Again, blog posting has been light recently. One reason is alluded to in this week’s sermon. See the comments early on about my mother’s health, and you will know where most of my spare time has gone. What blogging time I have had has gone on my even more overtly new ‘work’ blog that I mentioned in my last post, Thinking About Mission. Please do follow that blog, too. Each day there is a short, punchy discussion starter post on an aspect of Christian mission.
But now, to this Sunday’s sermon, and an attempt to preach on one of the most difficult passages in the whole Bible.
Today’s sermon could be one of those in which a foolish minister rushes in where angelic preachers fear to tread. There has been a lively debate on the UK Methodists page of Facebook about the fact that Psalm 137 is set in this week’s Lectionary. What do we do with passages like this? I expected some shock at your hearing this psalm right the way through to the death wish expressed for Babylonian babies.
A number of us agreed that we have to think about and discuss these readings, because we know people are troubled by them. It was a matter of debate whether such thinking should be done out loud in a Sunday sermon or in a home group. Some people thought it would be better discussed informally in a fellowship group rather than raised in a sermon, and I’m sure there is merit in that thought. There would be more opportunity to thrash out issues that way.
But in the end, I decided that this kind of text can’t be ignored in Sunday worship, either. For one thing, this is a psalm – it is a piece of worship material. It appeared in Israel’s hymn book. And just because it’s worship doesn’t mean it can be prettied up with a bouncy tune, such as in the song ‘Rivers of Babylon’:
Further, I think there is a pastoral word to be said in relation to where Psalm 137 sits in relation to the rest of the Bible that is important for us all to hear.
Here is an illustration to help us see a way of understanding why such a psalm, with its frightening calls for vengeance, has a place in Holy Writ. My mother was discharged from hospital on Friday after nearly eight weeks. She had fallen and fractured her hip, and this was followed by a series of other unrelated mishaps that kept her in for longer. But come home she did, and Friday was an excellent day for that, because on that day she and Dad celebrated their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary.
However, Mum – at the age of eighty-three – is inevitably frail after these traumas, and Dad – who was eighty-six on Tuesday – is no longer strong enough to look after her without help. So it was agreed that she would come home with a care package. However, the care agency couldn’t start until tomorrow, so there had to be an emergency provision for the weekend. Originally that was going to be supplied by the hospital’s rapid response team, but in the end various of us in the family covered the necessary duties in the short term.
I want to say that Psalm 137 is a short term, rapid response, emergency reaction to the crisis that Israel finds herself in. Let’s remind ourselves what has happened. For years, prophets such as Jeremiah have warned the people of God that their sin will render them liable to God’s judgement. Always, they have thought themselves to be a special case, possessing a ‘Get out of jail free’ card that would prevent them suffering the consequences that the so-called doom merchants were predicting. But now it has come true. King Nebuchadnezzar’s armies have marched on Jerusalem and conquered God’s people. Many are murdered, a large number have been taken captive into Babylon itself, including Israel’s own Gifted and Talented stream (among whom we shall later find the likes of Daniel and his friends). Only a small number have been left at home, mostly those the triumphant army thought incapable of making a worthwhile contribution to Babylonian society.
This is a trauma of the highest magnitude for the chosen race. They had thought that Jerusalem was inviolable – but it wasn’t. They had assumed that God would not allow harm to come to his holy temple – but he did. Their faith, based so strongly on the idea of occupying the land promised to them, has been ripped to shreds.
And perhaps we have some similarities to them, at least on the metaphorical level. We Christians are no longer at the centre of our society. We live in some kind of exile, where our convictions are increasingly marginalised and ridiculed. For those who have grown up familiar with a culture in which the church and her leaders were respected, this is an alien land, our Babylon. We might just as easily cry out to God about this as we might about other things.
So what do you do when such a terrible event happens to you? Many of us scream out in pain, and perhaps even in anger, lashing out. That is certainly what the psalmist does here. As he and his people weep in Babylon and vow never to forget Jerusalem, they turn their frustrations upon their captors and call for violent revenge.
Now, at that point, you might think, “That’s all very well, it goes some way to explaining why the tribes of Judah were feeling this way, but it doesn’t explain why a text like this in the Scriptures. After all, are we not called to forgive and to love our enemies?”
Well, indeed we are, and that is one of the biggest problems with this psalm. It doesn’t seem to fit with the teaching of Jesus, does it? And if it stands alone, it would be very dangerous.
Let me suggest to you, though, that you have to feel anger before you can forgive. We can be so keen in the church to ensure that people forgive and do not become bitter that we actually abuse people who have already been hurt. If we aren’t careful and jump in immediately to ask someone who has been wronged, “Did you forgive the person who did this to you?” they will not in fact forgive, they will merely suppress their anger. And suppressed anger tends to come out again at a later date, like a Jack in the Box, in harmful forms. Sometimes it comes as rage, sometimes it mutates into depression.
For that reason, I was once horrified to hear the story of a church member who had been raped. People jumped in and asked the woman, “Have you forgiven your attacker?” without giving her permission to feel her pain and anger about the evil that had been done to her.
We rush into all sorts of things in our instant society, and in the church we seem to have included forgiveness among the things that we have powdered down and can quickly reconstitute with boiling water. But we need to allow time. I recently witnessed an unfortunate misunderstanding which I won’t spell out here, where someone was accidentally let down by another church member, and the results were distressing. A week later, the person who had been hurt was still mad at the person who had failed her, and was overheard to say, “I don’t feel very forgiving.” A well intentioned member of the congregation asked me if I would intervene, and I said I wouldn’t immediately. It needed another week to see whether this was a case of someone still feeling the pain or whether it truly was a case of nursing a grudge. Should it prove to be the latter, I said, then I would certainly speak with the person in question. But we have to give these things time.
Psalm 137, then, reminds us by even the expression of anger in an ancient hymn, that we need to feel the hurt. Not only that, it gives us permission to express that pain to God himself. If we are not careful, we make worship purely into a celebration (which in many respects it is – of course!) and nothing else. But Scriptures such as this show us that a fuller understanding of worship includes such things as bringing our laments as well as our songs of praise to God.
