There are saints of the Church whose life and words have healed many wounded souls and guided multitudes safely to heaven’s shore. Perhaps in the world to come they are the equivalent of Medal of Honor winners in spiritual warfare or Nobel Prize recipients for eternal peacemaking. Too often, however, in this world their good name and inspirational words are interred with their bones. This ought not be the case — especially for Rev. Hoefler.
In 1983 the late Reverend Dr. Richard Carl Hoefler (1922-1999), a distinguished Professor of Worship and Preaching at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (LTSS) and Dean of the Chapel, published a series of Lenten reflections titled At Noon On Friday.
As I have experienced spiritual unrest from the conflicts in my home denomination, I have turned back to Dr. Hoefler’s writing and a memory of the one chance encounter we had in the early 1990’s. Here, I again find my center in Christ.
This particular publication has been out of print for almost forty years. I have an old public domain Rich Text format version that was downloaded from the LTSS website in the late 90’s. Today, when I searched the LTSS website for Carl Hoefler it returned “No Results.” Oh, how far that is from the truth of his life or his service to that seminary. I cannot locate a source anywhere to direct you for a repositoryof his work. Last year, just before Lent, I contacted the last known publisher many times expressing my desire and intent to post portions of these sermons and asked if they had any reason to object. I never received a response.
It is unfortunate that no one finds it financially profitable to reproduce this collection which is of great value to the saints. Each Monday in Lent I intend, God willing, to offer on this site one of the seven reflections of Dr. Hoefler from the fair use electronic version. The sermons are timeless. They are as fresh as the azalea blossoms out my window and as ancient as Zacheis’ sycamore.
Keith Sweat, 04 March, 2019
The First Word
There were also two others, malefactors, led with him to be put to death. And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. Then said Jesus, Father forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots. (Luke 23:32-34)
THE MIRACLE OF FORGIVENESS
It is Friday noon. Time for lunch. Most people in cities and towns across our country are leaving their offices and work benches to go to fast food drive-ins or classy restaurants. Housewives are in their kitchens. School children head for the cafeteria. But we have chosen to come to church. And we have come here to remember, to meditate on the Seven Last Words our Lord spoke as he hung crucified.
Strange, isn’t it? You would think this is something we would want to forget — not remember. For here dramatized before our eyes is the most brutal, horrible — the most ignoble event in human history.
The details are repulsive — the ringing blow of the hammer as it strikes spikes driven into the warm flesh of quivering hands and feet. Rivulets of blood trickle down the sides of the cross. But above and beyond the hideous inhumanity of this deed is the injustice of it all. This strong young body suffering in agony, hanging naked before the insults of a mob, is not guilty but innocent.
All creation seems to shout in protest. The horizons darken. The thunder crashes. The lightning rips open the skies, and rain floods forth like tears from heaven.
Strange, isn’t it, that year after year we gather together at noon on a Friday we ca!l “Good” to recall the haunting horror of it all. Is there something sadistic about the very nature of the Christian faith that would cause us to worship and adore a crucified Christ? No! Just the opposite. We find glory and joy in this gory deed. For in the murder of this young man, God performs miracles of new life for and in us. Seven words spoken from the cross — creation turns on its axis and a new kingdom is born.
The first word from the cross is forgiveness. Christ cries out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Who are the “them” our Lord refers to? Who are the ones responsible for crucifying this young Jew from Nazareth?
The priests were there — the religious leaders of the established church of that day. The Sadducees and Scribes were there — the intellectuals, the scholars, the seminary professors. Pilate was there — the patriot, the loyal Roman, the ambitious politician wanting peace at any price. The soldiers were there — doing their duty. The mob made up of ordinary people like you and me were there — curiously rushing to the scene of an accident secretly hoping to see some blood. The disciples were there — sharing in the deed by doing nothing.
They were all there. And in the most profound sense we were all there — when they crucified our Lord. For who among us can fail to find ourselves included in this lurid list of religious leaders, concerned citizens, and “good-old-salt-of-the-earth” people? So when our Lord cries out, “Father, forgive them …,” he means us!
