I wonder if anybody here has heard of Juanita, the virgin of Mount Ampato in Peru?
We don’t actually know Juanita’s real name – she was christened Juanita by the archaeologists who discovered her frozen body, more than five centuries after she died. There’s a certain poignancy, I think, in every archaeological dig, the sense of intrusion on the domestic lives of people long dead, of eavesdropping on the private details of lives lived long before men and women ever dreamed that such a thing was possible. But this find, back in 1995, was especially heartbreaking, the perfectly preserved body of a 12 year old girl, the right side of her temple crushed by a single blow from a spiked club, her brain pressed to the left side of the skull. There were no other indications of violence or mistreatment, the child was well-fed and it seemed she had trekked for a number of weeks and climbed over six thousand metres to reach the mountain top on which she met her end. She had been buried according to the rituals of her people with dignity and honour. This Inca girl was a five hundred year old human sacrifice who had been carefully prepared to die for her people, a willing victim to appease the angry god of the mountain volcano.
Does it make you angry to think of this? Does it sadden you to think of a people who believed in such an angry god, a god who they believed periodically hurled lava and hot ash at them and who could only be satisfied by the provision of a scapegoat? Or do you, perhaps, also believe in a god like this? A cranky god who’s had enough of you, and me, and everybody like us who just doesn’t measure up. A god who keeps a track of your sins – sins of omission and sins of commission, the ugliness of envy, the trickiness of deceit, all the times you were selfish, or lustful, the times you wished someone else harm, the times you used someone else as a means to an end, sins mortal, cardinal and deadly – a god who sees right through you and who is just in the middle of thinking up some particularly nasty eternal punishment for you – when Jesus offers to take the rap instead.
Today, of all days in the Christian calendar, we need to reflect very carefully on just what sort of God we believe in. Believe it or not, this nasty caricature of a god that I’ve just described is still officially on the books in many parts of the Christian Church, certainly something like this is still the subconscious image of God that many Christians carry around with them – a violent, rejecting image of God that makes God’s people, in turn, rejecting, guilt-ridden and unloving. Someone has to pay the price of sin, in this scheme of things. Just thank God it isn’t us. Thank God it’s Friday!
Except, what if God isn’t like that? What if God isn’t interested in squaring up the cosmic balance sheet? What if God is more like the father in the story that Jesus told who comes running to meet the son who had ripped him off and abandoned him, who having sunk to rock-bottom decides to try wheedling his way back into his father’s good books? Not because he’s sorry about how he treated his father, but because he’s sorry for himself. What if God is more like that father who doesn’t even mention his son’s misdemeanours, who is just overjoyed to have his boy back and who dresses him up in the finest clothes and throws a party for him? The foolish father who loves too much and allows himself to get hurt? What if God is more like that?
Because two of the words Jesus speaks from the cross show us, I think, that sort of God. According to the tradition, putting together all of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion, Jesus speaks seven times after he’s nailed to the cross. Preachers on Good Friday often focus on these seven sayings, the so-called seven last words – today I just want to talk about two of them.
And the first one is this. As soon as the soldiers have crucified Jesus – an inevitable consequence, really, for a prophet who insists on talking about freedom and forgiveness in a world of political and religious oppression – as soon as Jesus is hoisted up there, according to Luke’s gospel, he prays to the one who, as he always has in his life, he addresses as ‘Father’. ‘Father, forgive them’, he prays. ‘They don’t know what they are doing.’
He isn’t talking to us, to his disciples, to the soldiers themselves, to any of the bystanders at the foot of the cross. Instead, we are overhearing a private conversation, a conversation between the Son and the Father, deep within the heart of God. And Jesus, rejected and pushed aside onto the cross, asks God to forgive those who have refused to listen and be changed by his gospel of forgiveness and love.
Actually, I wonder whether I really know what I’m doing most of the time. It seems to me I’ve spent most of my life trying to work it out. I think about stuff, and sometimes I pray about it, and then I act impulsively, hoping for the best, hoping somebody else knows what they are doing, following the rules because at least then if it all goes wrong I can’t get into any trouble. Remember the temptation in the mythical account of the Garden of Eden – eat this and then you’ll know what’s going on – you’ll be able to tell good from evil – well, that’s what human beings have always wanted, to know what the heck’s going on, but the story tells us Adam and Eve ate from the tree and all they saw clearly was their own nakedness, their own vulnerability. Deep down we still don’t know what we’re doing.
You think if you follow Jesus you’ll get a bit of moral certainty? Except remember the pointed little story at the end of Matthew’s gospel, the one about the end of time and the judgement? And the “good” ones, the sheep, are congratulated for getting it right – you visited me when I was in gaol, and you gave me water when I was thirsty, and they say, ‘what?’. And the unlucky ones, the goats, are told off because ‘I was in gaol and you didn’t visit me – I was hungry and thirsty and you didn’t help me’, and they say, ‘what?’. Jesus disciples follow him for years and they never work it out. We don’t know what we’re doing, either. We spend most of the time oblivious to the moral effects of the way we live.
Maybe you remember, in the aftermath of the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, people writing letters to the editor saying, ‘how could God?’ – or ‘where the heck was God?’ ‘God’s got some explaining to do if he wants us to believe in him from now on.’ Except from the perspective of history it’s not really tsunamis that are the problem, it’s human violence, human self-centred-ness, it’s our preoccupation with our own lifestyle at the expense of the two-thirds world who wonder how they can even earn a basic living, or at the expense of the wasting the resources or upsetting the balance of God’s creation. How typical, how self-centred of us to think the issue is whether we should condescend to believe in God.
And the first thing Jesus prays on the cross – this is the inner being of God on display here – Jesus prays, ‘Father, forgive them. They haven’t got a clue’.
It’s a funny thing, forgiveness. When I’m talking to people about it I usually tell them that understanding has to happen first. That the one who has caused the hurt needs to acknowledge and understand what they have done, that there needs to be some attempt at putting right, then forgiveness can heal the relationship – but God, forever vulnerable and pushed aside by human priorities, ending up inevitably on the cross – God hasn’t read my fancy psychology textbooks – God forgives – too soon, unconditionally, pre-emptively and foolishly. You know what, God? We’ll only do it again. We’ll only push you onto a cross again. But God does what God always does – reaches out in love, regardless.
And the second word that tells us what God is like? Again, it’s from Luke’s gospel and one of the two who are crucified with Jesus – Luke calls them thieves but in Matthew’s Gospel the Greek word is lestoi, which means brigands, freedom fighters or terrorists, depending whose side you’re on – one of these violent men who have lived by questionable means and for questionable ends – one of these says to Jesus, ‘remember me, when you come into your kingdom’. The lestoi, you see, are like us – men and women of compromise, of divided loyalties and murky ethics. We believed in something once, maybe back in the 70s, but we think we might have sold out. We’re not quite sure what we’re living for, any more, and when we face eternity we’re not quite sure where we stand. ‘Remember us’, we ask, and it means, literally, ‘re – member us – make us belong again, put us back together again’ – and Jesus says, ‘today’ – not tomorrow, not after we die, if you’re lucky – but, ‘today, you will be with me’ – ‘your life has meaning and power and beauty through me and in me – today, you will be in paradise with me’.
Thank God it’s Friday.