My observation is that some of us in the church think that we have to be prim and proper with God, being careful to say the right things before him as if he cannot cope with the heat of our tears and the fire of our fury. We think that unless we come to him full of faith and in the right spirit, he will get one of his specially prepared thunderbolts out of the cupboard and hurl it at us.
But scriptures like this tell us otherwise, just as our Gospel reading in which Jesus quotes another psalm on the Cross – Psalm 22 – does, is that God is big enough to cope with us coming to him in anguish. Somebody once said that they felt like they were beating their fists against God, and this felt so wrong, but they came to understand that they were – so to speak – beating their fists against God’s chest, but that he was holding them in his arms as they did so. Could God be better than we think he is? Could it be that the One of whom we say this most basic statement – ‘God is love’ – truly is like a Father to his children, holding them in their suffering and wiping their tears from their eyes?
And because it is a God of love in whom we believe, we can eventually come through the lashing out to the point of forgiveness. Just as we listened to Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” so we remember that the same Jesus also said, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” We need to feel the anger, but if we choose to make anger our permanent abode, then we shall degenerate into bitterness, with all the results that brings, both in the shrinking of the spiritual life because it gives us antipathy towards Jesus, and also in the physical harm that bitterness can cause to our mortal bodies.
It is worth us remembering that in the New Testament, the word translated into English as ‘to forgive’ means ‘to set free’. When we forgive somebody, we set them free. It is no accident that Jesus told parables about forgiveness in which he talked about the forgiveness of financial debts. People are set free from spiritual debt by forgiveness. Until we forgive, do we not feel like the evildoer owes us something?
But there is another side to the setting free that comes in forgiveness. It is not only the offender who is set free: the injured party is also liberated. When we choose not merely to feel our anger but to stay with it permanently, the bitterness that takes over our lives becomes like chains wrapped around us. When we forgive, not only do we set the wrongdoer free of any debt to us, we also find that the chains of resentment and animosity fall away from us.
And that’s why I said that Psalm 137 and passages like it take their place in the Scriptures as the rapid response to the sorrows and wrongs that are inflicted upon us. We need that stage, but we cannot stay there. The long term care package is forgiveness.
Volf’s experience of forgiveness is formed not only in the crucible of his brother’s unfortunate death at the hands of a negligent soldier, it also comes from his upbringing as a Croatian and therefore in that tempestuous region of conflict, the Balkans.
Consider what Volf and his family endured in order to forgive (sometimes in droplets, or as a process as he says near the end of the video). Then contrast Arquimedes Nganga, who claims his conversion to Baptist Christianity prevented him from playing for Manchester United. Where do the words ‘petty’, ‘pathetic’ and ‘chancer’ occur here? He was in the Portuguese Third Division when he was converted at the age of 25, and he is delusional enough to think that Man U would have come in for him. It’s a laughable case with no chance in law, and he will have some big bills to pay, so he’d better hope his book does better than the three derisory reviews (all one-star) it has garnered on Amazon.
And which part of the word ‘forgiveness’ didn’t he understand when he was an evangelist?
We know it can be hard to offer forgiveness, but is it not also difficult to accept forgiveness?
In some ways, that is obvious, such as when I have done something I believe to be so terrible that I cannot forgive myself, let alone receive that from the wronged party.
But that is not what is in my mind. Something has happened in the last ten days. Let me tell the story.
We are a two-car family. Debbie drives the family car, a Citroen Picasso. I have a small, economical car to run around in on church business. It’s a Renault Clio. Girly car, you may say, but it’s economical. However, it is eleven years old, and while it is still functioning well the time will soon come when repairs and servicing will cost more than it is worth. Before long, I shall need to replace it.
I wasn’t thinking of doing that just yet, but ten days ago, we were walking home after dropping off the children at school when Debbie noticed another small car for sale. It was six years old, whereas I had thought I would aim for a three-year-old car. It was a Hyundai Getz, and my memory of Hyundai’s reputation wasn’t good. However, it was being offered for a decent price and as Debbie said, it would tide me over for a period while we got more savings together to buy a newer car.
After an exchange of text messages with the owner, I went out that night to his house and I test-drove it. I was impressed, and this was allied to some fairly positive reviews of the model I found on the Internet. Not being mechanically minded, I said to the owner that I wanted to have a full RAC inspection of the vehicle, but provided that was satisfactory, I would buy the car from him.
The RAC weren’t too flexible, sadly. The owner used the car for work, but the RAC wanted it made available for a whole day for their mechanic to turn up whenever he could fit it in. So I made alternative arrangements with the owner. He agreed to have it put through an MOT test three months early, and I spoke to an ex-mechanic friend from Kent who was willing to come up and give it a visual inspection.
The MOT happened on Tuesday. One tyre failed, but the owner had that replaced by the end of the day and we were all set for my friend to inspect the car on Wednesday evening.
Except that on Tuesday night he texted. He was getting rid of the car because his wife wanted a Ford Mondeo. That night they had found the perfect Mondeo, but the Mondeo owner wanted a small car, fell in love with the Getz and tough luck on me. He was full of apologies.
I was too stunned to reply that night, but I received a further guilt-laden email early the next morning. Clearly I had to reply. I told him that I forgave him. And since forgiveness means the absorbing of a debt, I truly did that. For although I had not had to pay for the RAC or the MOT, I had in the meantime had an HPI check done on the financial provenance of the car. That was £24.99. I chose not to ask him for that money, for otherwise I didn’t think it would be true forgiveness, and in fact I didn’t even mention that outlay to him.
Time to lick wounds, move on and perhaps postpone the purchase of a car until after we had moved to Surrey in three weeks’ time.
Or so I thought. Because yesterday morning I received another email from the now former owner of the Getz. He thanked me for my response, and it was clear from his explanation that he had caved in to pressure from his wife and the lady selling the Mondeo. Under that pressure, moral principles had crumbled.
