The Community of Forgiveness
Our family was different. I was also a brainy kid, and very introverted. It all made me a natural target at school. For ten years, before I finally found a group in which I belonged, school was frequent misery; I was always a little on the edge. Fifty years later school memories still intrude into my life and, if I am not careful, affect my behaviour.
It's only in the last few years that I have realised I lived according to a weekly cycle. Each Sunday, we went to church; sometimes twice. And each week, the church put me back together. They welcomed me; they cared for me; they accepted me. I was nurtured and encouraged from the first morning playing in the Sunday School sand box two years before school began.
Church always was. I did not realise they were the body of Christ for me; they saved me.
This is a marvel of church that we tend to forget; a miracle, in fact. We are tempted to preach signs and wonders, and to talk up the wonderful things which God does for us.
In charismatic and pentecostal congregations I always felt I was being sold something that didn't quite match up to the promises on the packaging. So I spent years concentrating on getting my doctrine right; if I would only believe the right thing, life would be good; the empty place would be filled. Or if I could gain the correct spiritual insight, or be a good enough disciple, I would find God in a way that finally satisfied me; in a way that was real.
And today I am sometimes told that if I would use the correct church growth principles, like a well managed corporation with high quality entertainment worship, then my church would grow.
In all the spruiking of an exciting gospel, the amazing grace of Christian community looks rather pedestrian, and tends to be forgotten. As we focus on our personal need, which can be very great, we sometimes fail to see the wonder of the community around us. In all my striving and planning and seeking, God was with me. "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of you." From the very beginning I was in a safe and holy place that was an absolute contrast to the place of my misery, and I never quite saw it!
In the lectionary reading from John this week, Jesus appears to the disciples just before the conclusion of the original version of the gospel. The resurrection appearances of Chapter 20 are a final sign leading up to the conclusion of verses 30 and 31:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
All that John has told us is so that we may trust Jesus is the Messiah, and through that trusting, enter into Life.
When we over emphasise the spectacular it seems we go perilously close to putting God to the test; forcing God to prove Godself so that we don't have to trust. We seek further signs.
"... he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, 'Why does this generation ask for a sign?'" In fact, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign!" (Mk 8:12, Mt 12:39)
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In this conclusion of the gospel; the first version ended here, Thomas makes its crowning confession of Jesus: "My Lord and My God! Jesus responds with, "Now you believe — now that you've seen! Blessed are those who have not seen, but who believe."
It is written for us. It is our gospel; we have not seen.
The story leading up to Thomas makes it clear that the normative way to meet the risen Jesus is through corporate worship. After the discovery of the empty tomb the disciples return to their homes. But in the evening they all come together in a room, where Jesus appears to them. This is on the first day of the week; ie Sunday. Thomas is absent which means Jesus does not appear to him. A week later, the next Sunday, Jesus appears again. This time Thomas is present, and so Jesus also appears to him.
It is not that we will not meet Jesus elsewhere, but that the best place should be when the church is gathered together.
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Of all the things John could have Jesus saying as last words to this church into which he has breathed, he chooses this:
22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'
This God-breathed community is to be, above all else, a community of forgiveness. It has the Life of God breathed into it: the same Life breathed into Adam and into Ezekiel's dry bones. If we go to the Greek translation of the Old Testament that people in Jesus' day used, we find that John even uses the same word for breathed. (Gen 2:7, Ezek 37:9)
God-breathed, we are to forgive.
... The church is not in the morals business. The world is in the morals business, quite rightfully; and it has done a fine job of it, all things considered. The history of the world's moral codes is a monument to the labors of many philosophers, and it is a monument of striking unity and beauty.....
What the world cannot get right, however, is the forgiveness business – and that, of course, is the church's real job. She is in the world to deal with the Sin which the world can't turn off or escape from. She is not in the business of telling the world what's right and wrong so that it can do good and avoid evil. She is in the business of offering, to a world which knows all about that tiresome subject, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice. (Hunting the Divine Fox: An Introduction to the Language of Theology, Robert Capon [pp. 132-3] quoted by Brian Stoffregen)
And the way we are to do that, is to model forgiveness among ourselves. We are to be exemplars of forgiveness; exemplars in a business which is not only tiresome, as Capon says, but difficult, messy, painful, even dangerous, and sometimes seems impossible. This makes us a shining light in the darkness of life's trauma and despair.
