Wholeness in the Midst of Brokenness – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

Luke 23:32-34; 39-43

During Lent, we dedicate a considerable amount of time reflecting on our relationships with God and each other, focusing on concepts like repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Repentance involves recognizing that we’ve deviated from God’s intended path for us and deciding to change direction (the Greek term for ‘repent’ is metanoia, meaning “a transformative change of heart”). Forgiveness entails releasing resentment or even the demand for compensation for harm caused. Reconciliation is about reuniting or coming together again after a separation. Despite the positive nature of these concepts, achieving them can be challenging. This difficulty often stems from a place of brokenness, encompassing damaged lives, relationships, expectations, and hearts.

This evening is the last installment of our preaching series “In the Midst,” which endeavors to help us know and experience Jesus’ presence in the midst of all that challenges and even troubles us. The theme of tonight’s sermon is “Wholeness in the Midst of Brokenness.” I’ve chosen to explore this concept from the vantage point of Jesus’ crucifixion in the gospel of Luke.

To begin, it is important to recall just what crucifixion was in first century Palestine. Crucifixion was a method of torture and execution used by the Roman empire against those they deemed criminals or enemies of the emperor. Victims were nailed to a cross made of wooden beams and suspended. This suspension made breathing difficult unless the victims attempted to pull themselves up by their wrists while pushing with their ankles, a task they couldn’t sustain for long due to the pain caused by nails driven through their joints. Technically, crucifixion was execution by asphyxiation which could last hours. When the victim was believed to be dead, the executioner would confirm this by breaking the legs of the remaining corpse hanging from the beams. Crucifixions were public events usually held just outside the city gate. They were intended to traumatize not only the victims but also those who witnessed the spectacle on their way into or out of town.

As the author of Luke sets the scene, he identifies the location of Jesus’s crucifixion as a place known as “The Skull.” At this place, Jesus is crucified between two criminals. Despite being associated with individuals deemed unclean or nefarious by the society of his time, Jesus had never engaged in criminal activities. Now, possibly due to misunderstanding and/or manipulation, he faced a criminal’s death alongside two men convicted of crimes against the Roman regime. Below him, the soldiers who had mistreated him—beating, spitting, mocking, and crowning him with thorns—gambled for his clothing as a memento of the event. These men were not Judeans but Romans; not adherents of the Jewish faith, but Gentiles, who likely knew nothing about this itinerant rabbi.

Adding insult to injury, one of the men crucified alongside Jesus started mocking and taunting him, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” This taunt mirrors the devil’s temptation of Jesus during his fast in the desert, where Satan challenged Jesus to prove his divine sonship, confirmed at his baptism, with demands such as turning stones into bread, throwing himself down from a high place, and worshiping Satan. Each of the devil’s taunts began with the words, “If you are the Son of God…” Just as in the case of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, despite his intense suffering, Jesus does not succumb to the mocker’s demands.

After exploring the historical context of crucifixion and reflecting on Luke’s narrative, we may wonder how to journey towards wholeness amidst so much brokenness. The key, as we discussed at the beginning of this sermon, lies in our Lenten transformation of the heart, mercy, and reunion.

When confronted with the first man’s scorn, the second individual crucified next to Jesus admonishes him. He asks, “Do you not see where we are? Have you forgotten how we came to be here? We are rightly accused of our crimes. How can you speak such things without fear of God?” This man’s expression of remorse signifies a profound transformation of heart, in stark contrast to the first man’s hardened heart, which remains embittered and resentful.

Bitterness traps us in a toxic cycle, addictive as any opiate. A saying often credited to St. Augustine of Hippo captures this sentiment perfectly: “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”[i]

The second man distinguishes himself by letting go of resentment and blame through metanoia—a transformative change of heart. Facing death in such a humiliating posture, in full view of his executioners, he implores Jesus to remember him upon entering His kingdom. Jesus’s reply is simple and profound: “Of course.” He sets forth no prerequisites for penance, seeks no reparation, and does not question the man’s remorse. Instead, Jesus assures him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

In the thick of His own suffering, Jesus embodies compassion (“com-passion”: with ‘com’ meaning ‘with’ and ‘passion’, derived from the Latin ‘passio’, signifying ‘suffering’). To be compassionate is to suffer alongside someone. Jesus not only offers forgiveness and promises reconciliation to the man by bearing his sufferings; He shares in the man’s suffering, thereby intensifying the act of mercy.