The first phrase of this first word is clear. We all know what it means to need forgiveness and pardon when we stand before the perfection and holiness of our Lord. His presence lights up and points out our pitiful attempts to measure up to the demands of our God.
The second phrase of this first word — “for they know not what they do” — is not so apparent and is easily misunderstood.
Scholars for years have debated the issue of guilt or innocence here. The sticky question is — were those first century Jews who crucified Christ to be singled out of all humanity far a special guilt? No one can deny that they killed a man named Jesus, but were they willfully aware that they were killing the Son of God — their Messiah?
Most of them came that first Good Friday noon expecting to execute a criminal — eliminate from society a dangerous undesirable. Some were blinded to who he was by prejudice ingrained in them by their religious heritage. Others were locked into the action by having dealt again and again with false prophets. Most were brainwashed by pious propaganda that this self-appointed rabbi was a blasphemer.
Together these crucifiers and “lookers-on” formed a misguided, misinformed mob whipped into a frenzy by forces and powers beyond themselves. In the light of this historic evaluation of what happened that first Good Friday noon, the words of our Lord seem to imply his crucifiers were innocent because of ignorance. They were so corrupted by circumstances beyond their control that they acted without thinking. They were for this instant insane — not legally responsible for their actions.
We are all familiar with this type of plea bargaining. We constantly read and hear news reports about people who have committed a crime and the basis of their defense is temporary insanity — the moral inability to distinguish right from wrong.
It would appear that here in this first word from the cross, Christ, as the defense attorney for the Jews, is building such a case before the bench of God’s justice. Literally Christ is saying, “Look, God, these poor people should not be punished for this crime. They were insane — for the moment out of their minds. They are therefore not legally or morally responsible for their actions.”
On the other hand, scholars argue that if the crucifiers of Christ did not know what they were doing, then the cross becomes a mistake and the crucifixion a fantastic fallacy of human judgment, a malicious miscarriage of justice. From the total witness of Scripture we know this cannot be the legitimate interpretation. The cross was not a misadventure, an unfortunate accident, a mistake. Nor could this have been a miscarriage of justice. Sins demand death. And on the cross Christ bore the sins of all humanity.
The New Testament presents the cross as an essential element of God’s redemptive plan. This act was forged in the fertile mind of God before the first faint light of creation dawned. This was the hour — Friday noon — and the deed — a bloody cross — that determined the decisive direction of our Lord’s earthly ministry. The cross was the climax and the goal of everything Christ did and said.
What then can we say? Perhaps it is best that we say nothing at all about the guilt or innocence of those who crucified Jesus; for it is not for us to judge. Rather we should place this first word from the cross in the total context of the New Testament and particularly in the life and teachings of our Lord. When we do, we see our Lord on the cross not before the cold bar of divine justice, but before the hot heart of holy love. He pleads the case of those who betray and murder him armed with one argument and one argument alone. Weakness!
The issue for the responsibility of the cross rests not on legal guilt or innocence, but on human weakness. Christ made it clear whom he came to live and die for — the lost lambs without a shepherd — the blind and the deaf who stumble and fall — the sick in need of a physician — the leper longing to be made whole — the outcasts, separated, alone, neglected, who have nowhere to go — the rich fools who build bigger and better barns and barter away their souls. For these people he lived. Now for these people he dies! He takes upon himself their sins because they are helpless without hope. He knows how guilty they are before God, therefore he asks forgiveness not because of their innocence but because of their weakness, “Father forgive them.”
It is precisely here that the miracle of forgiveness is apparent. Forgiveness is granted to those who do not deserve it — the unworthy, the unlovable, the helpless.
At the cross, forgiveness is no longer an act of justice, but of mercy. Forgiveness is a miracle of divine grace granted and given to the weak and the unworthy. This is why the Church has never been satisfied with a single doctrine of the atonement. The mystery of divine judgment and mercy welded together in Jesus the Christ defies all human reason. This miracle is the decisive difference Christ makes. We are saved not because we are strong and virtuous, but precisely because we are weak and unworthy. We are not made good by the cross, rather the Christ of the cross covers us with his goodness. Like a hen shelters her helpless young under her wings, so our Lord spreads forth his arms on the cross to shade us from the burning heat of heaven’s wrath.
