We are followers of Christ. That means we follow Jesus closely: reading about him through Scripture, experiencing him through the body of Christ we call “church,” and walking daily with him thanks to the Holy Spirit.
But following Christ doesn’t end there. It also means following his example in our own lives by living and acting the way that he did.
This week, we attempt to follow Jesus into tough territory: forgiveness.
Jesus talked the talk about forgiveness, saying things like “forgive and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37) and that we ought to forgive the same repentant person as much as seven times in one day (Luke 17:4). Even when he taught about prayer, it included forgiveness: “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive those indebted to us” (Luke 11:4).
That was the talk he talked. Jesus also walked the walk – but in that, he went the extra mile. Jesus forgave others to a radical extent.
No moment embodies that quite like today’s Scripture. So follow me into this scene: imagine yourself a disciple who ran away, terrified, while Jesus was betrayed and handed over and tortured and sentenced to death. Now, as Jesus is crucified, you come back to him – trying to avoid recognition by blending into the crowd. And this is what you see (Luke 17:32-38):
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 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.”
This is the example Jesus has given us: while hanging on the cross, he forgives the very people who put him there.
The insanity of this is fresh on my mind, because I’ve just finished reading through the gospel of Matthew. Each morning I read about 10 verses in the Bible and journal some thoughts and a prayer in response. Normally this slow-and-steady approach is good, helping me to reflect carefully on Scripture. But when I got to the passion narrative in Matthew (Jesus’ death and the events that led up to it) I wanted to fast-forward – to start reading 20, 30 verses at a time. It was painful to slowly and steadily read about Jesus’ abandonment by his best friends, beatings and public shaming by the Roman soldiers, rejection by a mob of his own people, and being nailed to a wood plank so he could slowly die by asphyxiation.
What happened to Jesus was awful.
And Jesus used some of his last words to say, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Who is “them”? Who is Jesus forgiving? It’s not crystal clear. It could be the Roman soldiers who physically put him on the cross… but it could also be the religious leadership who conspired against him, or the Jewish people who supported their actions, or the disciples who abandoned him. Luke’s account tells us that none of these groups knew what they were doing (9:45, 18:34, and then Acts 3:17), and even calls out the ignorance of humanity in general (Acts 17:30). So it’s not clear who Jesus is forgiving – but maybe Jesus said it that way on purpose. It is, after all, the collective sinfulness of humanity that made Jesus’ death necessary. We all need to be forgiven.
And Jesus forgives all of us – even as we’re doing our worst to him.
That’s the example of forgiveness we’re supposed to follow.
It’s a high bar, right? When I’m faced with a standard that seems out of reach, I’ll try to justify a lower one. So like in this case: “Oh, we won’t be expected to literally follow Jesus’ example of forgiveness on the cross – this is an extreme scenario, only for Jesus himself.” Well… listen to what happened to Stephen in Acts 7:54-60:
When they [the Jewish council] heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
Stephen, like the Jesus he followed, was killed by the religious leaders; and Stephen, like the Jesus he followed, prayed for the forgiveness of his killers as they were doing it.
If we are Christ’s followers, then we must also follow him into this radical kind of forgiveness – one that includes even our worst enemies.
How in the world can we possibly do that?
By experiencing forgiveness,
and praying for forgiveness.
First, we have to experience forgiveness. We are following an example, and that example forgave us. We are only capable of radical forgiveness if and when we understand that we have been radically forgiven. And the forgiveness that Jesus gives us is truly radical. Jesus died on the cross for this, after all. If Jesus took a paper cut for our sins, then I’d say, “Well, maybe that covers most of the little things… but not the really bad, really dark stuff.” But no! Jesus gave his whole life for us, and as he himself once said, there’s no greater love than that (John 15:13). That’s all a person can give. Jesus’ sacrifice covers everything.
