What a wonderful talk by Kathryn Schulz from TED2011. Essentially, her reasons why we try to maintain we are right amount to various ugly forms of pride. And the Gospel says, that pride needs to be brought low in the humility of saying in confession to God, “I was wrong.” Then, it is God who makes us right – in theological jargon, he ‘justifies’ us.
I would add to that an issue of fear: when we are afraid of how someone might react, we defensively entrench ourselves in our position of ‘rightness’, even when we know in our hearts we are wrong. So how liberating the Gospel is that we can confess our wrongness to a God of grace and mercy. It is the character of God that makes an admission of our wrong more possible.
Then note how right at the end of the talk she links her theme to the rediscovery of wonder. To quote her exact words:
if you really want to rediscover wonder, you need to step outside of that tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say, “Wow, I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”
That’s profound, isn’t it? We don’t get to a true sense of wonder through our own rightness. It involves acknowledging we are wrong – just as major scientific advances often happen not by incremental improvement on previous foundations, but on paradigm shifts from what was previously accepted. In Christian terms, it again goes hand in hand with accepting God’s outlook on things.
Or am I wrong? 🙂
The other day, a friend of mine said he was contemplating ‘pulling a sickie’. You may be surprised to know that my friend was another minister. (Not a local one!)
He wanted to go sick today. Why? Because today is Trinity Sunday, a notoriously difficult Sunday on which to preach. Preachers wonder how they are going to communicate a great and subtle doctrine, and congregations say they struggle with this belief – yet they don’t want difficult sermons. Nobody wins.
I have preached on the Trinity before, but I did it in a series of five sermons to make it manageable. I don’t think you can do it adequately in one sermon, and so I am going to take one of today’s Lectionary readings and expound its central theme.
I am taking Romans 5:1-11. You may have found the arguments in those verses demanding to cope with, but its appearance in the Lectionary today is timely for Methodists. Last Monday was the anniversary of what we call John Wesley’s conversion, and this passage was said to be Wesley’s favourite portion of Scripture.
The great theme of this passage is justification, a theme dear to Wesley and central to his life and preaching. So that is our subject for today: justification.
We ought then to ask, firstly, what is justification? Many people puzzle over this great biblical word. I once witnessed an oral examination of a Local Preacher (now a minister) who clearly didn’t even recognise the word. It often isn’t used in modern paraphrases, yet it is one of the great words of the New Testament, and denotes one of the great Christian doctrines.
When Paul uses it here, he does so in a much larger context. In expounding justification and the righteousness of God in Romans, he sets it in the great biblical story of God’s love in salvation. So more than once he returns to the story of Abraham, when God began his rescue work not just for individuals but for a broken creation when he chose Abraham and entered into a covenant with him. Everything God does from then on – including the coming of Jesus – builds on that foundation.
What does that mean? It means that God’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness. He didn’t set out first of all to save people by them obeying the Law given at Sinai and then when that failed save people by faith in his Son. He has always been consistent, even if it meant bringing in a new covenant with Jesus after his people failed in the old one. He gave the Law at Sinai not that people might practise it in order to be saved, but that they might do it as a sign that he had saved them. In other words, keeping the Law of God was an act of gratitude.
What we are celebrating in justification by faith in Christ, then, is God bringing his historical purposes to a climax in his Son. This is where he was always headed. We are celebrating the work of a faithful God.
But there is another angle to consider about justification. We need to think of it as like a law court. You may have heard people describe being justified as ‘just if I’d never sinned’. There is some – er – justification – for this view. In both Hebrew and Roman courts, the person who received the favourable verdict of the judge was said to be ‘justified’. If you brought a complaint against someone and the court found in your favour, you were justified. If you were charged with a crime but acquitted, you were justified. To be justified was to be in the right with the judge.
The New Testament, though, takes this image from the law court and gives it a startling use. We read in this passage that ‘Christ died for the ungodly’ [my emphasis] (verse 6), and this is linked with being ‘justified by his blood’ (verse 9). How can the ungodly be justified? How can sinners be ‘in the right’ with the Great Judge? For the wonder of this doctrine is that in Christ God does indeed acquit the guilty.
