We come together today to remember how our Lord Jesus Christ was arrested, flogged, tortured and brutally executed in one of the most painful ways imaginable. And surely, as we think about the Good Friday story, we can have a real sense that on that day, God was truly one of us. God came among us and shared the experience that so many people go through in our world today – the experience of being a victim of oppression, violence and unjust death.
I prepared this sermon at the end of last week, a week in which we saw the gas attacks on Syrian civilians – including children – followed by the so-called U.S. ‘retaliation’, in which fifty-nine cruise missiles were used to destroy the Syrian airfield from which the attacks were launched. This is of course just the latest round in the long tale of violence and brutality in the story of Syria. Government and various rebel factions have been at odds for years, and the process of strike and counterstrike has been going on day by day, causing hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. And it’s set in the midst of a bigger picture: the tensions between Russia and the West, and the long history of western interventions in the Middle East, which don’t exactly have a good track record of achieving long term peace and stability.
It’s not my intention this morning to preach a political sermon. I simply want to point out that this is the world we live in, and it was the world Jesus lived in too. In our world (to use a slightly older example), Israeli gunships destroy a Hamas hideout and kill twelve people; the response is a suicide bombing in which fifty people are killed. You wipe out my village; I’ll respond by wiping out your city. In the world of international realpolitik, this is assumed to be the only safe and wise thing to do. People need to know that if they hit us, we’re going to hit them back, only harder. They kill our innocent people, we’re going to respond by killing innocent people on their side – except, we’ll kill twice as many. The response is more suicide bombings, more innocent people being killed, and so the cycle of violence goes on. Killing leads to more killing; retaliation leads to more retaliation.
Just occasionally, though, we get a glimpse of a different way.
In November 2005 a twelve-year old Palestinian boy, Ahmad Al Khatib, was mistakenly shot in the head by Israeli forces at a distance of 130 metres; it was later shown that he was carrying a toy gun that looked very realistic. His family, rather than crying for revenge, donated his organs to three Israeli children who were waiting for transplants. His father said that their decision was rooted in memories of Ahmad’s uncle, who had died at the age of 24 while waiting for a liver transplant, and that they hoped the donation would send a message of peace to both Israelis and Palestinians.
And so the unbelievable happened. Ahmad died of his wounds on Saturday November 5th 2005. On Sunday November 6th, three children underwent surgery to receive his lungs, heart, and liver. The father of 12-year-old Samah Gadban, who had been waiting five years for a heart, called the donation a “gesture of love.”
Ahmad’s father said he hoped to meet the recipients of his son’s organs. “The most important thing is that I see the person who received the organs, to see him alive”, he said. And so Samah Gadban’s father invited Khatib and his family to a party for Samah when she left the hospital. “I wanted to thank him and his family”, he said. “With their gift, I would like for them to think that my daughter is their daughter”.
My friend Rob Heath wrote a song about this incident; it includes these words:
His Dad said ‘If you want peace, somewhere it has to start.
With this my son has entered every Israeli heart’.
The army said they’re sorry, then braced for violence;
This time, unlike the others, there would be no revenge.
And the chorus goes,
Some people say with just one life
you can change the world.
What if they’re right?
What Ahmad al Khatib’s father was saying was “Somewhere the violence has to stop. If we want peace, someone at some point has to make the decision not to retaliate. I’m going to make that decision. The violence stops here”.
I believe that this is a central part of the meaning of the Good Friday story. Listen to these words of Paul from 2 Corinthians (I’m reading from the Common English Bible).
‘All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
Notice that little phrase, ‘not counting people’s sins against them’. In the conflicts going on around the world today, people are constantly counting one another’s sins against them, meeting violence with further violence again and again. Many of them believe that this is what God wants them to do. But it’s going on in families too. Someone does something despicable that hurts another member of the family; that person retaliates in word or deed, and so the conflict escalates. “Forgive? I can’t possibly forgive him! You just don’t understand how much he hurt me!” And so each party continues to hold the other party’s sins against them, and families are ripped apart, in some cases for generations.
