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The First of the Seven Last Words

(I offered these reflections today at The Falls Church Anglican)

This Good Friday, we remember the seven last words of Jesus from the cross.  Seven last gasps.  The Apostle John said of Jesus that if a person tried to write down all the things he did and said, the whole world itself could not contain the books that would be written.  After all that, Jesus only has seven more things to say.

This is the first word.  “Father, forgive them, for they know what they do”
Then, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise”
Then, “Woman, behold your son…Behold, your mother”
Then, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Then, “I thirst”
Then, “It is finished”
Then, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

We imagine ourselves there at his crucifixion, one of the crowd, and we see this beautiful man made horrific, nailed to a post and crossbeam, we see a man who has already endured many hours of torture.  We see a man wracked with pain and in agony, we see a man exhausted by suffering and blood-loss.

But we also see a man with his eyes open.  He sees just a faithful few, his mother, a couple of women, John.   Their loving, sorrowful presence is so small compared with the number of people who were glad to see him killed, or indifferent.   He sees those many who have called for his death.  He sees those Roman soldiers dutifully carrying out their orders, but cruelly as they had become accustomed to do.  Again the Apostle John, “the light had come into the world, but the world did not know him, his own did not receive him.”  Indeed.  The world slaughtered him, at the hands of those he came to love and save.

But his reception did not impede his mission.  Rather his crucifixion accomplished it. Indeed, from the cross Jesus does indeed love those who did not recognize him for who he was.   He looks around at those putting him to death, and he pronounces forgiveness.  “Father, forgive them, for they know what they do.” (Luke 23.34)

In this Jesus models his own message.   Not one thing does Jesus tell us to do that he himself did not do.   Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.”  He did this, on the cross.   Jesus said, “Love your enemies”.  He did this, on the cross.

On the cross, Jesus completes his ministry by modeling his message.  “Forgive” he tells us to do, and he forgives.   “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  His words are some of the most powerful words of grace ever uttered.

2000 years later, we look back at this scene in shock and sorrow and amazement, “How could they not know who they were killing?  How could they do this to him?  How could they put him there?  Didn’t they know better?”

Let me ask this:  Have we ever sinned?   Even after becoming a Christian?  Yes, of course, and often.   On one level, we know that when we sin we are doing something that we shouldn’t.

But on another level, it demonstrates how much we don’t know what we’re doing.   Every sin we’ve ever committed and ever commit is one more reason Jesus went to his cross and stayed there.  Every time we sin it demonstrates that we’ve forgotten the gravity of it, an offense against infinite holiness that needs atonement.   When we sin, it shows we’ve failed to recognize the depth of Jesus’ love, and failed to say yes to his invitation to true life, which is a holy life.    When we sin, our minds often move more quickly to what it costs us than to what it cost him.

No, we don’t know what we’re doing when we sin, if we did, we wouldn’t.   And thanks be to God, our failure to grasp the depth of the offer and the depth of the cost doesn’t stop Jesus from going all the way to the cross and hanging there, with seven last gasps, so that we can find forgiveness.

As the song goes…

Behold the man upon the cross
My sin upon His shoulder
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers 

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished 

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  The “them” is us.

Jesus’ first word are powerful words of grace.   He modeled his message, and it’s our message too.

In 2007, three Christians were brutally tortured and martyred in Malatya,Turkey.  One of them was Tilman Geske, a missionary from Germany, who was found with 156 knife wounds on his bod.  Tilman’s wife, Susanne, was asked the very next day if she would talk to the media.   At first she said no, she didn’t want to do that, and then she prayed, and God gave her words, she said “like something falling from heaven”, and she said yes.  The reporter asked if she had anything to say to her husband’s murderers, and all she said was “O God, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”   Her response stunned the country of Turkey, and one Muslim columnist wrote, “’She said in one sentence what 1,000 missionaries in 1,000 years could never do.'”

On the tenth anniversary of her husband’s murder, Susanne–still a missionary in Turkey–said, “Some people think that I am still angry and I haven’t been able to forgive them. I want to say again, ten years have passed, and I have truly forgiven those five youths. Maybe someday if there is an opportunity, I will go to the prison; I want to tell them themselves that I have forgiven them.”

One first word from Jesus, “Father, forgive them for they no not what they do.”

And three words from us.

O God, forgive them.
O God, forgive me.
And thank you, Jesus.