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Sunday Worship 9 June | What Does Christianity Say About...Forgiveness?

Luke 15:11-32
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ 
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

This morning we start a new teaching series, "What does Christianity say about...?" We first talked about doing this a few months back, when there was a suggestion that we might take a more topical approach to our reflections, similar to our previous focus on areas of social justice. Members of the congregation were invited to suggest themes thet would like to explore, and over the coming weeks we will start to look at these, beginning with forgiveness and then sin, before tackling politics ahead of the general election. Initially the title for the series flickered between "What does scripture say about...?" and "What does Jesus say about...?" but in the end I have landed on "What does Christianity say about...?" 

My intention is that this gives us the flexibility to look at the whole of scripture with a particular focus on Jesus, but also the freedom to look at what the Christian tradition has said in the centuries since. While we won't be able to cover everything, I hope this broader question recognises that God continues to speak and we continue to listen, and it may also help us to name and deconstruct some of the less helpful ideas that have developed over time. We'll be taking on some big topics, and we should probably be prepared to come away with new questions, but let’s take a deep breath and dive in.

Forgiveness was the first topic that was suggested, but it also seems a good starting point because it is a foundational claim of the Christian faith that we are forgiven by God because of the work of Christ. Jesus himself said of the cup at the last supper, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”, and this was central to the message of the early church. In Acts 10:43, Peter preaches that “everyone who believes in [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name”, and Colossians 1:14 speaks of Christ as the one “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” There are many ways of understanding just how forgiveness comes through Christ - in theological language we call these theories of the atonement - but I will save those for another time. For the moment, I hope it will suffice to say that Christianity teaches that Christ came so that we might be forgiven.

But of course none of this is to say that ideas about divine forgiveness are unique or original to Christianity. The system of rituals and sacrifices laid out in the Torah is a way of codifying repentance and absolution. In Psalm 103:12, the psalmist rejoices that “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” And in Jeremiah 31:34, God declares “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more”. It has always been the nature of God to forgive, but what is distinctive about Christianity is the belief that God has made the first move, and so we only need to receive the forgiveness that is offered through Christ. 

Because the truth is that we do still bear some responsibility in all of this. In Luke 24:47, Jesus said that it would be fulfilled that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations”.  In Acts 3:19, Peter exhorts the crowds to “repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out”. And 1 John 1:9 promises that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God meets us when we are still far off, and is ready to forgive evenbefore we ask for it, but we do need to ask for it, because if we do not acknowledge our need for forgiveness, and if we do not live differently in the light of it, then that forgiveness is meaningless. Grace is free, but it is not meant to be cheap.

I want to turn here to a voice from outside the Christian tradition, Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who was critical of Christian teaching on forgiveness. Judaism teaches that only the victim has the right to forgive an offence committed against them, and so Levinas believed that the emphasis Christianity places on being forgiven by God through Christ deflected from the need to forgive and be forgiven by one another. He feared that it removed the need for us to engage in the important work of reconciliation, and prevented us from reaching full maturity and developing a just society. I think Levinas’ criticism is significant, and made pertinent by recent events. 

You may be aware that earlier this year, the presenter and author Russell Brand was baptised in the River Thames. He announced this in a video, in which he spoke about leaving behind his sins. This gave rise to a number of opinion pieces in the media, as the last time Brand was in the headlines, it was because he had been accused of a number of serious sexual assaults. He has never been convicted, but the accusations appear to be credible, and the way he has spoken about and behaved towards women in public has been deeply offensive. I hope that his faith is genuine, and that he really has been changed by an encounter with God, but for him to speak about moving on from the past, without any indication that he has acknowledged or made amends for the hurt he has caused, is deeply problematic. I would also argue that it is not a true Christian understanding of forgiveness.

Levinas was right to argue against a theology which says that only God's forgiveness is necessary, and the example of Brand reminds us that Chrisitian teaching on grace can easily be manipulated into such a theology, but I don't believe it is the theology of Christ. What Levinas and Brand both seem to miss is the fact that Jesus repeatedly called his followers to seek forgiveness from and offer forgiveness to one another. In fact he spoke of needing to forgive in order to be forgiven far more than he spoke of needing to repent in order to be forgiven, and we also find similar exhortations to forgiveness in the letters to the early churches. Colossians 3:13 says “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive'', and 2 Corinthians 2:5-7 advises “if anyone has caused should rather turn to forgive and comfort them”. Most significantly, it is right there in the Lord’s Prayer, in which Jesus instructs us to pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.

