Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
As we continue our journey through the Lord’s prayer we have come to the line forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. This idea of forgiveness lies at the heart of the Gospel. It is what Jesus laid down his life for – that we could be forgiven by God and restored to relationship with him, and thus empowered, be freed to forgive others, and thereby bring all relationships into harmony. It is an idea both profoundly appealing and effective, but almost impossibly challenging in equal measure.
Many of the letters I get describe situations in parishes that would be resolved if we Christians were prepared to forgive each other a little more readily. If we could only make allowances for the difficulties everyone is carrying. Most of the things that work people up are the simple result of human frailty, not malice aforethought. They are cock-up rather than conspiracy. I always say if normally well-meaning people do something that looks like an act of cruelty its usually because you who are judging them don’t have the full story on which they made their decision. Confidentiality prevents the full story being told.
Unfortunately, our on-demand culture leads us to expect that human relationships can be conducted like Amazon deliveries. They can’t. If our anger with people is an outworking of a spirit of entitlement, or an ego driven desire to be proved right, we need to think again.
A good dose of forgiveness, willingly offered, would sort out many of societies and the churches problems, but not all. This week marks the anniversary of Russia’s despicable invasion of Ukraine. Many thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed, communities devastated, children traumatised, all in the name of a nationalist xenophobia that we find almost impossible to understand. Low grade grumpiness in this country should respond to an exhortation to forgive. But I wonder how our Ukrainian friends respond to Jesus words? How can you forgive the abuser who continues to abuse, or whose past actions have taken up space rent free in your head for years? How do you hear the invitation to forgive when your sons have been killed fighting on the front line, your homes and businesses destroyed, and you find yourself displaced in a foreign country, with limited command of the language? Revenge and the search for justice sounds a lot more appealing in those circumstances. Surely Jesus is asking too much of us?
If forgiveness implied a denial of the intensity of our feelings, a forced amnesia to events, the trivialising of the hurt or behaviour, or a surrendering of our search for justice, we might legitimately accuse Jesus of naivety. But Jesus had to work out the command to forgive in his own experience. Some of his last words from the cross were to pray for forgiveness for those who had done it to him. The Christians in Rome had to work it out in the context of their nearest and dearest being fed to the lions for public entertainment. Paul’s insight to the Roman church was that justice can never be avoided. Those who were treating them so appallingly would not escape judgement in the next world unless, like them, they received the gift of forgiveness through coming to Christ. The final healing of the pain may also need to await eternity. This eternal perspective promises a dealing with the fears that prevent the release of forgiveness. If all of this was loaded into this life alone, it simply couldn’t bear the weight of it. Perhaps the most challenging of all is the New Testament’s reluctance to set up strict hierarchies of sin. For us, invading a sovereign nation, war crimes and brutality are rather worse than an absent-minded sleight to a friend. The Bible seems to focus more on the root alienation from God that underlies both. Christ’s death on the cross indicates, both that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and that all of us need forgiveness.
Mr Putin and his cronies will have to answer to God one day for all they have done, but so will I. We both need Christ’s forgiveness, albeit to a different degree (I hope). The forgiveness we receive through Jesus Christ cleans our souls for the receipt of the Holy Spirit, who alone can empower the sort of miraculous refusal to retaliate that eventually allows evil to burn itself out. It is in the forgiveness of our own sins that power is released to forgive others. As with Jesus, Christian forgiveness is that act of the will that decides to continue to treat those who have wronged us as if they hadn’t. It doesn’t mean Ukrainians should stop defending themselves, or Mr Putin is somehow let off the hook if there is a possibility to serve him justice. But ultimately bitterness ends up destroying the one who harbours it rather than punishing the perpetrator. Jesus is not perhaps so naive after all.