As we enter Holy Week and look ahead to Easter I would like to reflect on some of the threads of our Lenten study these past few weeks in the light of the cross and resurrection.
You will recall that forgiveness means a wiping away from memory of the offense, so that it is as if it never happened, leading to restoration of the relationship.
At the very first meeting we reflected on how extraordinary the idea of forgiveness is, since the human impulse for retribution and revenge runs very deep.
So if forgiveness is such a hard thing for us, what explains the amazing stories we saw and heard, first about Desmond Tutu and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committees, and then the story of Louis Zamperini forgiving his Japanese captors decades after his imprisonment? (As told in Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book Unbroken).
One way to explain them is to see these stories as exceptional acts of courage and heroism, which, of course, they are. I am going to call this the “Promethean interpretation.” You will recall (from reading Edith Hamilton in Middle School) that Prometheus was the titan in Greek mythology who stole fire from the Gods.
This is an attractive interpretation, and it is very popular in our society to take the heroic view of extraordinary acts. But the problem with the Promethean interpretation is this: it lets us off the hook.
When we see these people in heroic terms it distances us from them. They seem to be a higher form of humanity. It is the same problem as when we preachers only use people like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as examples for our sermons.
It is then easy for people to think, “We are not like them.” “We couldn’t do what they did.”
But what if these people are not a higher form of humanity, what if they are like us? And, in fact, many of the people in South Africa, both perpetrators and victims, were just ordinary people like us. And Louis Zamperini, for all his heroism, suffered from trauma and battled mental illness, sleeplessness and alcoholism. In other words, he was human like us. The Promethean interpretation is inadequate because it slights the humanity of its heroes.
Having said that then we must ask, “What force, what power, is transformative enough to make extraordinary acts of forgiveness possible by ordinary people?”
Here on Passion/Palm Sunday we have heard a powerful story about an extraordinary act of forgiveness. As Jesus is dying on the cross he forgives his tormentors and murderers. “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” In fact, Matthew also reports the saying in the original Aramaic, which was Jesus’ native tongue, as if no one who heard it could forget it.
When I was a boy I remember hearing this passage read in church for the first time, really hearing it, and suddenly becoming deeply aware that there was something extraordinary going on here that I had not previously heard about in my Sunday school classes. This was the cross. This was forgiveness. This was love and mercy in action.
So here’s what I think. Although the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committees were secular, I think it is no accident that they were led by an Anglican Archbishop.
And though Laura Hillenbrand tells the story of Louis Zamperini’s life for the most part as a Promethean story of extraordinary heroism, I find it compelling that the turning point in his life, the pivot from bitterness to forgiveness, came after he attended a Billy Graham rally, where he without a doubt heard the Gospel of God’s great love and forgiveness for us. And at the center of that Gospel, at the center of the whole Christian story is the cross and resurrection of Jesus that we are about to remember this coming week.
What I am saying is that to get at this extraordinary and difficult thing called forgiveness we have to look to the cross, and Palm/Passion Sunday is a good day to do it.
Let me suggest several reasons why we must look at the cross to understand forgiveness?
First of all, at the foot of the cross we can recognize ourselves among those not only needing to forgive but to be forgiven.
Today we identify ourselves among the crowd as they cried, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and also later in Holy Week on Good Friday, when the same crowd shouted, “Crucify him!”
At the foot of the cross we acknowledge that even the very best of us bears some resemblance to the worst of us.
When we look at the cross we can lay aside our tendency to blame “the other” for human sin and evil. We can leave behind the need to point an accusing finger at those who are not like us, so that we don’t have to confront our own need for forgiveness.
God’s judgment and mercy are often two sides of the same coin, so when we admit our sin, and the sin of the human family of which we are a part, we are then able to receive the forgiveness God wants for us. At the foot of the cross we can see that Jesus died not only because of our sins, but also for our sins, to take them away and free us for new life with him and for each other.
And this is only possible because Jesus’ death is not just any death. No, the incredible claim the church makes is that, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.” If Jesus had been just another man, even a very good man, then he is, at best, an example to us of the power of sacrifice, and, at worst, just another martyr to human violence. Then his death is merely a tragedy. Because suffering is not, in and of itself, redemptive. Just ask anyone who suffers. To believe otherwise invites masochism.
So why is his death redemptive? Why is Jesus’ death different from all the other tragic deaths in history? Why is his death different from all the other tens of thousands of men who ended up on Roman crosses? The answer is not that he suffered more. Others have suffered more, even at the hand of Christians.
So what is it that makes his death different, and makes his cross not a symbol of shame, but a symbol of faith?
The full story will be told next Sunday on Easter: it is the resurrection that makes the difference. It is the resurrection that transforms the cross from an emblem of horror into an emblem of God’s wondrous love.
On the cross human sin and divine mercy met, and it looked as if sin had won the day. But Easter is God’s vindication of Jesus’s way of forgiveness. Easter is God’s “Yes” to our “No.” And this is what created the church, the belief that Jesus was the messiah and that God raised him from the dead.
To the eyes of Easter faith the bitter cross is viewed as an act of God, the God who rescues and saves, who liberates and reconciles. These believers knew this God, the God of the Exodus.
And so the cross becomes transformed. On the face of it the cross is a particularly gruesome act of state execution. But with Easter eyes, in the light of the resurrection, it is now seen as an atoning, redeeming, reconciling divine act of love.
God in Christ gives up his life in humble obedience. He takes our sin and the judgment that goes with it and puts it to death on the cross with himself. That is how the cross becomes the symbol of Christian faith, not as a way to blame others for sin, but to admit our own sin and marvel at the lengths that God will go to take it away.
And this is why I think Desmond Tutu and Louis Zamperini were able to forgive those who had done horrible things, because they already knew what forgiveness was. They had experienced it in their own lives and knew its power. Their Christian faith believed that God in Christ had forgiven them, that God had done for them what they could not do for themselves.
And that is why we must look at the cross, confront the cross, reflect on the meaning of the cross for us and for our world, and meet the cross in worship, in prayer, and in discipleship.
(I presented this at the final gathering of a Lenten study at the First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. April 13, 2014.)