I say most significantly because we pray those words for ourselves regularly, and so they should be shaping our understanding of what it means to forgive and be forgiven, but I really cannot emphasise enough how insistent Jesus is on this point, and we see it perhaps most strongly in two other passages. In a brief commentary following the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus declares that “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” And when John first appears to the disciples in the locked room after the resurrection, he tells them “if you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” An enormous amount of responsibility is placed on our capacity to forgive, and I hope as we continue on we shall see why.

I'm sure the reading we heard this morning was familiar to most of you. It is often called the Story of the Prodigal Son, or the Story of the Lost Son, but you may have noticed that in the Contact I referred to it as the Story of the Two Sons. I did that because I think the older son is really important, especially if we are thinking in terms of forgiveness. As the father runs to his wayward son before he even knows why he is returning, we realise that like God, his forgiveness is there for the taking. But as the older son sulks outside the party even after learning that his brother has been welcomed home, we realise that like us, he finds forgiveness rather more difficult. We often cast ourselves in the role of the prodigal, and we are right to understand and rejoice that we are embraced by the father, but in truth we are also his brother. 

And this is true for us collectively as well as individually, because it is clear that Christianity has struggled with forgiveness. I have already suggested that at times we have made it too easy, cheapening it by avoiding the hard work of reconciliation, but it is also the case that at other times we have made it too hard, failing to show the mercy we have received. It never ceases to amaze me that support for the death penalty in the United States is strongest in the Bible-belt, or that there are entire denominations that are excluded from or refuse to join ecumenical groupings because of historical disagreements. On forgiveness as on many things, the church has not always understood or been true to the teaching of Christ.

Back then to that teaching, and the Story of the Two Sons ends rather abruptly. The older son is assured that he is loved no less because his brother has been forgiven, and now he faces a choice. Does he stay out in the cold with his bitterness, or does he forgive his brother and enjoy the feast? I think the fact that we do not know is deliberate, because it forces us to consider what our own choice would be, and then what the right choice would be. Jesus doesn't give us the answer here, but I do think he has given us enough to work it out. After all, he is always inviting us to join the party. To be honest, I don't really want to say any more about the passage than that. I just want to let it sit with you as a picture of forgiveness and an invitation to forgive.

I want to tell you another story now, reading an excerpt from the novel ‘Phoebe’ by Christian theologian Paula Gooder. The book is a fictionalised account of the life of the deacon who Paul entrusted to take his letter to the church in Rome, based on clues in scripture and historical knowledge of the early church and its surrounding culture. In this scene, the apostle Peter tells Phoebe and Titus about his experience of being forgiven by Jesus. I think this is a really significant moment in scripture, because when I say that Christ came so that we might be forgiven, what that means for me is not only that Christ came so that God might forgive us, but also that Christ came so that we might know better how to forgive one another. We pick up as Peter recounts the events of his meeting with Jesus on the beach, in the days following the resurrection.

Someone behind me, I didn’t see who, said, “It is the Lord.” But I didn’t really need him to say it. I already knew. And as I knew, something burst deep within me. My shame, humiliation and horror tumbled out, and I jumped into the sea there and then. I swam right up to him. Got out and looked him right in the eye, just as I had done in the courtyard when I denied him, and in that moment I knew I was forgiven.

‘You must have been so relieved,’ smiled Titus, his kind heart rejoicing for this person he had only just met.

‘Oddly, no I wasn’t,’ said Peter. ‘That is what I wanted to tell you. Forgiveness is far more complex than at first you might think...It’s like a huge tangled ball; like one of my nets after a particularly frustrating night at sea. One moment. One phrase, “I forgive you”, might loosen one of the threads, but the rest remains, and takes much, much more work. Jesus knew that too.

‘After breakfast we had a chat, he and I. And at the end of the chat, do you know what he said to me? “Follow me.” Just like that, “Follow me.” Just as he had when I first met him. He was telling me, then, the slate was wiped clean. I could go back to the beginning and start all over again. But before he said that, he said something else.

‘He asked me three times if I loved him...He was giving me the chance to undo, phrase by painful phrase, the three times I had claimed that I didn’t know him. He was working at that knotted, muddled ball, and allowing me to unravel the knots for myself. It was a long, painful process, but little by little the knots started to come free...

‘You see forgiveness isn’t a one-off event. It’s a way of life. I think it’s what Jesus meant when he said we had to forgive seventy times seven. Forgiveness comes as a bundle: we are forgiven, we accept that forgiveness, and so we forgive. Forgiveness is not a magic trick that means we forget all the wrong we have done, or indeed the wrong others have done. We can’t undo the past...Forgiveness is not about forgetting - it’s about refusing to be chained up by the past; accepting that a door has opened for us, and walking through the door to freedom...

