Christ the King Sunday + November 24, 2019
Text: Luke 23:33-43
Trinity, Worcester

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In the name of Jesus. Amen.

“Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Recorded as Luke 23:34, this image of Jesus on the cross forgiving those who nailed him there and cheered on his death is one of the most moving images in the bible. There is a problem with this verse, however. You may notice in your bible, as you read the 23rd Chapter of Luke, brackets appear around verse 34.

The brackets are not for emphasis, they are related instead to the note that appears both in my Harper Collins Study Bible and my Lutheran Study Bible.  The note says:  Other ancient authorities lack verse 34.”

I have to admit, the first time I read that note, several years ago, I was upset. What does it mean – other ancient authorities lack this verse? Does it mean Jesus did not say these words? Did Jesus not forgive those who nailed him to the cross? 

That Jesus would forgive those who nailed him to the cross sounds like something Jesus would say and do. Earlier in Luke, in the 6th Chapter, we heard Jesus say thisI say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  [And a second time Jesus said:] Love your enemies.

Jesus forgiving those who nailed him to the cross, and the crowds who cheered them on seems to be Jesus practicing what he preached, living by his own words. In forgiveness as he died, here was Jesus loving his enemies, blessing those who cursed him, praying for those who abused him.

 So why did some ancient authorities lack this verse?

I’m no expert on early Christian manuscripts and I don’t have an answer to that question.  But, what I do know, is that forgiveness is difficult.

Forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness is tough.  Forgiveness is perhaps something that many of us would rather not talk about and perhaps omit from our lives!

Based on what we know about forgiveness, here’s my speculation … what if this verse was omitted by some authorities, because it was so impossible to believe? What if those who transcribed and wrote down these stories, thought Jesus forgiving those who nailed him to the cross was too far-fetched, too unbelievable, too much of a fantasy?

This summer, to kick of the ELCA’s 60-Day Journey Toward Justice in a Culture of Gun Violence, Mark, Jena, and I watched the documentary Emanuel. The documentary tells the story of the shooting deaths of nine African-American Christians at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. The men and women were shot during weekly bible study by a white supremacist hoping to incite a race war.

One of the most surprising and moving elements of the tragedy occurred 48 hours after the shootings.  The shooter had been apprehended and made his first appearance in court. In a surprise decision, the judge allowed a spokesperson for each of the families of the victims to address the shooter. The shooter was not in the courtroom, but he appeared on a television screen via two-way video conference.

This was a surprise, none of the families knew this was going to happen, and none had prepared any remarks.  What unfolded was truly shocking. Each of the spokespeople who stood up and addressed the shooter, in their very first encounter with the man who had killed one of their own family members, forgave him.   The said they forgave the shooter.

Later, each of the spokespeople, said they felt as if the words of forgiveness came from outside of them.  The words of forgiveness not chosen by them, but spoken through them.

This was echoed again several weeks after the shooting by the son of one of the victims.  The son was a high school baseball player. He was asked in a post-game interview about the shooter who had killed his mother, and to his surprise, like in the courthouse, the words that came out of his mouth were words of forgiveness towards the shooter.

During this section of the documentary, the filmmakers showed an artist’s depiction of Jesus on the cross. They referenced this verse, Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing.” I had goosebumps and tears at that point in the movie – to me, it was the living and resurrected Christ speaking forgiveness in the families.

But, as is the case with forgiveness, this forgiveness was difficult for others to accept and it sparked a controversy.

A family member not in the courtroom conceded, if the immediate extension of forgiveness was a work of God in the family members in the courtroom, then he himself remained a work in progress – even years later he was not ready to forgive.

Another family member, not in the courtroom, said the immediate extension of forgiveness was like putting a lid on the tragedy, that the forgiveness was like ending the story, smothering important conversations about race and violence against people of color the shootings might have prompted.

An activist, organizing protests in response to the shooting, claimed the extension of forgiveness ended any opportunity they had for meaningful and significant protests in response.

Their difficulty in the extension of forgiveness, points to important truths about forgiveness. Forgiveness does not pretend all is somehow right with the world.  Forgiveness is not an escape pod by which we seek forgiveness for ourselves in order to avoid the consequences of  our sin. Forgiveness does not justify the status quo and it never condones, enables, or gives permission to violence, abuse, and any other type of sin. Forgiveness doesn’t yield to sin, forgiveness is the work of the resurrected Christ overcoming sin and making all things new.

Forgiveness is Christ leading us out of sin and into new life. Forgiveness is healing, resurrection, and rebirth.

I believe the words of forgiveness spoken by the victim’s families in Charleston was the gift of the risen Christ, speaking less to the shooter, and more to the families themselves. In the forgiveness the families extended to the shooter,Jesus was speaking to the victims, speaking gifts of freedom and release. That in forgiveness Jesus spoke through them, the living Jesus Christ was speaking to them, beginning the important process of laying down their burden on the long road towards healing.

Years ago, in my first call, I met daily for prayer with the director of the neighborhood center that rented our church fellowship hall. The director belonged to a Pentecostal church and she shared stories of her pastor and prayer team doing exorcisms and driving out demons. She told me a crucial preparation for this work with the “possessed” was identifying with them areas of unforgiveness in their lives.

They operated with the belief that unforgiveness was an open door through which demons entered.  Unforgiveness, the carrying a grudge, the holding on to hate, the bondage to a moment in time or a person, was the open door, by which they believed demons entered their victims.

We as Lutherans don’t normally talk about demons and exorcisms, but might we too recognize the danger of unforgiveness? Might we recognize the spiritual, emotional, social, and even physical harm we cause ourselves, because we choose not forgive, and choose instead to remain in bondage to a moment where we have been wronged?

And, at the same time, might we recognize the freedom and liberation and healing that comes with forgiveness? That forgiveness is not just word spoken in one moment, but that forgiveness is movement towards a whole new season of life. That forgiveness is a movement of liberation, where we move past the moments that have trapped us in pain and hurt into new seasons of life, hope, and healing.

On this Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate that our king is a king who reigns from the cross in forgiveness. 

We celebrate that our King, Jesus Christ, himself betrayed, arrested, and handed over to the cross, responded with forgiveness.  The king we serve, Jesus Christ, did not plot revenge on his enemies, did not smear the reputations of those who turned against him, did not divide people between those with him and those against him. The king we serve, reigning from the cross, forgave his enemies!

AND, the living Jesus Christ, the king who lives and reigns today, speaks forgiveness to us, and through us, to the world. We are forgiven by God! In the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of Jesus Christ, we are invited into the new reign of God breaking in among us today! In the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, we are liberated from bondage to our past, we are freed from any specific moment in our past filled with pain and shame, we are forgiven and set free.

In the confession of our sin, today, we are the repentant thief dying on the cross promised paradise! The forgiveness Christ speaks to us today, in water, word, bread and cup, is the open door  through which we are invited into the reign of God making all things new.

And so, friends, forgiven by the living Christ who lives and reigns as king, who are you called to forgive today?

What unforgiveness are you carrying in your heart?

Do you need to forgive yourself today?

Who in this congregation do you need to forgive? Someone here today? Someone who used to be here but is here no longer?

As a gift of grace, the living and resurrected Christ is among us today speaking forgiveness among us, leading us into new life.

Forgive, lay your burden down, walk with Christ the King into a new season of freedom and life.

Allelluia!  Christ is risen!