“Father, forgive them…”: further reflections

We began a sermon series this morning in Vinebranch called “Seven Last Words,” which will carry us through the Lenten season. We have a bit of a problem, though: There are seven “words”—actually statements—and only six weeks of Lent. But I’ll do what I did in our Ten Commandments series and combine a couple. Check back here for a schedule, which I hope to publish this week.

Each week, we’ll look at (at least) one of the seven different statements Jesus makes while he is on the cross, roughly in the order in which (we imagine) he spoke them. Today, we looked at Luke 23:32-38, which includes Jesus’ remarkably gracious words of forgiveness, spoken of the people who put him on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

There are a couple of challenges with this text. The first challenge, which someone following along in their Bibles this morning might have noticed right away, is a footnote (in both the NIV and NRSV) indicating that the verse isn’t found in the earliest manuscripts of Luke’s gospel. The NRSV even places double brackets around it, as if to say that its authenticity is highly questionable.

So… was the statement—surely one of the most beloved words from Jesus in all of the gospels—added to Luke’s gospel later, not by the evangelist himself? And if so, does it matter?

I’m concerned that our Bible translations be as accurate as possible. As we discover older manuscripts of the Bible, we should compare and revise our translations as necessary. When it comes to any ancient manuscript, it’s reasonable to assume that “older = more reliable.” In this case, however, I’m actually unbothered by the inclusion of Luke 23:34 in our Bibles. In fact, I think I’d want to fight anyone who tried to remove it!

I don’t care whether Luke wrote it or not, or whether a later editor added it. I trust that the Holy Spirit wanted these words in our Bibles because they are deeply true. The Jesus I know through faith—who is present to me through the power of the Spirit when I read scripture—speaks these words to me when I read the gospel.

Besides, some Bible scholars make a strong case that they were original to Luke’s gospel, even though the earliest manuscripts we have omit them. I can’t really engage the argument, as it’s all Greek to me. 😉

One thing we do know for sure: Luke also wrote a sequel to this gospel, the Book of Acts. And Luke is very interested in showing that the “acts of the apostles,” the ministry of the early church, is in continuity with Jesus’ own ministry. He often shows the apostles performing similar or parallel actions, signs, and miracles to those of Jesus. In Acts 7, as Stephen, the first martyr for the faith, is being stoned to death by the religious authorities in Jerusalem, he prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” I believe Luke included Stephen’s words as a parallel to Jesus’ words in today’s scripture.

I also believe strongly that the message and intent of these first words of Jesus from the cross are clear: through the cross of Christ, God forgives us our sins—all of them, preemptively (as William Willimon says in his book on the subject), without condition. God doesn’t need us to reciprocate that forgiveness in any way.

Here’s what, for me, is at stake in the question: Do we believe that Jesus prayed this prayer from the cross, only to have the Father tell him, in effect, “I would love to forgive them, but I can’t—because they don’t believe in you or are not sufficiently sorry for their sins”? How does this not tip the balance of power too heavily to the human side of our relationship with God? It seems unquestionably true, at least in human relationships, that failing to forgive grants the offending party some power over us—they have the power to hurt us all over again whenever we think of the wrong that was done. Failing to forgive, while perfectly understandable at times, is an open wound in our soul. As someone else said, failing to forgive is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. If God fails to forgive us unconditionally, would we not hold some kind of power over God?

And how would a God who forgives conditionally live up to Jesus’ own words about human forgiveness: namely, that it should be unlimited. God seems very prodigal with his forgiveness. And as is clear from the gospels, this bothers us religious folk. Maybe our challenge with preemptive forgiveness is that we resent that God is so much more forgiving than we are!

I believe that God’s forgiveness is a given. It comes first, before any human response. It’s the rock-solid foundation for all of God’s dealings with us from the creation of the world. Our response to that forgiveness, while necessary in order for it to change our lives and our future, is secondary. In other words, God has forgiven us. Now… How will we respond? That’s the question.

Someone worried aloud that my sermon this morning skated too close to universalism—the idea that everyone who’s ever lived will be saved. I disagree—or I should say that my sermon skated exactly as close to that line as I wanted it to. God’s love for us is universal. God wants to save all of us, and God is working right now to do just that. I’m under no obligation as a Methodist pastor to represent Calvinism or the Synod of Dort, which formalized the idea of “limited atonement.” We Methodists are Arminian.

I’m not, however, a universalist—or more accurately, I leave questions of final judgment and people’s eternal fate to God. But I won’t be disappointed if everyone—even after death—has the opportunity to respond positively to the forgiveness and grace that are offered through Christ. After all, I, no more than they, have done nothing to deserve salvation.

Nevertheless, since I don’t believe God forces himself on anyone, hell—the opportunity to ultimately and finally reject God—must exist in theory.

God forgives everyone. But if it’s going to help us, we must accept that forgiveness. As I said in my sermon, that means recognizing that we’ve done something that needs forgiving. It means coming to grips with our sin. It’s not cheap grace!

I would welcome your thoughts on the subject!

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