This is the text of the address I gave at a workshop on 1 October 2017.
‘Forgiveness is the yarn out of which relationships are spun and communities are woven.’
These were more or less the closing words of the sermon I preached this morning. I believe that they are true and that it is in discovering the meaning, scope and function of forgiveness that we will find the way to be church in the twenty first century.
Tonight’s workshop differs from the others we have run so far.
This is the first of a series of three open workshops, open in that people can book in to these and come to one, two or three, without making the commitment to come every week.
I should explain that the purpose of these workshops is to provide a forum and opportunity in which people can think freely and in which we can explore different theological possibilities and also in which it can be assumed that those who are here are not coming and going as a Sunday morning congregation inevitably does.
There is a progression. So by week ten we are not having to keep on recapping and covering old ground because someone new has just come in or someone has missed three sessions. Think of it as a language course. Each week builds on the what was done last time. There is an assumption that people read, discuss, think, engage, work on their own. These workshops are for the curious, the serious and the committed.
We do not know where we’ll end up. We take scripture seriously enough to recognise that Jesus – as he is presented in the gospels – did not see the words as sacred in a rigid sense but was more than happy to say, ‘You have read but I say to you…’
We also take seriously the idea which is there in John’s Gospel and elsewhere that the Christ we see in Jesus of Nazareth was pre-existent ans therefore we are open to the possibilities for all of us of the truth and in Jesus of Nazareth what we may be seeing is the fully developed human being in whom and through whom we see the logos of John’s Gospel and the Christ of the New Testament manifest and revealed.
We recognise also that in Jesus’ call to his disciples as we have it recorded in the gospels his first question was not theological but subtly different. It was not come and believe but it was come and follow. Follow means, for the disciples, not so much traipse after but do precisely what I do and as I do so that you may become as I am. We entertain the possibility therefore that what we are called into is not worship of Christ but participation in the life of th3e pre-existent Christ. The disciple is to become the same as Jesus. Follow means end up where I am.
You have had just now in a few paragraphs more or less what we covered in three introductory sessions in March and then again in May. Don’t worry if it is too simple or else it seems too complicated. It is simple. Often it may seem dangerous and heretical. We have to remember always that in Jesus of Nazareth we are dealing with an eastern teacher whose teaching has come to us through a very western church.
Jesus gave his disciples instructions. Love your neighbour and so on. It was not a set of doctrines or a dogmatic system. Faith come out of practice. Gesture precedes attitude. What you do determines, shapes and dictates who you are.
That is the introduction, summary, resume, revision exercise over.
Tonight we are looking at divine and human forgiveness. The next workshop will be on inclusion and the theological and scriptural demand that we be an inclusive people and community and in the final of these three workshops we’ll look at how we can present a coherent faith which is neither fundamentalist nor self-serving.
You may wonder why we have chosen to begin this evening looking at the question of forgiveness.
That is easy. Forgiveness is at the heart of everything. Why begin with forgiveness? The Bible does. The Old Testament does. The New Testament does. Every bit of early church proclamation does. Forgiveness, restoration, redemption, rehabilitation, resurrection. This theme dominates and permeates everything, almost every story, every action, every proclamation, every conversation.
We also begin with forgiveness. We do. We feel good when we are welcoming, cherished, included. We feel uncomfortable when we are excluded, rejected made to feel unwelcome.
Forgiveness takes us right into the experience and language of human relationship and divine relationship.
We can explore one without the other but almost any reference of which I can think in the bible to our relationship with God uses the language of human relationship.
The lamb sacrificed is the offering of food to God or to the gods which itself borrows from the language of hospitality and welcome and the respect and honour.
The language of the cross as we shall see is the language of restoration and ransom.
The Bible itself opens with a story of the Garden of Eden which very quickly turns out to be Paradise Lost, the garden of primeval tranquillity and communion between God and humanity is, in the end, a microcosm of the deep unease and disconnectedness we all feel. This separation and sense of being excluded is part of the human condition.
The slightest sense that we are being pushed out, ignored, undervalued and all kinds of wounds are opened. And we learn very early on that to please others we have to do and to be what they want.
And we develop ideas of perfection, goodness, righteousness – and we demand perfection, goodness, righteousness of other people and we seek to hide our own imperfection, failure to live up to the required standard, unrighteousness.
We know very well what it is suddenly to eat of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil and to know that we are naked and exposed and we want to cover up that nakedness and to hide it from God and our fellow human beings.
This is where we begin, outside of Eden and trying to work our way back in. This is where the Bible begins.
And that is neither accident nor co-incidence. Genesis 3 may not be the oldest bit of the Old Testament and is not the oldest bit of the Old Testament but it belongs at the beginning because it states the problem. The problem is that we are outside and we wish to get inside.
And this introduces then the whole question of forgiveness. Forgiveness – as someone said recently – is simply a word. All language is only words. All language is metaphor. What I want us to do this evening is to take a very quick look at what forgiveness does mean.
And I hope that we’ll see that it is impossible for us to speak about one human being forgiving another human being without also getting onto the question of divine forgiveness.
One reflects and informs the other. Interestingly this is an idea onto which the church seems to have latched very early on in its thinking.
Listen to this.
“Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Matthew 18:18
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Matthew 16: 19
If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” John 20: 23
The theme of forgiveness dominates theology. This is its big question because it is our big question. How can I feel good about myself? How can I feel good about the world and other people?
As someone said, forgiveness is simply a word. ‘I forgive you’, three words which can heal a relationship or, if said in the wrong tone, create a rift between friends which is never healed.
The words make no difference on their own. It has to be what Jesus spoke about in Matthew 18, Forgiveness from the Heart, a radical, deep, healing, rehabilitation and reintegration, a reconnection.
It is impossible to do justice to any of this in a single short session here. However, what we do actually have to get into our head is what forgiveness means. It means this. It is the restoration of everything to the point and place and state that it was in before things went wrong.
That is forgiveness from the heart. It is a radical rebuilding and transformation. The non-violence of Jesus’ teaching such as in the instruction to pray for those who persecute you, to turn the other cheek, to walk the second mile is an active forgiving of the other person before and as the aggressor seeks to break the relationship with you. You are not making me your enemy because I will not behave as if you are my enemy.
The Garden of Eden story sets us up right at the beginning with an image of a broken relationship. You are in the garden or you are out of the garden. You cannot be and neither is Adam ever in and out of the garden at the same time.
When it comes to Jesus and the crucifixion there is either dead or alive, alive or dead.
The only image which will work with Eden to demonstrate a rebuilt relationship is for man to return to the Garden of Eden and for things to be as they were before.
With Jesus we see the return, restoration and redemption happen in resurrection. He is dead. Now he is alive. Everything has been restored to how it was before.
When you forgive someone else that is what has to happen. If the vase is cracked, then it has to be remade so that there are no chips and no cracks. It is indistinguishable from how it was before.
In the Bible and in most Christian theology a connection is made between Jesus’ death and your redemption, forgiveness.
How, we ask and everyone has always asked does this one death mean that I can in some way live?
Essentially what comes into play is the idea of ransom. The two big models are as follows.
Jesus died to overcome spiritual powers. The devil has power over humanity and Jesus dies in the place of humanity to free humanity.
This is the commonly held theory in the East.
Satisfaction theory of atonement and Penal substitution
Only a human being can repay the debt to God incurred by what happened in the Garden of Eden. However, since man deserves death anyway, only God can offer what is required to repay the debt since god does not already deserve death. The divine solution is to send Jesus, the God-man, fully divine and fully human, to fulfil both conditions.
This is the theory most commonly held in the West.
Essentially if I break my neighbour’s window while playing football, I now owe her a window. I am obliged to pay for the mending of the window. However, this does little to deal with her anger and inconvenience so I pay for and repair the window and buy her a box of chocolates. The relationship is restored.
There are other models and theories.
However, the idea of Jesus as a substitute for us is not the only way in which we can look at this.
There are weaknesses. The first is the the Bible does not present it to us as a simple or single theory. Beyond that, you are presuming an angry God who would do to you what we would not do to our children or even a stranger. It is almost the opposite of what Jesus’ teaching invites us to do. Forgive, seventy seven times (with no payment or ransom). Do to other people as you would have them do to you, and so on.
It also has Jesus appear as a Plan B or an after-thought. It has gone wrong so what do we do now?
I think part of the difficulty is in our language and our thinking. We think of this as transaction – a deal, a contract. It is more helpful if we see it as transformation.
If God is free why does God need a blood sacrifice? Everything Jesus teaches is about change and not contract. We do not forgive only when the price has been paid or satisfaction has been given.
I am not saying that we are fine and that we are not what has been called sinners. We are completely out of line with where we should be but what is wrong and what is lost is right relationships. It is for this reason that we are called to recognise the importance of restoration and forgiveness and love and grace.
If we get this wrong then we have an idea that Jesus came to change God’s mind about us. In fact, Jesus came to change our minds about God. When we see Jesus’ death what we see is not an angry God demanding a sacrifice but rather God in the place of the victim, God in the place of the weak and the marginalised. It does change everything but what Christ’s death does is to change us.
If this is how God is, non-violent, clinging onto nothing, giving everything, turning the other cheek to the bitter end and beyond and when I see that kind of weakness all I see is God then I want to live like that. We believe it, not because we gain from it but because it is true. This alone, this at the end of everything, beneath everything, beyond everything else is true.
This view reflects and makes sense of Jesus’ teaching. Substitutionary atonement does not.
However at the end of the day I do not know and none of us does. Our redemption and our ability to forgive others will come not from what we believe but out of what we do and Jesus gives us the instructions. We get this and we understand this not with our heads but when we learn how to do it. This is what forgiveness from the heart actually is.
It is, we say, impossible to forgive to the point that a relationship is what it was before. But then we see the cross and our understanding of what is and what is not possible changes completely. That is the transformation of the cross.
God wipes out our debt as we write off the debts of other people. After it is done we do not know what has been done or how it has been done because there are no cracks or scars. We are restored. It is as if nothing has happened. It is as if there never was any rift or divide.
Jesus teaches us to forgive because that is what God does.
Jesus’ death is anything but insignificant. But its significance and meaning and indeed its power may be different to what we thought it was.
This lecture provides some interesting and helpful insight and information into and on the wider issues of and background to the general idea of substitutionary atonement. Beyond Scapegoating: Arthur Colman.