Three times Paul besought God to remove the thorn from his flesh — to remove the weakness within him and make him pure and good and whole. God’s answer to Paul was: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Our weakness is the crucial contact point of God’s power. You cannot teach students who come to you convinced they know all the answers. A surgeon, no matter how skilled, cannot cure patients who stay home doctoring themselves with patent medicines and family remedies. An alcoholic cannot be cured until he faces the fact he is a hopeless drunk. Drowning persons cannot be rescued until they relax, give up all efforts to save themselves, and rely solely on the lifeguard to carry them to safety.
So with God. It is at the point of our greatest weakness that he can give us his greatest strength. This is why the cross is our source of joy. We remember and rejoice before the crucified Christ and cherish his last words from the cross because what he did and said there at noon on that Friday we call “Good” is our only hope!
On our own the demands of righteousness are impossible. Even the demands to have faith, believe, confess Christ are frightening demands. Who among us — even the best of us — can honestly admit with certainty that we have faith without faults, belief without bias — that we can completely confess Christ without compromise? In all honesty we cannot. We are weak. Questions, confusion, doubts frustrate our efforts at faith. We fall and fail to measure up to the demands of holy righteousness.
At the point of our failure — our weakness — stands the cross. The crucified body of our Savior testifies to the fact that God forgives crucifiers, doubters, deserters. God forgives us not because we are innocent; rather God forgives precisely because of our guilt, which is our helplessness, our unworthiness, our weakness. “Father, forgive them — for they know not what they do.”
An outstanding theologian tells that when he was a young boy living on a farm in the Midwest, his father pointed out to him that the spring rains were about to set in, and when they did, the fields must be in readiness. The father told his son to go to the north field and plow as much as he could before the rains began.
The young boy went into the field; but it wasn’t long before some of his friends came strolling down the road with their fishing poles over their shoulders. They came over to the fence and leaning on the top rail called, “Come on, go fishing with us.” The boy responded that he was sorry, it was a wonderful day to go fishing, but his father had given him definite instructions to plow the field before the rains came.
His friends argued, “Ah, come, go with us. When we finish fishing, we’ll all come back and help you. Together we can do in an hour what it would take you all day to do by yourself.” That sounded reasonable, so the young boy left the unfinished field and scampered down the road after his friends.
It was a great day for fishing and the hours passed lazily by. Suddenly a drop of rain hit the surface of the pond, and then another. The young boy looked up and saw the heavy, dark clouds hovering overhead. Then he remembered the unplowed field. He dropped his fishing pole and headed out for home as the rain came down. The faster he ran, the harder it began to rain, until when he reached the farmhouse the spring rains had set in with all their force.
He walked up onto the back porch and opened the old screen door and stepped into the kitchen. There his father stood. No words were spoken. The father just reached down and unfastened the buckle of his belt. The boy knew what was coming and he knew he deserved it.
He headed toward the stairs, went to his room, bent over his bed and waited for the deserved punishment to begin. His father entered the room. The boy waited. The minutes seemed like hours but nothing happened. Then he looked slowly around and there kneeling by the door was his father, and he heard him pray, “Father in heaven, forgive my son and make a man of him.”
Recalling this story in his life, this great theologian confesses that the words of that prayer cut into his sensitive being more deeply than the sting of any whip. And then he adds, “That night a boy died and a man was born.”
Two thousand years ago our Lord willingly walked the degrading way to a cross. There he hung — slain like a slaughtered beast with soldiers’ spit staining his sinless face. There in his strength he took unto himself our weakness. With arms outstretched to embrace us all he prayed to the Father, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
These words echo and re-echo down through the corridors of history, breaking again and again into the life of the Church. And when they do, boys die and men are born — our childish weakness is overcome — covered by the blood of God’s incarnate body and we become mature men and women — born by blood and faith into a new life.