But: ʻThey donʼt know what theyʼre doing?ʼ Really?
Itʼs not like Jesus to get something so wrong.
Maybe it would help it all go down a bit easier. Maybe it would help us hear Lukeʼs Gospel with a little less dis-ease.
Asking ʻwhere am I in the story?ʼ would be a lot less incriminating if we could just say:
ʻThey didnʼt know.ʼ
ʻThey didnʼt know what they were doing.ʼ
But they knew exactly what they were doing.
He was selling a friend out for money.
For thirty pieces of silver.
You canʼt get more straightforward than that. He waited to do it. He bided his time.
He chose the day and the time to walk out on the people whoʼd been his family.
And betray the person he loved.
Donʼt tell me he didnʼt know what he was doing.
He was afraid.
So he turned his back on all the promises heʼd ever made.
Maybe he didnʼt mean it the first time.
But it wasnʼt just the first time.
It was three times: ʻJesus? Whoʼs that? I donʼt know him.ʼ
Maybe it adds insult to injury, Jesus. Maybe it hurts you to think so, but Peter knew. He knew what he was doing. He was saving himself.
You canʼt tell me the religious leaders- the scribes and the elders and the Pharisees and the chief priests- didnʼt know.
Didnʼt know they were smearing another for their own gain.
Theyʼd been after him since he first sat down at the wrong dinner table. Since he first touched the wrong kind of person.
Since he first spoke to the wrong kind of woman.
Since he first healed on the wrong day of the week.
Theyʼd plotted for just this sort of thing. This is what they wanted. Theyʼd orchestrated the entire event.
They contrived the indictments against him.
They whipped the crowd into a lynch mob.
Surely, of all people, Jesus knows that.
Knows that they know what theyʼre doing, that they have no alibi and no excuses.
No right to forgiveness.
The soldiers knew.
They canʼt hide behind their uniform.
They canʼt say ʻwe were just following orders.ʼ
No one ordered them to blindfold him and punch him and tease: ʻYouʼre a prophet, guess who just hit you?ʼ
No one ordered them to put a Kingʼs robe on him and mock him.
No one told them to take the time to fashion a crown of thorns for his head, or
to roll dice for his bloodied clothes, or to carve and nail a contemptuously ironic sign above his head that said ʻKing of the Jews.ʼ
They just did it for laughs.
They knew what they were doing.
And certainly Pilate knew.
He was choosing expediency over responsibility.
He even washed his hands of the whole sordid matter.
Jesusʼ crucifixion was just a matter of course for him.
Jesus, for him, was just another peasant to make an example of.
His cross just one of hundreds that stood along the roadsides of Jerusalem. As a warning.
And so did the crowds gathered there that day to listen to his trial and watch him die.
Of all those gathered at his Cross only Mary and Mary and 1/12 of his disciples are weeping.
Everyone else is there to exult in his suffering.
To stare at the wreckage and feel a bit better about their own lives when compared to his fate.
Thereʼs no other reason for them to be there except that they know exactly what theyʼre doing.
Do you still want forgiveness for them, Jesus?
Everything Iʼve ever done, I knew what I was doing.
Every lie and half-truth ever told.
Every time Iʼve compromised my convictions just because that was the easier
thing to do.
Every person Iʼve hurt.
Every word spoken in anger.
Every good Iʼve taken for granted.
Every grudge Iʼve clung to and every decision Iʼve made based solely on
whatʼs best for me. Sure I knew.
Maybe I didnʼt always know what the outcome would be. Maybe I didnʼt always understand the consequences. Maybe I didnʼt always intend the damage done.
But I still knew what I was doing.
Jesus says to the Father: ʻ…forgive them, they donʼt know what theyʼre doing.ʼ
Last summer I spent a week with a group of Aldersgateʼs college students at a monastery in the French countryside. The monastery weekly welcomes thousands of Christians from around the world.
In many ways, the monastery is just what youʼd expect: monks in oatmeal- colored robes, chanting, simplicity and silence. We worshipped four times a day at the monastery, and most of the services were nearly identical in structure.
Except on Friday night, every week of every year, the monks celebrate Good Friday, the day of Jesusʼ death on the Cross.
Worship at the monastery is different in that the brothers donʼt explain or introduce anything- at best theyʼll flash a digitized song number on the wall.
Itʼs not like Christmas or Easter at Aldersgate where our instructions for communion take longer than the sacrament itself. The brothers just expect you to stumble along until you eventually fall into the rhythm of their worship.
That was true of their Good Friday service as well.
Most of the service was the same as all the others that week. We chanted songs like ʻIn the Lord Iʼll be Ever Thankfulʼ and ʻCome and Fill Our Hearts with Your Peace.ʼ There was 20-30 minutes of absolute, unguided silence.