Human relationships are often like the diagram. This could have been my childhood at school. P = Mr Popular, connected to lots of people, and at the centre of everything. A = Andrew is isolated. Often times A felt more like B; people seemed determined to wall me off.
Healthy community and healthy people are connected. The community is open, not walled off. (I was talking with my son about this today. He told me of an Indian Interfaith Conference. One of the speakers said that religions should build bridges between people. If a religion does not build bridges between people, he asked, how can it hope to build bridges between people and God? cf Eph 2:14; Jesus breaks down more than just that wall of hostility, and we are called to follow.)
Condemnation of people, and non-forgiveness, breaks the connections between people. It separates us from each other and from God much the same way as sin. Separation is contagious. It is unlikely that P, for instance, could build that wall against B without building other walls, and without closing off other relationships.
Forgiveness breaks down the walls. It allows the reconnection of people; the re-establishment of relationships.
Forgiveness requires a large generosity of spirit and an open heart. Refusing to forgive you means I must close my heart to you. To hold the sin against you is to hold you apart, separate, and to close you off.
A popular internet meme says, "When you nurse anger against someone, the one you hurt is yourself." Whatever else we may do when we hold someone's sin against them, Jesus words are telling us a similar thing: if you retain the sins of any, they are retained; they are retained within the community of the church, held close, and damaging the church. When we hold something against someone in the church we hold it against ourselves! We close ourselves to something of the Life God is seeking to give us.
Open and closed are suggestive terms. The church in which I grew up was open. It had its faults and fights, but we kids could roam where we wished; nothing seemed to be locked. We explored old bibles and cupboards of Sunday School material at our leisure. In my first parish, the vestry door in one congregation remained unlocked for so long no one had a key! Coming into worship one morning, perhaps more obsessive than usual, I clicked off the snib as I closed it behind me.
After worship the stewards and elders gathered at the door, considering what to do. I went in to the kitchen and removed a certain item from the cutlery drawer and "picked the lock" for them. The expressions of people unsure whether to admire their minister's skill, or to be horrified that he knew how to do that, were priceless!
That open door reflected an openness of spirit in the congregation. In another place, not even the minister had keys to the crockery cupboard. That was not the only difference.
The simple forgiveness of difference that occurs by having an open table at communion is more than half way to enabling Communion to be a converting sacrament.
When we came back to Adelaide from the desert, I was invited to try out for a state hockey carnival, which was a big deal for me. Practice was at 8am on Sunday mornings, a terrible time for a ministry candidate. I determined to go to the first practice, way out in the Hills, and pick up a church service on the way home. I arrived at neat Adelaide Hills church just before 11am.
I nearly drove my beat up 20 year old Escort straight back out of the car park! Even the six year old boys getting out of all the new cars were wearing suits. I was sweaty, had wet feet, and my tracksuit consisted of old drill work trousers over my shorts. There were slits cut up the sides to get them over my sneakers.
The sermon was well planned and well executed. It was about how we should be more welcoming to people who are different from us, and I sat there feeling like something imported for them to practice on after church! After the Benediction, everyone seemed to be turned facing away from me; the preacher had disappeared, and I was as alone as I had ever been. So I walked out to the porch, gave my hymnbook to the unfortunate lady who was rostered on the door, and could not back further away because of the wall, and drove home.
The strangest part of the morning was the Communion Service. There was a massive cob loaf on the table, and I remember thinking, "That'll take some breaking!" At the time of the Fraction, he lifted the lid off the loaf! It had been pre-sliced across the top so that it had a lid. He dispensed Communion from inside the loaf, and I suspect that had been neatly pre-cut as well.
I was not the most liturgically aware theological student, but even I was shocked at what happened next. At the end of Communion, he neatly placed the lid back on!! It was like Christ had never been broken.
