I did not preach today. But if I had, I would have preached something like this:
17 On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18 And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, 19 but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. 20 And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the man who was paralyzed— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 25 And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. 26 And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.” (Luke 5:17-26 ESV)
Early in Luke’s gospel, Jesus forgives the sins of a paralyzed man. And the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the scribes and the Pharisees, are scandalized. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
And Jesus, after forgiving the man who had been lifted down into his midst, turns to the scribes and the Pharisees and he says, “Which is easier to say? Your sins are forgiven, or get up and walk?” And he then commands the paralyzed man to get up and walk. And he does. He grabs his mat and he walks home, free, healed, whole, forgiven, praising God all the way.
It’s a miracle, this forgiveness. And it’s proclaimed long before Jesus is betrayed into the hands of the religious authorities, long before he is tried and tortured and executed by the Romans.
Long before our crucified Lord utters the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
We’ve heard this story for so long that we know how it ends. It bores us, this story of Gods’ Son incarnate in our midst, who forgives sins and performed miracles and taught with authority. We know it ends with forgiveness and resurrection. That ending no longer surprises us, no longer shocks, no longer amazes, no longer fills us with awe and wonder.
We yawn. Of course it ends that way, we say. We’ve told this story our whole lives. Our parents told it, and theirs, and theirs, and theirs, farther back than almost any of us can remember. We are the inheritors of a whole civilization — of law and order and power — built on that forgiveness, those miracles, that empty tomb, his commands to follow and make disciples.
Of course it ends that way. How else can it end?
We are entirely too complacent and self-satisfied about this story. We’ve told it so long we’ve forgotten what it really says and the power it really has. We’ve so focused on the civilization this story breathed into existence and its trappings, great and small, that we’ve lost sight of the story itself.
And in doing so, we’ve made forgiveness cheap. We’ve come to expect it. Even demand it. Of course God forgives us. That’s what God does. All is right with the world when those are wronged somehow forgive those who wrong them. After all, We’re the good and decent people God has forgiven. Whatever we confess with our lips, this — we are the good and decent people that God loves and forgives — that’s what we truly believe.
That’s how we truly live.
But we miss — we completely miss — the cost of that forgiveness. Jesus came into the world, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, and got nothing but heartache. “Only God can forgive,” say the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus heals the paralytic to show not that he can heal, but to show that he has been given the authority to forgive sins.
And for this, the scribes and the Pharisees and the Romans and the crowds eventually call for his death. And they kill him.
Because he forgives.
Even in the act of dying, of being murdered by the state and its brutal authority, Jesus proclaims forgiveness.
This is a costly forgiveness. Bought at a price. A bloody and brutal price.
And make no mistake, the hands covered in blood are ours. We have betrayed him, abandoned him, mocked him, called for his death. We have beaten him, flogged him, humiliated him, tortured him, compelled him to walk to his place of execution, nailed him to that cross, demanded he prove himself God and save himself. We followed and wailed and did nothing. We are not innocent. We are not good people. We have done all these things.
We do not deserve to be forgiven. We deserve a God who would smite us or drown us or reduce us to dust. God once looked upon a world full of wickedness, regretted that he had ever made humanity, and blotted out damn near every living thing on the face of the earth.
Yet, we are forgiven. The one who we have murdered — God as flesh in our midst, light from light, true God from true God — forgives us. We, who are killing him, are forgiven.
We do not deserve it. We are not good people. We are wicked and sinful, with murder and hate in our hearts. And we struck God dead. Because he spoke these words of forgiveness.
But we are forgiven. We, who betrayed, and abandoned, and killed him, we who ran and hid, we who gawked and did nothing, we are forgiven. We who are law and order and power are forgiven.
It is not cheap, this forgiveness. Because it strips bare any notion we are innocent. To be forgiven is to be reminded that we are judged and condemned. Remember that. It puts the lie to our favorite confession, that we are the good and decent people that God loves and forgives. We are not. Only one is innocent.
And we put him to death because of that.
No, we don’t deserve this forgiveness. And we should not expect it. Not given who we are. Not given what we do.
But we are forgiven. The God whose betrayal, arrest, torture, and murder we so readily arranged and took part in does not stay dead. And he comes to us — all of us — and says, “you are mine; follow me.” He shows his wounds, the wounds we eagerly inflicted upon him, and says, “I am risen. Do not doubt, but trust. Go and share the good news!”
The women and men who met the risen Lord, and lived into their forgiveness, who preached and taught and traveled, who lived and died this good news, built this civilization that so paradoxically allows us to forget who we are. What we did to God. And how God responds to us.
Sometimes, though, we are reminded. Sometimes events reach through the fog of law and custom and culture and force us to see who we are. To see who our suffering, crucified God is. And to remind us, really remind us, that for all our wretchedness, for all we have done, we are forgiven. We don’t deserve it. But we are forgiven.
Respond to that gift with awe and wonder. With grace and forgivness. Knowing how it was bought. Remembering the part you played in it, as one unworthy of the Lord you helped put to death. Forgive, as you are forgiven. Remember the cost, and forgive.
Love your enemies, and forgive them, remembering that Jesus speaks not of an abstraction, of people far away across the sea who may mean you harm. He spoke to a people who were conquered and occupied, whose enemies lived in their midst, commanding and compelling, beating, and raping, and killing. Who dealt with those enemies every day. Because, all too often, that’s what law and order and power means.
If you don’t see your enemies in your midst like that, then consider — you might be the enemy someone has to love, to be blessed when you curse, prayed for when you abuse, turned the other cheek to when you slap, handed both coat and tunic to when you demand. Consider this costly forgiveness, that it’s yours, given freely to you, and let it change who you are.
Let it change how you live.
Do not be the kind of person who needs to be met and resisted with this kind of love. Lay down your power and your privilege and live as someone God has called to truly inherit the earth. Live as someone Jesus speaks words of blessing to, and not woe. God is merciful and kind even to the ungrateful and the evil, makes the rain to fall upon the just and the unjust. It better, however, to be kind, to be just. To forgive, as you are forgiven.
So be merciful. You helped kill God, and you deserve to drown, to perish so utterly the world would never know you existed. And yet, he has come to you in your fear and terror and shown you his wounds and you have been given new life. You met him in the teaching of the word and the breaking of bread. He still claims you. You are still his.
You have been forgiven. So take up your mats. And walk.