Except that – in my opinion – he didn’t really accept the forgiveness. Because he added a PS where he told me that next time I was in a position like that, I should put down a deposit, take my mechanic friend along for the test drive and do the deal there and then. In other words, he tried to shift the blame onto me. He tried to suggest there had been something defective in my conduct. He no longer accepted full responsibility for his actions. He attempted to disperse some of the guilt.
Some people are too proud to accept forgiveness. That’s why it’s difficult to accept. To receive forgiveness, people have to acknowledge full responsibility for their actions. Rather than do that and receive a gift of grace, pride means people find other parties or factors to blame, even if those factors are part of themselves, such as their upbringing or something that has been done to them.
But healing only comes with a full acknowledgement of what we have done. Only then can we be forgiven.
One thing you learn early as a preacher is when to turn the lapel microphone on. In my case, I check that the sound operator will fade my microphone down during the hymns, as I wouldn’t want to add to the congregation’s agony by inflicting my singing on them. Many and legion are the stories of preachers who turned on the microphone too early, disappeared to a small room before the service, only for the entire congregation to learn where they had gone.
Sadly, our Prime Minister has not learned that lesson. This week, Gordon Brown has been The Preacher In The Loo.
I refer, of course, to what has become known as ‘Bigotgate’. I pass no comment on whether Gillian Duffy’s question about eastern European immigration was racist, nor on whether the PM was right to call her a ‘bigoted woman’. Nor do I deny that many people in all kinds of occupations let off steam about difficult individuals when they [think they] are in private.
But what I think cannot be denied is that the Prime Minister was two-faced. When talking with Mrs Duffy, he praised her to the heights, but made his disdain for her known afterwards. If he had simply maintained a level of politeness with her publicly but not told her how wonderful she was, this might have been a lesser incident, rather than a potentially defining moment in the General Election campaign. Anyone who holds a position of responsibility that depends in some way on the favour of those you are meant to lead will surely have some sympathy with Mr Brown, because you sometimes find yourself having to be polite to someone when you’d rather not be. But Gordon Brown went beyond that to the point of contempt, in my opinion.
At the same time, isn’t it frightening to reflect on all those who have been quick to criticise, as if they wouldn’t do anything of the sort? Some chance. No doubt they are correct to say that the Prime Minister is a man with a hot temper – there seem to be too many other stories confirming that. But are we to imagine he is the only politician like that?
Isn’t it something, then, that we come to a famous passage in John’s Gospel this week about love? There’s never much love lost in a General Election campaign. The handshakes at the end of the televised leaders’ debates have to rank amongst the most insincere you will ever see.
But what about us in the church? Let’s go back to those words of Jesus:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (Verses 34-35)
I simply want to reflect on two aspects of this teaching about love. Firstly, what is ‘new’ about this new commandment? I think that’s a fair question to ask. It’s not the first command to love in the Bible. It’s not even the only reference to it in Jesus’ teaching. Elsewhere he was asked what the greatest commandment was. He replied that it was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. He then sneaked in a second one: love your neighbour as yourself. So hasn’t he already made the command to love plain?
I find that comes over to me strongly in one of the Methodist communion services, where we speak of hearing the ‘commandments’ before we confess our sins. What commandments do we read? These two – to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Then, tacked on after them, we hear the command in today’s reading, to love one another. How in heaven and earth can Jesus add a new commandment onto the two he has given as combining to form the greatest commandment? As the great theologian Tom Jones might put it, “What’s new, pussycat?”
Principally what is new here is a new standard of love. Our standard for love is the example of Jesus. ‘Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another’ (verse 34). If we want any idea of what love means, we need to look at Jesus and how he loves. It wouldn’t take us long to think about a number of ways in which the love of Jesus challenges us to deeper love.
To begin with, take the way in which he took on human flesh and lived among us to bring God’s redeeming love to us. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) or in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, ‘The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’.
When I was serving in my first circuit, there was a painful split at the local United Reformed Church. Some had good and necessary reasons for leaving a damaging situation. Others left, they said, to set up a new church on a poor housing estate where there was no church building. They began to hire the St John’s Ambulance hall and hold services on a Sunday afternoon. However, they made little impact on that community.
It wasn’t hard to see why. None of these Christians moved onto the estate. They commuted in from their more comfortable estates every week. They weren’t prepared to pay the price of love that Jesus paid in becoming flesh and dwelling among the very people he wanted to love.
Because that is what love looks like, according to Jesus. You can’t love from a distance. Jesus loved close-up. It’s why I say we can’t expect to spread the love of God in this community unless we are taking that love into the community, rather than simply putting on attractive programmes here and expecting people to flock to our doors. Love Jesus-style doesn’t work like that.
It’s the same in terms of love for any person in need. In another previous church, we once had a mission team visit us for a few days. They partnered some of our members in visiting local houses and pubs, looking for opportunities to share the Gospel.
At the end of the time, we held a service, and afterwards I was sitting down, talking with a young mum who had just joined the congregation, along with her husband, daughter and son. She was telling me how she had lived in fear for the previous six months, because she had found a lump in her breast. Worse, by profession she was a radiographer and she was sure she knew what it was.
Sitting in the row in front was one of the mission team. He overheard this and swooped in with all sorts of platitudes about how she was failing to trust in God. Today, eleven years later, the memory of that incident still makes me mad. That mission team member made no attempt to get alongside Carolyn in her pain and fear. He just launched sentiments and Bible verses like missiles. He didn’t ‘dwell with’ Carolyn, as Jesus would have done. But that’s love ‘as he has loved us’. Hands get dirty. Time and energy are spent. Money and possessions are deployed for others. Because we move into the neighbourhood of those who need love.
Which means also that Jesus-style love is sacrificial. For, as we know, ultimately he loved us by laying down his life for the world. Love is a lot more than dewy-eyed teenagers looking forward to another romantic liaison. Love comes with a cost. It cost Jesus everything. It is hardly likely to cost us any less.
