A sermon given at Evensong on Sunday 3 April by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
This evening we gather for the final sermon in our Lenten series exploring the theme of reconciliation. Our first reading is taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians and is known as the Colossians Hymn. Paul writes, “ In him all things in heaven and on earth were created, … in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
We might imagine St Paul writing to the people of Colossae and wanting to make a point very clear, remembering some words that the people know well, quoting from a hymn that is sung in the liturgies of the early church. We might imagine ourselves writing to a friend or a group of friends and wanting to emphasise some aspect of God and the ways of God, quoting from a creed or one of our dearly loved hymns, words we know so well. What we glean from this is that these words are deeply important, are profound theology. These words tell us about God and deserve our attention.
The Colossians Hymn has words in it that are repeated and this matters. The words “all things” occur five times, “in him all things in heaven and earth were created, … All things were created through him and for him. He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together. …Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things … making peace through the blood of his cross.” One scholar wrote that the words “all things” ring like a bell through the Colossians Hymn, ring like a bell calling our attention to their significance, not allowing us to forget their presence. God’s creation and God’s reconciliation in Christ is for all people, all living things, the planet, everything there is. Were we preaching for the healing of our planet this evening, were we grieving for the extinction of species loved by God, were we praying for peace amongst all people on the earth, this hymn reminds us that every aspect of creation is made, loved and reconciled to God in Christ. And it is in Christ that the creation and reconciliation are found.
It is a precious thing that we find ourselves in our second reading reflecting on Luke’s account of Jesus’ Passion. Our lectionary gives us to read through the Sundays at Choral Evensong the Passion from the Gospel of the Year, this year Luke’s Gospel. That Passion will be read in its entirety on Palm Sunday in the morning and The Passion from the Gospel according to St. John will be read on Good Friday. It is as if the compilers of the lectionary know that we need to hear the story of Jesus’ Passion read and re-read, read at night, read in the morning, read over years throughout our lives, that we have woven into our minds and our hearts the story of God’s redeeming work in Christ.
When we spend time reflecting on Jesus’ Crucifixion, we find him speaking seven words, his “Seven Last Words” as they are sometimes known, different words found in different gospels. We hear his cry of dereliction, we hear his words of care for his mother, we hear his final words of trust in his Father, God, as he commits his spirit into his Father’s hands. It is only in the Gospel according to St Luke that we hear Jesus’ words of forgiveness to those who have nailed him to his cross, “Father,” he says looking at his executors, “forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus looks at the ones who nailed him to his cross and in all the physical and spiritual pain that surround him, he utters these words of forgiveness.
It is in these words, I believe, that we hear, we see God’s reconciliation of all things in Christ. It is very important that we are clear what is not happening here. Jesus is not placating an angry Father God who needs a death to take away the world’s sin. This is not what is meant when we say Jesus died to take away the sins of the world. This is not some exchange of virtue in the heavenly realm. When Jesus cries out to God on the cross, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” there is, I believe, anguish in the life of God. God suffers Jesus’ death as Jesus suffers in his death, God the Father suffers as any parent would suffer watching the death of their child to violence. No the reconciliation of all things in Christ, to use the words of the Letter to the Colossians, is found in Jesus’ words to those who executed him. “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
There are two parts to these words. The longing for forgiveness and the truth of those who stood before him. As always, with scripture, we are given insight into who God is and insight into who we are. Jesus always dealt with the truth, remember. And he named the truth for the soldiers, for those who fled, for Judas and Peter and the whole lot of them, … he names in these words the truth of us. The truth is they did not know what they were doing. Crowds never do. Soldiers rarely do, and, at times, we might wonder, do we?
Jesus looks at the soldiers, at the bystanders, into the distance at those who have deserted him and says, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
This was, of course an event in time and space. A dying man speaking words at a particular time, in a particular place, forgiving particular people. But it was more than that. As the veil of the temple is torn in two at the death of Jesus, his words send shock waves through all creation, waves of forgiveness and reconciliation for all time and in every place.
When Jesus rose from the dead, when he appeared to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, when he appeared to the frightened disciples in the upper room, when he spoke with Thomas who refused to believe if he couldn’t put his hands in the marks of the nails and his hands in the marks of the spear in his side, he, Jesus, appeared with the marks of the nails in his hands and with the mark of the spear in his side. The risen Jesus was the crucified and risen Jesus. He was the victim of a violent political killing and in the midst of it he forgave those who did it. He was, to use the theologian James’ Alison’s words “a forgiving victim.”
James Alison explores the reconciliation brought to creation in Jesus’ death and resurrection in his book “Knowing Jesus”. He writes, “The whole process of Jesus’ life was not simply a story of a lynching, but the story of a man who acted in freedom in certain ways which he knew would lead to his being killed. …the free self giving of Jesus … was the hallmark of his mission. …Jesus illustrated the depths of that free self-giving at his last supper. (This is the blood of my covenant poured out for many.)…This is how Jesus was present among his disciples. It was that presence that was made alive in the resurrection, when the crucified and risen Lord was the making alive of the self-giving victim as forgiveness for all victimizers.”
In Jesus, was, is, the presence of the forgiving victim. What is most important to remember is that the risen Jesus had the marks of the nails in his hands and the mark of the spear in his side. This Jesus is the one who died forgiving. And this forgiving presence encountered the disciples in the days after his resurrection, speaking words of peace. This Jesus encountered Peter by the fire of coals and washed away the words of denial he spoke beside another fire of coals in the courtyard of the temple police, this Jesus sent his spirit at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit was the spirit of the one who died forgiving, the spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus, and this spirit lives with us now, reconciling all things to God.
“ In [Christ] all things in heaven and on earth were created, … and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, … by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
“Father forgive them,” Jesus says, facing human violence, human sin, across all time and place, “for they do not know what they are doing.”
 James Alison Knowing Jesus pp80-1.