1. Here we are watching the behaviour of the Son of God, the Ideal and Ground of Divine Sonship in humanity.
Is this supreme example of forgiveness an example to us? Is it not something unnatural to humanity as we know it?
We must recall, from a former address, the distinction which we then drew between the animal in us, with its self-assertive instincts, and the Divine in us, that which constitutes us not animal merely, but human, of which the very essence is the self-sacrifice of perfect love. Christ came to reveal God in our manhood. And I need this revelation, just because the animal in me has won so many victories in the past over the Divine, because in me the spiritual fire habitually burns so low and dim.
It is a very different thing to say that forgiveness of all serious injury is a hard thing. It is hard, but not impossible. That which makes it to be possible is the serious intention of discipleship, co-operating with the indwelling Spirit of Christ transforming us into His likeness.
To assert, on the other hand, that forgiveness of serious wrong is impossible, is to ignore the fact that He Who uttered these wonderful words is the true self of me, and of every man who breathes. He Who hung on the Cross, and spoke these seven words, is the Son of man, the Representative to all ages, to all varieties of human character, of true humanity.
2. Christ-like forgiveness is no weak thing, but the strongest thing in the world.
Yet, for its true effect to be produced, its true character must be recognised. No suspicion of cowardice or impotence must cleave to it. The man who being obviously able to resent an injury, and not lacking in the capacity of resentment, yet for Christ's sake forgives, exercises on earth no inconsiderable share of the moral power of Christ. God now, as of old, "has made choice of the weak things of the world," those things which the world accounts weak, "to confound the strong." "The meek" still "inherit the earth."
We are dealing, all through, with the injury which is personal, with the resentment which is the reaction of the individual against unprovoked wrong. Personal resentment we are bidden to relentlessly crush out -- "to turn the other cheek" is the command of Christ. But the Christian man will recognise that the interests of the social order are not to be disregarded. These interests, and those of the offender himself, will sometimes demand that the wrong, even if it primarily affects ourselves, shall not go unpunished. Again, no one can be in the full sense a Christian, that is, a fully developed man, or a man on the way to the full development of his nature, who is without the capacity of moral indignation, in whom no flame is kindled by the oppression of the weak.
What the Christian moral law does demand of us, is the complete suppression of the merely personal anger which sometimes burns so fiercely in us when we receive unmerited insult or injury. That kind of anger belongs to "the flesh," is part of the defensive equipment of the animal nature. Before we can in any sense be Christ-like, the spirit must win many hard-won victories over its ancient foe.
To say "I will forgive, but I can never forget," is only to conceal from ourselves the defeat of the spiritual man, the Christ in us.
3. But carefully note the reason appended to the prayer: "they know not what they do." That is true, with every variety of degrees and shades of truth, of every sinner. It was true, clearly, of the soldiers then performing their duty: it was less true, but still in a real sense it was true, of the Pharisees, of the High Priests, of the Roman judge. It is true, but to a far less degree, even of us, that when we sin, we "know not what we do."
Sins are, in the language of St. Paul, works of darkness. That is the element in which alone they can exist. Sin is a huge deception. The very condition of its existence is the concealment of its true character. All this is summed up in that experience which we call "temptation." We are so familiar with sin, the atmosphere we breathe is so infected with it, we have given way so many times in the past, that it needs the objective revelation of the Cross to bring home to us the real horror and malignity of sin. It has been finely said, "Sin first drugs its victims before it consumes them." We, too, or some of us, have known the strange petrifying, hardening effect of sin on the conscience.
Great, then, is our need that we should pray that the revelation of the Cross may more and more come home to us; great our need to pray for an ever fuller measure of that Spirit of Christ, Whose first work it is "to convince the world of sin," to make men realise its true character and its inevitable issue.