We know how seriously the early church took this. Famously one Christian from around the end of the second century to beginning of the third called Tertullian said, “We share everything except our wives.”
Another early story is of the Christian craftsman who, in order to make ends meet, had accepted a job to make idols for a pagan temple. When challenged about this by a church leader he replied, “But I must live!” The leader replied: “Must you?”
We could find countless examples from other places and times of Christians who knew that real love meant a willingness to sacrifice, even to lay down one’s life – because that is what Jesus had done in love for the world.
And that is why the second aspect of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is about the outcomes of love. Loving one another according to the pattern of Jesus isn’t just a new standard of love, it’s about a new order. The outcome is described in verse 35:
‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
The mark of the Christian community, according to Jesus, is love. It is what distinguishes us. Just as Jesus and the Father were so united with each other, so the Christian church is to be bound up as one with each other in mutual love. As the pagans looked at the early Christians and wondered, “See how these Christians love one another!” so that is not meant to have changed.
Some of you have told me examples of when such sticking-together, sacrificial love has been the gift of this church to you in times of need. Most notably I have heard people speak about such love here in bereavement or in chronic illness.
Nevertheless, it’s always good to be challenged and stretched. As Christians we cannot be complacent and opt for the kind of faith that is merely comfortable and just looks all the time to be patted on the back and sent on our way rejoicing. Given the importance Jesus places here on the world being able to tell that we are his disciples by our love for one another, it seems apt to raise a few simple challenges about our love for one another.
Let’s name a few, then. If Jesus and his Father were and are so at one in their love for one another, isn’t it time to drop all the talk about whether we are ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ a particular person?
Or – if we see how wrong Gordon Brown’s behaviour was towards Gillian Duffy, is it worthy of us to tell people to their faces how wonderful they are, all the while behind their back running a campaign against them?
Similarly, if we truly believe in love like Jesus did, can we treat people as objects, or as means to an end, or even just as bait to attract others?
And if love unites us, can we entertain the idea of cliques in a church?
Oh – and by the way, if these examples shock or surprise you, I have based every one of them on incidents or attitudes I have witnessed in Methodist churches.
What should we do? If we have hurt someone else and they know that it was us, then we need to ask their forgiveness. The sharing of The Peace in a few minutes’ time could be a time for that. If the boot is on the other foot, and we are the wronged party and the other person knows they have hurt us, then in love we need to offer forgiveness. Again, The Peace would be a good time to do this.
Naturally, if one party does not know about the hurt, that might not be advisable. If the other party is not present today, loving offers of reconciliation in repentance or forgiveness need to be offered outside this service.
If one party does not know about the hurt, then perhaps it is best simply to settle this privately with God, unless he directs us otherwise.
But however God leads us, let us remember this. It is not by our beautiful buildings that the world will know we are Jesus’ disciples. It is not by our attractive programme of events that the world will know we follow Jesus. It is by the quality of our love that the world will see our devotion to Jesus.
Nothing could be more important.
Many of us will have heard all sorts of stories about baptism. A friend of mine, when he was an Anglican curate, really did baptise the wrong end of a baby! Me, I just worry about the baby grabbing the radio microphone – or, worse, my glasses. Or there’s the story of the minister telling the congregation before a baptism, “The water isn’t anything special or magic, it’s the same water we’ll use later for making the coffee.”
But what, in all seriousness, shall we say about baptism today on Holly’s big day? Early in the baptismal service, I read two passages from the New Testament. The second was from Acts chapter 2. I prefaced it with these words:
‘On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection. Those who heard the message asked what they should do. Peter told them:’ (Methodist Worship Book, p89)
And then I read what he said:
‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ (Acts 2:38-39)
I want to say this is all about anticipating the future. We anticipate future events. For example, later in the year we shall be conscious that Christmas is coming, and will make our plans. We shall ask people what presents they would like, buy special food, make arrangements to see family and so on – all because we are anticipating a future event. We want to get ready.
When Peter preaches ‘the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection’ he’s using that to make people think of the future. The resurrection of Jesus is a sign of the future, when God will raise everyone from the dead and he will reign unopposed over all creation. And what Peter calls his hearers to do is anticipate that future. In what ways?
Last Sunday morning I asked people how good their French was. It’s similar with the word ‘repent’. ‘Re’ means ‘again’ and ‘pent’ is from penser, ‘to think’ – like our word ‘pensive’. So to repent is to think again, and that’s what the New Testament Greek word translated here means, too. When Peter calls the crowd to repent, he’s telling them ‘think again’ – about the way you live your life, and change where needed.
I used to preach at a church that was on the ‘wrong’ side of a dual carriageway from the direction in which I lived. Every time I took a service there, I drove beyond it on my side of the road, to the next traffic light junction, where drivers were permitted to do a u-turn from the filter lane.
Repentance is like a u-turn. When we encounter Jesus, he makes us think again about the way we live our lives, and we do a u-turn in our lifestyle.
What does that have to do with anticipating the future? I think the point is this: when God raises us all from the dead, judges us and reigns without opposition, we need to be in line with his will. We need to start now – by doing a u-turn.
Last month, every class from Broomfield Primary School came here during the week to look at our building and ask me questions. One of the things I showed them was the font. They were intrigued by our small, portable font, in contrast to the large stone font at St Mary’s.
We talked about what it meant. They knew we put water in the font, but not necessarily why. So I asked them what we use water for in everyday life. Some said for drinking, and I could have made something of that answer. But I concentrated on those who said that water was for cleaning ourselves. I tried to explain that the water in baptism is a symbol of God cleaning us from sin.
That’s what the symbolism of pouring water on Holly has been about today. It has been to show that God wants to clean us from every sin. Have you ever felt dirty inside after doing something wrong? God wants to remove that from us.
And it’s done, says Peter, ‘in the name of Jesus’, because these gifts come to us from God through Jesus, and especially his death on the Cross, where he died for our sins, in our place. That’s why we need faith in Jesus – to receive this cleansing from all our sins that are a barrier between ourselves and God.
