Monday, April 10, 2017

Famous Last Words: Monday. Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing

I hate Goodbyes. It doesn’t matter whether they are short-term as children return to university or visiting friends depart, or much more lasting, non-negotiable...goodbyes in the face of death, goodbyes that we know will have to content us til we too go home to God.
Such farewells are extraordinarily difficult, because we’re physical beings, rooted in our material world. We value the physical presence of those whom we love.
But if they must leave us, as ultimately they must, we cling to our memories of our final encounters...what we did together, what they said to us.
Last words have a power beyond the moment, as they will be replayed again and again in all the time of separation….so it is no wonder that Christians through the ages have focussed on the words that Jesus spoke from the cross, reading them again and again, finding messages that speak beyond the immediate circumstances of the first Good Friday.
These are messages spoken in the face of a terrible, painful death – yet even the bleakest is somehow comforting. As we hear them afresh this week, let’s allow them to draw us deeper into the heart of God’s love for us

And of all those famous last words, these are the ones that perhaps speak to us most loudly in this place, this Cathedral of reconciliation, where Provost Howard’s decision to offer “Father forgive” as his response to war and destruction sowed a seed of hope that continues to flower today.
We know these words with one missing...use them day after day.
We make much of the inclusive power of the omission….of the way that simply saying “Father forgive” brings us all to recognise our common culpability, our share in the habits of mind and heart that can be played out with such terrible results. We realise that when it comes to destructive patterns of behaviour there is no “them” and “us”…and there is a sort of liberation in that discovery. All have sinned and fallen short.
For all our longing to do better, to be our best selves for God, we fall over our own humanity again and again – and so we stand together in need of forgiveness for sins that are both corporate and personal.

But Jesus is in a different place. He is the only one who needs no forgiveness at all…For him, it makes perfect sense to pray “Father, forgive them”
With all our work in reconciliation, there is an underlying assumption that the wounded party needs to forgive, the guilty one to receive forgiveness...It’s a transaction in a currency that we can sometimes find it hard to master and it would be tempting, so often, to put our hands in our pockets and refuse what is being proffered.
I wonder how those words sounded to the Roman soldiers as they performed their familiar duties as executioners. Maybe they were indignant. How dare Jesus suggest that they didn’t know what they were doing, were not masters of their trade?
They knew what they were at well enough - except, of course, that they didn’t know the half of it.
What they saw was a defeated man, one who had attempted nothing by way of defence, whose friends had abandoned him, whose body was already broken before ever the work of crucifixion began.
They knew what they were doing with him - but surely none of them, following orders that day, had even an inkling that this Galilean carpenter was indeed guilty as charged….He WAS the King of the Jews, he WAS the Messiah, the anointed one, the Son of God…
And that reality was what put him fair and square in the place of execution.
There simply wasn’t enough room in the world for his kind of power and that of the ruling classes.
They were directly opposed...Here a servant king knelt to wash the dusty feet of his followers, there a Roman governor sat in judgement, given the power of life or death over those who came before him.
It was impossible that there should have been any other outcome.
This kind of self-emptying, unbounded love is simply too hard for us to grasp...because, deep down, we suspect that there is not REALLY enough of it to go round…
So we either reject it altogether, walking off into a bleak illusory independence that demands that we build barriers between ourselves and our neighbours…
or perhaps we try to earn God’s make him love us because we are delightful, charming, loveable people.
In both cases we miss the point.
God loves us not because of who we are or what we do...God loves us not in preference to anyone else….God loves us because God is wholly and eternally love.

God can do no other.
And so God reaches out to us constantly, through the beauty of creation that is pure gift, through the inspired wonder of life-changing music, great art, transformative words…
And God’s Son reaches out in this one overwhelming demonstration…
How much do I love you? THIS much…

“Father forgive them…”
Jesus speaks of us...we who long to follow, but too often fail
We whose hearts and minds are too often distracted by the wrong thing, who are too ready to choose a smaller, meaner way of being...We who keep silence when we see injustice meted out to the vulnerable, who refuse to let the pain of the world disturb and challenge us.
Jesus speaks of us - understanding us as we never manage to understand him…
Hear his words now, and take them to heart. Jesus, who knows you through and through, loves and forgives you, and invites you to be reconciled to him and to your neighbour.

Be kind to one another, tender hearted as God in Christ forgave you.

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