It is not that a loving Jesus placates an angry Father. It is rather that a loving Father gives up his Son for us. As verse 8 says,
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
As a human father myself, that idea sends shivers through me. What if I had to give up my daughter or son for the blessing of others? It would tear my heart apart. But God in his love had his own heart torn apart in giving up his Son to the Cross so that we might be acquitted, forgiven. Father and Son were at one in love to achieve this status for us, without which we would stand before the heavenly court irredeemably guilty.
Secondly, what are the benefits of justification? God has always wanted to bless his creation. In justification, we see that played out through his covenant faithfulness and his sacrificial love. We no longer stand under a sentence of condemnation. What does that mean?
One consequence is that we have been ‘reconciled’ with God (verse 10). It isn’t simply an absence of condemnation. It isn’t merely the cessation of hostilities. Justification heals a broken relationship. Through it, we are reconciled to God.
In other words, we used to be estranged from God. God might long to bless everyone and everything in his creation, but the rebellion of our sin put us outside the possibility of blessing, in a place where we were opposed to his plans for good. But in justification, God – the wronged party! – puts things right. Through Jesus Christ and his death on the Cross, God says, “Welcome home.”
Have you ever been at odds with someone for a protracted time? What is it like when the relationship is healed and you are friends again? That is what justification does. Perhaps the Parable of the Prodigal Son puts it well. The shock of that parable to Jesus’ hearers is that the father doesn’t wait in a huff and demand humiliation from his errant son. Rather, the father is scanning the horizon, actively looking out for his wayward younger son. And when he sees him, he runs to him and arranges a feast.
So it is with justification. God is not cold and clinical in acquitting us of our sins. He is warm and fatherly, thrilled to have us back in the family. So the Christian doesn’t need to stand at a distance from God. Justification welcomes us back into the fold, and even near the centre, by the heart of God.
I know some churchgoers are nervous of that kind of religion that merely treats God as some kind of cosmic mate, but there is still no reason to hang back at a distance from him – not if you believe that God has justified you by faith through the death of Christ. God invites us to move closer to him. Do we think he endured such pain in love and faithfulness, only for us to remain remote from him?
There is another benefit to justification in this passage, and it is mentioned right at the beginning: peace. The reading opened like this:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (verse 1)
‘Peace’ and ‘reconciliation’ are similar words. As I am sure you have heard preachers say before, in the Bible ‘peace’ is more than the absence of war. If we think peace breaks out the moment a truce is declared or one side surrenders, then we have a very truncated view of peace. To be sure, peace begins when hostilities end. But that is not the limit of peace.
For although the Greek New Testament word for peace is weaker than the Hebrew Old Testament word for it, I am sure Paul would have been drawing on his Old Testament roots when he said that a benefit of justification was peace with God. Peace in the Old Testament is not a negative word, merely about the absence of something (namely, war). It is a positive word. It is about the presence of something good. It is about the presence of flourishing, harmony and justice. When God’s peace breaks out, individuals are in harmony with God and with one another. When God gives his peace, there is healing. When the peace of God comes to a group or a society, there is justice. Indeed, it doesn’t even stop with human beings: the Old Testament envisions the whole of creation enjoying harmony and goodwill when the peace of God reigns.
So if God gives us peace when we are justified through Jesus Christ, not only do we receive the peace of sins forgiven, we receive so much more. Our relationship with God becomes warm. We seek to live in love and harmony with one another. We seek the good of society. We look for the healing of creation. In doing so, justification gives us a glimpse of God’s future – not only because it anticipates God’s gracious acquittal of us on Judgment Day, but also because the gift of his peace that comes with it begins to shape us into his new society, the people of his kingdom.
And that starts to merge into the third question I want to ask of this passage: what are the consequences of justification? Well, the moment Paul describes peace as a benefit, and given that – as I have just claimed – that peace starts to shape us into God’s future – it’s not surprising that he says that ‘we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God’ (verse 2). We have something to look forward to: a sure and certain hope that is the gift of God.
Now that hope does something in us. If our peace with God through justification enables us to anticipate God’s great future, and if that gives us hope for the future, it also does something for us in the present. Because the here and now is far from an image of God’s kingdom. Not only do we fail in our discipleship, we face disappointments and opposition. Justification might lead us out of guilt and estrangement from God, but it plunges us into a new situation of conflict with a sinful and broken creation.
