Tuesday, 13 April 2010

the power to forgive or retain sins?

Judgement, forgiveness and grace.
Something I've been pondering on a little from last Sunday's gospel text:

John 20: 23 - When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 

The setting for this verse: 
It is evening, on the first day of the week.  
A house with locked doors.  
Inside, hiding, for fear of enemies, huddle a bunch of grown men.  
Bewildered by recent events.
Puzzled by strange stories told by hysterical women.
In the midst of the sorrow and strangeness
he comes
bringing words of peace.
Breathing the Spirit of Peace upon them.
Telling them of forgiveness and unforgiveness
and their power to choose.

There are several ways in which to read this particular verse, but I wonder...

given the choice to forgive sins
or the choice not to forgive...
Why would you not forgive?
What are the things that stop us forgiving?

I've often thought - and said - that I'm rather glad that when it all comes down to it, no matter how much we all bang on about life, death, the universe, and our place within the grand scheme of things... that it is God who is judge, not us.  I have a sneaking suspicion we are less forgiving than God is.  And an even stronger suspicion that, given our human propensity for judging ourselves and others, that if it were left to us nobody would make the grade; that nobody would able to embrace life in its fullness, nor be allowed to enter the kindom of heaven.  

For the entire existence of the Church, there has always been a tension between judgement and forgiveness.  Over the centuries the Church has emphasised one and then swung back to the other and a fascinating dance to watch it is, for a dull old historian-type like me.  At the moment, we appear to be doing a 'military two-step' towards a more hard-line approach to the faith, perhaps born out of fear of change, in what appears to be a very changing and challenging society.  It's a dance that's been gaining momentum, and it saddens me as it seems a rather graceless one.
But that in itself is judging of me :)
So back to forgiveness....

Forgiveness is one of the great misunderstood qualities within the Christian faith.
Folk look at forgiveness as the equivalent to being a doormat and sneer at it.
The 'easy' option.
Something that only 'weaklings' do.
The way to wriggle out of getting one's 'just desserts'...
My sense, and my own personal experience, of forgiveness is that it is one of the hardest things you can do.
It takes courage.
It takes strength.
It takes a massive dose of God-given grace to be able to do it at times.
But do it we must.
It is not about being a passive doormat
It is about being grace in action.
And it is about embracing life
and accepting the values of God's kindom present here on earth,
as it is in heaven.
I'm reminded of the title of Desmond Tutu's book No Future Without Forgiveness.  
If we don't forgive we are trapped in the past - we cannot move beyond it.
We are trapped clinging on to our unforgiveness with our cold, dead hands.

"if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
And if we don't forgive, not only do we trap ourselves, we trap others.  
All stuck, unable to move.  
So why would I condemn myself,
why would I condemn someone else, to unforgiveness...?  
It is not the way of life.
It is a dry, withered wasteland.
A bitter place.
Choose the better place.
A living grace, 
where small green shoots of healing, encouraged, thrive and grow.

Forgiveness is an action that has eschatological implications: 
to forgive is to demonstrate what my friend John might call 'inaugurated' eschatology.
The kindom of heaven is not just about 'pie in the sky when you die': it is also here, now, and present...

1 comment:

JohnO said...

This was one of my texts for Easter Sunday evening and it struck me as being a bit of a 'non sequitur' in a sense. Just when everything is looking bright and rosy again, Jesus comes up with a 'by the way...' and flips everything upside down.
I think that is follows hard on the heels of having the Spirit breathed on the disciples is telling. I very much doubt that I could even begin to forgive certain things without the Spirit.
And yes, I would place it very firmly within the realms of ushering in the Kingdom now. Salvation history is one huge round of betrayal and forgiveness. One huge example of God's overwhelming, extravagant and indiscriminate love. By forgiving as He does, we show an inkling of that love. But we're not God. It's tough to do, as you so rightly point out. But nevertheless it's what we are called to do, and, more importantly, equipped to do.