Jesus is the soul of forgiveness. He teaches us to pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” When he healed the paralytic, he told him his sins were forgiven. He tells us, “Do not judge so you will not be judged; do not condemn so you will not be condemned, but forgive and you will be forgiven.” Seventy times seven he told us to forgive. But he, himself, has nothing to be forgiven for, except, perhaps for telling the truth in a world where truth is a very dangerous thing. And on this dark afternoon, when they have humiliated him in a kangaroo court, when they have condemned him with lies and false accusations, when they have paraded him before puppet magistrates who washed their hands of his fate, when soldiers have spat in his face, beat him with their fists, whipped him within an inch of death, forced him to carry the instrument of his own torture up the hill, then driven iron spikes into his wrists and feet to fasten him to the cross… when they have done all this and hung him out to die in an agony of slow suffocation, the first words he utters from the cross are, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is a fitting motto for our human race. It is a prayer that should always be on our lips. “Father, forgive us. We know not what we do.”
Two thieves are being crucified with Jesus, one on either side of him. One of them mocks him saying, “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.” The other, with a finer sense of justice, rebukes the first thief. “We’re here because we’re guilty,” he says. “But this man has done nothing to deserve this.” Then, perhaps sensing that some deeper power is at work in this dark moment, he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” We cannot guess what it costs Jesus to reply. We cannot begin to imagine what kind of pain he endures as he pushes all his weight against the spike in his feet so that he might raise himself enough to gather his breath and speak. But that’s what he does. And when he speaks, he speaks a promise. Could there be any greater grace than this? Could there be any greater grace than for a condemned, dying person to hear him say, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus did not begin his ministry of preaching and teaching until he was 30 years old. It has been suggested that this is may have been because Joseph had died, and Jewish custom would have expected that Jesus should provide for his widowed mother until his thirtieth birthday. After that, he was free to pursue his own way. He had probably taken care of her for years. And now, from the cross, as he gasps for every breath and slowly bleeds out his life, he takes care of her again. Seeing his disciple, John, standing next to his mother he creates for them both a new relationship. He makes John his mother’s guardian and protector. Tradition tells us that Mary stayed with John until she died some years later in John’s house in Ephesus. John and Mary cared for each other faithfully the rest of their earthly days because, from the cross, Jesus now says, “Woman, behold your son. John, behold your mother.”
We say that God is omniscient–– that God knows everything. And why not? God made the heavens and the earth–– the cosmos, the universe. God made human beings. God knows us inside and out, for in some mysterious way, we are made in God’s own image. God reads the human heart and knows all its longings and desires, its pain and fear. God is the supreme psychologist. But there was one thing God did not know. God did not know what it felt like to be human. God did not know what it felt like to experience human frailty, human hunger, human stress and tension, human depression, human joys, human warmth, human fear––the whole gamut of human feelings as we experience them in our sensitive human bodies. God understood all these things, but God had not felt them. That is why God became human in Jesus Christ; so that God might truly know everything. In Jesus, God experienced every human emotion and feeling as humans experience them, and one of the darkest things that God learned, one of the most painful things that Jesus experienced, is what it feels like to be utterly alone–– what it feels like when all your friends have deserted. Jesus learned, God learned, what it feels like when it seems that even God has abandoned you.
Here is a great and powerful mystery: Because of this moment on the cross, God is with us even when we feel utterly Godforsaken. At some time in each of our lives we have cried out in anguish–– because, at some dark moment in every human life we have, every one of us, felt utterly abandoned and hung out to dry. The words of the Psalmist have echoed in our souls through all the centuries of our existence. Anyone who doubts that Jesus was fully human, anyone who wants to think of him as a purely spiritual being somehow removed from human pain needs only listen to these words to see how wrong that picture is. Jesus knows the darkest fear that lurks in every human breast. Jesus knows despair. He cries out the eternal question in a voice so loud it reverberates and bounces through all of heaven and earth, through all of human history, and in our own fearful hearts: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani?” My God, My God… why have you forsaken me? And now, there is only one thing left for God to learn, and that lesson is very near. Now God will learn what it feels like to die.
He has been bleeding for hours. The fluids in his body are rampaging in a frenzied attempt to cushion deep bruises and clot gaping wounds. The scourging, alone–– being whipped with a barbed flail that has made the white of his ribs visible through his back–– the scourging alone is enough to make serious demands on his body’s reserves of water. And now there are the nails and the fight against gravity, and his body’s valiant attempt to protect his heart, liver and kidneys. And now, the one who told the woman at the well that he was living water–– that no one who drank of that living water would ever thirst, the one who transformed the waters of chaos into waters of adoption in his baptism, the one who changed water into wine so his friends would not be embarrassed at their wedding, the one who spoke all water into existence–– he begs for a single drink. They bring him vinegar on a sponge when he whispers, “I thirst.”
It’s nearly over now. Jesus is a strong man. A carpenter. A construction worker. He is a strong-spirited man, filled, in fact, with the Holy Spirit. But his human spirit can only endure so much. It is time to give up the ghost. Time to let go. There is only one person in the universe whom he can trust with his very life as he lets that life go. And so he gives himself up to that One, saying, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
It’s over now. There is no fight left in him. No will to survive. No will at all, except the will to complete his mission. To suffer, and in his suffering to absorb all suffering. To die, and in his death, to absorb all death. And now that is done. The light of the world is extinguished. And in the eerie darkness that has descended over him, over everyone and everything, he finds the strength to whisper three last words as his life bleeds away: “It is finished.”