But … God uses this for good. He forms character in the justified disciple. He uses the trials that we inevitably face as his justified people to shape our lives and to fortify that hope we have:
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Verses 3-5)
Through justification, God may make his Church into a sign and foretaste of his kingdom, but the world doesn’t always like that. Nevertheless, we are the ones with the certain future. Because of hope, we have reason to hang on in there when the going gets tough. God shapes us and in forming our character through endurance, he uses the suffering inflicted on us to make us more ready for his coming kingdom. The justifying God even uses evil against itself to promote good. So if we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, we have every reason to push on and discover that God is using the pressure to make us into diamonds.
So in conclusion, justification is a great and glorious theme in the Bible. It is the story of the God of sacrificial love and covenant faithfulness, who reconciles us to himself through his only Son, and grants us a peace that is a foretaste of his coming kingdom. This brings us into conflict with the world, but filled with hope we endure and God uses that to transform our characters.
This wonderful gift is received only one way. By faith. It is the gift of God to those who will trust in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, and who will turn from their selfish ways to partner God, by the power of his Spirit, in his kingdom project.
Today, then, let us rejoice again in the wonderful gift God gives us through faith in his Son, and let us recommit ourselves to his kingdom purposes.
Alternatively, if we have spent years in church thinking that something else would see us right for eternity, let us turn away from our folly, confessing our wrong and humbly receiving all that God has done for us in Christ.
more about “Sabbatical Day 69, Good Friday: Jesus…“, posted with vodpod
Here is the Damaris Trust video for Good Friday. Andrew White talks about the importance of Jesus’ death on the cross on our behalf. He discusses what this means for his ministry of reconciliation in Iraq.
We went into town this morning for the annual open-air united service in Chelmsford High Street. A band from the church where we are worshipping led the music, and the choir from our children’s school dazzlingly performed a selection of songs from a musical entitled Resurrection Rock.
A nun from a local community spoke. Hers was a serious address where she spoke of Bad Friday and Good Friday. Today is only Good Friday because it is about redemptive suffering. Anything else would be Bad Friday. Suffering isn’t good for its own sake. She spoke passionately as one who had spent years in the Democratic Republic of Congo, serving women and young girls who had been raped by HIV positive men, young boys who had been brutalised into becoming child soldiers and mothers who had watched children die from diseases we find easily preventable in the West.
And from that, she made a connection between Good Friday and Easter Day. For whenever we, who believe in Christ’s redemptive suffering and conquest of death, minister to those in need or work for justice, we are doing Resurrection work. In that sense, she asked, is the Resurrection happening today?
Later, Rebekah – who had understandably described that part of the service as ‘longer than church’ – posed again the question, “Why do we call it ‘Good Friday’ and not ‘Bad Friday’?” I tried to explain how God took the Bad that was done to Jesus and turned it for Good. She found that hard to grasp.
In the back of my mind I was thinking of Tim Keller‘s The Reason For God, and his chapter on the Cross. He explains how forgiveness and love inevitably involve both substitution and exchange. When we forgive someone, it always comes at a cost. If I forgive you a debt, I take on that debt. He doesn’t get into the question of Pauline language and whether to speak of penal substitution, just that forgiveness must in some sense involve the substituting of the debt, and that this consitutes and exchange. The notion of exchange, he says, is fundamental to love. If I love my children, I will exchange my freedom for their well-being. I will not only give them attention when it is convenient to me, for if I do that they will only grow up physically. Love means I will attend to them when it is inconvenient. I give up my freedom to serve them in love. This, says Keller, is like what Christ does for the world on the Cross.
I shall be interested to plug those thoughts into those from a book that is on its way from Amazon: Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision by Tom Wright. I’d like to see how this compares and contrasts with Wright’s more cosmic vision of salvation. The Reformation tradition has tended to take Luther’s question of “How can I find a gracious God?” and insert the word ‘personally’ after ‘I’. That is critical, but I know that in this book, Wright is saying that such a question makes the sun orbit around us rather than vice-versa. We’ll see …
I’m going to raise a theological issue in a moment. Please don’t go away. It doesn’t require (many) long words, and it’s about an important issue in Christian life and witness. It’s something I’ve had in the back of my mind for a year or two, but never thought a lot about. But it has come up again today while I’ve been reading Tim Keller‘s ‘The Reason for God‘, and it’s rather more important than the continued slow broadband speeds I’m trying to diagnose here. (Something like 200k speed instead of our usual 1.8 meg or so. I’m currently running a full virus check as part of PlusNet‘s faults procedure.)