What does this have to do with the future? It means that at the Last Judgment, God will – amazingly –deliver a verdict not that we are guilty but that we are in the right with him, all through Jesus.
And that leads onto the third element:
I guess everybody knows that the central message of the Christian faith is about forgiveness. But what is forgiveness? Some people think it is pretending that a bad event didn’t happen. Others think it means excusing people’s actions, by explaining away their conduct. Others think it is about suppressing our anger when we have been wronged.
I don’t think it’s any of these things. True forgiveness looks the person in the wrong squarely in the eye, knowing where the blame lies, not excusing their actions, nor pretending we are not angry. But then, despite laying the blame where it rightly belongs, the one who forgives refuses to pass sentence on the wrongdoer.
And that is what God does for us in Jesus. He knows our actions are wrong, and he doesn’t pretend otherwise. He knows we are blameworthy, but he refuses to sentence us to what we deserve, which is life and eternity without him. He discards the sentence and invites us into his family, which we do but handing our lives over to him.
Again, this is about anticipating the future. Trust your life to Jesus Christ and follow him, and you need have no fear of God’s verdict on you, either now or in the future. He knows where we are in the wrong, but he refuses to pass sentence. In fact, the Greek word used for ‘forgive’ in the New Testament means ‘to set free’. We are like prisoners, expecting to be sentenced for our crimes. But instead, the Judge sets us free by forgiving us.
Our call, then, is to receive that by giving ourselves over to Jesus Christ, and then to set others free as we forgive what they have done to us.
The Holy Spirit
So far we’ve had two commands – ‘repent’ and ‘be baptized’, plus one promise ‘the forgiveness of sins’. 2-1 to commands, then. But finally, we have an equaliser from promises: all who repent, are baptized and receive the forgiveness of sins receive God’s own presence in their lives – the Holy Spirit. Why?
At the secondary school we attended in north London, my sister and I had an English teacher who worshipped at a high Anglican church in central London. My sister once asked him why he went there. “I’m just a terrible sinner and I need to feel forgiven,” he replied.
“Don’t you feel that God can change you?” my sister enquired.
“No,” he said.
But the Good News is that change is possible. It isn’t just that God forgives us and cleanses us. As the saying goes, God loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are.
And that’s why Peter promises the Holy Spirit to those who become disciples of Jesus. So that not only may God forgive us in Jesus Christ, he may also start the long work of making us be more like Jesus Christ. In that sense, God is anticipating us for heaven. The Holy Spirit fits us for the life of God’s kingdom, where everything will conform to his will.
Two thoughts as I close. Firstly, I don’t want our regular churchgoers here to think this doesn’t apply to any of them. Remember that Peter addressed these words to devout religious Jews in Jerusalem for a major feast. Sometimes, those who have been involved in religion all their lives need to hear the call to conversion as much as anybody.
Secondly, what does any of this have to do with one-year-old Holly? She can’t repent, she can’t understand her baptism yet as washing her clean of sin, she can’t appreciate the forgiveness of sins, let alone the power of the Holy Spirit to live a new life.
But today, Ruth and Mike make the promises for her, on the basis of their own faith. They do so, because they aspire to Holly making this kind of commitment for herself, when she is old enough to do so. Today, we promise to pray and prepare so that becoming a disciple of Jesus one day seems the most natural thing in the world for Holly.
George Kovoor is mad. It’s the title of a Facebook group, and it’s true. I discovered the group last night when the man himself sent me a friend request and it was on his profile. He is a member.
As I thought, I wasn’t able to set up an appointment with him today, as he requested yesterday. When I was here in the 1980s, you needed to ask the Principal’s secretary two weeks in advance if you wanted to see George Carey. So when I went to see the current secretary, sure enough there was no window when both GK and I were free.
However, she made a suggestion. Why not reserve a seat next to him at lunch? The staff and students here all have yellow chits they place on tables to reserve seats in the dining room. She tore up a piece of yellow paper, wrote my name on it and told me where George sits. I went and marked the seat next to him.
It was duly a crazy conversation. Just I am very clearly an introvert, so George is as clear an extravert as you are likely to meet. He conducted simultaneous conversations with about five of us. I referred yesterday to how he has a collection of projects all in addition to being Principal here. He referred to my bookmarking of Butler and Butler‘s fairtrade clergy shirts, and it transpires he has an involvement in the marketing of clergy attire himself.
During the meal, George asked for a bottle of tabasco sauce. We expected him to use it on his chicken and spicy rice. No. He drank it directly from the bottle. Tonight, I have learned from some of the students that it is his favourite party trick, especially in front of men. However, it has given the students an idea for something when they hold a ‘superheroes day’ here in a fortnight to support Comic Relief. Pastoral confidentiality does of course mean that I cannot reveal their plans on a public blog.
At the end of lunch, he said he was sad we couldn’t match our diaries but was still keen to meet. So I’m having breakfast with him at 7:45 am tomorrow, when he gets into college.
On a calmer note, the course today has been just what I wanted when I booked it last year. I’ve taken very few notes, but so much has fallen into place. Without turning it into the psychological equivalent of a horoscope reading, my personality profile under Myers Briggs makes so much sense of my strengths and weaknesses in ministry and in other relationships. Jerry Gilpin who is teaching the course is another former Trinity student. He was in the year above me. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to catch up over coffee tomorrow. Already he’s given me some recommended reading on personality type and ministry. So far it includes Faith and Psychology by Leslie Francis, Growing Spiritually with the Myers-Briggs Model by Julia McGuinness, In the Grip by Naomi L Quenk, and he’s going to check on the title of a book by William Bridges.
I’ll sign off soon. I need to pack stuff ready for leaving here tomorrow lunchtime. Lectures start at 9:15 and I have to vacate the room by 10. I need just my morning stuff and laptop bag ready to go.
