybody else when it comes to recognizing God. If we think we are superior, we run the risk of becoming shrouded in a fog of self-importance. It is possible to become so preoccupied with expertise and spiritual success that we miss the heart of the Gospel. And the heart of the Gospel is this: God helps those who cannot help themselves. God saves those who are otherwise un-save-able.

No amount of spiritual sophistication can unveil a hidden God. No level of education will open our eyes to glory. No scientific knowledge can carry us into the presence of the Holy One. Something else is needed. All we can do is to stand bare-headed, broken-hearted, open-handed, and say with all humility, "God forgive us; we don't know."

Today, the promise is that the prayer has been answered. That's the crux of the matter, isn't it? "Father, forgive them." The gospel is defined by forgiveness. The gospel is coming home to God and discovering that, through no work of our own, all our debts have been cancelled. All our sins are forgiven. All our pettiness has been wiped away.

It’s like the story Jesus tells of the prodigal son who comes to his senses in the pig-pen. He decides to try one more time to take advantage of the Old Man. So he cleans himself up, practices a pious little repentance speech, and goes home. When he appears at the far end of the driveway, his father drops everything. The father breaks all Middle Eastern customs and runs to his returning son. The father cuts off the canned repentance speech and throws a big "Welcome Home" party before either of his two sons can do anything about it.

All the neighbors say, "Look at that! Such shameful extravagavance, wasted on a sinner!" And Jesus smiles a sly smile and says, "You’d better look, all right. That's the very picture of God's good news."

Can you believe it? The key is in the prayer of King Jesus on the cross. "Father, forgive them." In that prayer, he uses the word "aphiemi." It means "a great big cancellation." The point is: God doesn't merely forgive our sins; God cancels them. God lets them go. God sends them away, dismisses them. That’s the word “aphiemi” – to cancel, to send away, to dismiss.

This is disruptive grace. Just imagine: even in God's heavenly domain, there's a hallway of cubicles, each one filled with accountants and bookkeepers. Every day at 2 p.m., God walks down the hall, knocks on a door post , and says, "Give me the ledger book that you have been keeping on Larry Jones." And God finds that page, finds the line where every sin have been recorded. God pulls a gallon bucket of White-Out of a robe pocket and spills it all over your page. Then God says, "Well, that's that."

You never had to ask God to do that, because Jesus has already asked him on your behalf: "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing." In that prayer is the essence of the Gospel!

I like the words of an Episcopalian priest named Robert Capon, who puts it this way:

There is no sin you can commit that God in Jesus hasn't forgiven already. The only way you can get yourself in permanent Dutch is to refuse forgiveness. That's hell. The old baloney about heaven being for good guys and hell for bad guys is dead wrong. Heaven is populated entirely by forgiven sinners, not spiritual and moral aces. And hell is populated entirely by forgiven sinners. The only difference between the two groups is that those in heaven accept the forgiveness and those in hell reject it. Which is why heaven is a party - the endless wedding reception of the Lamb and his bride - and hell is nothing but the dreariest bar in town.

Jesus died for those for whom he prayed. His love is self-giving, and it is the sign and signal of God’s heart. Our part is to trust this is true, to believe God can love us so much as to give us a fresh start, a new beginning, by cancelling the wrongs we have done and the pain we have perpetuated. “Father, forgive them . . .” This is the true King’s prayer – and we trust it has been answered.

This is a strange politics. The real ruler of the world is the One who refuses to save himself. He chooses instead to save all of us, provided, of course, that we want to be saved.

(c) William Carter
All rights reserved.

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