Sermon Easter 2 Year C [RCL Resources Index]

Believing and Forgiving

Did it strike you as it struct me, that when when Jesus met with his desciples immedately after his resurrection and commissoned them in the power of the Spirit to go out to the ends of the earth there was only one thing mentioned specifically about the message with which Jesus sent out the apostles? What the risen Lord said to his disciples when he met with them on the evening of the day of resurrection was about forgiveness. Forgiveness of sins was the one subject on which Jesus gave specific instruction at that crucial time, it was at the core of the message with which he sent them out to the ends of the earth. It is particularly important and relevant to the circumstances in which we live today.

There is today a serious distortion of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness; and sometimes it is completely rejected. It is commonly heard in discussions on the radio or in the press about whether what someone has done in the past should continue to be held against them. It may be in a case of domestic violence, perhaps followed by murder. Cases of sexual abuse often raise the question of whether forgiveness is ever possible. Religion may be an inspiration of unforgiving violences or used to justify complete rejuection and destruction of others without considering forgiveness. It is becoming much clearer now than it used to be that regilion can be good or bad and that not all religions preach and practice forgiveness. In international affairs in we see this in the Middle East. In recent years we have been reminded of the Vietnam War and a few years back of the fiftieth anniversary of end of World War II. This Sunday falls near Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand (next Sunday in 2004: the day of remembrance for the sacrifices made by members of the armed forces in wartime). Sometimes there are heartful expressions of forgiveness and a genuine desire to be liberated from past hatreds, but it is not always so. I have included special prayers for world peace in the prayers of intercession.

War and various kinds of violence against the person create strong feelings, feelings often associated with a desire for revenge and a reversal of the humiliation one has suffered. It can take a very long time for such strong feelings to fade and they never seem to disappear entirely. Like grief, one learns to live with it, healing takes place, but it is always there. Even when there reconciliation between warring parties one must remain sensitive to the old hurts and avoid reviving memories that can destroy relationships. Long after the events calls can still come for admission of guilt, as one still hears in reference to Japanese accounts of the War. Forgiveness and reconciliation in human affairs are never easy. There are places such as Bosnia and Northern Ireland where divided communities have kept the memories alive and a cycle of violence has persisted. Nevertheless many people do try to leave the past behind. It is an open question today which way the world is heading in readiness to forgive.

There are some strong movements which openly teach against the Christian doctrine of forgiveness. One of these, popular a few years ago, was a particular kind of feminism in which women who have been abused were encouraged to resist all suggestion that they should forgive the person who abused them. However feminism has many forms and it is not alone in this attitude. The same kind of thing can occur where there is a reversal of power in race relations, although the great changes in South Africa provide us with a prime example of how good will and generosity on the part of leaders can allow a new start to be made without the vengeful violence that revolutionary change often brings. A negative example of another kind is the way communists justified repressive government as a reversal of the pre-revolutionary power in the supposed interests of workers. The distortion in all these cases comes from justifying the pursuit of power by one section of society over another by appeal to the injustice once found in the exercise of power by the group or class now being suppressed.

[For additional notes on forgiveness and ideology, in regard to some feminist claims, see Appendix 2]

What then gives us that power and freedom in which true forgiveness can be effective? Hopefully, we will be able to see that there is more to justice and forgiveness than turning the tables on someone. Forgiveness of sins, nevertheless has something to do with the exercise of power.

The commission to forgive sins

Jesus met with his disciples on the evening of that day when, according to John he had been recognized by Mary Magdalene in the garden, and according to Luke the two on the road to Emmaus had recognized him at he breaking of bread. He gave them a promise of power and commissioned them to go out with a message of the forgiveness of sins:

Luke writes of the proclamation of forgiveness as the message for all nations; John records his giving them power actually to forgive sins. The passage in John is taken as the basis for the authority of priests to exercise the ministry of reconciliation with God, by mediating God's forgiveness, as representatives of Christ absolving repentant people of the their sins. Generally, churches of the reformed traditions have taught that all believers may function as priests, representing God to others and others to God, and I would encourage people to take this seriously, because all too often talk of the priesthood of all believers has resulted in the priesthood of no believers. We should all be ready to mediate the grace of God to those who are ready to receive it. At the same time it is clear in pastoral experience that there are times when those who have been set apart to have a representative function in the church do need to exercise that ministry to release people who are burdened with sin. This priestly office still belongs to the representative ministry of Word and sacraments, even if it is shared with others. Sometimes it needs to be done individually, but the general responsibility is represented in the declaration of forgiveness after the confession in the common order of public worship; and I chose a strong form of that declaration today, connecting it with those words of the risen Lord, to make the point that it is still a ministry that is given to us.

