Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 22nd April 2012
22nd April 2012 at 11:15 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Sub-Dean and Canon Treasurer and Almoner
There is one notion that occurs in all three of our readings this morning. In St Peter’s words as reported in the book of Acts he invites his hearers to repent ‘that your sins may be wiped out.’ The author of the first epistle of St John says that Jesus appeared ‘to take away sins’, and in the gospel passage from St Luke we are told that Jesus charged his disciples that ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed to all nations’. It was clearly quite fundamental for the early church that those who professed and called themselves Christians should know something of the forgiveness of God wrought by Jesus.
Now most of us if we reflect at all carefully on our lives can probably think of things we have done of which we are at least mildly ashamed, and some may even be able to think of things of which they are really deeply ashamed. The offer of a deep and lasting forgiveness at least by God can therefore be genuinely liberating. But there is a danger in all of that into which I think some preachers have fallen at times in the past, and that is the desire to stoke up feelings of guilt in a sensitive person’s soul in order then to produce Jesus as the answer to their problem. Of course there is a sensible and reasonable feeling of guilt that many might feel about things they have done or the things they have not done that they should have done; but there can also be in some people a deeply irrational and unhealthy preoccupation with guilt that damages their lives in a very serious way. And while of course the offer of forgiveness can help such a person, it often needs to be accompanied by some sort of professional help to realise the possibly unhealthy reasons why the guilt is so strongly and so irrationally held. So while I do believe we all need to know and feel that we are forgiven by God I am not sure that I want to be part of a church engaged in seeking to develop an unhealthy feeling of guilt in lots of other people.
But the point about the Christian experience of forgiveness is that it is, or should be, liberating: liberating in our relationship with God and also liberating in our relationship with other people.
Take our relationship with God first. As in so many questions about religion it does much turn on what you mean by God in the first place. If your notion of God is of some sort of cosmic moral policeman, who laid down a series of rules by which men and women should behave and then holds them to account when they do not behave like that, then forgiveness will be perceived in one sort of way. But that is, of course, not the only way of thinking about God. If you believe, as I do, that God is that which is at the heart of all things, that he is the very soul of the universe that gives the whole thing its meaning, then you can also believe that this universe has at its fundamental core and heart a graciousness and generosity that wants the very best for its creatures. God gives us an opportunity to be co-workers with him in creating a world that is good. And if that is the case then sin is not so much the breaking of some sort of divine law so much as colluding with something that is less than that best. Of course there are some people who have done some dreadful things that have deeply harmed other people, nobody can look at our world and not recognise that. And maybe, for all I know, that even applies to some people here in this congregation. They may need to know the forgiveness of God in that freedom from real and deep guilt. But my guess is that for many if not most of us while we are probably all aware of a tendency to selfishness and self-centeredness it is not that we are dreadful and wicked sinners, but that probably we have not always achieved the good we might have done. And if that is the case then God’s forgiveness of us is not so much taking away punishment for what we have done in the past that is wrong so much as picking us up, noting where things went not as well as they might have done and saying in effect ‘have another go and see if you can do better next time’. Forgiveness is not just about the wrongs we may have done in the past, but it is also about encouragement for the good we might do in the future.
And if that is the case then the liberation offered us by God in forgiveness might well spill over into that other dimension where forgiveness is so often needed, in our relationships with others. Of course some forgiveness of others is quite easy, if a harmful act has not harmed us very much then it is not that difficult to forgive the other person. But when we have been seriously harmed, or someone close to us has been seriously harmed, then it becomes far more difficult. And then so much of what we are can be a consequence of being caught up in a pattern of behaviour that becomes destructive and damaging, both to ourselves and to others, and it gets repeated almost out of habit. If, for example, someone is in a personal conflict with someone else, maybe in a place of work, or maybe in some sort of social gathering like a club where you keep on meeting, or even maybe within a family, it is very easy for the initial source of the conflict, whether it be a disagreement, or just a personal dislike of the other person, or a clash of values, to produce a pattern of behaviour that stokes the fires of the conflict, and produces defensiveness on both sides that makes the possibility of change very difficult. It requires something external to break that mould, to create the possibility of a new beginning. And forgiveness, not just the forgiveness of the other but maybe even the forgiveness of ourselves can be that mould-breaking experience that paves the way for something better. Jesus no doubt knew what he was doing when in his prayer he taught us to pray ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ In a world without forgiveness, evil begets evil, harm generates harm, and there is no way short of exhaustion or forgetfulness of breaking the sequence. Forgiveness breaks the chain. It opens the possibility of grace. It represents a decision not to do what instinct and passion urge us to do, but it answers hate with a refusal to hate, animosity with generosity. It was Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, who wrote of forgiveness ‘Few more daring ideas have ever entered the human situation. Forgiveness means that we are not destined endlessly to replay the grievances of yesterday. It is the ability to live with the past without being held captive by the past. It would not be an exaggeration to say that forgiveness is the most compelling testimony to human freedom…It is the refusal to be defined by circumstance. It represents our ability to change course… and create an unexpected set of possibilities for the future.’
What I believe the passages for this morning ask of us is not just that we should receive the forgiveness of God, but also become its agent in the world, to forgive as we are forgiven. The question, as always, is whether the church and all Christian people can rise to that challenge.