The First Word from the Cross

In the so-called first word from the cross Jesus says:

Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.

While many early manuscripts omit this quote, Jesus’ words parallel Stephen’s in Acts 7:60 when the latter was also executed. Do you hear how radical these words are? In the time between an evening meal and his crucifixion Jesus had suffered much at the hands of his oppressors. Betrayed by a kiss of a well-loved disciple he was brought before the Sanhedrin and beaten. Dragged before Pilate and Herod, mocked and flogged, he was sentenced by the will of the crowd to death on a cross. The one man who supposedly had the power of life or death over him, washed his hands of the affair. The flogging had left his flesh hanging in ribbons; he collapsed under the weight of his own cross. Now naked, nailed and raised up on a cross as a crowd jeers, he offers his first word:


Forgiveness? This strains credulity! But Jesus wasn’t an ordinary sufferer of injustice. He was the Incarnate God and this cross, a symbol of shame and Roman power would be his instrument of salvation and reconciliation. More than forgiveness being just his first expression from the cross, it was Divine forgiveness that brought him to the cross and nailed him there. Costly as it was, the forgiveness of God is Christ on his cross.

But who is Jesus forgiving by these words? All those whose part in this drama nailed him there:

  1. the Jews put him there. Centuries of antisemitism obscure the fact that the authors of the New Testament all would self describe themselves as Jews and saw continuity between Israel’s Messianic hope and the cross of Christ. But the Jewish leaders and the Jewish people who had gathered in Jerusalem that Passover played their part in Jesus’ death. It was the Jewish leaders who had Jesus arrested in the garden, accusing him of blasphemy and turning him over to Rome to be executed. It was the crowds who shouted, “Crucify him!” sending Jesus to his death. Without Jesus’ arrest and the crowds sealing his fate, Jesus would not have died. Not like this.

    But there is no excuse for centuries of injustice towards the Jews for crucifying Jesus (i.e. the pattern of antisemitic rage in the wake of European ‘passion plays’). The first word from Jesus for his people is forgiveness. Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing. In Jesus’ final moments his thoughts were not of vengeance or righting injustice. But with arms extended in love, nailed to a cross, he spoke only of forgiveness.

  2. Pilate put him there. A governor whose cruelty was well known, sometimes gets a free pass from Christians for his part in Jesus’s death. After all, wasn’t he only guilty of pressure from the crowd? Is not his only crime cowardice in condemning an innocent man? He washed his hands, but that didn’t make them clean. When a representative of the State absolves himself, may the reader be suspicious! If Jesus was ‘King of the Jews’ than Caesar was not. When the crowds shout “We have no King but Caesar! (John 19:15)” Pilate is forced to choose between his fidelity to justice and good order and his faithfulness to his emperor. He allied himself with the power of Rome. Of course Jesus himself didn’t put the brunt of the injustice on Pilate, but his captors, “The one who has handed me over too you is guilty of the greater sin(John 19:11b).” But the crucifixion could not have happened without the willing complicty of Pilate in ordering Jesus’ execution.

    As he hung on the cross, bearing the punishment of failed revolutionaries and subversives, Jesus forgave. Forgive them Father for they do not know what they are doing. Among those forgiven for their part was Pilate, a Roman governor too invested in the Roman power structure to display much character or courage in the face of a crowd.

  3. The Romans did it. Those who carried out Pilate’s charge, did it with zeal and enthusiasm. It was they that dressed him in purple, beat and whipped him, divided his clothes, placed a crown of thorns on his head and subjected him to cruelty and taunts even as they devised his bitter end. Some nameless pagan soldier took the hand of God and nailed to a tree, killing an innocent man who had poured out his life in love for his people. Jesus had healed, set people free from demonic oppression, taught the way of love and virtue and this is where it got him.

    For these, for all of these: Forgive them Father for they do not know what they are doing.

  4. We did it. You did it. I did it. Jesus died on the cross so that he may save us from ourselves, our sin, our sad attempts to be our own God. Each of us have gone our own way, rejecting God and his offer of life and freedom. We were dead in our trespasses and sins. God in his mercy, because of his great love saved us through Christ and his cross. You may not have arrested Jesus, pronounced sentence and driven the nails, but Jesus died because of you. He died for you. In a costly display of divine Love he showed us in a visceral way what forgiveness looks like. Father Forgive them for they know not what they do.
  5. As we behold the crucified Christ we see God’s love and mercy poured out for us. If the son has set us free we are free indeed. Fully forgiven living in him!