The exercise of a representative ministry is not all that is intended by the commission that Jesus gave to the disciples. Why was it emphasised at the time of the resurrection? Why does it occur in the passage where he was convincing them that he has in fact risen from the dead? How is the forgiveness of sins connected to the resurrection?

The source of the power to forgive

You will remember that when during his earthly ministry Jesus said to people "Your sins are forgiven," he was challenged by authorities who said "who but God has power to forgive sins.'" When he told the man he had been cured to take up his bed and walk he said it was to convince them that "the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins."

Now what has happened at the resurrection? It is now that they see Jesus as one raised up to share the glory of God. To believe that he has risen is to accept him as Lord.

When he was eventually convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead Thomas worshipped him saying, "My Lord and my God" [John 20:28]. For a Jew to call any man God is unthinkable blasphemy. It was the very thing of which the scribes at Capernaum accused Jesus, and it was indeed the charge against him by the Jewish Council which he was called to answer after his arrest. If he was not God it was a true charge, and he should rightly have been found guilty. It was the resurrection which now made it possible for him to be called Lord and God. So the earliest confession of faith was "Jesus is Lord" and the early Christians began to venerate Jesus in their worship as in that early hymn that is recorded for us in Philippians 2:5-11 of which we were reminded on Good Friday.

Jesus being raised up is an event in heaven as well as on earth. He is given a high status, above all others, next to God the Father himself. It seems certain that the early Christians actually had visions of Jesus sharing the glory of God, and we might have a closer look at the evidence in the New Testament for these visions next week when Paul's experience on the road to Damascus is one of the readings. One example is the experience of the first martyr Stephen:

He had a vision of Jesus in glory, as an exalted one, he prayed to him as one would pray to God, calling him "Lord" and he prayed specifically for their forgiveness!

The point is this: that just as the Son had come down to earth as God's representative, now he stands before God as our representative pleading our cause. As we read in Hebrews, he is the great high priest for ever interceding for us.

The risen Lord restores the relationship between God and his people. After the resurrection, Christ, having already been recognized by God the Father, re-established the relationship with his disciples that had been broken by death. In doing so we related them again to God the Father through himself as one once separated and now restored. So the resurrection is an earthly event affecting us. He re-established the relationship with God that he had experienced as broken when he identified himself with sinful men to the extent that he knew the separation of sin and cried out from the cross that God had forsaken him. So the resurrection is also an event in heaven. By raising him and exalting him God made him the victor over both sin and death. It is as the victor that he has power to share with this followers the power to forgive sins, and of course they knew that they could not proclaim such a message in word and deed in relation to God's forgiveness of people if, as he taught them, they did not also forgive others their sins against themselves. So when we mediate the forgiveness of sins we are proclaiming the Gospel, the good news that this Jesus who was crucified is the Lord through whom we are reconciled to God himself.

The basis then of Christian teaching about the importance of forgiveness in human life is the belief that in Jesus the powers of evil are overcome. The reversal of power relations which makes forgiveness humanly possible has been accomplished by someone else on our behalf. We have no need to turn the tables on others because he has already turned things upside down. As his mother Mary prayed in her song, he has thrown down the mighty from their thrones and raised up the lowly. We love because he first loved us. We forgive because we are first forgiven. It is the risen Lord, the conqueror of sin and death, the new administrator of justice, who shares this power with us. Because it is he who has the power to judge, we are free to forgive knowing that justice will be done.