Thus, the same applies to us when we approach Jesus, burdened by our sins. When we have consumed the poison of bitterness and resentment, realizing too late that it harms us rather than the intended target; when we hit rock bottom and the only way out is through metanoia—a transformative change of heart—Jesus does not merely save us. He compassionately joins us in our suffering. In this state of brokenness, Jesus offers comfort, healing, and salvation, promising that we will be transformed into the likeness of His resurrection.

Jesus assures us of reconciliation at that moment, promising that we will join Him in paradise. This notion of paradise harkens back to Genesis chapters 1 and 2, to a time of wholeness before we fell to the same temptations that Jesus overcame during His desert fast and upon the cross. Amidst our brokenness, we find wholeness by relinquishing our desire for control and accepting Jesus’ gifts of grace and mercy. This acceptance allows us to be reconciled with God, our Creator, and to experience the original state of wholeness in which we were created—a creation God deemed good!

Furthermore, recognizing that we are created in God’s image, it’s crucial to understand our ability to reflect God’s mercy and compassion to others, as demonstrated through Jesus. Amid His suffering, Jesus fervently prays from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” He doesn’t wait for an apology before seeking God’s forgiveness for His persecutors. Aware of the breadth of God’s mercy, Jesus intercedes on behalf of those who show Him no mercy—those unaware of the mercy inherent in their being as God’s children, blind to it and unable to embrace it.

How many of us respond with mercy and forgiveness when wronged by someone else? If you’re anything like me, your initial reaction might be driven by the limbic system. This part of our brain activates in response to perceived danger. Consider a moment when you narrowly escaped a severe car accident or almost fell from a significant height, risking serious injury. Perhaps you’ve been threatened by a bully or someone who does not regard you as someone worthy of dignity or respect. The automatic surge of adrenaline, increased heart rate, and flushed face are all physical reactions aimed at self-preservation, triggered by the limbic system. Commonly referred to as “fight, flight, or freeze” responses, our first instinct in such situations is not toward mercy or forgiveness. More often, we’re inclined to retaliate, flee as swiftly as we can, or freeze in place, hoping to go unnoticed. Seldom do we find ourselves reacting with the plea, “Lord, have mercy.”

Indeed, we possess the inherent capacity to forgive, as Jesus forgave His persecutors. However, embracing forgiveness is a process that starts with awareness and openness. It involves recognizing our own hurt feelings while, at the same time, being open to the possibility of the other person’s brokenness. Adopting this stance doesn’t mean excusing harmful actions but involves exploring the potential for achieving mutual wholeness by considering what God desires for both parties. This might involve creating a safe environment for a “difficult conversation,” or inviting a mediator to ensure both perspectives are fairly considered, especially when our limbic systems are engaged. Alternatively, it might mean releasing the other person through forgiveness even when reconciliation seems unfeasible. Forgiveness doesn’t always lead to a resolution, but it does necessitate empathy, compassion, respect, and dignity, paving the way forward. Disagreements don’t have to culminate in alienation—a crucial reminder amid strong emotions and feelings. The essential factor is acknowledging each other’s readiness to be vulnerable and collaboratively addressing the root of the conflict in a secure setting. If reconciliation is not possible, consider the possibility that all will be healed when we reunite with God in paradise.

I close with the words of the founder of our Community, Richard Meux Benson: “If we could live in such a perfect Church that there should be nothing ever to stir our indignation or make us angry with those that are around, should we be able to claim an entrance to heaven?  Oh no, we should have failed to exercise that in which alone the likeness of God could be found, the attribute of forgiveness.”[ii] This is what it is to begin the journey towards the possibility of wholeness in the midst of brokenness.

[i] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/saint_augustine_384531

[ii] Benson, Richard Meux. A Cowley Calendar. London: Mowbrays, 1932. Print.

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  1. Gary Denniss on March 21, 2024 at 18:40

    This sermon has great merit that encourages individuals to think about life in some of its difficult circumstances…forgiving others. Thank you for the encouraging way you have expressed your thoughts. God bless you.

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