Paul is telling us that this is not the way of the Christian gospel. The Christian gospel tells us that God longs for reconciliation with us, but God knows that there is only one way for that reconciliation to happen: at some point, someone has to choose not to retaliate. And so, in Christ, God chose not to retaliate; he didn’t count our sins against us, but chose to forgive instead.
We see this in Luke’s story of the crucifixion of Jesus. Luke wants to teach us that the cross of Jesus is the means by which we receive forgiveness of our sins, and so Luke tells the story in this way:
‘When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”’.
A few verses later we read these words:
‘One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong”. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”’ (Luke 23:32-33, 39-43).
Earlier in his life, Jesus had said these words to his disciples:
“But I 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 you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them… But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-28, 32, 35-36).
Now Jesus had an opportunity to put his own teaching into practice. In the garden of Gethsemane, when he was arrested, Peter took out a sword and used it to defend Jesus, cutting off the ear of a servant of the high priest, but Jesus rebuked him and said, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). He then allowed himself to be arrested and taken to the house of the high priest, where he was condemned to die. When the Roman soldiers drove the spikes through his wrists and hauled him up, nailed to the crossbar of the cross, he didn’t respond with curses and abuse, but prayed that they would be forgiven. And when one of the insurrectionists who were crucified with him turned to him in faith, Jesus assured him of eternal life as they hung on their crosses together.
Like the father of young Ahmad al Khatib, Jesus was saying, “No more! The hatred stops here!” And so he loved his enemies, did good to those who hated him, and blessed those who cursed him. He imitated his heavenly Father, who pours out his sun and rain on the good and bad alike; Jesus was merciful, just as his Father in heaven is merciful.
But there’s more to it than that. Paul tells us that ‘God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them’ (2 Corinthians 5:19). Christians believe that Jesus is not just a good man or a great religious teacher; we believe he is the Son of God, and so God has come to live among us in him. What is the nature of this God? Surely the cross tells us he is a God who loves his enemies. The Jewish people who handed him over to death – Pontius Pilate who allowed an injustice to be done to him rather than standing up for what was right - the Roman soldiers who crucified him – they stand for all of us. God himself came to live among us, full of love and truth, but we found his love to be too much of a nuisance and a challenge, and so we rejected him and nailed him to a cross. But the Good News is that God rejected our rejection. God didn’t respond to our outrageous murder of his Son by blasting us all to hell with thunderbolts, or by sending twelve legions of angels to rescue Jesus and kill his murderers. What God said to us, in effect, was “You can kill me, but the one thing you can never kill is my love for you”.
What is our response to this amazing gift of love and forgiveness?
Some people, like the first man who died with Jesus, continue to reject him. They can’t accept that this man is anything more than a failed prophet. They can’t believe that this way of accepting death on a cross is a victory over evil; it looks far more like a defeat to them. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, ‘The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’, and ‘we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). But he goes on to say, ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (25); ‘to us who are being saved’, he says, ‘(the cross) is the power of God’ (18b).
And so, like the second man who died with Jesus, we turn to him in faith, we admit that we have sinned, and we ask for forgiveness and assurance of eternal life. Luke tells us that if we do this, Jesus will gladly give us what we ask for; “Today, you will be with me in paradise”. God offers forgiveness freely to everyone; however, we have to accept that forgiveness – we have to personally appropriate it – because God will not force himself on anyone.
And one more thing: we also are called to walk in the way of the Cross, loving those who hate us, doing good to those who persecute us. As has been done for us, so we must do for others. Towards the end of his life, Peter wrote these words:
‘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. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth”. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’ (1 Peter 2:21-25).
In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us. The Cross of Jesus is like a great cosmic black hole, sucking up all the anger and rage and rejection and violence that we have ever hurled at God, and letting nothing return – nothing but love. So let’s thank God for the gift Jesus has given us on that Cross. And let’s also pray for the strength to follow the way of the Cross ourselves, which is the path he has set before us.