In contrast with secular ideas which focus attention on human power struggles in which forgiveness is dismissed as a sign of weakness bound to perpetuate injustice, the Christian belief is that trust in God, especially in his saving grace in Christ, strangely enables weakness to be triumphant. Jesus taught that the meek will inherit the earth, that people should be servants to one another, and he took the role of servant himself even to the point of death. Paul in recognizing him, the suffering servant, as Lord, saw strength in his own weakness:

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Appendix 1

Christian leadership and freedom - a pastoral word on preaching

I have tended to restrict my preaching to strict Biblical exposition, teaching what the Bible says on topics which occur in the readings set for the day and leaving the application of what might learned from the Scripture to members to work out for themselves. It might be helpful then if I say a little about the general approach I am taking.

I believe that leadership is important and that one should not shrink from the responsibility to lead and to provide clear guidance when it is called for. At the same time the freedom of individuals to respond in their own way is also very important. There is a sense in which it is always necessary for worship to be structured and teaching to be given in a way which leaves room for people to respond in their own way. We are all different and we are all responsible for the way we live and how we respond to God's word.

In leading worship, I believe it is the responsibility of the leader to provide some general structure and guidance, largely out of the traditions of the Church, within which people can be active in expressing their own devotion to God. Different parts of the service will appeal to or meet the needs of different people on different occasions, so that although the main theme will vary throughout the year in such a way as to ensure that all the major aspects of the Christian faith are covered and all parts of the Bible are heard, at least over a period of a few years, it is necessary to provide frequent, even weekly, opportunity for common worship needs like praise of God, thanksgiving, confession and assurance of forgiveness, and prayers for others. You might not take much notice of the prayer of confession sometimes, but there will be other times when it is the one thing that really matters; or it might be that commitment to discipleship is only of general relevance much of the time, but there be occasions when one must have such an opportunity in order to be true to God. The leader of worship cannot know where all of the people are in their faith journey all of the time so he or she must provide a range of different opportunities to meet different needs. This must be done while still guarding the traditions and the truth of the Gospel. If the worship leader is also the pastor then knowledge of the people's needs will grow as they share their faith and life with the pastor and that will then feed back into kind of leadership that is given in worship.

It is the same with preaching as with leading worship. Different things will speak to different people at different times and all must have freedom to respond in their own way while the preacher, far from trying to be popular by saying what people want to hear must remain true to the basic teaching of the Gospel. So Biblical teaching is very important. Helping people to understand the Scriptures while leaving them free to work out the implications in their own lives expresses the attitude of respect for one another that comes from the acceptance of others as children of God, while at the same time it reflects the practical limitation that no one can know all of the relevant circumstances of those who hear the preaching. That is especially important when one is in the early stages of a ministry. There is enough in the basic teaching of the faith to occupy our attention for a long time. Nevertheless, we can help one another to work through the implications of the Gospel for our own time and circumstances; and in addition to those processes of gentle mutual assistance there will be occasions when a strong prophetic word must be spoken. This must be done while both the preacher and the listener are aware of the risk of false teaching. The further one moves from the direct teaching of the Bible to make relevant applications in the present day the greater the risk of misinterpretation, and the greater the responsibility of the hearers themselves to test their response against Scripture.

Several people have said to me recently that while they appreciate the depth of Biblical teaching they have had recently, and which was the kind of preaching it was agreed with the elders that I should give, some at least would like to have more attention to what it means for living the Christian life. I had in any case intended to move in this direction, especially in a few weeks time after Pentecost, and now in the season of Easter I will begin to give it more attention while remaining fairly close to the Biblical texts. Later I expect to depart from the Lectionary from time to time for a few weeks to tackle topics of interest and importance such marriage, family, work, government, science or the arts, but always I hope with a Biblical perspective and strong foundations in basic Christian teaching. Today we turn to a topic that is central to the Gospel read today, concerning forgiveness. I introduce the problem and give a general Christian response to it and then show how it is related to what the risen Lord said to his disciples when he met with them on the evening of the day of resurrection. Just let us note this: forgiveness of sins was the one subject on which Jesus gave specific instruction at that crucial time, it was at the core of the message with which he sent them out to the ends of the earth.

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Appendix 2

Forgiveness in a situation of ideological conflict

Extracts from and amendments to notes prepared 2 December 1993 in response to a request from Nancy Bomford, the Moderator at that time of the Uniting Church in Australia Synod of Victoria, on a paper The Church, forgiveness, and reconciliation which dealt with claims then being made by some women's groups in regard to the withholding of forgiveness for sexual abuse.

