The Prayer from the Cross

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A Sermon Delivered at Earlham School of Religion, Third Day, 2/26/2019

Friends: I invite you all to join me, during this hour, in a guided meditation on what might have been going through the mind of Jesus as He was hanging on the cross, waiting to die. Whether or not you accept Him as your personal Savior, a Divine Incarnation, or just a very good man who may or may not have risen from the dead, you are attached to a Christian theological seminary, and the world will expect you to have given this subject some thought. So I’m here today to help with that, though I claim no special knowledge.. Because of the solemnity of the topic, I’ve scheduled no hymn-singing. I will not be dwelling on the cruelty and injustice of the crucifixion, but if you think that discussing the subject at all may be harmful to your peace of mind or mental health, you may leave at any time, with my blessing.

We’ve been trained here to identify the social location we think from, and mine is one you can all see: multiply-privileged white-looking, straight-seeming, well-educated American male. But I pray that, during this gathering, the Holy Spirit, speaking though me, might transcend the limitations of our social locations so that I speak to the condition of everyone here. But I also discern a need to disclose my theological location in giving a talk like this, so here it is: I self-identify as a follower of Jesus Christ, whom I call Lord and Savior, in whom I now live, and who lives in me. I was raised a nonbeliever, and I’m only where I am now theologically because I believe I’ve heard Christ’s voice and felt His guidance. For data about the Crucifixion I rely on the Bible. I recognize that the four canonical gospels disagree among themselves about many details, and include some stories I find unbelievable, like the pericope about bandaged zombies coming out of their tombs at the moment of Jesus’ death (Matt 27:51-53). The part about the darkness at midday (Luke 23:44-45) may be a distorted memory of the lunar eclipse of 4/3/33 CE (not a solar eclipse, impossible during a full-moon festival like Passover).

I believe the gospels reveal a clear and consistent picture of Jesus to anyone who studies them. I have no use for alternate theories I’ve heard, that Jesus was “really” a political revolutionary, or the son of a human father other than Joseph, or a mistaken believer in an imminent apocalypse, or an India- trained disciple of yoga masters. It’s not that I want to quash such speculations, but any truth that there may be in them would add nothing to Jesus’ value to me. I do believe in His miracles, which is to say, in what we call “paranormal” powers over the natural world. I do believe in His bodily resurrection. Finally: if you don’t agree with my theology, that’s fine with me; I don’t think your salvation depends on it. Anyway, Christ may not want you to agree with me.

In any case, there was something about Jesus – His purity of intention, clarity of vision, integrity if not outright divinity – that made Him so different from the rest of us that it’s hard for us to imagine “being” Him, walking in His shoes and thinking His thoughts. But if we must, let’s start by asking His help: Lord Jesus, purify our hearts and enlighten our minds to fit us for this work, so that we might, if only for this hour, love in accord with Your heart and know in accord with Your mind. Amen.

I believe that what He was doing on the cross was praying for the salvation of the world. Yes, also suffering; yes, also dying; but surely His intention was to be praying, with all the concentration He could muster, for He was not one to waste time on futile activities. You and I might just go to pieces when nails went into our hands and feet, but Jesus would not, if He knew in His heart that being crucified was an essential work-assignment that He had to do right if He wanted the world saved. Now some writers have conjectured that crucifixion spelled the failure of His mission, but that simply cannot be, if His mission was to model the way of all-forgiving God. If your mission is to model the way of an all-forgiving God, you do it by being forgiving unto death (Luke 23:34), and a public death like Jesus’s, or like Stephen’s in the Book of Acts, gives you the chance to show the world that you mean it. That God is all-forgiving is surely good enough news to die for!

