“Father, Forgive Them . . . ”

by Rev. Terry Minchow-Proffitt @ St. Martin United Church of Christ High Ridge

two wolves

Luke 23:32-38
This Lent will be our season to draw near the cross of Jesus. Each Sunday we’ll take each of Jesus’ Seven Last Words, the last sayings of Jesus as he was crucified, and seek to enter into their meaning and purpose.

Why do this? Because how we see Jesus’ crucifixion can either take us more deeply into the life we share in Christ or, if misunderstood, can end up, ironically, distancing us from the life we share in Christ.

If the cross is seen as an impersonal transaction between Jesus and God, or God and the Devil, then we’re left with an abstract doctrine. Something we can believe or not. If, instead, we see the cross as an event of God’s suffering love that each of us must draw near, must in some sense experience for our very life in Christ, then we have the opportunity of experiencing God instead of simply talking about God, then we’re “in on it.” We’re able to move beyond theory to practice, beyond transaction to transformation.

Let’s back up. The cross expresses what we call atonement. For Christianity, atonement is all about “at-one-ment,” the state of being “at one,” reconciled, with God. Because of sin, we distance ourselves from God and others. This tendency to choose a self-centered distance over life-giving intimacy permeates the world. It pushes us away from more fully experiencing God and others. On our own, we cannot overcome this isolating gap. We “island” ourselves. But through the gift of Jesus’ life and, particularly, his death, we see God do what we cannot. Jesus Christ bridges the gap. We can now pursue living lovingly, “at one” with God and others.

So, when we draw near the cross during these Sundays of Lent, this is not an exercise in morbidity but vitality. We enter into the great gift and mystery of how Jesus’ death embodies his life. Jesus did not die one way and live another. So, too, our living and dying are intimately connected. And I’m not simply talking here about death with a capital “D.” I mean the daily ways in which Christ calls us to die to our self-centered ways, to let go, to refuse to feed those parts of ourselves or those habits of life that only separate us from God and others. This is a type of spiritual death that is dearly necessary and vital to life in Christ.

There’s an old Cherokee legend of the “Two Wolves.” It is told in several ways, but the version I’ll share involves a grandfather and grandson. The old man tells the boy that there is a fight going on inside him. It’s a fight between two wolves. One wolf is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about this for a while, then asked, “Which wolf will win?” His grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

Each and every day we choose what we will feed. Over time, what we don’t feed will die. There is both good news and bad news in this truth. We want the good Wolf to howl with the passion of God, with forgiveness and joy, with hope and kindness. But the Good Wolf must be fed.

In today’s passage we’re left with more than mere words about forgiveness: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing.” We’re left with an image of three crosses. On either side hang two thieves, both guilty of crimes committed. In the middle hangs Jesus, innocent. Jesus, in the middle, trying to reconcile us all to God and each other. Just as Jesus, right now, lives in the middle, between you and your family, friends—and enemies. The juice is in the and.

As Will Willimon once put it, “At Calvary, no one asked for forgiveness. No one said, “Wait, I think we’re crucifying the wrong guy. Forgive us.” Jesus’ forgiveness was preemptive.”

If you want to find Christ, look at where Jesus lived. In life, he was in the middle of it all, giving his life away as a gift. In death, he was in the middle of it all, trying to reconcile these thieves, this world, to God. In you life, wherever the action is, both good and bad, there is Christ, trying to magnify your joy and heal your sorrow. Christ shares our suffering because he wants only to love us. It is the essence of living out God’s love, as best we can, to be at one with the one we love: even if we do not know what we are doing, even if they do not know what they are doing. God forgives. Amen.