The Cross of Curse, the Cross of Forgiveness

The Cross of Curse, the Cross of Forgiveness

A Good Friday Sermon

by Rev. Douglas Olds (all rights reserved)

First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo (CA)

April 22, 2011

Text: Luke 23: 32-34

My Reading of the First of the Seven Last Words of Christ is from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 23: verses 32 to 34.

32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 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. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing;” and they cast lots to divide his clothing.[1]

Let us pray: Astonish us, O God, with the message of Christ and the solemn Goodness of this day. Help us live out the salvation accomplished for us on this day in all that we do. AMEN.

Just after Christmas of 2009, I went to Israel. The day after I arrived in Tel Aviv, I went to Jerusalem, and I walked up the Via Dolorosa—the route through the Old City that tradition tells us that Jesus took while bearing the Cross on his way to his crucifixion. The Via Dolorosa is marked with iron badges for each station of the Cross, and it ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which has excavated the hill of Golgotha—meaning “the skull” or “Calvaria” in Latin—and its two caves. There has been a church of the Holy Sepulcher on that spot since at least the fifth century and prior to that, the Emperor Constantine’s mother in the early fourth century located the site, noting it as a place of veneration for the earliest Christian saints.

My experience of walking the Via Dolorosa was one of exertion and claustrophobia:

Shops and people crowd the way which takes a number of sharp turns up the hill. I tried to imagine myself with a heavy I-Beam on my back while bearing the curses and spitting of onlookers. The effect of my pious imaginings was foreboding and sadness as I reached the place of crucifixion inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Inside that church, I saw the traditional spot where the Cross was impaled into the earth, and I peered into the shrine that marks the location of the cave-tomb, now long excavated away. The crowds inside the church were remarkably solemn, and I saw tears in the faces of some when they touched the spot of the foot of the Cross.

I was during these moments unaware of time, only of place. I then sat down in the square outside the entrance to the church where I was startled into the present by the dramatic pealing of the noontime bells of the church. I believe it was the Holy Spirit that came into me with each cascading run of the pealing bells: first, the words “Holy Holy Holy” took hold of my soul, and then my heart was thrilled as only the Spirit can with the internal shout of “Victory!”

I was moved to tears, but my tears were of joy.

The Holy Spirit as she works in my life is usually to confirm the Truth of the Gospel, and here I sensed she was convincing me of the historical truth of the Cross. Moreover, the Holy Spirit not only convicts of truth, but upon reflection, she brings Christian wisdom.

Prior to this movement of the Holy Spirit, I was theologically naive about the Cross. I had thought the Cross was a signal event in Salvation History, but I was not sure I could articulate what it said about God. I had been aware that the curse of the Cross was humanity’s burdening of Jesus and the Cross was not God’s bringing on punishment to Jesus for humanity’s sin. In other words, I believed prior to this moment with the Holy Spirit that the Cross was a place of human punishment, not God’s punishment. But I lacked a sense of the Cross’s goodness, so enmeshed I was in the doctrinal monologues about what the church calls “the atonement of suffering.”

But here I was, under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, and she was telling me that Jesus gained a victory over the curse at this spot of the Cross. I began to reflect upon this, and I have come to learn this about God from our text: God took on the curse of death to which humanity’s sin was heir, and triumphed over the curse by the means of Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness.

Not only dying for us, Jesus died to himself on the Cross. Jesus died to his self--to his self-assertions and grudges, by forgiving. This kind of forgiveness that Jesus displays to his persecutors of every time and place unites pure humility with love, with humility canceling out the self-assertion of personhood, leaving only the unadulterated triumph of pure mercy. Such is the divine forgiveness in the form of an intercessory prayer that Jesus articulates on the Cross: “Father, forgive them, since they do not know what they do.” It is both a poignant prayer and a profound theological statement.

Martin Luther King notes, “Calvary is a telescope through which we look into the long vista of eternity, and see the love of God breaking forth into time.”

A legend known as the “fourth temptation” comes from slave communities in the ante-bellum American South which illustrates this blend of humility and love. According to this legend, after Jesus had emerged victoriously from his wilderness temptations; after living courageously throughout His ministry; after the apostles failed, enemies and friends conspired in crime; then, while Jesus was hanging in excruciating pain on the cross, the devil returned and whispered in his ear, “They aren’t worth it, Lord.”

It was then, according to the legend, that he was heard to say, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Sören Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian, declared that in removing from Christianity its ability to shock, it is altogether destroyed. It becomes a superficial thing, incapable of inflicting deep wounds or of healing them.

So we should be scandalized by the Cross.

Part of what is shocking to us about the Cross of Forgiveness is that God moves in irony: Jesus is slain as a criminal in the midst of criminals, yet he, an innocent, offers a prayer of forgiveness for his executioners. The righteous Innocent One suffers, though none of it is for his own actions.

There had to be a cross of Forgiveness—some meaningful dramatization of God’s will and way for persons in this world to live outside themselves. Without the cross of Forgiveness there would be no gospel. The cross of Forgiveness, as opposed to the cross of the Curse, was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks; neither had had a recent word from God.

On the way up the Via Dolorosa with the I-Beam of Curse on his back, Jesus controls history as he offers fulfillment of Scripture from Psalm 22 and from Isaiah 53:12, which reads:

12”Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

But on the Cross of Forgiveness, Jesus has already died to himself: by praying for those who cursed him, Jesus opens to us the Gospel of mercy. For this reason Good Friday is truly good, though a heinous day in humanity’s history of cursing others with shame and death. Good Friday is thus the pivot in Salvation history as the universal principle of humanity moves from Curse to Forgiveness.

Salvation is accomplished for us on Good Friday even though we don’t know it until Easter.

The existential view of the Cross of Forgiveness that I am proposing is thus that we need to die to ourselves in our response to Salvation: we need to give up our focus on our grudges and our self-assertive urges to curse others and instead live into the Cross of Forgiveness.

In this, then, we approach salvation as a gift from God. For it was God who suffered the Cross of Curse—and who suffered the Cross of Forgiveness.

For make no mistake, the Cross is a Cross of Suffering.

But it is Suffering swallowed up in victory!

It is the victory of forgiveness over curse. It is the victory of humility and love over selfishness. The Cross of Forgiveness is thus the manifestation of the triumph of God’s meekness; and isn’t that a scandal? For humans expect to be cursed by an assertive God and are met at Golgotha with God’s meekness. A scandal of the Cross is that God suffers, that God is meek, and yes, even, that God loves us so much as to give us the Word of the Cross.

Humans experience God’s humility and love reaching out to humanity in the expansive embrace of undeserved suffering. That embrace saves us from our ignorance and our propensity to curse others. Forgiveness is Jesus’ embrace. For this, thanks be to God.

[1] The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 23:32–34).