The Sacrifice of Forgiveness (The First Word)

Rev. Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.

Seven Words: “The First Word- The Sacrifice of Forgiveness”

Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, April 10, 2020

This sermon has been transcribed from live video. 

It is a delight and privilege to be with you today at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church’s observation of the Holy Day of Good Friday. And it breaks my heart that I cannot be with you in person and to see you face to face. And please know that everyone in my congregation is praying for everyone in your congregation. And we are so blessed to have a relationship with you in which we close the distance between the cities and the suburbs of metro Detroit.

I’ve been given the great privilege of being here with you for the past five years, and today I’ve decided that I was going to do a little bit of a change. I’m going to show you some art because doing a recorded sermon is not quite the same, but it gives me certain permissions. And so I go with the hope of forgiveness. And that’s a good thing to go with, because my task is to give the sermon on the first word. And the first word is this:

“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.”

The sermon I’ll be preaching for you today is called The Sacrifice of Forgiveness. I speak to you today as a sinner to sinners, as the beloved of God to God’s beloved, as one called to bear witness to those called to bear witness.

As I mentioned, I wanted to begin with this incredible painting that I’ve blown up for you. It’s by the Italian artist known to us as Titian. He painted it sometime between 1575 and 1576. It was the last work he did before he died. And Titian wanted to have this painting hung over his graveside. And Titian was living in Venice at the time and there was a plague that had affected the city. Titian himself and his son died of the plague, and so this painting is meant to be a kind of painting that speaks to his own social location, to the place where he finds himself, to a place of plague.

And it seemed incredibly important for me to bring this painting before you as the first image for you to conjure up in your mind, to remind ourselves that we have all been here before. The church universal, the church throughout history, we have been in times of plague before. And even more important for me in this painting is the fact that Titian depicts the Christ figure here as if He is suffering from the plague, as if He is a victim of the plague. Doctors would note that His skin is a whitish color, which is what happened to the people as they died of bubonic plague.

Jesus doesn’t have any other wounds in His body, but he is obviously sick and almost feverish. And Mary is holding him like she does in many other depictions of Mary holding Jesus in the Western canon. But instead of holding Jesus closely, as Mary often does in these other depictions, Mary is holding Jesus at arm’s length. She is terrified to hold Him and, yet, she must hold Him.

And Mary Magdalene is moving in and out of the frame. And she is in some ways the most dynamic figure in the painting because she is almost in mid-stride, you catch her, and she’s meant to convey to you, the viewer, the anxiety of living through a plague. And over here we have actually Titian himself. This is what he looked like. He’s dressed in a more ceremonial robe rather than his normal clothes. And he’s imploring Christ for mercy. So Titian, who is suffering from the plague, is praying to a Christ who has died from the plague and he’s asking for mercy. This is Titian’s own way of somehow commenting on that incredible line from Isaiah, 53, “Surely he has borne our diseases.”

And so Titian is finding in the Christ figure, in Jesus Christ himself, a kind of person who has come into this world to somehow take the disease that is killing him away from him and to set him free. This is Titian’s last painting. This is Titian’s last prayer, and it seems to me that this is an image that can help set in place all of what we’re going to be going through in these incredible sermons of the seven last words of Christ.

We are also living in a time of pandemic and a time of plague and a time of disease, and many of us have experienced some of the unfairness and inequality that happens when certain people are struck down in the midst of their lives. In the prime of their lives, when they have so much to give and so much to live for.

And we all know what it’s like to have some of the terror that Mary and Mary Magdalene have, the kind of anxiety that’s running through us, and we probably also know what it’s like to kneel before Christ and implore him to ask for mercy. And the good news that is coming to us today is that the Jesus that we are praying to, the Jesus who is dying for us on Good Friday, the Jesus who is our Lord and Savior, that Jesus has borne our diseases, surely He has borne our diseases. Surely Christ bears the disease of humanity so that we might be made well through His resurrection.

And so Good Friday is a holy day, it’s a day of transformation. Because on Good Friday, we bring to mind all the things that’s besetting us, all the sins that weigh us down. All the anxieties that make us crazy, all the things that make us apprehensive and fearful for ourselves and our world. And we come before the Cross of Christ knowing that Christ in His glory and Christ in His grace has come into this world to bear all of our sins and all of our griefs so that we can somehow be set free. So that we can by placing our prayers upon him, there is a kind of movement in which Jesus takes on those prayers and anxieties behind them, the diseases behind them, the sickness is behind them, the sin that is behind them. Because notice in the painting that Titian’s skin though at this time he was afflicted with the plague. Titian’s skin is healthy. Jesus’s skin is now bearing the marks of the plague. And that is the good news that we’ll be winding our words around all through these wonderful videos.