That neat, hollow loaf spoke volumes about the life of the congregation. Forgiveness, largeness of heart, and a generous spirit are messy. There is no tidy here. Openness lets all sorts in; it forgives difference. Putting a lid on community breaks the connections between us, or prevents them even beginning.
Let us leave aside the difficult issue of forgiving people of their grievous sins, for a moment. Our first forgiveness is simply to forgive people their difference! My painful childhood, and all its separation and walling off, was triggered mostly by difference. Much of the angst and pain I seen in my congregations is caused not by people doing anything bad, or wrong, but simply by a refusal to forgive difference. Forgiving people of their awkward and confronting differences is perhaps the first and major challenge we face!
Consider the things which snarl us up. The proper hanging of tea towels in the church kitchen, or the adequacy of the washing up; the noise of children in church; or the tidiness of otherwise of the kids' corner; whether some people smell— it's not just BO, one of my colleagues has a terrible time with the over-perfumed women in the congregation; the black people who don't clean up to our clean white standards after church— God forgive us; people who aren't dressed properly; all these things are insignificant. Mountains out of molehills, racism, fussiness; all true, but they are also all a refusal to forgive difference. We take umbrage at people's difference and refuse to forgive it.
Forgiveness is not easy. It goes against the grain. To forgive is to become vulnerable to more hurt. In practical life there is a fine line, difficult to find sometimes, between "forgiveness" which is really a license for someone to repeat an abuse, and forgiveness which has seen repentance that is real.
Forgiveness is long term. It can take forever. In my own life I have tried to let go of sin done to me. But the events of 50 years ago still return unbidden. Living forgiveness is like controlling the nut-grass in the college garden, which Principal Leaver said "takes constant digging and fervent prayer."
Forgiveness is difficult and dangerous territory. How do we forgive a recidivist, predatory paedophile for whom Christ yet died, and whose sin of separating from God is perhaps not qualitatively different from ours? All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, Paul reminds us! His great list of sinfulness at the beginning of Romans is there to remind us we are no better!! What is forgiveness in a situation where constant vigilance and careful safeguards is sometimes no match for an evil spirit? How do we protect ourselves and those who are vulnerable without walling off those who are nonetheless people, and without holding something of the sin to ourselves?
I choose this example because it is such a live and painful issue in our community. The sin of the paedophile, perhaps not even perpetrated against any of our congregational members, still taints us as a community. It destroys trust. It destroys people. It closes and walls off.
We know this; it is obvious. But lesser sins, even the ones we scarcely notice, are also corrosive of lives and community, not only in their sinfulness, but when they are not forgiven. Our calling, John suggests is to open; to build up; to forgive. We are the community who offers forgiveness, and therefore, healing. We breathe on the Life we have had breathed into us.
I do not address the how of forgiveness in this essay, apart from noting its danger and difficulty. I am concerned with the why of forgiveness.
Why? The forgiveness of difference, and the forgiveness of grievous sin (with all the struggle and mess and danger this involves) is a miracle which offers Christ to the world. It shows people a community which has Life. It is our calling.
Churches which do not forgive are toxic. Their hypocrisy hangs around them like BO. Claiming to have the words of life, they offer people a poisoned chalice. They crush people's sprit in two ways at least. People draw back from the vulnerability of life giving generosity and forgiveness because they see how they will be abused by us. We prevent people discovering the joy of forgiveness. And sometimes, God forgive us, we crush people because we convert them to our way, not Christ's, and make them "twice as much as son of hell" as ourselves.(Matt 23:15)
A colleague told me recently that he had been re-reading all the letters of Paul. He remarked that "effectively Paul spends half his time just telling us to be nice to each other!" It's because the community of the church is the only Body of Christ which the world sees— and which we see.
Paul speaks of signs and wonders and gifts. He values them all, but there is a still more excellent way, the way of love. We love the words of 1 Corinthians 13. As I read them again I note these in particular:
[Love] does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love is the hallmark of forgiveness. Love without forgiveness is not love. And we, without forgiveness, are scarcely the church.