It is said that the seven statements made by Jesus while he hung on the cross absolutely overflow with meaning, and as such sum up what Easter,and Christianity are all about.
The real impact of what he said is, unsurprisingly, buried under layers of sweet-smelling ritual and tradition. For example, most religious leaders will teach their flocks that to experience God’s forgiveness we must observe certain requirements, among which is the need to recite some version of the ‘sinners’ prayer’.
How controversial was it then for Jesus to look down at the holier-than-thou Pharisees and cry out: ‘Father, forgive them! They don’t know what they are doing!’
Did they ask for forgiveness? Were they remorseful? Were they overcome with pity? Did they even want forgiveness? No, and yet they were forgiven. That’s the true story of Easter and once we know the full weight of that amazing truth, our understanding of where we stand in our relationship with him will be forever changed.
Even more remarkable, even more in conflict with traditional Christian teaching, is the record of his interaction with the so-called thieves on the cross. One sought to hurl abuse on Jesus: ‘If you really are the Messiah, why don’t you save yourself and us?’ The other, the penitent thief, turned on him: ‘Have you no fear of God? You and I are getting what we deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong.’
And this is the statement that has the power to totally reshape our thinking, if we have the courage to embrace it. He turned to Jesus (no sinners’ prayer, he wasn’t baptised, he didn’t speak in tongues, didn’t read his Bible or go to church, no restitution, nothing) and simply said: ‘Please, remember me when you come in your kingdom!’
And what did Jesus say? ‘Sorry mate, too late. You should have thought about that years ago”? Isn’t that what some so-called pastors might say? But what did Jesus say? ‘Be at peace my friend. Today you will be with me in Paradise.’
Is it any wonder they had him crucified? Sure if that got out it would have destroyed their pristine little ivory towers.
Things don’t change much. I got into trouble with a church in Bangor for something I wrote in one of my very early columns. I had been thinking about the record of Paul and Silas in prison in Philippi. There was an earthquake, the prison was damaged, and the governor assumed that those in his charge had escaped. Long story short, he fell on his knees before Paul and Silas and cried out: ‘What must I do to be saved?’
The Bangor church man had been teaching that if you happened to be a Catholic, in order to be a real Christian you had to become a Prod. Well, I don’t know about that, and so employing my considerable skills of sarcasm, I put words in Paul’s mouth: ‘First you have to leave your church and join mine, then you have to leave your wife because she can’t really be a Christian if she goes to Mass, and of course...’
But what did Paul say? In essence, one word: ‘Believe’. And that’s it. Why complicate it?