The Grape Jelly of Wrath (an examination of the sin of Anger)

Jar of WrathAmong other things that I have at my house, I have a two-year-old living under my roof. She is precious to me but she is at a willful stage and therefore angry a lot. She’ll scream if you carry her because she wants to walk. If you let her walk she screams because you won’t let her walk where she wants to walk. If you put food in front of her, she’ll scream because she doesn’t want it. If you eat the food from her plate that she doesn’t want, you will feel the full brunt of her wrath. When she gets ready for bed, she is angry if she doesn’t get to wear her first choice of P.J.s. She is angry if you make her wear a diaper instead of underwear. Parents of two-year-olds know, at certain stages, your life is organized around angry outbursts.

Most of the time, my wife and I can take these outbursts in stride because lets face it, a strong-willed two-year old demanding her way about absolutely everything is terribly funny. Quite adorable actually. It is hard not to laugh at a two-year old who picks up her dinner plate full of food and carries it to the kitchen and asks for cheese and crackers instead (this doesn’t work, if you are wondering). Our older daughter was just as bad at this age, so we know it’s just a developmental life-stage we have to get through before peace again reigns in our house (of course then number 3 is going Rage Against the Machine).

What isn’t particularly adorable is when grown men and women act as though they have the emotional intelligence of my two-year-old. They don’t act rationally but fly off the handle when the littlest thing raises their ire: waiting in line at the supermarket behind the coupon queen, when a spouse asks something they were going to do anyway, when they are forced to go around that idiot who is only going 5 miles above the speed limit in the left lane. When we see people lash out at the world because it has failed to accommodate their every whim, we don’t find it funny, but sad. How could anyone be so self-centered and demanding? It’s particularly embarrassing when the angry two-year-old of an adult is me.

Lets face it, all of us let our anger run wild and demand our way. When we are tired and stressed this can happen a lot (which is par for the course at our house). But then there are other times where our anger seems wholly justified and we are sure we are in the right. Jesus himself chased out the money lenders from the temple and his anger burned against the religious leaders’ hypocrisy for how they unnecessarily burdened the people. Martin Luther got the whole Protestant ball rolling because he was pretty peeved. And he had good reason, the Roman See was thoroughly corrupt and the selling of indulgences preyed on the poor. Luther also praised the focusing energy that anger brought to his life and ministry:

I have no better remedy than anger. If I want to write, pray, preach well, then I must be angry. Then my entire blood supply refreshes itself, my mind is made keen, and all temptations depart.(What Luther Says: An Anthology, Vol. 1, 74, 27).

Today we similarly see many things that make us angry. African warlords who rape women and kidnap children, systemic racism which still locks minorities in poverty, colonial paternalism which acts with good intentions but demeans the nations and peoples we perpetually victimize, the abuse of women and their objectification in pornography, magazines and super bowl ads. If these things do not make you angry then either you haven’t really looked at these issues or you have no heart Tin-Man.

So if Anger is the right response to these things, why is it a deadly sin? Like the other vices, Anger is a habit of mind which can poison us from the inside out. Sometimes anger is the appropriate response but it is sinful when it is excessive or misdirected. There are things that should make us angry and things that should not. If we like my two-year-old, are Angry every time we don’t get our own way then our Anger is subservient to our own selfishness. If our Anger over real injustice (large or small) causes bitterness and hatred to take root in our heart then our souls are in mortal danger. Anger at injustice, easily may give way to bitterness at particular people for perpetuating it. When injustice has a face it is hard not to hate and we can easily cross over to the dark side.

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung points us to the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. which illuminates a different way:

Martin Luther King Jr., for example was undoubtedly passionate in his pursuit of racial justice, but he was not a person dominated by anger or one who hated his racial oppressors. His passion for injustice was deeply rooted in his desire that all people learn to love one another and see them as God sees them, and his manner of pursuing justice showed that he knew that the matter was not solely in his hands. The righteous angry person can still pray, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Moreover King engaged in his project among a community of believers. He did not attempt to discern God’s will all by himself or mete out God’s judgement as an individual. The checks and balances of shared power and wisdom are good ways to prevent wrathful rationalizations about the way our agendas and God’s do or do not coincide (Glittering Vices, 132-3).

Anyone who has read King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail has marveled at King’s ability to extend shalom towards his oppressors (jailers and white clergy).

Anger Management is all the Rage

So what are the practices which help us to reign in our anger and keep it in check? Principally, I see three:

    1. Life in community and systems of accountability, like King’s example above guard us from pursuing our own rights and agenda and help us discern God’s heart in the matter. Clearly friends can also re-enforce our Anger, so intentionality is important!
    2. Establishing ongoing systems of self-reflection. This could be as keeping a journal about your anger. Or you can pray the Examen and pay attention to your soul feels consolation and desolation. Learning to take inventory of inner thoughts is necessary if we are to grow in the virtuous life.
    3. Learn from Jesus. Yes, Jesus got angry, irritated and crazy mad. If you read the gospels you see instances where his ire was raised, but you still could not describe Jesus as an angry man. instead he was characterized by his compassion and gentleness. Part of conquering our inner beast, involves learning from Jesus a new way of navigating injustice in our world. His ultimate response to injustice was not an angry outburst where he smote the wicked. His response was the cross.

