Scripture Text: Luke 23:32-43
Recently on Facebook there have been a number of videos about communities of people offering radical forgiveness towards those who hurt them. The most recent being the members of the New Zealand mosque who offered their forgiveness to the gunman who shot and killed 49 members. The husband of a woman who was killed said that he didn’t hate the shooter, but that he prays for him, and that he will know the salvation of his creator. Another video is of an American Muslim mother whose son was shot and killed by a 14 year old African-American boy during a robbery. The mother came to the courtroom to plead for the boy’s life, standing alongside his mother and family. She told the boy, “I do not hate you. It’s not our way…We are connected now. I will be here with your family to help you, because I do not want your life to end like my son’s life.” Another video I saw this past week involved two men – one a former White Supremacist and the other a Sikh who lost his father in a shooting at a Sikh Temple by a White Supremacist. The former supremacist – acknowledging his own complicity in these events – helped the Sikh man to understand why these racists act out so violently – because of their own internal hurt and suffering. As the Sikh man put it – “Hurt people hurt people.” Knowing that saying “I’m sorry” isn’t going to solve this issue, the two men formed a non-profit to help vulnerable young people to know that they are not alone – to help them heal so that their hurt doesn’t cause them to hurt others in the future. In doing so, the former white supremacist learned that forgiveness isn’t as simple as saying, “I’m sorry.” It takes greater effort and even a community of people.
Yet in the church, we make forgiveness seem simple and individual. In our liturgy we have a Prayer of Confession that we all recite robotically – often without even processing the words we are saying. And if the silence afterwards is too long, somebody will inevitably complain – arguing that it disrupts the flow of the service. But the deeper truth is – they don’t want to be stuck with their own thoughts for too long. With thinking about the things they’ve done to hurt God and others. It makes them feel bad. Makes them feel guilty. We always try to avoid things that make us feel guilty. And in doing so, we come neither to appreciate the radical grace that God gives us, nor understand the sacrifice that God made to be able to offer us forgiveness. And when we simply say, “I’m sorry God.” Or “Forgive me, Jesus” without any attempt at repentance – without any attempt to actually change our habits that cause those sins, we make a mockery of the profound, mysterious, and deep grace of God in Jesus Christ.
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, German theologian and Nazi-fighting pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this shallow and flip understanding of God’s forgiveness, “cheap grace” – and goes on to describe “cheap grace” as:
“…the deadly enemy of the church…Cheap grace…is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits…Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth…[and] an intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient…In such a Church…no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin…Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner…and so everything can remain as it was before…let[ting] the Christian live like the rest of the world, let[ting] [them] model [themselves] on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin…Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves…the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Meanwhile, the opposite of “cheap grace” is “costly grace,” which Bonhoeffer describes as “…the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which [one] must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs [one their] life, and it is grace because it gives [one] the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of [God’s] Son…and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon [God’s] Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
Jesus did not die because his gospel of grace was easy and comforting and identical to the social, religious, and political culture. Jesus died because his gospel of grace was costly and challenging and counter to the social, religious, and political culture. Even the early church members were martyred for the same radical reasons. So why is the Church no longer seen as radical? Why is the Church no longer so counter-cultural and counter-political? Why is the Church no longer challenging the status quo and the powers-that-be? Why does the Church work so hard to make faith so easy, so comfortable, and so identical to the rest of our social, religious, and political culture? Why do we openly avoid conflicts and taking sides for the sake of “niceness” – but then sinfully engage them in secret through rumors, hearsay, and false-accusations? Why do we want our religious leaders to avoid talking about touchy topics like money, race, religion, social justice, and politics – when those were the topics that Jesus and the Old Testament Prophets talked about ALL THE TIME! What are we afraid is going to happen? Are we afraid that we will reach a point where we can’t look one another in the eye? Where we can’t stand to be in the same room with each other? Where we’ll not be able to forgive one another? Or are we afraid that we will discover that the problem isn’t with the other person. The problem is within ourselves. And now we have to do the awkward and uncomfortable work of confronting the person you’ve hurt. Asking them for forgiveness. And finding a way to repent – to change the way we live our lives – in order to embrace and to live within this costly grace.
Because the grace required to save the world was so costly, so challenging, and so counter to the culture, religion, and politics of its own day that it caused the people it sought to save to execute their own God? And yet, even as humanity did this. Even as humanity failed to see the presence of God literally walking among them. Even as humanity unknowingly murdered its own savior – we were still forgiven.
That’s what Jesus means when he says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And while some people may argue that Jesus’ statement is directed at those gambling for his cloak – because that’s the sentence that immediately follows the quote – in the quote’s grammar, the word “they” isn’t directed at anyone in particular. It’s a very broad and general “they” – referring to all those present. Maybe even all those to come. And so Jesus’ word of forgiveness is directed at all of us.