So here’s the issue. What do we expect of Christian behaviour? Twenty years ago at theological college, I was in conversation with a tutor. I don’t remember the topic, but I must have expressed some disappointment about church life in a placement. He replied, “David, never forget that the church is a company of sinners.”
And I wanted to reply, “Yes, but …”. We are a company of sinners, but I don’t like that most cheddary of Christian slogans, ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’ It seems to be an excuse for all sorts of unacceptable conduct. (Says he who is the chief of sinners. But I don’t want to excuse myself, either. I’m too good at rationalisation.)
The difficulty surfaced again when I read Eugene Peterson‘s book ‘The Jesus Way‘ in 2007. Much of that book is routine wonderful Peterson, but I found one part awkward. In using the example of King David’s life, he rightly trumpets the extraordinary grace of God in bringing forgiveness after forgiveness. And again, I thought, “Yes, but?” The grace of God is truly astonishing. How he picks up people like me, dusts us down and sets us on the road again is staggering. My ‘but’ was that I wanted to read something about transformation. If it was there, I missed it.
And that is the one area where I have struggled with Keller. There are so many riches in ‘The Reason for God’. I loved the passage on page 57 where he said that the problem with Christian fanatics isn’t that they are too serious about the Gospel, it’s that they aren’t serious enough, because they act like Pharisees rather than those who know grace. I also appreciated the fact that he tackles so many of the popular objections to faith, including the one where people rightly say that the behaviour of Christians doesn’t always compare favourably to that of non-Christians.
Now Keller rightly says that Christianity isn’t about moralism. It is – again – about grace. He also says the Christian faith has theological resources for understanding, if not expecting this dilemma. We can expect non-Christians to live outstanding lives, because (using the Calvinist term) he bestows ‘common grace’ on all. We all have the image of God in us, however damaged, is how I would put it. On the other hand, Christians are still sinners. So in believing the best about non-Christians and the worst about Christians (something we rarely do in the church), we need not be surprised if people who do not share our faith outshine us at times.
I am refreshed by the way he consistently goes back to grace. I think he is a shining example of not shooting down those he disagrees with in some crude culture war. Yet I think non-Christians have a point about expecting Christian conduct to be better, even without misunderstanding our message as one of moralism.
I have wondered whether Keller and Peterson’s Presbyterian traditions have anything to do with this. I’m thinking of the debates at the Reformation about justification. Essentially the Reformers separated justification and sanctification, whereas the Catholics conflated the two. Thus the Reformers, in emphasising their difference from Rome, stressed justification as being by the free grace of God through faith in Christ. Sanctification, in the sense of holy living, is also by grace through faith, but the Reformers wanted to separate it out as clearly as possible in order to deny any possible thought that good works merited salvation. So I would suggest it’s possible for someone in a strongly Reformed background to end up emphasising justification (in a Protestant sense) and underplaying sanctification. Might this explain Keller and Peterson?
The weakness I can immediately see in my argument is that the theological college tutor I mentioned was a Methodist. For Methodism has a subtly different tradition here, as I understand it. Wesley was with the Reformers in preaching that sinners were saved entirely by grace through faith in Christ and his atoning work on the Cross. But he moved onto sanctification much more quickly than the classical Reformers did. If you had faith, then (as in Galatians 6), that ‘faith worketh by love’: it was evident in a new lifestyle. The new lifestyle did not save you, but it was the evidence of having received salvation. It was gratitude for salvation, not the cause of it. It was a sign of the Spirit’s work of assurance, which was more than the objective promises of Scripture that the Reformers had stressed. With a theological heritage like that, then whatever one might think about Wesley’s controversial doctrine of Christian Perfection, you will not settle for ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’
So do the likes of Keller and Peterson allow us to be too easy on ourselves, or is that just the wonder of grace? Does Wesley lead us into moral self-flagellation, or is he simply calling out the cost of discipleship? And for those of you who might know Keller, Peterson, Presbyterianism in general or Wesley better than me, have I misread them at any key point? I would be very interested to read your comments, because – as I said in the opening paragraph – this is an important issue in Christian life and witness. For it is about the nature of salvation and a proper portrayal of Christianity to the world.
