Here is an early draft of tonight's first sermon on forgiveness...
On Sunday 8th November 1987, as people gathered round the Enniskillen Cenotaph, and IRA bomb exploded. Eleven people died; there was extensive damage. Gordon WIlson and his daughter Marie were buried in the rubble. As they held hands, waiting to be freed, Marie died. That same evening, Gordon Wilson gave a spontaneous and memorable interview to a BBC reporter. Some criticized him for what he said; others were amazed. Later he wrote:
I’d like to think that it was the real Gordon Wilson who spoke to the BBC’s reporter... on the evening of the bomb, when I said, ‘I have lost my daughter and we shall miss her. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back.. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven. We’ll meet again. Don’t please ask me for a purpose. I don’t have a purpose. I don’t have an answer. But I know that there has to be a plan.... God is good and we shall meet again.’
I did not use the word ‘forgive’, in that broadcast nor in any later one, but people understood that my words were about forgiveness. Our Lord taught us to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ We ask God to forgive us, but we are always subject to his condition that we must forgive others. God’s forgiveness is ultimate, ours is the forgiveness of man to man. To me the two become one. It’s as simple as that. My words were not intended as a statement of theology or of righteousness, rather they were from the heart, and they expressed how I felt at the time and I still do’
The call to forgive comes over and over again in the pages of the scriptures and is found many times on the lips of Jesus himself. Jesus calls his followers are to forgive over and over again. Jesus says that Christian forgiveness must come from the heart - it must be freely given. It is not just a matter of forgiving or loving those whom you like, because even ‘sinners’ do that (Luke 6: 35ff) but forgiveness must extend to those whom we object to. We must not judge, condemn, but forgive and we will be - not by our enemies - but by God (see the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23ff)
Forgiveness for Jesus is not some sort of social project, but linked inextricably to God’s work in the world, especially in and through his life, death and resurrection.
Jesus talks most often about forgiveness of sins (at the Last Supper Matthew 26:28 and the healing of the paralysed man in Mark 2.) Sins are the things that we do and say that build barriers between us and God and other people. These barriers go up because we are proud and don’t acknowledge we need God. We get into such a mess and despite knowing that God wants to lift us out - we shut God out. We sometimes wonder whether God can forgive us, the guilt eats us up - we shut God out. In circumstances like these, we realise that God asks us to change, and yet either feel powerless or unwilling to - so we shut God out. Sin offends God. It separates him from the thing that he loves more than anything else in the whole world - you - and it breaks his heart enough to send Jesus; not in some sort of rescue mission, but to complete what he had undertaken at the beginning. God acted so that we might fully understand him. Jesus tells us all that we need to know about God and all that we need to know about ourselves. When Jesus talks of forgiveness then, what does he really mean?
It is not about being a member of a religious community that worships a loving and forgiving God. Christianity is the end of religion and of forgiveness. Look at the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. She asks him about the right place to worship God, seeing Jesus was clearly a prophet. Jesus’ answer turns the whole thing on it’s head, he says - it doesn’t matter where you worship, but about how you worship; worship will be in spirit and truth and God seeks out people like these. Christianity is not a religion. Religion is only needed when there is a wall of separation and sin between God and us. Christ in his life, death and resurrection breaks down that wall and inaugurates new life not new religion and does away with continued forgiveness.
When Jesus talks of forgiveness then, what does he really mean? He means that new life which is about repenting. Repentance is where we feel totally alienated from God, from real life. It is about realising through my actions that I have defiled my spiritual beauty, that I, like the Prodigal Son, am far from home, and that something precious entrusted to me is hopelessly broken in the very texture of my existence and my deepest desire to return home.
When Jesus talks of forgiveness then, what does he really mean? He means new life which is about receiving assurance that God has (past tense) broken down the wall of separation between God and us through Christ’s death and resurrection once and for all, and having received that assurance, sharing that news, that ‘forgiveness’ with others.
‘I did not use the word ‘forgive’, in that broadcast nor in any later one, but people understood that my words were about forgiveness. Our Lord taught us to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ We ask God to forgive us, but we are always subject to his condition that we must forgive others. God’s forgiveness is ultimate, ours is the forgiveness of man to man. To me the two become one.’ Gordon WIlson is right in that sense. Forgiveness can only come from an awareness of God’s new life in us, which God longs to give, if we would only return home.