An all-forgiving God? Look at the Lord’s Prayer with me: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” After He teaches that prayer, He comments, “forgive all trespasses and yours will be forgiven; but withhold forgiveness and yours won’t be” (my paraphrase of Matt 6:14-15). Now would God ask us to be all-forgiving if God weren’t all-forgiving? (If God had predestined most sinners to eternal damnation and Jesus knew it, Jesus couldn’t and wouldn’t have taught this!. Take that, John Calvin!) The only barriers to forgiveness by God seem to be ones that we put up, (1) by trying to hide our sins from God, often by denial of needing forgiveness, or (2) by refusing to extend forgiveness by holding on to grudges. This is what the Fourth Gospel must mean by describing [all] condemnation as self-condemnation, a fleeing from the truth-revealing Light into all-hiding darkness (John 3:19-20), where God’s forgiveness, by our own decision, cannot reach. But to know that we can be freely forgiven all those things we’ve loathed ourselves for is a kindness of God that, as Paul notes (Rom 2:4), should make us want to repent them! Jesus illustrates the wild joy and generosity of the much-forgiven by pointing to the uninhibited exuberance of the sinner-woman at Simon the Leper’s banquet (Luke 7:36-50).

Now I framed this digression about Jesus’ gospel of an all-forgiving God within a speculation that Jesus was praying from the Cross for the salvation of the world, a prayer that presupposes an all-forgiving God. The whole creation yearns for salvation! The whole creation groans (Rom 8:22), all sentient beings groan along with humankind, groan from ignorance, impermanence, fear, pain, danger, and mortality, things we all long to be saved from whether we can express that longing or not. Jesus is twice hailed as the “Savior of the world” in the writings of John, and I believe that Jesus felt that love, repentance, and forgiveness, practiced universally enough among humanity, might indeed undo our ancient fall from Paradise and work the “reconciliation of all things” (Col 1:20). Love “hopes all things,” Paul wrote (1 Cor 13:7), and if the crucified Jesus saw Himself as called to a ministry of saving the world through love, then He would have been praying with all His heart for it. “One-pointed” as any adept of yoga ever was, Jesus would have been supremely accomplished at focusing His attention on one single point and keeping it there.

Imagine Him focusing it on His own heart as a radiating source of love. Is He distracted by the pain in His hands and feet? Then He is willing them to be radiating outlets of the love in His heart: He’s experienced, as we know, at willing through His hands, which have touched and healed many, and willing through His feet, which have walked on water. Is He distracted by irrelevant thoughts? He’s experienced at silencing them: “Peace; be still,” He’d said to the wind and the waves (Mark 4:39). “Get thee behind me, Satan,” He’d said to His tempters (Luke 4:8, Mark 8:33). Pain does not break His resolve! According to the gospel accounts of the crucifixion, He breaks His silence only for essential things: to pronounce forgiveness of His killers (Luke 23:34), to bless the repentant thief (Luke 23:43), to put His mother under the protection of the Beloved Disciple (John 19:26), and to beg relief from thirst (John 19:28). He cries out “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), signaling those “with ears to hear” that He is “fulfilling the scripture” of Psalm 22. He is also, perhaps, crying out as the Voice of All Creation to its Creator: “Restore us to the condition of Paradise!”

Jesus’ body may be in a state of shock as death approaches, with reduced blood pressure and possible hypothermia, so that He weaves in and out of consciousness, but I imagine that His will remains firm. Unprogrammed Friends are no doubt familiar with silences so deep that we seem to be fast asleep, except for the glimmering awareness that our abiding intention is to be at worship. Imagine, then, Jesus’ awareness thus reduced to just a bare, naked intention for the world’s salvation, before the final moment when He comes to, heaves a final sigh – “It is finished” – and gives up the ghost (John 19:30).

It is possible that His consciousness, during His hours on the cross, has expanded so far beyond the confines of His physical body, as egoless minds are said to be able to do, that He has allowed Himself to suffer the sufferings of all creation. This would allow Him to cry out the prayer of every suffering creature to God as with its own voice; – but of such a mystery I can have no knowledge, unless He reveals it to me and grants me a mind that can take it in. I only sense, by faith, that His is the perfect love that casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18); and that His prayer for us is one with the eternal blessing of the Creator, who pronounces the creation “very good” at its completion (Gen 1:31).

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