As Dr Frasier Crane used to say, “I’m listening.”
There is one line from an early school report of mine that I remember: ‘David takes simple things and makes them complicated.’
You may recognise that trait in me even today! And I have to say there is an element of it sneaking into this sermon. The Vision of the Sheep and Goats, as George Beasley-Murray called it (first complication there – it’s not really a parable!) seems to be a piece of teaching by Jesus that is very simple. Do good to the poor and you’ll receive eternal life; ignore the poor and you’ll burn in Hell.
Simple, isn’t it? No.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to find the get-out clause that means we don’t have to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. But there are questions of detail that readers of this vision have asked. And as we explore them, we fill out more of the meaning.
In particular, we need to think about who ‘the nations’ are that are gathered before Jesus, the Son of Man at the judgment. And we also need to think about who ‘the least of these’ are, who may receive acts of mercy. In considering these two groups in the story, I hope we’ll answer some questions that have troubled sensitive Christians about this passage.
Who are ‘the nations’ in the story? Are they everyone in history? Are they people who have never heard the Gospel, given the surprised ‘Lord, when was it we saw you …?’ responses? Do they represent Christians, or possibly the Jewish people? And why does the question matter?
It matters, because it ties into the question of salvation. Are we saved by good works? What is the relationship between good works and salvation by faith in Christ? Does God have a different way of judging those who have never heard of Jesus – would that explain the surprise?
I’m not going to bore you with academic arguments, except to say that this story comes at the end of the fifth and final block of Jesus’ teaching that we find in Matthew’s Gospel. The first block was the Sermon on the Mount, and that set a theme for teaching about discipleship. All the teaching blocks are about discipleship in one way or another. This final block in chapters 24 and 25 focusses on questions about the end of all things. It fittingly climaxes here with a story about the Last Judgment.
So I do not think we can avoid the idea that Jesus is aiming this passage at those who claim to be his disciples. It fleshes out the statement in the Sermon on the Mount that not everyone who calls him ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of his Father. Obedience to the will of God is central and critical to Christian discipleship.
However, that raises the question I mentioned a moment ago. How does that thought sit with the teaching elsewhere in the New Testament that says we are justified in the sight of God not by our good works but by our faith in Jesus Christ? Doesn’t the sheep and goats story suggest that we are justified by good deeds?
To which I would reply that justification simply isn’t the issue here. The issue is one of identity: what does a disciple look like? And Jesus tells us here that a true disciple looks like someone who has compassion for the poor and needy – not just the deserving poor, but even the undeserving poor, because there is no hint that those in prison are in there for anything other than just reasons.
If we want to know whether we are progressing in discipleship, then the first test is not what dramatic spiritual experiences we have had. Nor is it whether we can muster a high score in a test of biblical and theological knowledge. Disciples are known by their actions for the sake of those in need. In his First Letter, John says that we cannot say the love of God lives in us if we see someone in need and fail to act. Such actions are the signs of true faith.
In that sense, it is connected to the question of justification, even though that is not Jesus’ particular concern here. It is rather like what Paul says in Galatians that faith works by love, and what James says in his Letter, when he maintains that those who are justified by faith show they truly are by their compassionate deeds of mercy.
So whether we care for people such as the hungry, thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick and the prisoners is a test of true faith. Has God broken our hearts with the things that break his heart? And are we heartbroken enough to do something about it? This is a simple test of disciples’ obedience.
Nevertheless, we can probably extend this in a certain way to another question that is not Jesus’ primary concern in this passage. The question I have in mind is also one I mentioned earlier: how does God judge those who have never heard the Gospel? Some would argue that unless one actually hears the Gospel and responds, one is destined to damnation. It is a view that those who recognise other aspects of God’s character such as his mercy (as well as his judgment) find problematical.
And I suspect that the ‘Lord, when did we see you …?’ questions do give us a glimpse of how God would regard such people. Is it not the case that in Scripture God judges people according to how they respond to whatever light from him they receive? In Genesis, the priest Melchizedek appears out of nowhere and Abraham makes an offering to him – and God approves. Joshua is pleased to use the help of the Jericho prostitute Rahab. Isaiah 45 calls the pagan king Cyrus God’s anointed.