There won’t be chapel worship tomorrow morning, because the students will be worshipping in their pastoral groups. So I have worshipped together with the community for the last time. And I wanted to say this. Whatever nit-picking comments I’ve made about services this week (and that’s my personality type, too!), I have so far failed to mention the extraordinary sense of devotion and commitment to Christ that surrounds you like a magnetic field in the worship. I’m struggling for a way to express this gracefully and without sounding condemning of others, but I have missed being in a community like that. I believe that when you are in a group of Christians like that, then iron sharpens iron. Others lift the level of your discipleship. Sometimes they don’t know they’re doing it, but they do. I wonder how much of this energy gets dissipated when people leave.
I don’t know whether it’s as unrealistic to reproduce this in the local church as it is to bring back to a congregation the ‘spiritual high’ some people experience at conferences. I’m tempted to think there is a difference here, though, because this is an ongoing, day by day, week by week community, not an annual gathering of thousands. Am I crazy to have lofty ambitions for the local church? I always have been a (failed) idealist in that cause. One of my tutors at my Methodist college, David Dunn Wilson, picked up on my tendency in this direction and told me to remember that the Church is a company of sinners. Eugene Peterson has a similar tone in his book The Jesus Way, in which he stresses the importance of forgiveness from the example of King David’s life. I agree with both of them up to a point, but Christians are more than forgiven sinners. It’s something the Methodist tradition knew in its infancy with John Wesley‘s call to ‘scriptural holiness’. Somewhere I still believe that a community of forgiven sinners also needs deep intentional aspirations to holiness.
Or am I barking?
‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ (verse 24)
That’s an obvious verse to pick for this circuit service on the theme of worship. But sometimes, however much I like to be obscure, obvious is OK!
There are several valid ways you can read this verse. Worshipping in spirit and truth can be about the fact that you can worship God anywhere. That’s true, and in the context, the woman has just raised the question of physical locations for worship.
You can also read the ‘spirit’ aspect as being about the need for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order to worship. That has some merit, too, because there is much in John’s Gospel about the ministry of the Spirit.
Worshipping in ‘truth’ can be about the importance of basing our worship on the truth of God, rather than our own preferences or fantasies. That, too, would be valid.
But I want to offer a different – if complementary – approach to Jesus’ teaching that we are to worship in spirit and in truth. I think it also means our worship is to be Christ-centred. Why? The work of the Spirit in John’s Gospel is to point to Christ. And Jesus himself is the way, the truth and the life in John. Spirit and truth both focus on Christ. I’m going to use Christ as our framework for worship.
My sister is an Occupational Therapist. At the end of her college training in 1988, she had to take a final elective placement. With the support of her college Christian Union, she went out with a missionary society to Gahini Hospital in Rwanda.
One of her most interesting cultural experiences (apart from African driving!) was Sunday morning worship in the hospital’s Anglican church. People were not called to worship by the ringing of bells, but by drums. All well and good.
But when worship began, it was the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Seventeenth century England, transposed to twentieth century Africa. Crazy.
Why is that crazy? Jesus is the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us. He took on human flesh, and lived in his context as a first century Jew. Might it be that when it comes to worship, our worship has to live in the cultural forms in which we live, and of the people we desire to reach with the Gospel?
Can I bring that insight to the worship wars that often rip apart our churches? We need to drop the nonsense talk that hymns and choral music are somehow morally superior. And those who argue for contemporary music need to quit the notion that others are fuddy-duddies. The issue is this: who has God called us to reach?
The American pastor Rick Warren, who planted Saddleback Church in California, has a useful approach to this. He says that if you are going to plant a church, then the way you decide the musical style of the worship is this: find out what the most popular radio station in the area is, and model the musical aspect of your worship on that style of music.
So never mind what we like: incarnation demands we live in the culture of the people where God has placed us on mission. And that will shape our worship – from music to other elements, too.
In my last appointment, I was part of a team that put on a weekly Wednesday lunch-time prayer and worship event entitled Medway Celebrate. At one team meeting, I remember the founder of the event say he had asked all visiting worship leaders to put a particular emphasis on ‘celebration’ in the tone they set.
Inwardly, I winced. What about people suffering pain or troubles? How would they cope with relentless joy and happiness? And at first glance, anchoring our worship to the Cross of Christ would support my reaction. In worship, the Cross leads us to confession of sin. It puts us in touch with the pain of the world, and so it also informs our intercession. And the central act of Christian worship, Holy Communion, is directly linked to the Cross: ‘This is my body … this is my blood.’
Not only that, something like one third of Israel’s hymn book, the Psalms, are the so-called ‘Psalms of Lament’, where the psalmists bring their pain and complaints to God in worship. So surely it’s right that worship is not persistently happy-clappy.
There must be room in worship to express pain. But – it’s only half the story. Even when the Cross shows us our need to confess, we don’t stop there: we receive forgiveness. When we intercede about the pain of the world, we do so expecting that God will answer. When by faith we take the tokens of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament, we are renewed.
I was once at a Good Friday united service at the Baptist Church in my home town. Our own minister was preaching. He had chosen a song that was popular at the time: ‘I get so excited, Lord, every time I realise I’m forgiven‘. As a congregation, we sang it in the most drab way. Michael stopped us and berated us. How could we not be excited that God had forgiven us in Christ?
As we come to the foot of the Cross in worship, yes we bring our pain at the sin that put Christ there. We also bring the pain of the world. But we come for healing and restoration. Making the Cross central to worship is a matter of joy as well as pain.
I referred to Holy Communion a moment ago when talking about the Cross and worship. But it’s the Resurrection that makes sense of the sacrament.
‘What? Isn’t the Lord’s Supper about the death of Christ?’ you may object.
Yes, but it’s OK to stop there if you only believe communion is a symbolic memorial of a past event. If it’s remotely more than that, you need the Resurrection to explain it. How many memorial services have you attended where the deceased was present? How many funeral wakes have you been to where the one you were remembering served you the food? Jesus is alive! And our worship is filled with hope. Whatever discourages or depresses us, Jesus is risen from the dead and there is a new world coming.
