Sunday, April 17, 2011

Holy Week, Day One: The Last Words of Jesus

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

In his book The Source of Life, Jürgen Moltmann reflects on his time as a POW in Scotland and England. He had been a German Air Force pilot during World War II, was captured, and detained until 1948. During that time, he claims, through the kindness of the local people around the camp, he gave his life to Jesus Christ. After the end of the war but before he was sent home, he and some others were given permission to attend a theological conference, an event that was to be a profound gift to him, in ways that he did not anticipate.

At the conference some Dutch students approached Moltmann and his friends and described the loss they had suffered at the hands of the Germans. Moltmann was crushed by the guilt that he felt, and feared that this new life he had found was about the crash to the ground. But the students’ tone changed. They said that, because of Jesus, they could now reach out in forgiveness and become brothers in Christ with the ones who had been their former enemies.

In war, as in other tragic places of human conflict, people do not know what they are doing. Moltmann thought he was being loyal to his country, but had been duped by Hitler and his thugs. But he didn’t know what he was really doing. The Dutch students’ revealed the truth about what he had done, and then offered forgiveness. First, the guilt was identified and acknowledged; then the power of forgiveness reordered the relational landscape.

Jesus had been horribly mistreated, and then crucified as though he were a criminal. His own people had turned on him and conspired with the Romans to subject him to the most tortuous death the Empire had sanctioned for its non-citizens. Everything about this was wrong, and Jesus could still see the faces of those who despised him as he slowly died on the cross.

We Christians today celebrate the cross as the primary icon of our faith. The earliest Christians shied away from the cross as a symbol because of the horror associated with it. Sometimes we speak of Jesus’ death on the cross as if it were the only significant event of his life, something even orchestrated by God. Yet, Jesus asks for those who are killing him to be forgiven. What they are doing is not a good thing; it is in line with the historic sin of Israel, a sin that Jesus lamented:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Matthew 23:37a)

Christian thinkers over the decades following the events of the gospels thought deeply about what it meant that God would fully inhabit a human life, suffer, die, and be raised from death. They would find a depth to God’s forgiveness in this story—a story they found themselves still experiencing—that went far beyond anything they had ever before considered. They would be stunned to realize that God’s love broke all the boundaries of ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28).

It is easy to put boundaries around forgiveness, to limit even God’s mercy and love. We see the limits of our own understanding challenged when Jesus, before the pivotal moment of his death, asks that God forgive the people who have seen to his murder. I believe we can be confident that God heard his prayer. That before the death of Jesus, before the people could repent of their crime, Jesus asked that they would be forgiven. If there are boundaries to the love of God, we do not truly know what they are, as much as we might like to make that claim.

Not even our theologies, it seems, can limit God’s love and forgiveness.

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