But on Friday near the end of the service, as we were singing, the monks all stood up off their knees and shuffled down the aisle, stepping over all the people who were sitting on the floor. And for moment or two the brothers disappeared into a little room near the front of the sanctuary.
Just as everyone began to sing ʻJesus Remember Meʼ in French, the brothers reentered the sanctuary carrying a large cross on their shoulders. The cross was flat, about 6 feet tall and painted like a Medieval icon.
Because there were so many people crowded into the church and because we were sitting on the floor, I couldnʼt really see what they were doing with the cross. I saw them carry it into the middle of the sanctuary but then they dropped from my line of sight.
We kept singing ʻJesus Remember Meʼ over and over; the chanting was a constant ebb and flow, like the sanctuary itself was breathing in and out. After a few minutes I could see groups of people near the front of the sanctuary getting up off their knees and walking towards the middle of the room and forming a line.
It went on like that for a while. We must have sung 3 or 4 songs while a steady stream of people stood up and lined up, and still I didnʼt know and I couldnʼt see what it was they were doing.
Eventually the people around us started getting up and stepping over towards the line and so our group did too. I was only standing in line for a minute when everyone in line in front of me dropped down to their knees.
I still couldnʼt see what was going on. The aisle was twice as long as the one here at Aldersgate, and there were hundreds of people in front of me, all on their knees, inching forward on their knees every half-minute or so.
We were singing ʻWith God There is Fullness, Fullness and Joyʼ but we were singing it in German and I was tripping over the awkward melody and my knees were starting to ache and my back was cramping up and then after a very long time I could see.
The brothers had laid the cross flat on top of four terra cotta blocks so that it was about a foot off the floor. A dozen or so people were kneeling around the cross, bent over it with their foreheads pressed down against it. They were praying.
I crawled up to the cross when it was my turn.
I fit my shoulders in between two other people and I leaned over and I laid my forehead down on the cross, just about on the spot where Jesusʼ wounded side wouldʼve been.
The woman next me was praying ʻFather, Father Fatherʼ in desperate, pleading German.
A teenage boy on my left was sniffing and whispering ʻIʼm sorryʼ over and over in Spanish, and, with my shoulders touching his, I could feel his back heaving as he cried.
Everything Iʼve ever done, I knew what I was doing.
You know what I thought about that night, with my forehead pressed down against the cross? You know what hit me like a wound somewhere deep inside me?
That every lie Iʼd ever told, every insult or injury Iʼd ever done to someone I loved, every resentment, every angry word, every sin…that I hadnʼt just done it to the people I love, the people in my life…Iʼd done it to Him too. To God.
That every time I make a mess of my life, the person I hurt the most is the One who gave me that life.
And suffered for it.
Maybe it sounds strange for a pastor to confess, but I donʼt often think that way.
ʻForgive them,ʼ Jesus prays.
ʻThey donʼt know what theyʼre doing.ʼ
No, they know, but they donʼt GRASP what it is theyʼre doing.
Judas doesnʼt grasp that itʼs not just a friend heʼs betraying. Itʼs God. In the lesh.
Peter doesnʼt grasp thatʼs itʼs not just his rabbi heʼs denying. Itʼs his Lord. Pilate doesnʼt grasp that in the lowly criminal heʼs condemning all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Every one of them.
But they donʼt grasp-
That all the lies weʼre willing to tell.
All the betrayals weʼre willing to make.
All the promises weʼre willing to forget.
All the hypocrisy and violence and shame and cruelty weʼre willing to tolerate. That, when all is said and done, our true victim is God.
And heʼs the One praying for our forgiveness.
The woman at my right was pleading ʻFather, Father, Fatherʼ and the boy on my left was praying ʻIʼm sorry.ʼ
Meanwhile the words that came to me were Davidʼs words: ʻAgainst you, you only only Lord, have I sinned.ʼ
Words we pray on Ash Wednesday.
Words I donʼt think I ever really understood until I said them on my knees with my head pressed against Godʼs wounded side.
And the feelings those words conjured in me: Smallness. Shame. Guilt
But you know- when I got up off my knees, not one of those feelings came with me.
They stayed there. At the cross.
And I think thatʼs the paradox of the cross that only Christians can truly understand: that as much as the cross is confirmation of the very worst about us, itʼs that much more a sign of the goodness of God.
When I left the cross and found my place back on the sanctuary floor, the monks and the weekʼs pilgrims were all singing ʻWithin Our Darkest Night You Kindle a Fire that Never Dies.ʼ
And I can tell you- if I hadnʼt been a Christian already, I wouldʼve become one that night.