So my friend who wanted celebratory worship had a point. Just so long as it wasn’t escapism, celebration is the proper tone for those who know the Christian hope. We experience suffering and we witness suffering, but in the Resurrection we know it won’t have the final word and our worship is an act of defiance based on Christian hope. In the words of Steve Winwood, we’re ‘talking back to the night‘. But we talk back to the night because the dawn is coming.
And when the dawn comes, God will no longer feel distant or remote. God will always be close. Thus if Resurrection characterises worship in spirit and truth, our worship will have a sense of intimacy with God. We cannot use hymns about the majesty of God to make him distant, even if we also avoid songs that make Jesus sound like a boyfriend.
If there’s one curse in all the worship wars that occur in church, it’s the way we use sophisticated arguments to hide the fact that what we’re really campaigning for is ‘what we like’. The Ascension of Jesus puts paid to that.
Why? Because the Ascension is the enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God. It is the confirmation that Jesus is King over all creation, including the Church. When we treat worship as what pleases us, worship becomes idolatry, for we worship ourselves. When we recognise the kingship of the ascended Christ, I cannot ask what pleases me. I can only ask, what pleases you, Lord?
It also means we must stop treating worship as spiritual escapism. When a steward prays in the vestry before the service about us ‘turning aside from the world for an hour’, I cringe. When we sing an old chorus like ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus‘ with its line about ‘The things of earth will grow strangely dim’, I wonder what some people are thinking when they sing those words.
If worship is in spirit and in truth – if that means it’s Christ-centred – and if that includes the Ascension – then worship cannot be used to escape from the world. It can only be used in preparation to face the world. For the king of the Church is on the throne of creation.
There is a church building in Germany, which has over the exit doors these words: ‘Servants’ Entrance’. Worshipping the ascended Christ thrusts us into the world. It’s why the Roman Catholic Mass is called the Mass – after the Latin ‘Eta misse est’: ‘Get out!’ Our feeble version is, ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’: perhaps that should be ‘Go in boldness to love and serve the Lord’! The test of worship isn’t Hymns And Psalms versus Mission Praise versus Songs Of Fellowship. It’s whether we continue to worship by our lifestyles in the world where Christ reigns.
Archbishop William Temple wrote a classic devotional commentary on John’s Gospel. I can do no better in concluding this sermon than quoting some of his most potent words on this very verse:
For worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to HIs purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin. Yes – worship in spirit and truth is the way to the solution of perplexity and to the liberation from sin. [p 65]
May we worship like that.
Many years ago, I heard the true story of a young Christian woman who was raped. Many who suffer rape keep their identity secret, but this woman rushed to her church for support and told the story.
The support came in this form: ‘Have you forgiven him?’
Job’s comforters, indeed.
We believe in forgiveness, and this parable makes clear that it is paramount in discipleship. But do we always handle forgiveness well? Is it really a choice between denying the opportunity to express your pain -as happened to the woman who was raped – and being bitter?
Today, rather than expound the parable of the unforgiving servant in my normal style, I’d like us to explore what forgiveness is and why we need to forgive.
What Is Forgiveness?
What do we make of Peter’s question about how often we should forgive? Seven times? Seventy times seven? (Or should that just be seventy-seven times – so much easier!)
I think we generally accept that Jesus is not putting a ceiling on forgiveness when we reach four hundred and ninety. Forgiveness is something we keep having to do – and I’ll come back to that question later.
But I think Jesus is also showing us that forgiveness is the permanent refusal to exercise vengeance. The numbers ‘seven’ and ‘seventy’ are connected with vengeance in Genesis chapter four. In that chapter, Cain kills Abel. The Lord chooses not to kill Cain, but makes him a wanderer, and threatens seven-fold vengeance on anyone who kills him. Later, one of Cain’s grandsons, Lamech, kills a man who wounded him, and says, ‘If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold’ (Genesis 4:24).
So when Jesus says, ‘Not seven times but seventy times seven,’ he is withdrawing the vengeance option. That is what forgiveness is. True forgiveness never says, ‘I forgive you, it was nothing,’ it says, ‘Yes, you hurt me, but I choose to lay aside my desire for vengeance.’
This is probably one of the most important ways in which we can be witnesses to Christ today. Most people will not read a Bible, but they will read our lives. So when we refrain from the option to press the vengeance button, we are allowing them to read about Jesus.
Of course, there is much more to what forgiveness is. Just to examine the Greek word employed here by Matthew and other New Testament writers tells us something. The word,aphiémi, means to set free. It’s what you do when you cancel a debt: you set the debtor free from their obligation to repay you. Forgiveness is like that. You release the one who has hurt you from the obligation to pay for what they have done. You allow them to walk away. You choose not to exercise your right of punishment.
But forgiveness is much more than setting free the offender. In a wonderful way, forgiveness sets us free, too. If we harbour resentment, then we become bound up, as if ropes have been wrapped around us. When we forgive someone, then the ropes of bitterness fall away. Forgiveness sets everyone free.
Perhaps another image of forgiveness will help. The Psalmist says, ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he [God] removed our transgressions from us.’ To forgive is to remove. It is to take sin away. Think of the hurt from sin as a large object that you cannot put in the wheelie bin for your normal rubbish collection. Instead, you open up the rear doors of your car and fold down the rear seats. You open up the hatch and remove the parcel shelf. Then you put the large object in the back, take it to the council depot at Drovers Way and dispose of it. How do you feel? Considerable relief, I expect.
So it is with God’s forgiveness. Sin is landfill. That may not be a good illustration environmentally, but I’m sure you get the point. It’s buried. He doesn’t dig it up again. I think that’s why R T Kendall in his book Total Forgiveness says that if you keep talking about a wrong that has been done to you, then you probably haven’t forgiven. I’m not sure I entirely agree with him, but I take the general point. Forgiveness takes away sin. There is a sense in which it isn’t here any more.
