Luke 23: 33-43
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. [[Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by watching, but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The death of Christ is something that we as Christians depend upon. The resurrection is the moment that seals our salvation, proves God’s love and power, but that resurrection would not be necessary if we did not reject Christ in the first place. Jesus lived a life without sin, loving in ways we would call impossible, even praying till the very end for those who were actively killing him. A love we can never fully understand, made plain in every way, for the entire span of this amazing God-man’s life. The wonderful, dread sight of a Roman cross somehow spells the most dreadful moment of history, and the one that sealed the salvation of not only all believers, but all creation.
Jesus was not alone on the Hill of Calvary, but was joined by two criminals. The nature of their crime is unclear, as the term used for them across the Gospels can mean any number of condemning things. Perhaps they were thieves, ruffians who attacked their fellow citizens, or tied into something more dangerous and iconoclastic. Whatever the nature of their crime, they were now in the same place Jesus was. Hanging on Roman crosses, stripped of their clothes and their dignity, dying alongside a roadside at eye level with the people who passed by. Did the people turn their gazes? Did they spit and swear? Did they have any mercy for the people who had life draining from them, bit by bit.
The lives of those two thieves are cut off from us, but they are not foreign to us. We have known plenty of people in our lives guilty of all manner of evil. Some have been punished for their crime, others have escaped justice. Sometimes the harm they caused is small, to property or constituting a wound that might heal. Other times the damage is something that we are able to mitigate over time, but that will always leave some scar. Sometimes to the society around us, and other times to us individually or to the people we love.
The dreadful thing about God’s grace is that it truly is open for all people to receive. It is not just to the people we are able to agree with or support, but to all people who are willing to accept it. It can come in the earliest days of a person’s life, infused into them by family and friends since the moment they are born, or it can come as they draw their final breath. Either way, God’s grace cannot and will not be limited by our own imagination or preferences, and that is not something we take lightly.
The atrocities of the ages give us all the reason in the world to be mad that God would dare propose something so against our concepts of justice. It is patently and plainly unfair, and yet somehow it is obvious to us that a good God must always be willing to do something so plainly impossible as forgiving the unforgiveable. A God who suffered being crucified must care for those driving in the nails enough to suffer that kind of death. It is an impossibility, a conundrum and a half, but it is the example laid at our feet for all our own conflicts.
We talked last week about how community requires us to work together or it cannot exist. That means that sometimes forgiveness cannot equal completely with reconciliation, try as we might. We were being general then, applying it broadly to how we live together in community. Now we can be specific – we have people in this life we cannot associate with, not because it is impossible to be reconciled somehow, but because the two parties cannot do the work necessary to make it happen. I can forgive anyone in this world, I can have no ill will in my heart towards them, but I would be aiding and abetting their transgression if I pretended that things were as they always had been.
This is why we have policies in place that allow people who have committed crimes against others, for example, to be members of congregations and participants of ministry, but not without certain caveats. Some would say that absolution of sin is the erasure of consequence, but to do so is to deny the justice due all people and prevents us from cutting off the temptation toward additional harm. In our own lives, there may be people we have allowed back into our life, but cannot trust with the close things of our heart again. There is no erring in that, it is the most natural thing that can be.
I was in a relationship once that was abusive in all ways but physical. I was not happy and neither was my partner. Yet, we stayed together out of some kind of fear or convenience. As part of that cycle of toxicity, I was made to cut certain people out of my life. They had committed no sin against me, had been nothing but good friends, but because of the preferences she held, I found myself fracturing my own soul to keep the piece. Some of those people are now fully restored to the relationship we had before, now years after my seeking therapy allowed me to break my chains and end the abuse. However, not every relationship could come back to where it was. Forgiveness has been given me, but time shifts people and growth happens that puts us in different places. To paraphrase a secular prophet, “Not everyone, [we]’ve abandoned, is still standing by.”
Even for my abuser, forgiveness is something that has settled deep in my heart. I see how their own situations have led them to where they are. I cannot hold any true animosity for them, broken as they are and broken as I was to stay there with them. Yet, I would not ever try to patch things up, to be a friend to them again. There is no outcome of that that would be mutually good in either direction, and so a door is closed that will remain shut. The slate is washed away, but with it comes a block that cannot be removed. So great is the necessity of preserving what is good over what some might call “best.”
In a discussion I had recently with someone I stated how the process of reconciliation begins first with the person who did what was wrong realizing they made a mistake. Then they have to go and ask forgiveness of God and the person they did wrong. The next step is baffling to us, but necessary. The person is forgiven in their confessing, their sin somehow washed away in a moment. Then, and only then, are they to do all they can to fix what is broken. “Why?” We might ask, “Would you bother to do work, when you are already in the clear?” Because I would answer, we are not trying to be guiltless in this life, but righteous.
If I wrong my wife every day, and she forgives me every night, but I never change how I act, our marriage won’t grow or flourish in any way. If I go out and lie and cheat and steal, then I can be forgiven a dozen times, but unless I stop my lying and cheating and stealing and face up to the consequences of my evil, I will continue doing harm. We are trying to be better and to be good, like Christ was good before us, and that means that regardless of being forgiven, we have to change. Repentance is the act of turning around, confession of fessing up. If we only ever get to admitting our wrongdoing, but not changing, than we are actively denying the better portion of God’s gifts.
Yet, the thief on the cross shows us that even the very end of life can be the moment we turn our lives around. I do not recommend it though. This thief missed out on a life of shared commitment, of happiness, of friendships and family ties by blood and by association. He enters Paradise a stranger to all who are there ahead of him, able to make friends and connections in eternity and among the perfected. However, it is better to go somewhere knowing some people to welcome us in, rather than having a committee of strangers standing there. It is better to be in Heaven as a Saint in training than a Saint in name only. Today do the hard work and forgive someone in your life, but I implore us to do the harder thing and make things right that we have broken. – Amen.
 They Might be Giants. Sometimes a Lonely Way. Idlewild, 2013.