“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”
Good Friday Sermon by Pastor Jane Jeuland
After the guards nail Jesus to the crossbeam, hoist him up to hang on a cross and die, I imagine them standing at the foot of the cross checking to make sure all has been done correctly. And as the guards look up at Jesus hanging on the cross, he does not yell at them or condemn them. He does not shout as he rightfully could have – I’ve done nothing wrong! – instead he look down at them and peer deep into their eyes and says, “father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
In my work as the Palliative Care Chaplain at Yale New Haven Hospital I meet with patients who are very ill and many of whom are nearing the end of their lives. Many, many people that I meet in this work talk with me about their past regrets and sins. One of the greatest struggles I see over and over again is that people cannot forgive themselves for what they have done.
Self-forgiveness is one of the toughest hurdles we can face as human beings. We tend to cling to our guilt and shame and become so stuck in it that our sin becomes our identity. We are not just someone who sinned, we are the sin. We are the addict, the liar, the cheater, the mean girl, the lazy boy, the angry one, the gossip. Our guilt can keep us so stuck in our sin that it becomes who we are and we are therefore incapable of growth, change, or renewal. If you are “the greedy kid” or “the backstabbing mom,”how can you become anything else?
This is where the enemy would like us to stay, over identified with our sin, full of guilt and weighed down by shame because then we cannot be reborn, we cannot create a new identity, a new life.
But notice that guilt and shame usually arrive after we have finished our sinful behavior. We sin and then later we realize what we have done. When we realize that we have done something wrong.. that is when we feel the guilt, remorse, shame, and embarrassment and that is when we seek God with a repentant heart. But Jesus does not wait until they leave Golgotha and begin to wonder if they have done the right thing. He does not wait to forgive them until they are seized by guilt days, weeks, or maybe even decades later.
Jesus looks at them standing at the foot of his cross wiping his blood off their hands… and right in the middle of their sinful behavior, he asks God to forgive them. Not when they are aware of what they have done and full of guilt and shame. No, in the moment of their sin when they “know not what they do” – that is when Jesus asks God to forgive them.
Paul writes, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Before you know the wrong that you have committed, before the guilt and shame set in, Jesus peers into your beautiful soul and says, “Father forgive Jane. She has no idea what she is doing right now.” “Father forgive Erika, she is unaware that she is sinning.”
John writes in his Gospel that Christ died for us not to condemn us, but to forgive us, to free us from our sins, to release us from our guilt and shame, to set us free from the captivity of our sin so that we can move on, grow, change, and be renewed. It is only when we are liberated from our sin, our guilt and our shame that we are able to live fully into who God made us to be.
So why is it so hard for us to forgive ourselves when we have gone astray. Many of the patients I have met with over the last 15 years of working as the palliative care chaplain have said, “I know that God has forgiven me, but I cannot forgive myself.” We know that Jesus has forgiven us so why can’t we forgive ourselves. Jesus has let go of our sin, so why can’t we let go of it.
Well in part I think we cannot let go of our sin, guilt, and shame because we think it is helpful and… it is to some extent. After all, it is only when we feel some sense of guilt or shame that we turn to God and ask for forgiveness. And guilt and shame can sometimes help us change and grow. That twinge of guilt can make us think twice before we cheat again. That deep shame in our gut can make us put down that drink. Some guilt and shame can be a strong motivator for change…
But when we over identify with our guilt and shame – that is when we get into trouble….When we get stuck in our sin, we can say that God is all forgiving, but we cannot forgive ourselves.
But Jesus did not die on the cross simply to show us God’s forgiveness, Jesus died on the cross to transform us out of death into life and to bring us out of darkness into light. Jesus died to give us new life that we might shed the guilt and shame of our sin and thereby be free to grow, learn, change, and become new.
God knows what you have done. He knows you fully and he loves you just the same. So friends, fellow sinners the best way to honor God on this day, in these solemn hours, is to forgive yourself just as Jesus has already forgiven you, to love yourself just as God loves you. Jesus has let go of your sin a long time ago. It is time for you to let go of it as well. So on this day step into God’s mercy, step into your freedom, allow yourself to grow and change and live like one who has been redeemed.