Now, the word I’ve been given to speak to you today is the first word, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing.” And I have chosen to call this sermon the sacrifice for forgiveness, because when Jesus utters from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing,” Jesus is actually taking forgiveness and moving it into the whole economy of sacrifice for us, the whole economy of grace that you and I are experiencing in this painting and on this day, the whole economy of grace that allows us to stand when we are shaking in our shoes and allows us to have courage, even though we are filled with fear. And allows us to have joy, even though we are in the midst of mourning.

So when Jesus brings in that forgiveness, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” Jesus is moving the act of forgiveness into the realm of infinite sacrifice. Because when Jesus forgave, He engaged in an amazing gift. He was imploring His father in Heaven to show mercy upon us who put Him to death every day when we are deaf to His cry and call to mercy and justice. You and I need forgiveness and Jesus on the Cross implores His father and asks for forgiveness for us.

And you and I find ourselves today at the foot of that Cross in our hearts and in our spirits, you and I have the chance, an opportunity to actually step into that economy of forgiveness. People can talk about forgiveness in different ways. There are psychologists that will tell you that to forgive is the most important thing for you to do for your own good. Because when you don’t forgive, you let resentments take over your life. And there’s an old saying that burying a resentment toward someone is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. And so there are psychologists who will tell us that forgiving is a good thing to do, it’s good for you. It’s what you should do.

And there are some people who believe that forgiveness is one of the kinds of virtues that we need in our society, that somehow being in forgiveness, having some grace in our society, that is something that makes human life possible, that makes collective life possible. And certainly one of the things that is lacking in our political community today is we have lost grace. We have lost the ability to forgive. We are maybe at this moment, faced with a life threatening disease, able to somehow compromise. But make no mistake, forgiveness seems to have drained out of the pool of our political life.

And even more, there are some who will say that forgiveness is incredibly important when we’re faced, even in the midst of human atrocities, when someone robs us of our lives or robs us of our dignity or wounds us horribly, that the way that we forgive is we have a kind of revenge that comes by demonstrating what it means to be fully human, to somehow show the person who has oppressed us, the person who has wounded us, the person who has hurt us that they are not the definition of what it means to be human. That forgiving someone and growing in grace and rebounding and healing from our wounds, that that is what forgiveness means.

So there are people who will tell you that we should forgive for psychological reasons. There are people who will tell you that we should forgive for political reasons. There are people who will tell you that we should forgive if we want to somehow move forward together as a nation and as a world and somehow step into a new future that God has prepared for us in which forgiveness reigns.

But I want to say to you that all of those reasons for forgiveness, while powerful and true, do not compare to the forgiveness God has shown us in Christ. Because when Jesus offers that gift of forgiveness, he does so in the midst of giving the gift of His life. And Jesus offers that forgiveness without any expectation of return, without any sense that there would be any mutuality for Him that day, without any sense that somehow His forgiveness would somehow change the course of history. He gave it because it was His prayer. And He gave it fully as a human being as much as He gave it fully as the Son of God. Forgiveness on the Cross was a gift. It was like the death Jesus gave on the Cross, it was a sacrifice, a making holy, a sacraficium, to pull from the Latin roots of sacrifice. So on the Cross, Jesus gave the gift of forgiveness. And you and I know the feeling of that infinite love that inspired it the minute we find in our lives the ability to forgive.

Years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who was struggling with his father and his father was never there for him. He left the family and left them alone for years. He was inattentive, he was unsupportive and he was in many ways just ashamed of that little family. And he had to find a way to forgive his father. And so on Father’s Day, when he should have been spending time with his own family, he went and took his father to a baseball game and spent some money on him and spent some time with him and gave thanks to him for being the father. he could be, the imperfect, limited father that he could be.

And when my friend told me that story, I suddenly was brought to a place where I remembered a moment in which I had to forgive my own father. When my father, who had had a secret life for years and years and years, had another woman, had another apartment, had another life than my family. And when I realized that the only way I would be free to be his son would be to forgive. So I can bear witness to forgiveness, it’s difficult. It’s painful. It’s something that is incredibly hard for us to do. But when it becomes a gift, when it comes is something in which we give it as our own way of somehow going with the grain of the love that Christ shows us on Good Friday, somehow that forgiveness has a way of changing lives.

It’s changed my life. I hope it can change yours. I hope this day is an opportunity for you to step into the grace and know that you have a Lord and Savior who is bearing our diseases, that you would know that you have a Lord and Savior who is willing to die for you so that you might live in grace. I hope that you would know that Christ loves you through and through, which is why He was willing to have His face spit on and nails nailed through His palms for you and me. And I hope that you know the peace and love of this day. And I hope that that peace and love flows through you when you find your own way to the sacrifice of forgiveness.

God bless you. Thank you.