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Sunday, September 11, 2011

The paradox of forgiveness


Text: Matthew 18.21-35

On August 22 in 2005 an extraordinary liturgy of forgiveness was enacted in the English city of Coventry and the German city of Dresden.  The English ceremony took place at Coventry Cathedral which, on the 14th of November 1940, was destroyed by German bombs.  The German ceremony took place at the newly restored Frauenkirche, which was destroyed by English bombs on the 13th of February 1945.  At each of the ceremonies English and German worshippers asked for, and received, the forgiveness of both God and each other for the blindness which led to their mutual destruction of each other in the 2nd World War.  Of course, as we learn from today’s gospel, true forgiveness cannot be granted without an acknowledgment of real guilt, so the liturgies did not shy away from naming that guilt.  The bombing of Coventry was part of a campaign to steal away the freedom of the English people.  It was explicitly designed to kill people—women, men and children—and so to cower them into submission and surrender.  The Dresden bombing took place when the war was all but over.  It is widely acknowledged that there was not even a strategic military reason for the bombing.  The German military machine has already broken down.  The bombing, which levelled Dresden and killed 40 000 people, was ordered simply to kill as many German civilians as possible.  It was extremely humbling to be in Dresden on August 13th of 2005 to hear a local Roman Catholic priest tell us, with tears, how much it meant to him, and to the people of Dresden, that my colleagues and I should come to Dresden to reflect with them on the forgiveness at the heart of our shared gospel.

The crimes committed in the 2nd World War were, you see, not only crimes committed by one group of human beings against another.  They were also crimes committed by one group of Christians against another.  Many of the soldiers and pilots involved in the conflict were Christians—Anglicans, Lutheran, Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed and Roman Catholic—Christians who were killing each other in the name of tribal sovereignty.   What the Second World War highlighted, graphically and tragically, was not only the inhumanity of men and women towards other men and women, but also the lack of true reconciliation at the heart of European Christianity. 

In turning to today’s gospel reading, I’d like you to note two things.  First, that Peter’s question about forgiveness is not occasioned by the misdeeds of someone beyond the community of faith.  Peter asks how many times he is called to forgive a member of his own church.  “Seventy-times-seven” times, says Jesus, or, if I may translate, as many times as is necessary for the sake of reconciliation.  For what is the church if not a reconciled community, a community that is able to live at peace with itself in spite of all the sins of its members?  What is the church if its members cannot forgive each other as Christ has forgiven them?  If the church cannot do this, then it is not the church.  It is nothing more than a sociological or political reality where birds of a feather flock together.  If a church’s members cannot live with each others differences and forgive each other’s sins, then we are nothing more than social clubs, gathered around the very tribalisms of race, class or gender that Christ came to overcome. 

People sometimes ask me why I am still part of the church.  The people who ask are usually those who have been wounded by the church, people who feel that the church has let them down or, at least, undervalued what they had to contribute.  My reply usually goes something like this:  the scandal of the gospel is that Christ, who had no sin, yet became sin for our sake.  He took on the flesh of people who hate and kill each other.  By doing so, he loved and accepted our fragile humanity.  He forgave our sins and made reconciliation possible.  Who am I, then, to pretend that I am somehow superior to anyone else in the church?  The church can only exist by forgiveness.  How can I, who have been forgiven my sins by both Christ and my sisters and brothers, refuse to forgive the church?  I cannot.

Which brings me to the second thing I would like you to notice about today’s gospel passage: that forgiveness is only possible for people who are willing to forgive.  That’s the point of the story about the forgiven slave who cannot forgive his brother, is it not?  Although the king, out of sheer mercy, had forgiven his unpayable debt, the slave was not able to do the same for a brother who owed him something.  So the king threw the unmerciful slave into prison.  Now, some of you, I know, will think this very harsh.  Perhaps some of you will even get a little theological and say that this story encourages a gospel of works because what it says, in the end, is that it is our capacity to forgive that ultimately earns God’s forgiveness.  Well, to that I would reply in the classically reformed way:  that our capacity to forgive another does not earn God’s forgiveness, but rather shows that we are people who have truly experienced the power and truth of forgiveness ourselves.  Only the person who knows that they can never repay the debt owed to God, only the person who knows themselves to be loved and forgiven it all, would possibly be able to forgive the crimes of his or her brother.  If we do not know this, perhaps we have never experienced the true power of forgiveness?

At a human rights conference in 1997, in the midst of lots of grand speeches about the call to justice, I met a man named Retosa.  At lunch one day, I asked him where he was from, and what he did all day.  His reply showed me what forgiveness really looks like, in practice.  Restosa was from Liberia, and what he did all day was this:  gathering families who had killed each other’s children during the civil war together in a room to confess their sins and learn to forgive one another.  “Only the person who knows the depth of their sin, and the amazing liberation of God’s forgiveness, could possibly forgive such crimes from the heart” said Retosa.  Perhaps that is why this extraordinary work is being undertaken by a Christian pastor rather than a social worker.

Allow me to summarise what we have noticed in this way.  (1) That the church is called to be a community of forgiveness.  (2) That our capacity to be that is directly related to the extent to which our sins, which are many, are forgiven in Christ.  And this finally:  (3) that Christ’s forgiveness comes alive in the world only where the church becomes the body of Christ precisely by its willingness to live in the unity of forgiven sinners.  For that, my friends, is what all that talk in Matthew about binding and loosing is all about (see 18.18-20).  Christ will only do in the world what his church is willing to do.  For we are his body, in whom the Spirit of Christ faces this world.  What we do or do not do is what Christ himself does.  Such is Christ’s vulnerability.  Such, then, is our responsibility.  The paradox of forgiveness is this, then:  that we are forgiven only insofar as the truth of forgiveness has so penetrated our hearts that we are able to see others, also, in the mercy of Christ’s grace.  May God help us to forgive, and keep on forgiving, as God has forgiven us.

Let me finish with a prayer, the litany of reconciliation from Coventry Cathedral:

 ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
Father forgive.
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
Father forgive.
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Father forgive.
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
Father forgive.
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
Father forgive.
The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,
Father forgive.
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Father forgive.
‘Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’

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