‘You will probably need to return to this moment again and again. Like me, you will need to live forgiveness every day of your lives. There will be days when you simply don’t have the strength to forgive yourself or others. There will be days when your demons return to haunt you. There will be days when you will have to cling to your knowledge of forgiveness with the very tips of your fingers. Living forgiveness is a long and winding road. Navigating it takes courage.’

Forgiveness is a process, it is the untangling of a net, it is a way of life. I think we see here why it is so important that forgiveness comes from us as well as God. If we forgive but are not forgiven, or if we are forgiven but do not forgive, we are still bound in some way by the hurts that make forgiveness necessary. Every knot needs to be untied if we are to be truly free, including the knots we tie ourselves with. There was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference in Peter's speech to forgiving ourselves, and that is important too, particularly as we can be hardest on ourselves. Of course this is all easier said than done, as the story we have just heard acknowledges. It may be disheartening to hear in Peter's words that forgiveness is hard, but I hope it may be encouraging to remember when it is hard that it doesn't mean you are doing it badly. My own experience of forgiveness tells me that above all it is a choice. If you want to forgive, if you want to let go of the anger and the pain and the desire for vengeance, you are most of the way there. Set the intention, and the feeling will follow in time.

The last thing I want to say is that the parable and the story we have heard this morning are examples of forgiveness, not templates for it. Our experiences may not look the same. The younger son returns in humility and is embraced by his father, while Peter repents of his denial through his declarations of love and is called once again to follow Jesus, but people do not always recognise the hurts they have caused and the restoration of relationships is not always possible. Sometimes there is no apology, and sometimes apologies become part of the cycle of hurt, and then the only thing we can do is step back or step away. Forgiveness should not send us back to a place of pain, and ending or changing a relationship can be a necessary part of the process. I spent many years living with unforgiveness, precisely because those who had hurt me had never apologised, and so I know the pain and the heaviness of it, and I realise this morning may have brought up some difficult stuff. If that is the case, I encourage you to find a safe space and a safe person to talk through that with. In the meantime, I offer a prayer from ‘Liturgies for Hope' by Elizabeth Moore and Audrey Elledge, called ‘A Liturgy for Those Struggling to Forgive’. It is written in the first person, so take the words for your own as far as they are helpful.

Oh God of justice,

forgiveness feels like a journey in an unfair direction.

Blinded by fury and crippled with hurt, 

I feel as though You have assigned me an impossible task.

How does one forgive when the debt is so great? 

How does one pardon when the offense has cost life, health, or happiness?

When I look within myself,

I find I lack the strength to extend the arm of mercy. When I look within myself,

I find I lack the compassion that would soften my heart to another.

When I look within myself,

I find that though I have been forgiven much, I am unable to forgive a little.

Oh Kind and Benevolent King,

You have set the example of pardon,

illuminating how it sets even the most hopeless of captives free.

Hold space with me now as I mourn the wrong done and pain inflicted,

for You do not ask us to overlook the severity of wrongdoing

but desire us to release the perpetrator from their deserved consequences,

to cancel the debt that they cannot pay.

No one has forgiven a greater debt than You, Lord, 

and You are well acquainted with its price. 

Help me cease the meticulous weighing of scales 

and trust You with life's inevitable imbalances. 

Help me remove the penalties that I have assigned to my enemy

and place them in Your hand instead.

When everything in me rises up to seck revenge, 

help me, Oh Lord, to fall back on Your strength. 

When I cannot pacify my anger and resentment, 

teach me, Oh King, the mystery of enemy love. 

Give me compassion for the wounds that have driven my adversary to wound, 

and may forgiveness lay a foundation for both of our healing.

Let me learn from You, Humble Teacher,

and grant me Your tender heart of kindness,

Your sharp eye for integrity. 

Justice and mercy are twin rivers that run straight from Your heart,

and forgiveness will flow from a soul that trusts in Your sufficiency.

Where I judge, let me judge not.

Where I condemn, let me condemn not. 

For I have received immeasurably more forgiveness than I will ever have to dispense.

My whole life flourishes out of the grace that You have given me, Lord.

May I dance in the delight of my own forgiven-ness,

seeking You for the grace to forgive others. 

May I walk closely with You, Lord, journeying down the path of mercy as You show me the way.


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