In the Passion of the Son of God there is a complete reversal of the reality of the world: guilty are declared forgiven, welcomed into grace, innocent willingly offer themselves as guilty for the sake of the guilty. In this we find the fullness of God’s being and grace.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Sunday of the Passion C; texts: Luke 22:14 – 23:56
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
There is something troubling about the way great tragedies are reported and discussed in our country. Frequently the words “innocent lives” are used when someone brings a gun into a school or a mall and indiscriminately shoots and kills, when a terrorist sets off a bomb, when any thing horrible is done by someone to someone else. After these tragedies it’s just as troubling that there seems to be a rush to know “why” the perpetrator did what they did, what is to blame: is it random, were they evil, were they abused, were they mentally ill?
The implication that we seem to live with is that some people deserve to die, and some people do not. There are “innocent” people who deserve all good, and “guilty” people who do not. Of course we’re not so crass as to state that boldly all the time. But in our words and actions we show this is our view. There were 27 who were killed by the shooter in Newtown, but only 26 bells were tolled on the Friday after the shooting, and 26 is the number of victims often listed. Somehow there wasn’t room to include in compassion and grief the mother of the shooter, who was the first to be killed. Again, most are too civilized to speak this aloud, but surely there is blame being laid at her feet, therefore she doesn’t fit our neat “innocent lives” group. And of course no bell would ever be considered for the shooter himself. Our artists have challenged us to reconsider all this, writers like J. R. R. Tolkien and Victor Hugo, for example, who have written great stories which open the question of who does and who doesn’t deserve to die, to be punished, beyond the simplistic frontier justice we seem so enamored of in our culture.
Today it is the evangelist Luke who challenges our prevailing attitude, so much so that he overturns our entire worldview, leaving it a shambles. In its place is a view of the gracious and awe-inspiring love of the Triune God for a world filled with guilty people, guilty people who get off, who avoid punishment. In its place is a view of the supreme Innocent One who takes all that guilt upon himself, though undeserving of it, and changes what it is to speak of “justice” for all time.
Luke shapes his story like none of his fellow evangelists when it comes to this reversal, for he repeatedly raises the question of innocence and guilt throughout his narrative.
Luke is the only one who tells us that Pilate repeatedly declared that there was no legal basis for a death sentence upon Jesus. John recounts this once, Matthew and Mark never. But Luke has three separate times where Pilate essentially makes a grand jury ruling, “there is no basis for this sentence, this charge.”
In addition, when Luke speaks of the two who were crucified with Jesus, he calls them, literally, “evildoers”. (Our translation renders this “criminals.”) Matthew and Mark say they were robbers, much less serious. John just says there were two.
Lastly, while Jesus is declared “not guilty” by Pilate three times, three times Luke refers to the two fellow accused as “evildoers,” criminals. And in case we didn’t pick up on this, only Luke tells us that the centurion who crucified Jesus declared his “innocence,” as NRSV translates it, and what he’s literally saying is that Jesus is “righteous,” “just,” dikaios.
There are therefore people dying on the cross in Luke who are guilty and deserve it. And there is one who is dying who absolutely doesn’t deserve it.
But that’s just the beginning. Just as critical as these declarations of guilt or innocence by the narrator, Pilate, or the centurion, there are the other startling declarations from the central figure himself, again found only in Luke’s account.
The first is the most powerful statement of the grace of God in the entire Gospel, and that’s saying something, for this is a Gospel rife with grace. Remember that Luke has told us from the beginning who Jesus is, the Son of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, anointed to bring the good news of the reign of God.
And as this Son, filled with the Spirit of God, is being nailed to the cross, he speaks to his Father, but not in hatred. He asks forgiveness for those who are killing him. “Father, forgive them,” he says. “They don’t know what they’re doing.” Think of the shattering implications of such an act, such a prayer, from such a person.
Then, again, only in Luke, when Jesus is being mocked, one of the evildoers also mocks him, only to be rebuked by his fellow evildoer. And here in a nutshell is all of Luke’s theological view of this crucifixion, this death. The evildoer says that he and his fellow have been “condemned justly,” they are getting what they deserve for their actions, and that is death. But this one, he says, “has done nothing wrong.”
We deserve to die. We have no cause for complaint. But this one is innocent. That’s the center of the crucifixion in Luke. But there’s a second, world-upturning declaration: the evildoer asks Jesus to remember him “when you come into your reign, your rule.”
Just “remember me,” that’s all he asks.
And without a question about deserving or undeserving, repentance or confession, without any question at all, the dying Son of God says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
So for the record, in addition to an innocent person dying without deserving it, we also have this innocent person offering the forgiveness of almighty God to those who killed him, and the welcome of almighty God to one who actually did deserve to be killed for his crimes.
It’s more than we ever could fully comprehend. And it changes everything.
What Luke forces us to reconsider by his telling of this story is literally everything we believe to be true about guilt, innocence, punishment, and grace.
This is consistent with the rest of his Gospel, and the book of Acts, but it’s no less difficult for that. The coming of the Son of the Father, filled with the Holy Spirit, is the beginning of the reign of God on this earth. The healing and teaching, the grace and welcome this eternal Son of God brings in Luke’s telling is a deep and abiding cause of joy for us as we read it.
But now we see this Righteous, Innocent One suffer and die. And the wicked, evil ones are forgiven for it. It offends our sense of justice, our sense of right and wrong. It sounds just like what happens in the parable of the Prodigal Father, and once again we find ourselves on the side of the elder brother and his outrage at this injustice.
That is, until we realize that we are the guilty ones. We are the ones who “know not” what we do. It doesn’t matter to Jesus if we see ourselves as the younger brother in his story or the elder brother. Because all the brothers in the world, all the sisters, are lost, broken, guilty.
Whether we can justify ourselves in our own minds as “innocent” or not is not relevant. Whether there are some who to our minds are clearly “guilty” is also not relevant. In the realm and reign of God, the Son of God came to seek and to find the lost. And then to celebrate.
And the sooner we admit our lostness, our guilt, our sinfulness, the quicker we understand and grasp the indescribably astonishing truth of God’s love for us. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus says about us. “They don’t know what they are doing.” Except when we do, and we say, “we are justly worthy of condemnation.” Then Jesus says to us, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
There are no loopholes. All are guilty. But Luke has left no loopholes in grace, either. All are loved and forgiven. That is our thing to ponder on this Passion Sunday, as we enter once more the gates of Holy Week. Everything is upside down, and no one gets what they deserve: not the innocent Son of God, not guilty humanity.
And so we go from here in wonder, with much to consider, much to think about.
If our lives are built around the idea that we get, or we should get, what we deserve, well, can we ever say we deserve all good from God, much less forgiveness?
And yet Luke says that’s the whole point of the Innocent One, the Son of God, offering his life. To declare all who are guilty innocent, free, loved. To start the party of celebration that those who were lost to God are now found, and the feasting in heaven may now begin.
This week will give us much more to consider. But with this as our hope, it will also give us the possibility of life now and always.
In the name of Jesus. Amen