Jesus’ word of forgiveness is directed at Pontius Pilate – who, even though he knew in his heart, mind, and soul that Jesus was innocent, also understood that setting Jesus free would destroy him politically. And so Pilate sacrifices Jesus for the sake of his political career.
Jesus’ word of forgiveness is directed at those soldiers who performed the crucifixion – those who beat him with whips, nailed his wrists and feet to the cross, and mocked him as he suffered an agonizing death – all because they were “just following orders.” And so the soldiers sacrifice Jesus for the sake of their loyalty to the state.
Jesus’ word of forgiveness is directed at the Temple Priests who sold Jesus out to the Roman government – those who had already compromised their religious values to the government, yet knew that if they didn’t want anything else about their religion to change; that if they didn’t want to lose their status within the religious community, they had to get rid of Jesus any way they could. And so the Temple Priests sacrifice Jesus for the sake of the religious status quo.
Jesus’ word of forgiveness is also directed at the members of the mob who surrounded him at his trial and who stood by and did nothing as he was unjustly executed. Those who get so caught up in the rumors, the hearsay, and false accusations. Those who only believe that which reflects their own bias rather than wrestle with truth that challenges them. Those who prefer to stew in their anger rather than engage in conversation with the person at whom they are angry. And so the mob members sacrifice Jesus for the sake of justifying their own rumors, false accusations, and preconceived truths.
And even though NONE of these people confessed to the sins they committed – not Pilate nor the soldiers; neither the Temple Priests nor the mob – even without a confession, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is given to them. Because Jesus can clearly see that these individuals have absolutely no idea what it is that they are doing. And it’s not because they are necessarily bad people. Its not because the system of justice failed to operate appropriately. It’s because they are blinded by their own ambition, their own unquestioned loyalty, their own desire for status, and their own need for self-justification. They are blinded from seeing the presence of God, even when God is standing right in front of them. “They don’t know what they are doing”, and so forgiveness is still given.
And friends, that is the kind of God we truly need. We do NOT need a God who is ready to punish us the moment we fail. We do NOT need a God who is so distant from us that our suffering is unfelt and ignored. We do not need a God who only rewards the pious with blessings. We need a God who enters into the pain, the hurt, the sorrow, and the suffering of our lives: “where the good die young and the old grow lonely; a world of wars and cancer, of corruption and pollution, of recession and joblessness; a world where so often there is little reason to hope or dream.”
And when we hurt others because of that suffering – because we don’t know what we are doing – we need a God who forgives us even when we don’t know we need it or even when we don’t believe we need it. We need a God who tells the guilty criminal on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Not in the future when you die – but right here, right now. Because if Jesus is willing to save that criminal – the most rejected and outcast person of his society – and offer him paradise even in the midst of his greatest suffering – then Jesus is willing to do the same for you, even in the midst of your suffering. The question is, can you do the same for someone else? Can you offer forgiveness and paradise to those who have hurt you?
If we are honest with ourselves, we can easily see that those people present at the crucifixion are us. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we are driven more by our own ambitions, unquestioned loyalties, desire for status, and need for self-justification than we are by our gratitude for the undeserved grace of God in Jesus Christ because we really have no intention in changing who we are. And people driven by ambition, loyalty, status, and self-justification can create entire Churches driven by the same ideals. Churches who only desire the “cheap grace” of religion instead of “costly grace” of following Jesus. But when you pursue cheap grace, you unknowingly sacrifice Jesus for the sake of your own comfort.
Any church whose ambition is more focused on growing worship attendance rather than growing in Discipleship unknowingly sends Jesus away to be sacrificed. Any church focused on unquestioned loyalty to the status quo rather than the ever-changing mission of the church unknowingly sends Jesus to the cross. Any church concerned more about maintaining their status rather than raising the status of their neighbors around them unknowingly murders Jesus. Any church that seeks their own self-justification rather than seeking justice for their neighbors has unknowingly and unjustly executed Jesus.
But when a Church – a community of people, grateful for the undeserved grace of God in Jesus Christ – when a Church fully understands and embraces costly grace, they become the Body of Christ. And just as Christ forgave those who unknowingly brought about his own death, the Body of Christ – the Church – is expected to do the same. The Church is expected to be a Community of Forgiveness. And as a Community of Forgiveness, we must make the conscious choice to move from resentment to forgiveness. We must make the choice to move from anger to love. We must make the choice to move from revenge to grace. We must make the choice to stop blaming the community and the culture for why our Church stopped growing in the ways we think it should and, instead take responsibility for our own complicity in our stagnation and decline. Take responsibility for our own lack of Discipleship, our own resistance to keeping up with God’s mission, our own avoidance of those of lower status, and our own preference for cheap grace.