As we continue walking with Jesus the way of the cross, may he transform us from Angry hate mongers to his gentle and compassionate servants.

A Lenten Prayer from Iona

The following prayer is excerpted from Lent & Easter Readings from Iona. This prayer is offered as an affirmation for the third Sunday of Lent. It was written after a peaceful demonstration of Iona community members against the Faslane Trident nuclear submarine base.

We believe that God is present
in the darkness before dawn;
in the waiting and uncertainy
where fear and courage join hands,
conflict and caring link arms,
and the sun rises over barbed wire.
We believe in a with-us God
Who sits down in our midst
to share our humanity.
We affirm a faith
That takes us beyond the safe place
into action, into vulnerability.
and into the streets.
We commit ourselves to work for change
and put us on the line;
to bear responsibility, to take risks,
live powerfully and face humiliation;
to stand with those on the edge;
to chose life
and be used by the Spirit
for God’s new community of hope.

What if the Evangelical Obsession With Sex Keeps us From Admitting Our Sins?

In an election year, like every year, you will here a lot of Evangelicals talking about sex. Recently prominent Evangelicals threw their support behind Rick Santorum. This is probably because of Santorum’s strong opposition to gay marriage, abortion and his integrity in sexual relationships (unlike Newt Gingrich who is on his third marriage). But of course Evangelical obsession with sex goes far beyond the realm of politics. Practically everything Mark Driscoll says about sex goes on the internet and goes viral and books, software and conferences directed at helping Christians have sexual integrity is a huge industry. I bet you are reading this because I’m talking about sex. We like sex, we love to talk about it, we want to have more satisfying sex and we want to be free from sexual sin. And yes, some of this is quite appropriate, though not all.

The Temptation of St. Hilarion
But what if our obsession with sex keeps us from examining other areas of our heart and life where sin has been crouching at the door?

My thoughts on this come to me as I am preparing a Bible Study on Galatians for my church small group. I have been reading through No Other Gospel: 31 Reasons From Galatians Why Justification By Faith Alone is the Only Gospel by Josh Moody. Josh Moody is the pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois. Whenever I prep something I check more technical commentaries (for Galatians I always look at Richard Longnecker’s Word Commentary and
Jimmy Dunn’s Black’s New Testament Commentary) but I also want to know how it preaches. This is what Josh Moody provides. For the most part he has solid exegesis (with a Reformed Evangelical bias) which attends to the text, but as a preacher he proclaims and draws out the implications for life. In his exposition of Galatians 1:11-12 (verses that are not about sex) he says this:

The gospel of sexual liberation is a gospel of man that hasn’t worked. Why are our inner cities facing great difficulties? Why do our men cave in to the addiction of lust? Why is there rising risk of abuse? The gospel of sexual liberation is running its course. We are told that the Victorians were too strict and prim with their sexual repression, but now we have the fire of sexuality let out of the fireplace and running rampant through the house and setting ablaze and burning out and destroying people in our society.

This is a fairly typical conservative Evangelical interpretation of where society has run amiss. Sexual freedom leads to the breakdown of marriage which in turn causes all hell to break loose. But really? Sexual liberation is why the inner city faces such difficulties?
Or is it that we as a church have failed to take care of the most vulnerable members of our society?

    Could it be that we talk about sex so that we don’t have to take an honest look at where we as individuals and as a church have been complicit in injustice?

    Have we done our part to care for widows and orphans (James 1:27)?

    Have we cared for the resident aliens (Exodus 22:21) in our land or have we ghettoized them?

    Are we guilty of racism? Are there those in our suburban congregations (like, lets say in Wheaton, Illinois) who engaged in ‘white flight’ leaving the inner-city when minorities moved in? Did we as a church combat housing policies which discriminated against African-Americans and other minorities (essentially creating the ghettos we have today)?

    Are we doing all we can to combat injustice in our neighborhoods and society or are we turning a blind eye?

Does society’s libertine attitudes towards sex contribute to problems in society? Yes. But my problem with naming this as the sole cause of problems in the inner-city is that it doesn’t name our sin. It talks about the sins of those sex-crazed poor folk and not about the sins of an educated, mostly white evangelicalism which has failed to care for the poor.If our obsession with sex causes us to look in judgement on others, maybe we need to also look inward at the ways where our actions (and inaction) have contributed to societies ills.

I am absolutely in favor of sexual purity and fidelity to one’s spouse. Let’s just not end our discussion of sin there.