So might it just be that here in Matthew 25, we get an indirect view of how God will treat those who know that mercy to the poor and the weak is what matters? I can’t be certain, but I think it’s possible.
The Least Of These
So the judgment of the nations makes us realise that compassion for the needy, whether they are ‘deserving’ or not, is a valid test of discipleship. It may also show a way in which God judges those who have never heard the Gospel.
But what about those described as ‘the least of these’ in the passage – namely, those who are hungry, thirsty, aliens, naked, sick or prisoners? Who are they? Some would argue they stand for anyone who is poor and in need in the world. Other say this expression ‘the least of these’ is similar to other terms Matthew uses in his Gospel to describe oppressed Christians or Christian missionaries facing hardship. There are some similarities of language, but they are not conclusive. In any case, if God only judges people on how they treat the Church, doesn’t that make God’s people into some narrow-minded sect, where it’s only what we receive (and not others) that counts?
So I suspect that the vulnerable people in need in this story, whom Jesus labels ‘the least of these’, stand for anyone in the world who may be suffering these or similar conditions. God does not simply call us to look after our own. Let’s assume, then, that God gives us a brief that covers the whole world in demonstrating his love to those in need.
But does the passage make an even larger claim than that? Some Christians think so. The first time I ever heard Tony Campolo speak, he told a story about a trip he paid to the Dominican Republic, where he witnessed terrible poverty. As he was about to board his plane back to the USA, a mother tried to give him her child. The child would stand a far better chance in terms of health, education and prospects in the States. Campolo felt he couldn’t. But as his plane accelerated down the runway, he could see the mother and child still there. On the basis of this passage, he had an awful realisation: he hadn’t left a child in the Dominican Republic, he had left Jesus there. ‘Just as you did [not do] to the least of these, you did [not do it] to me.’
Similarly, the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann has invoked the old Latin phrase ubi Christi, ibi ecclesia: ‘where Christ is, there is the Church’ from this text. He takes it to mean that if whatever we do to the poor we do to Christ, then Christ is present in the poor.
So does this teach that Christ lives in the poor? Does Christ perhaps even live in everyone, rather like the Quaker belief that there is an inner light within all people?
No, I don’t think the passage means that. It is a very heightened metaphorical way of speaking that Jewish people employed. ‘This is my body’ and ‘This is my blood’ would be of the same order. ‘Just as you did to the least of these, it is as if you did it to me’ might be a paraphrase that brings this out.
This, I think, would be more consistent with the rest of Scripture, which sees the Spirit of God as being directly involved in the creation of humankind but who only resides within people when they become disciples of Jesus. The idea that the divine is resident in all people is closer to the mystical beliefs of some New Age philosophies than Christianity. If we all have God within, there’s very little need for salvation.
Nevertheless, we still have incredibly strong reasons for serving all who are in need with the love of Christ. We do not do it simply as robots obeying a command programmed by our Master. We do so, because when he, as the agent of God’s creation, and in partnership with the Holy Spirit, made the human race, he made them ‘in the image of God’. Our lives and relationships are meant to mirror something about God, and God’s love.
There is no greater dignity anything in all creation has than to be made in God’s image. When the image-bearers of God are made to suffer, that is an attempt to obscure the image of God, and it is an affront to the God who made people with such a high status. Affording dignity, respect and healing to those who are suffering is about making the image of God more visible in creation.
So – it’s a clear test of discipleship whether we meet the practical needs of the poor and struggling. It may even be an indicator of how God judges those who have no genuine opportunity to hear the Gospel.
Not only that, we have an imperative to do so, because all people are made in the image of God, however much it has been damaged by sin. That means our call to love and serve those in need cannot just be a paternalistic ‘doing good’ to those who passively, but gratefully, receive all the good things we have to give. It must also mean that in affirming their special dignity we give power back to those who have become powerless.
We may have had to take some complex diversions to arrive at these conclusions. You may well think that school teacher was right to say I am the sort of person who makes simple things complicated. At the end, however, we do come back to some simple challenges. We may not be able to meet all the needs that a satellite television and broadband Internet world flashes before our eyes. But we can ask ourselves this: what time, money and possessions have I given up in order to practise God’s love for the poor?