And that’s what is happening right now. We are becoming a Community of Forgiveness. We are moving away from old habits in order to repent – to change who we are as a congregation – and live with Jesus in paradise today. For generations this congregation has allowed unhealthy behaviors to go unchecked, enabling a system where issues and disagreements were buried and ignored instead of confronted and resolved. And when you do that, these issues rear their ugly head again. Even when Cain tried to bury his brother, Able’s blood cried out from the ground. Over the years we’ve enabled programs and groups within the church to form competing factions over church resources instead of us all working together for God’s unified mission as a congregation. Throughout its history, the focus of this church’s mission was on serving those “inside” the church instead of serving those “outside” the church. Over time, the members of this congregation were taught that the intention of worship was to provide a weekly dose of spiritual feel good medicine to reinforce our already comfortable way of life instead of challenging us to repent of our current lives and turn to living as Disciples by following Christ wherever he leads us – even when he leads us to the cross to die. This church learned that rumors, hearsay, false accusations, parking lot conversations, influential donations, and threats of leaving could manipulate church leaders into meeting people’s preferences – to maintain the status quo – rather than serve God’s ever-changing mission. This church learned that Discipleship – including leading regular bible study, worship, teaching, prayer, and leadership – was not an expectation of the congregation, just a select few who felt “knowledgeable enough” to lead them. And despite the fact that this is a Presbyterian congregation – which was founded on the theological and biblical premise that the authority AND responsibility for the church’s ministry and mission equally belongs to BOTH the congregation and the pastor – somehow this church learned that the responsibility for the ministry and mission belongs entirely to the pastor while the authority belongs entirely to the congregation – leaving one with all the weight but no say, and the other with all the say, but none of the weight. And yet, none of this is what the church is supposed to be as a community of forgiveness. None of this is found in the vows we take at ordination or at baptism, when we become members of the church.
At our baptisms, our confirmations, or when we become members of the church, we all vow to “turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world.” That vow is about repentance – “changing your life.” And if you aren’t changing, then you aren’t repentant, and you have failed to uphold your baptismal vow. And if you can’t change your life, you can’t give or receive forgiveness.
We promise to “turn TO Jesus…trusting in his grace and love.” We make an acknowledgement that the costly grace of Christ is a real thing in which we trust. But when we exchange it for “cheap grace”, we make a mockery of Christ’s sacrifice. And cheap grace is not true forgiveness.
We promise to “be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love.” Yet how can we be faithful disciples – how can we obey Christ’s word and show his love – if we don’t gather together to study his word so that we can understand his love? How can we offer radical forgiveness if we don’t learn about the radical forgiveness offered to us?
And finally, we all affirm and reaffirm at every baptism, that each and every one of us will “devote yourself to the church’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers, and through your study and service, share in the church’s worship and mission, and fulfill your calling to be a Disciple of Christ.” If we don’t live life together – in our teaching, fellowship, and breaking of bread. In our prayers, our study, and our service – how will we ever be able to become the Body of Christ – the one who was able to forgive even those who were unrepentant? How will we ever become a community of forgiveness?
Often times the transformation of repentance takes forms that we do not like, that make us uncomfortable. We don’t like to see old friends leave. We don’t like to see decreasing attendance in Sunday morning worship. We don’t like to see the budget draw a bigger deficit due to decreased giving. We don’t want to upset others by telling them they can’t do things the way they’ve always done it. But a Community of Forgiveness can only be formed – the Body of Christ can only become healthy – by facing the unhealthy and unbiblical habits we’ve developed over the years, and replacing them with healthier, more biblical habits. By confronting those who have hurt you because some may not even know that they hurt you – causing you to stew in your own anger waiting for something that will never happen. By being willing to be confronted – and to listen without judgment – when others tell you how you’ve hurt them. By not jumping to unhealthy habits during a confrontation such as self-justification, leaning on your status as a long-time member or generous donor, using your loyalty to certain people or groups to hold others hostage, or allowing your own ambitions – your own ideas of what “should be” – to blind you to the work the Holy Spirit is doing here and now. But instead, living into the vows we all take at each and every baptism. And we will get the chance to reaffirm those vows today as Leland is baptized. When we reach the portion of the service where I ask the entire congregation to stand and reaffirm their vow as a member of the church – along with Leland – pay attention to those words as I ask them of you:
Will you devote yourself to the church’s teaching and fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and the prayers,
and through your study and service,
share in the Church’s worship and mission
and fulfill your calling to be a Disciple of Christ?
For a Community of Forgiveness can only be formed by people growing as Disciples of Christ – willing to confront one another with radical forgiveness – and coming together to form the one Body of Christ – through which ALL people are forgiven, whether they ask for it or not.
Friends, you are radically forgiven. Can you radically forgive? Not just those outside the church, but also those inside the church? Can we be a community of forgiveness where we welcome ALL people to experience God’s grace?
I think we can.
I know we can.
And we will practice being a community of forgiveness now
by turning to someone near you and saying to them
“You are family.”