Thought for the week - 13 September 2020
Genesis 50: 15-21
Psalm 103: 1-13
Romans 14: 1-12
Matthew 18: 21-35
your Son came to save us and bore our sins on the cross:
may we trust in your mercy and know your love,
rejoicing in the righteousness that is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
The Gospel reading today is, like many stories, rather vivid and uncompromising. It’s designed to make a point about hypocrisy, about placing harsher demands on others than we place on ourselves. Like many ‘morality tales’, it’s supposed to encourage us to think about ‘how would I feel if I were on the receiving end of such treatment?’
I think when it comes to the question of ‘sin’ and ‘forgiveness’ it’s definitely wise to start with our own experiences. I wonder if you can think of a time, whether as a child or an adult, where you did something wrong? Try to think of the worst thing you’ve ever done.How did it feel at the time? Did you get caught? How did that feel?! What were the consequences of your actions - are they still ongoing, or have they been resolved?
Whether it was a childish error, or a more serious matter, I wonder if you can recollect the sense of release/freedom/peace/joy that came with theresolution of the issue? Perhaps you were told ‘I forgive you’ or words to that effect. Maybe the consequences sorted themselves out. Whatever the case, restoration was sweet, lessons were (hopefully!) learned, and the road carried on.
Or perhaps, more sadly, the ramifications are still ongoing. Relationships are still fractured, ripples are still sweeping through life, there may even be an inability to forgive yourself. And so you live with varying degrees of regret, sadness, bitterness, indignation; still stuck, still going round in circles. This issue of sin and forgiveness is where Christians can get themselves mightily tangled up. If we have internalised an image of God as a ‘heavenly policeman’ then we can tend to be harsh on ourselves, and even harsher on others, as we stumble and blunder our way through life. Sometimes we have an image of heaven as a place we ‘get into’ like some sort of angelic spa, and we (and others) will only ‘get in’ if we have passed the test of being good. But I’d like to quote Rob Bell here: “When the gospel is understood as primarily about entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity.”
Human beings cannot ‘be good’, because we have created a definition of being good which hinges on never being mistaken, never being self- centred, never being...well, human. To make things worse for ourselves, we’ve added in a whole load of rules regarding things like sexuality, with which many Christians seem obsessed, until we’ve created such a long list of ‘shoulds and oughts’ before we can get our heavenly entrance ticket that the whole of life seems like one endless slog of recrimination.
And if we’re battling our way through all of this then you can be certain we’re making sure everyone else is too. And so we tut, and judge, and gossip and criticise – because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Someone wrongs us – “through negligence, through weakness, through their own deliberate fault” – and it’s all too easy to revel in our victim status. Someone else breaks the ‘entrance into heaven code’ and for a while we feel better as we compare ourselves with them and find ourselves superior.
Good grief! What a way to live this beautiful, precious life we’ve been given. We can’t ‘be good’, because we are all flawed human beings. And, importantly, because the rules and standards we’ve imposed on ourselves and others are often either impossible, cruel or misguided – or all three.
That doesn’t mean we get to do exactly as we please and hang the consequences. It’s true that the wrongs we do to others, to ourselves, to this world, lead us further away from God, sometimes very far away indeed. That in itself brings its own suffering, its own anguish, its own darkness. It’s true that human beings can cause untold damage, and that damage can be far-reaching in time and space. We have all wronged and been wronged, sometimes deeply. But just as in a previous reflection I said that we need to stop searching for some kind of religious perfectionism, so we need to stop trying to win, or withold, the golden ticket into heaven.
Instead, there’s a way to live our life that’s based on liberation, joy and possibility. And in case anyone thinks I’m off on a frolic of my own, Jesusdescribes that way in Matthew 22: 34-40? “.....love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is thegreatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
That’s it. Love. Love is the law. And how do we define love? How about this: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things,believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things...”
Eternal life begins now as we love God with all we have, and our neighbour as best we can. We can’t ‘be good’ – but we can love, and we can try towrap our minds and hearts around God’s love for us. A love so deep and wide and broad and high that in Jesus we were shown that the very worst we can do, or experience, does not cut us off from the possibility of new life. From damage comes restoration, from darkness comes light, from death comes resurrection.
Rob Bell again: “On the cross Jesus says ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ Jesus forgives them all, without their asking for it...before we could be good enough or right enough, before we could even believe the right things...forgiveness is unilateral”.
Whatever we’ve done, we don’t need to be stuck, going round in tortured, painful circles. Whatever’s been done to us, we gain nothing by doublingdown in bitterness or hatred.
The gospel of Jesus is about joyous participation; about life in all its fullness; an image of a feast where all the lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors, and all the other rag tag collection of people shuffling about thinking the worst of themselves, are honoured guests. The gospel is for you, whether you forgive yourself or not, whether you think you need it or not. The gospel is for those who have hurt you. The gospel is for those who have cause untold damage. The gospel is the offer of a quality of life that starts right now, for everyone who is not, and cannot, ‘be good’, but who wants to be free.
The sheer extravagant love of God brings hope and release and freedom and peace and joy. That’s the reign of God, here and now, not in some distant otherworld to come. That’s the message that Christians are supposed to be experiencing and living and sharing. Jesus offers light and restoration and new life to everyone – no golden ticket needed. Just a willingness to turn around and stumble your way towards love.