Luke 23:33-34 “When they arrived at the place called the Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.’ They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.”
John 19:25-27 “Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, stood near the cross. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son’” Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”
Twenty one years ago in my youth ministry days, Connie and I took our one year old baby to Warmth in Winter. In the middle of the night, Lewis’ temperature spiked. We rushed him to Vanderbilt Medical Center, where a recently awakened boyish looking resident calmly greeted us. The doctor’s knowledge, compassion, and calmness put us at ease. Still, it was unnerving to see IV and monitor leads draped over Lewis. When this pandemic ends, let us not forget our current admiration of doctors, researchers, nurses, firefighters, and custodians.
They laid Lewis in a prison inspired pediatric baby bed: four feet long with tall metal bars stretching three feet tall above the mattress. It seemed more cage than crib. Around 3am, half asleep in a vinyl hospital recliner, I awoke to see my wife standing on a chair, beside Lewis’ hospital crib gazing upon her baby. In an instant, she deftly swung one leg over the bars climbing into the crib. Let me be clear, I was not worried about Connie falling or landing on Lewis. As a former gymnast and practicing physical therapist, Connie crossed over the metal bars with the stealthy dexterity of a professional art thief. She is a rockstar! But why not just unlock the side rails? And why curl up inside this tiny metal cocoon with our feverish baby? Ten years into marriage, I dared not ask.
In the daylight, Connie explained how the latch was squeaky, so when Lewis grew fussy she simply slipped quietly over the rails. When I mansplained how the physician advised “that sick parents can’t care for a sick baby”, her eyebrows arched emitting a frost ray that paralyzed me mid-sentence. Connie would sleep cocooned inside the metal barred crib until we went home. Why do that? Love! Love closes the gap. Love pulls us close to the suffering of our loved ones. That may be one of the hardest parts of these moments of social distancing. Love stands on a chair and slips over the bars. I have come to understand the cross as that kind of love – our Creator mysteriously slipping into the world to hold all of our human pain.
Once upon a time, I understood the cross as transactional. I spoke the marketplace language: “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe.” Wesley rejected faith as a “paper” transaction. Instead Wesley understood faith as birthed and nourished inside God’s love. Oh yes, we can string together a patchwork of verses to build salvation formulas. But, such non-relational accountings strip Love from the Cross, divide the Trinity against itself, reduce Divine forgiveness to a legal matter, and make the Almighty subservient to some deeper theological rule. Beloved, God can just forgive sins. God Almighty does not need payment to take care of a human sin problem! God can do as God pleases.The deepest forgiveness asks for no payment.
Every parent knows Love calls us to forgive a child seven times seventy thousand times. No loving parent demands repayment for every adolescent eye roll and smirk! Our youngest, like his daddy, could be grumpy in the morning. One morning I sat drinking my coffee when Caleb came toddling down the hall in his pull-up and cowboy boots, dragging blankie. Amused by his scowl, I chirped a cheery, “Good morning, sunshine.” He met my greeting with a grimace, walked over to me, made a tiny little fist, and punched my leg with every ounce of his twenty pound body. Instantly, an impish grin lit up his face with delight, and he waltzed off in victory! I am not sure how the parenting books judged my reaction, but I got so tickled that I just sat there laughing. It still makes me laugh. How could I not love what God made in my very image?
God did not need the cross to pay for our sin problem. Love can forgive as Love pleases. Indeed, Jesus proclaims God’s forgiveness from the cross, “Father forgive them!” And does Jesus offer this forgiveness only to the nice folks reciting the proper Christian formula? No, Jesus pleads “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” That seems like what Perfect Love would do!
Let’s riff on Phillipians 2 improvising on a now-lost early church hymn: if there is any encouragement in Christ or any comfort in love (then)… Live like Christ Jesus: who was in the very form of God, but did not cling to Heaven’s power, instead Christ came and emptied that very God-self by becoming like humanity…all the way to and through the cross (very adapted). Charles Wesley gets this right, “Christ left his Father’s throne above. So free, so infinite in grace. Emptied themselves of all but love, and bled for the human race. It is Mystery. It is Mercy. It is immense. It is free. It found me! Such amazing love, boggles the mind. Amazing love how can such love be (“And Can It Be” very adapted)
Father Richard Rohr writes that “we miss that God’s big leap in Jesus was to come ‘down here’ and become human with us. … The real spiritual journey begins- once we come to know that Christ is forever overcoming the gap between the human and the divine- the Christian path becomes less about climbing (up to God) and more about descending, letting go, and unlearning. Knowing and loving Jesus is about becoming fully human, wounds and all, instead of ascending or thinking we can remain unwounded.” (The Universal Christ: Chapter 9)
In our passages we see Jesus, fully human and fully God, expressing the best of human and divine love. Suffering under religiously sanctioned and state sponsored torture Jesus blurts out, “Woman, behold, your new son.” Then looking upon The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved, Jesus speaks, “Here is your mother.” And The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved took Mary into his home from then on. That speaks of Perfect Love reaching out to offer compassion even while on the cross.
Luke tells us that as some in the crowd flung insults at a dying person, others wept. What does our crucified God say to us who can come both broken and unrepentant? “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Perfect Love is like that. Amen.