Before we give forgiveness to others, we have to receive this incredible forgiveness from Christ. This is important enough to stop for, right now. Close your eyes; take a deep breath. Imagine Christ on the cross. Imagine him saying these words, that know that they include you: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Remind yourself that Jesus’ sacrifice for us was perfect and complete; it covers all your sins – all of them.
You have been radically forgiven. Allow your heart to be filled with the grace of that forgiveness… so that grace can allow you to extend that same forgiveness to others.
Having experienced forgiveness, we now need to understand forgiveness – what it is, and what it is not. Forgiveness is not excusing someone’s behavior. When Christ forgives us for gossip or adultery or stealing, Christ is not saying those things are OK. Neither is Christ saying that those things are OK for you. Imagine how ridiculous it would have sounded if Christ’s prayer on the cross had been, “Father, what they’re doing to me isn’t a big deal.” It was a big deal – and so are our sins. Forgiveness means naming the wrongdoing but not having it held against us going forward. It means that our mistakes and evil actions won’t keep us from a relationship with God. We get a clean slate to try again.
Likewise, when we forgive others we are not excusing their behavior. We are not permitting the abuse or the rumor or the rudeness. We can forgive and also impose some consequences for the offending person’s actions. We can forgive and also confront them and name the wrongdoing, in the hopes that they will learn and not repeat it. But when we forgive, there is a noticeable change in our hearts toward the offender. We give up the right to revenge; we stop wishing bad things for that person; we hope they will try again and do better next time, even if not with us.
When we attempt to forgive others, understanding what forgiveness is helps.
But forgiving those who are really harming us… that’s still very, very hard.
Most of the time, forgiveness comes pretty easily for me. I’d rather forgive, frankly. I’m a relational person and I hate to have a relationship broken. But there have been a few times when someone has hurt me so deeply it was hard to forgive them. Being a relational person, these instances had to do with some kind of breech in a close friendship. One of these situations (thankfully years ago now) led me to the low moment of sobbing uncontrollably in the middle of a WalMart. I had been on the phone, and the conversation had gone to an unexpectedly hurtful place, and there I was: ugly crying in the middle of the Tupperware aisle. If you don’t live in a rural area you may not know: WalMart is like our high school cafeteria. You see everyone at WalMart. It was a long walk of shame to get back out to my car.
I may not have been beaten and nailed to a cross… but it felt like some kind of emotional torture.
Have you ever had someone hurt you like that?
Following Jesus’ example would mean us forgiving those people in the middle of the hurt. Like me, standing in WalMart with mascara-streaked cheeks, praying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing…”
If I could go back and redo that moment, honestly, it’s hard to imagine saying that prayer. Probably most of us lack the spiritual strength to pray for our enemies’ forgiveness as they’re hammering the nails or throwing the stones. But this is the example we need to keep in front of us, and the one we need to follow as soon as we can muster the strength:
To pray for our enemies’ forgiveness.
Prayer is where forgiveness starts. Notice that Jesus doesn’t hop down from the cross to give the Roman soldiers hugs; he prays for them. And Stephen doesn’t look up at his stoning crowd and say, “Hey, I wish you guys the best!” He prays for them. And a simple prayer, at that: “Father, forgive them.”
When someone deeply wrongs us, that kind of radical forgiveness is beyond our ability. We can’t do it alone. We can only do it with God’s help. So, following Jesus’ example, we ask for God to do the forgiving. We ask God to forgive them even when that prayer feels like a bitter pill in our mouths. We may not be able to say that prayer while someone is hurting us – but as soon as we can, we begin to pray: “Father, forgive them.”
We say that prayer because it’s what Jesus did…
…and we are his followers.
More than anything, this is what Jesus was about. Jesus came for forgiveness. He died so that our sins would be forgiven. He told us to forgive, and he forgave us. This was his hallmark.
We cannot be followers of Christ and not forgive.
So may we experience forgiveness,
and understand forgiveness,
and, most of all, pray for forgiveness.