One thing that is often said about forgiveness is that if we truly forgive, then we forget as well. ‘Forgive and forget’ are put together. Perhaps that’s a development of the idea that forgiveness is about the removal of sin. Others say, ‘I can forgive but I can’t forget’, and feel condemned by those who associate forgiveness with forgetting what happened. So does forgiveness necessarily involve forgetting the offence?
I am in the middle of reading a book by an Anglican priest containing his reflections on divorce, having been through a divorce himself. Early on in the book he gives one definition of forgiveness. He doesn’t describe it as forgetting at all. He calls it ‘remembering well’. Humanly, we are unlikely to forget bad things that have been done to us. The more we try to forget, the more they are entrenched in our memory – much like the proverbial flying elephant. But we can come to a point where we hold the memory in a holy way. When the memory comes back to us, we choose not to bitter. One way of doing this is by praying that God will bless the person who hurt us.
Some years ago, I heard a tape from Spring Harvest of a sermon by Caesar Molebatsi. If you haven’t heard of him, Molebatsi is a black South African pastor much involved in justice and reconciliation issues. During the terrible years of apartheid, he was hit by a white car driver and lost a leg. Although the driver was caught, he never apologised. Molebatsi has a permanent reminder of the violence in that he has only one leg. He regularly has to choose to forgive, because it is impossible to forget when the sin done to him meant he is without one of his limbs. His only choice is ‘remembering well’.
And that links with one other observation I’d like to make about forgiveness. One of our great mistakes when it comes to forgiveness is to think that it is instant, or a one-off. The moment we have said, ‘I forgive you,’ everything is fine. It isn’t. Someone like Caesar Molebatsi knows that. Bob Mayo, the author of the book on divorce I mentioned, also knows that. Whatever happened between him and his wife, he has the permanent reminder that she is no longer there, but living somewhere else.
No: forgiveness, says Bob Mayo, is a journey. It may take time and practice. We may long for reconciliation with the one who wronged us, but often forgiveness precedes reconciliation. It may be a long time before we can face seeing someone who hurt us deeply, even though we hold no bitterness against them.
Miroslav Volf is a Croatian theologian who has written much on forgiveness and reconciliation, especially in the light of his experiences through the wars in the Balkans after the collapse of communism. One of his books, ‘Free Of Charge‘, was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book in 2006. In it, he says that forgiveness means we blame but do not punish. We do not pretend about the offence. It is real. But we choose not to punish, or press for punishment.
That is rather like God’s treatment of us with regard to our own sin. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin so that we might repent and follow Jesus. The Spirit of God never pretends that the sin was a fiction. Otherwise, we could never repent and walk in the ways of God’s kingdom. But having convicted us, there is no sentence and we are treated as if we had never sinned, even though we have. If this is how God treats us, then it is also the goal we seek in our journey of forgiveness.
Having explored in quite a few ways what forgiveness is, I’m sure it’s already evident to a large extent why we need to forgive.
First of all, because it is consistent with the character of God. The Lord may say, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ but that is surely because God is the only one to whom vengeance may safely be trusted. In our hands, vengeance becomes revenge, not justice. But ‘the Lord is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love’, and the work of the Holy Spirit within us is to make us slower to anger and more ready to be rich in love.
It’s central to our calling to become more Christ-like. Whatever the word ‘Christian’ means today, it started out as meaning ‘little Christ’. Debbie and I say that Rebekah is her mini-me and Mark is my mini-me. Notwithstanding the fact that the ‘mini-me’ language comes from the Austin Powers films, where Mini-Me is the son of Doctor Evil, I nevertheless assume that Jesus is longing to see a vast crowd of his ‘mini-me’s on earth. A central way in which we can be more like him is in adopting the practice and discipline of forgiveness.
For of course Jesus often called his would-be disciples with the words, ‘Follow me’. He didn’t simply mean a geographical following of him, but following his lifestyle. It’s what Jewish rabbis did: they expected their disciples to follow them in the sense of imitating their life. So if discipleship is about following Jesus and Jesus modelled forgiveness, then it’s of the essence of Christian faith to forgive.
But this approach poses questions, and one is this: another strand of the call to faith is what Paul emphasises, namely that God saves us in Christ entirely by his own work, and not on the merits of our good deeds. How then can it be essential to forgive? Wouldn’t that be salvation by good works, rather than by faith?
I believe the answer is something along these lines. God does indeed save us entirely by his own work in Christ. We receive that by faith, and faith itself is not a good work, either: it is the holding out of empty hands in trust to receive all that God has done for us. However, the test of faith is whether we are grateful for God’s gifts – or as Paul put it to the Galatians, ‘faith working by love’. It’s therefore reasonable and logical to expect that those who by faith receive what God gives us in Christ demonstrate that by showing grateful love. And since Christ shows us the love of God supremely in forgiveness, it behoves us to show true faith by being forgiving people. That is what makes sense of the parable. That is why at the end the master is angry with the unforgiving servant. He has not demonstrated this.
One other question occurs to me, and it is the question of justice in society. If forgiveness means blaming but not punishing, how do we keep good order in society? Won’t criminals run rampant, free from concern about being imprisoned? Perhaps a story I have told before might help.
On the night of my thirtieth birthday, I was in Manchester training for the ministry and was invited to a friend’s house for a celebratory meal of – beans on toast. My friend and his wife offered to call a taxi to take me back to college, but – feeling I knew city life as a Londoner and being too stingy to pay for a ride – I declined. That was my mistake. On the way back, I was mugged by a teenager. He smashed my glasses and took cash. I had no hesitation after the attack in calling the police. As it turned out, they didn’t catch my assailant (even though he was clearly known in the area), but I resolved that if they had, I would have co-operated with a prosecution. However, I felt I could only do that as a Christian once I had committed to forgiving the thug. Society needed justice, and the criminal needed forgiveness. I felt that was a fair balance.
And that ties up some of the other reasons why we forgive, which I hinted at earlier: forgiveness is good and indeed authentic witness. If there is one thing we can do in society to show Christ, it is to forgive.
So may God who is rich in mercy fill us with the knowledge and experience of his mercy, that we too may be rich in mercy to others.