Easter: Forgive or Sacrifice?

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2015-04-19 by George Kaplan

Preacher: Michael Nimz
19th April 2015
Reading: Luke 23: 26-34

Luke 23: 26-34

26 As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.
27 A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him.
28 But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.”
29 For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.”
30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us”; and to the hills, “Cover us.”
31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.
33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
34 [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

The Scripture passage for today may seem like it should be the beginning of a Good Friday message. It is part of the Passion narrative, but today I want to look at it from another perspective. We aren’t too far past Easter, but always present in the thinking of many, myself included, has to do with the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. What does his death mean? Why did it have to happen? More importantly, what does it tell us about God?

The common cultural understanding is that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. That is the one that most everyone is familiar with, even some Muslims I was speaking to recently. In this understanding is the idea that Jesus’ death was the sacrifice that appeased an angry God. It was to liberate humanity from the oppression that comes with sin.

Many believe that God is also in control of everything in the universe. This means that everything good that happens and everything bad that happens is all from God’s doing. It is understood in this context that anything bad that happens is really something that in some way is good, we just need to figure that out what the good thing is, because God isn’t going to tell us. But, if God is in control of everything and there is still sin in the world, and sin is what we need to be liberated from, it begins to give us the impression that God is the oppressor that we need to be freed from. It makes it quite apparent that when we put God in control of everything, we make the devil out of God.

In this perspective, Jesus had to die to be the perfect sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. He had to become the perfect sacrifice in order to please the perfect God so that we would be given pardon for our sins and misdeeds. He had to die in order to show just how great God was and is for being willing to forget our sinful ways. He had to die on the cross to pay our debt to God.

I would also suggest that in this framework, Jesus is then put in the place of the mediator. He is the one between God and humanity to mediate our salvation for us. It creates what a friend of mine would call the Janus faced god. This is a god that who has two distinct and opposing characteristics. God the Father, is the God of wrath, power and might. Jesus is the mediator, the carer, the healer, the one who shows love for humanity. Since, in our understanding, Jesus and the Father are one, we get this picture of an angry God who is generous and merciful. This is something to try and wrap our heads around and requires a good deal of mental gymnastics to do it.

I think that Jesus’ statement on the cross; “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” is possibly the most significant thing that he ever does. If it is a statement that is situational, only forgiving those who actually abused him and put him to death, it is significant in the fact that it shows us the most appropriate response to anyone who has offended or harmed us. It shows that even in the most extreme case of harm or offence, this is what our response, as followers of Jesus, should be.

In this sense, the act of forgiving is not about making what was done to him acceptable or even condoning it. It is about freeing himself from the wrath and anger that would seem to be the first and strongest emotions. It frees him from any kind of emotional attachment to those who had harmed him. It frees Jesus for whatever is to come next.

I saw a tweet earlier this week, that said something along the lines, that when we forgive it isn’t done to make the wrong done to us acceptable, or to condone what has been done. The act of forgiveness allows us to say that we are ready to heal. It is the first step in freeing our hearts, our minds and souls so that we can move back in to a place in life that is free from pain and more open to joy.

When Jesus says, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing. Is Jesus just saying that we are forgiven only for those things that we don’t know that we are doing wrong? Is there then the aspect that we cannot be forgiven for those things that we know we did wrong until we confess them? Is there some sort of exchange that really is supposed to happen in the act of salvation?

Jesus’ words of forgiveness are often seen as being universal, however. This means that they are for all people in all times. Since it is understood that his death on the cross and his resurrection are for everyone, the prayer, being a part of this is for everyone, also. This understanding brings with it all kinds of ideas and possibly even some conflict with the predominant understanding for the reason for Jesus’ death as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of God.

The biggest issue that becomes present in this comes directly from Jesus, himself. In both Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23, Jesus tells those who are listening that whatever we forgive here on earth is forgiven in heaven. If Jesus’ statement on the cross is universal, then the forgiveness granted then and there would give God no reason to have any wrath against humanity.

Anything that would have been held against humanity, because of their sinfulness was forgiven. If it was forgiven, then the sacrifice becomes meaningless. There would be nothing for God to forgive which the sacrifice was meant to overcome.

Or, taking an approach that may have its bearings in the thinking of René Girard, are we being forgiven for trying to scapegoat God? Are we being forgiven for trying to reject God, because we often don’t realize that what we choose in life are things that lead us to doing just that?

But, this whole event brings some confusion for me. Jesus’ death leads into one of the most amazing and beautiful events of the Christian faith, and the history of humankind, the resurrection. If Jesus was aware of what was going to happen and the significance of his death, would he need to say, forgive them? I think he does.

Jesus resurrection, his returning to earth and to the people who knew him, signifies to me something truly amazing. Through this, even though it appears that too many people rejected him, Jesus is faithful to humanity and comes back. In this, even though God is rejected, God is faithful in ways we cannot begin to comprehend.

All through Jesus’ ministry, he did a great many things that got peoples’ attention. He did miracles, healed people, walked on water, talked to people about things that no ordinary person could know about the person they were talking to. All of these were done in an effort to get people to recognize that God is a caring God, that God is a loving God. Many people needed, and I would say many people today still need to see these kinds of things to believe that God is real and caring. Like Thomas, who had to see and touch Jesus before he could believe that he had risen from the dead, too many people need to have that kind of concrete proof that God is real in order to believe.

Jesus did something else throughout his ministry that surprised people and also got him in trouble with the Temple leadership. He forgave people. It seems that almost always, he forgave the people when they hadn’t even asked for forgiveness. I can’t imagine that they would have been likely to ask if they weren’t completely sure that Jesus was the Son of God. It was commonly understood that only God could forgive sins.

I understand why the Temple authorities would take issue with Jesus forgiving sins. The people of Israel saw sin as debt. To pay off the debt, you would have to provide a sacrifice and give money to the Temple. If people could have their sins forgiven and it didn’t need to be mediated through the Temple, there would be little reason for the Temple to remain. There would be no need for sacrifices. If there were no need for sacrifices there would be a whole group of people who would need to find something else to do, the priests, the money changers and others related to everything involved with the sacrificial system.

It would also threaten the theology of the people in the land. When the theology is threatened, the foundation of the understanding of the relationship with God is shaken. One of the greatest understandings that can add security and comfort in life becomes unstable. This kind of instability scares people and they will fight with all they have to keep what they know.

It is Jesus’ acts of forgiving people that strikes me so profoundly. These strike me as examples of God wanting to remain in relationship with people, removing something significant that can hinder the relationship. They are forgiven before they ask. God is the one being faithful, before the people even recognize what is happening.

I believe that when Jesus dies it’s for everybody, which is why his prayer on the cross is for everybody. There is a release that is unconditional. This means that the sin issue is removed from being something that keeps us from being in relationship with God. That doesn’t mean that people are automatically in a relationship with God, a refusal to be in relationship will prevent the relationship from happening.

I believe there is a difference between being released and being reconciled. Jesus’ prayer and death released all humanity from the debt incurred with sin. That does not mean that it automatically reconciles us with God. That is something very different. But, I feel that it shows just how much God wants to remove obstacles to us having that relationship. Reconciliation is about being in relationship. It is about being committed to God.

Can we believe that what Jesus said on the cross, forgive them, expresses the heart of God? Can we believe that God truly wants to remove obstacles in order to be in a relationship with us? Can we believe that this is really how beautiful God is?

We believe the Jesus is the perfect expression of the will and heart of God. By granting this kind of all encompassing forgiveness, in the throes of violent and cruel death, it makes it so much easier to believe the God really is wonderfully good. Amen.

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