My status as a disciple requires positive evidence in response to this question. So does my commitment to God’s revelation in Scripture. If I want to be a biblical disciple, then, I will know that I have responded to those who are suffering, and I continue to care for the suffering.
Can I answer yes?
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.
This Sunday, my church at Broomfield is experimenting with bringing its annual Covenant Service forward to the beginning of the ‘Methodist year’ rather than the calendar year. Hence what follows is a sermon for a Covenant Service, rather than on one of the regular weekly Lectionary readings.
At my office, I worked with a Muslim guy. Javed (or ‘Suave Jave’ as we called him, for his attitude to the ladies) was more Muslim by upbringing than practice. But one day, he brought in to show us his mother’s copy of the Qur’an. It was edged and blocked in gold leaf. It came in a special tissue-like wrapper. One thing neither Javed nor his mother would have done with that book was write in it. Even touching it seemed risky, in case of damage.
But I don’t treat my copies of the Bible that way. In particular, I was taught as a young Christian to underline words in my Bible. Not only verses that struck me, but also some key words. ‘But’ was a good word to underline. It indicated an important change in Paul’s arguments.
And Romans 12 starts with another key word: ‘therefore’.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
‘I appeal to you therefore’: therefore indicates all that has preceded Romans 12. It indicates the first eleven chapters of Romans, summarised here as ‘the mercies of God’. We make and renew our covenant because of ‘the mercies of God’. All we offer today is in response to the mercies of God. Not just one-off mercy in initial forgiveness, but mercies. Over and over again, God is merciful to us. Our sins, our mistakes, our foolishness and weakness: for all these things God is merciful to us in Christ through the Cross. And because he is relentlessly merciful – his mercies are ‘new every morning, [so] great is [his] faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:23) – we offer ourselves to him.
How does Paul ask his readers to respond to the mercies of God? In these two verses are two ways:
Paul urges Christians to ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (verse 1).
‘Spiritual worship’ here implies that it is reasonable, rational and true. This is the right and proper thing to do in light of God’s enduring mercies to us. The mercies of God come to us through the sacrifice of Christ: is it not appropriate, urges Paul, for us to make sacrifices as a grateful response?
But what are these sacrifices? ‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’, he says. It’s not just something we do ‘spiritually’: we present our bodies. And if I might just re-order the words to reflect what many commentators think is the sense of the Greek, we make ‘sacrifices, living, holy and acceptable to God’. Those adjectives ‘living’, ‘holy’ and ‘acceptable to God’ illustrate the kinds of sacrifices we might make with our bodies.
‘Living’ – we freely offer our bodies to God, because of what he has done for us in Christ. It may cost us something. The author Robert J Morgan tells how one Sunday, the late Corrie ten Boom was preaching in Copenhagen on these very verses. She was eighty years old at the time. Two young nurses at the church invited her to lunch afterwards, but they lived in a tenth floor flat and there was no lift. Not what you want at eighty.
She struggled up the stairs as far as the fifth floor, but her heart was pounding and her legs buckled. Collapsing into a chair, she complained to the Lord. But she sensed God whispering to her that it was important she carried on.
When she finally made it to the tenth floor, she met the parents of one of the nurses. Neither was a Christian, but they were both interested in the Gospel. Corrie ten Boom led them to faith in Christ. All because she reluctantly followed her own sermon and made her life – her very body – a sacrifice in climbing ten flights. She was willing to go where God led her, despite the cost.
‘Holy’ – our dedication to God may also sometimes come at a price. The Covenant Service promises balances the way some parts of our discipleship are attractive and others are costly:
Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both; in some we may please Christ and please ourseleves, in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.’ (Methodist Worship Book, p288.)
Holy sacrifices are about being willing to pay the price of unpopularity and difficulty for the sake of dedication to the right thing. It is also a matter of doing so graciously, rather than with complaint, self-righteousness or attention-seeking.
‘Acceptable’ – this probes our motives. Other translations say, ‘well-pleasing to God’. It’s about a desire to please God. In marriage and other human relationships, we make it our first goal not to please ourselves but our spouse, or whoever it is we love. So too with God. When we know how merciful he has been to us and how regularly he has been merciful, the fitting response is to set our minds and hearts on doing the things that bring him joy.
