Summary: This is the first message in a Lenten Series on "The Seven Last Words of Christ." I also have information on appropriate dramas that can be used as an introduction to this and the other six messages in the series.
CROSS WORD ONE: THE FORGIVENESS THAT DOES NOT STOP
On Sunday, February 21, 1988, Jimmy Swaggart, “America’s leading television evangelist,” on national television and before his Baton Rouge congregation of 7,000, tearfully confessed to “moral failure.” A few days later I was driving to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis to make a hospital visitation. I happened to be listening to Ann Keith and Bruce Bradley’s afternoon talk radio program on KMOX. One caller called Ann and Bruce in relation to the Jimmy Swaggart scandal and said, “I am so tired of hearing Christians talk about forgiveness.”
The caller, Ann, and Bruce implied that Christians talk about forgiving anything: murder, rape, child abuse. Ann especially felt this provided guilty parties a license to accept no responsibility for their actions. She looked at forgiveness in terms of holding no accountable. Forgiveness is the heart and soul of the message of our Christian faith, and Jesus brings this truth home to us so well after outlining the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:14-5, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” You see, if you and I do not forgive those who wrong us, God will not forgive our sins. It’s that simple
Forgiveness is vitally important to Jesus; so important that it is the only petition in the entire Lord’s Prayer upon which He gives further commentary. Many words that our Lord speaks from the cross point directly to us, but this one truly hits home. It speaks to me where I am in my daily life and relationships.
These first words from the Cross show us that Jesus truly “practices what He preaches.” We remember His words from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:28, “But I say unto you, “Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Jesus is our example in forgiving those who despise us and persecute us. In commanding us to forgive, He expects no more from us than what He has done Himself.
Who are those people who despitefully use us? They include people who verbally attack us and people who falsely accuse us. Jesus was falsely accused of “blasphemy.” He prayed for those who falsely accused Him. The Roman Soldiers who are driving the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet abuse Him both physically and verbally. They stripped Him, trust the crown of thorns into his head, bowed before Him, and mockingly proclaimed, “Hail, King of the Jews.”
Jesus forgives those who despitefully used Him, and He expects His disciples to show the same love, compassion, and forgiveness. When I was pastor of Sumner and Beulah United Methodist Churches, both Olney and Red Hill High Schools had great girls basketball teams. Although most of our youth attended Red Hill High School, Rhonda Lathrop was on the Olney Team. Many of her UMYF sisters played for Red Hill. Rhonda is truly a modern day disciple of Jesus who forgave those who abused her. In one Olney-Red Hill game she was constantly attacked on the floor verbally including the use of filthy language, some actually coming from the lips of her UMYF “sisters in Christ.” Although deeply hurt, Rhonda forgave, smiled, and went on playing the game.
Today the sentiment of most people, including many Christians, is: “I can’t forgive; I won’t forgive.” One can not be a Christian and have such an attitude and spirit. We fulfill Romans 8:29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” We carry out I Peter 2:21, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in His steps.” Our destiny as disciples of Jesus is to be “conformed to His image,” to “follow in His steps.” Our calling is to forgive others as Jesus forgave on the cross. We are to follow His pattern and example. He forgave His murderers. He forgave those who humiliated and insulted Him. He forgave those who falsely accused Him. He forgave those who verbally and physically abused Him.
True disciples of Jesus have always followed the pattern of their Master. Remember Stephen, the first Christian martyr? His dying prayer in Acts 7:60 was, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Like Jesus, Stephen completely forgave those who murdered Him. He did not want God to hold this sin against them on Judgment Day. He was not vindictive. He did not want God to punish those who had wronged him.