The argument against forgiveness comes basically from a philosophy of alienation and especially out of a secular ideology of class conflict. The idea that the sinner must be humbled, or even humiliated, and that there must be a reversal of power relations in order for reconciliation to occur has some subtle appeal, and there are some elements of truth in it. The essential idea is that justice is advanced by a change in power relations so that one must first identify the class enemy and then defeat or frustrate his interests. Whatever achieves that end is said to be just. Sometimes it is claimed that whatever will achieve that end of power reversal is also truthful. Forgiveness and reconciliation are then claimed to be largely irrelevant to questions of justice except in recognising and reinforcing a change in power relationships which has already taken place.

In spite of the distortion that can all too easily develop, I think there is some justification for the view that the capacity to forgive involves the exercise of some power. The argument that a person who has been humiliated should not be pressured to forgive one who has abused an uneven power relationship has merit, although this is primarily a matter of attitude rather than action, because the opportunity really to forgive only arises when the offender seeks forgiveness. We should acknowledge that for an act of forgiveness to be valid, or done with integrity and effect, the one forgiving must be able to act as a free and responsible agent, as a real person who has power to give or to withhold, not merely to conform out of duty or the requirements of the circumstances. An act of forgiveness is indeed an act of love and requires that free capacity to give which loving requires, and, incidentally, enables. So there is some truth in the argument that is put forward even though it is distorted by secular ideology.

The point about attitude rather than action arises from the fact that in the way forgiveness is spoken of in the New Testament it is to do with debts being owed. One who is owed something can decide not to collect the debt. A person can be forgiven their obligation to square the ledger. The question then arises only when there is a demand to pay and the one who can't pay asks to be excused from the obligation to pay, i.e., seeks forgiveness. That seeking, then, whatever the power relations might have been previously, signifies acceptance of the obligation and the power of the other to grant or withhold forgiveness. Up to that point one might have an attitude of being ready to forgive, but the actual act of wiping out the debt would not normally arise except when there is some negotiation about the settling of accounts.

The Parable of the Two Debtors [Matthew 18:23-35] is a very nice illustration, combined with the teaching which Jesus gave in and about the Lord's Prayer. It clearly says if you do not forgive others then neither will you be forgiven. That teaching is such a fundamental tenet of the way of life required of those who follow Jesus that no amount of sophistry can avoid it. Indeed, it must have been a point around which a good deal of debate took place during the ministry of Jesus. Witness the various questions about how many times and so on. One thing I would like to point out about that Parable of the Two Debtors is that one was said to owe ten thousand talents, a ridiculous amount and an extraordinary fantasy when even one talent was a measure beyond the normal sums of commerce for individuals and equal to almost a lifetime of work. There was absolutely no hope of anybody ever paying such a debt, yet that is the kind of debt that the master forgave the servant who was later punished when he was unwilling to forgive his fellow servant a few cents. This must stand in sharp contrast to an argument that the extent of confession and repentance should in some way equal the seriousness of the offence. It is like a person having to buy his or her own salvation. It is hopeless. To stress the seriousness of the offence without an opportunity for forgiveness is to say "maintain your rage", and to deny the possibility of reconciliation. For forgiveness to be liberating, to save or to heal, it must go beyond legal obligation or entitlements and be undeserved, an act of grace.

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Appendix 3

re some Biblical references on Lordship of the risen Christ and the candle signs (in reference to the Pascal or Christ candle which was lit at Easter and which bears the first and last Greek letters, Alpha and Omega).

The Easter Candle

The Easter or Paschal candle is an ancient symbol of the resurrection and is lit for services throughout the Easter season until Pentecost, and again whenever there is a baptism when the candidate's candle is traditionally lit from it to remind us of the connection between baptism and the resurrection faith, baptism being a sign of dying to an old life and rising to a new life with Christ.

"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. -- Revelation 1:8

Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. -- Revelation 21:6

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." -- Revelation 22:13

{21:1} Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. {2} And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. {3} And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; {4} he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." {5} And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." {6} Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. -- Revelation 21:1-6

{12} "See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work. {13} I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." {14} Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. {15} Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. {16} "It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star." -- Revelation 22:12-16

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