There is a story told in the Old Testament that gives a small illustration of what I am talking about King David wanted to buy some land from a subject and use it for worship. The owner says he can have it free of charge, but David says, no: he insists on paying. Why? ‘I will not give to the Lord that which has cost me nothing,’ he says. Discipleship and giving need to cost us something to be genuine. It may be financial, material, emotional, psychological, even social. If we realise just how merciful God continually is to us, then out of joy we shall be willing to show love in return, even if it comes at a price.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
‘Do not be conformed to this world’ – or, as J B Phillips famously translated this passage, ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’. Do not be conformed, be transformed, says Paul. Don’t be squeezed by the world, ‘let God re-mould your minds from within’ (Phillips).
Yet how easy it is to conform to the world, to let it squeeze us into its mould. Often we don’t notice. The late Lesslie Newbigin once observed that just as a goldfish is not consciously aware of the water in which it swims, so we are often unconscious of the culture we live in and its values.
In our society’s case, think about how we easily use popular words such as ‘tolerance’. It is presented as a quality that everybody must have. Woe betide the intolerant! But the word ‘tolerance’ carries with it overtones of a benign attitude to things that are wrong, enduring wrong things or having no deep convictions oneself. It’s a slippery slope towards tolerating sin. All these shades of meaning are therefore anathema to the Christian, but we refer to tolerance as much as anyone! The world is squeezing us into its mould, if we are not careful. I could give examples from other apparently innocent or positive words such as ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘community cohesion’.
So how do we resist social pressures to adopt ways of thinking that are inimical to the Gospel? Paul exhorts us to ‘be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds’, or to let God re-mould us from within, as Phillips puts it. Spiritual transformation involves a battle for the mind, because what we think affects our attitudes and our actions.
This doesn’t mean we all have to be intellectuals. Any Jesus-follower can develop Gospel thinking, Gospel attitudes and Gospel actions. That is Paul’s vision. Where do we begin?
We start with reading and reflecting on the Bible and its great story from the Garden to the New Jerusalem. It is Scripture above all that will help us to be Gospel thinkers. However, we don’t do so alone. Private Bible reading is good and worthy, but most of the books in the Bible itself were written or dictated to be heard less by individuals than by groups of disciples. It’s important, therefore, to get to grips with the Gospel together. If you’re not part of a small group that does that, you’re missing out! For starters, join the Living Faith course! It will help us get to grips with the big picture of our faith together.
But it’s not enough just to read the biblical message and discuss it. There are many people in churches who know their Bibles well, but who are harsh, unloving and judgmental. (Not that any of us is perfect – least of all, me.) So just reading the Bible and talking about it isn’t enough.
In other words, the biblical authors didn’t write their books just to be read or heard. They wrote them to generate action. The Bible isn’t just to be read, it’s to be done.
In my final year as a student minister, I spent half my time on placement in a circuit. At one of the two churches where I worked, I led a Bible study every week. However, the minister who supervised that group had been very frustrated with it. ‘When are they going to stop talking about the Bible and start doing something?’ he said to me once. ‘They’re more interested in the maps on the inside covers of their Bibles than in putting the teaching into practice.’
And that’s what I’m on about. Spiritual formation in Christ – the transformation of our minds to which Paul calls us – involves Bible reading, reflecting on it together where we support and challenge each other, and then getting on with what we’ve learned. It’s when the thinking leads to action that we truly learn. If I were a betting man, I would wager that Katie learned more about God’s love for the poor through her trip to Kenya with Hand In Hand than I would have done simply by reading about the poor.
One famous preacher said, ‘Never finish your sermon without telling your congregation what you want them to do about it.’ I suggest you might almost say, ‘Never finish your Bible reading without deciding what you are going to do about it.’
If God has been so persistently merciful to us, then what might we give him as a present? It would be appropriate if our offering involved sacrifice, when we recall all that he has done for us in Christ.
Transformation is also appropriate: Christ did not die on the Cross only for our forgiveness: he died that we might be saved from sin in every way. Not only the penalty of sin, but the practice of sin (which involves us co-operating with the Holy Spirit in being transformed) but also the presence of sin (as we anticipate God’s New Creation by being colonies of God’s Kingdom).
This Covenant Service, let us pledge ourselves again – in promise and in action – to the God of abundant mercy.