Tag Archives: forgiveness

Back to normal?

The Covid pandemic is not “over”, but we are thinking of a return to “normal”. Our reading from Ephesians (Ephesians 1:3-14) may take us by a different route, and to a version of normal we would do well to study. The letter begins by reminding us of our blessings – but not to follow it with some stern admonition to get back to work. Jesus was chosen, and we are chosen also to be adopted as children. This is part of God’s grace (for it doesn’t arise from anything else), something to be sung about (as soon as we are allowed!) and celebrated.

Then we hit verse 7 with surprise: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us”. Somehow we don’t expect to be talking about the sacrifice of Jesus, his death as the price of our forgiveness, at this point. It almost seems in bad taste, but let’s be careful. Whose agenda are we following here? Doesn’t the story of the last year lead on?

Why not tell this story now? Because it doesn’t fit with a secularised history. But our purpose is to tell the story of what God has done, not a story re-written for children (what we think they would like) or our own amusement (leaving out the difficult bits). God’s story has a harder edge – life and love in bad times as well as good. Sacrifice – voluntary self-sacrifice – is always part of it, as is conflict, and disinterest, and struggle.

Our becoming God’s children is to be seen in this way, too. Yes, there is a genuinely and importantly emotional aspect of it. We are accepted, we belong, we find our true identity. And we are to grow up, to understand “the mystery of his will”; to know God and his plan, and to make it known. Our aim is not the easy life, but life “for the praise of his glory”.

Yes, we are leaving lockdown and going back to routine. But while the world is tempted to write another history, we take with us the strength gained from the story written here. We know that there is more to understand and celebrate. We know that, just as the gospel story will make demands on Jesus life, so we are asked to do more than stand and watch. We are to be drawn in, to growing commitment, to service, and to life as God’s children in reality, not in fiction.

11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” A rather different, and much better, understanding of normal life, for those who will live it.

Fraud?

There is a thing called the “imposter syndrome”, which leads well qualified people to think that they are a fraud, and do not deserve the position or qualifications they have achieved. It may be that, having been shut away in Covid lockdown, more of us will feel strange as we take up former work or responsibilities.

Certainly, when John writes of Christians as the loved children of God ( we read 1 John 3:1-7 ) there will be some who feel “What, me?”. It is amazing, and sometimes challenging, to recognise ourselves as having this status. Imperfect as we, and others we join in our congregations, are, we are still given this identity. Children of God, with all that implies for now and the future.

It is this gift of love that motivates a Christian response. Being loved, we want to learn to love. Being forgiven, as we still need to be, we come to ask questions about how, if God forgives us, then others can also be forgiven. If God can forgive them, how can we withold our forgiveness? And so the questions go on. A God of truth is trustworthy and promise keeping, so we should learn to be the same. A creator God values the world, and it is time we looked to the impact our lives have, and waste and spoil less.

John knows that some people in those communities claim to be perfect, while others insist that what they do has nothing to do with their “spiritual” state. He will have none of it. Christians are God’s loved children; they remain liable to make mistakes, even serious ones, and need forgiveness. At the same time, the love that reaches out to us demands a response of imitation as we value the God who offers so much. Getting it right is not easy, but the effort is essential, and rewarding!

Reality, not scapegoating.

Our world is very confusing. Sometimes it encourages you to do just whatever you feel like. Then without warning it is mercilessly looking for a scapegoat, because somebody must be responsible for what has gone wrong. It seems the first century was rather the same, and John writes to his Church in a very realistic way. We read 1 John 1:1-2:2 (that’s the first letter of John, not the gospel).

“Now the message that we have heard from his Son and announce is this: God is light, and there is no darkness at all in him. If, then, we say that we have fellowship with him, yet at the same time live in the darkness, we are lying both in our words and in our actions.”

1 John 1:5,6 GNB

Is the Christian community supposed to be different? Is it realistic to expect us to live in the middle of our society, and hold other values? Yes. We are called to be light in darkness, and salt in rottenness.

  • we have the details laid out for us in the Christian Way: love, truthfulness, submission to one another, work, generosity, honour . .
  • we have the motivation. God has loved us and done for us what we could never do, our response in thanksgiving is invited.
  • difference is vital to our witness. We are not a club, doing things that keep us happy, but God’s people in the world, advertising his plans.

But just as we are coming to terms with the call to be different, we come to:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us. But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make a liar out of God, and his word is not in us.

1 John 1:8-10 GNB

Part of the Good News is forgiveness – not forgiveness once, then perfection. We continue to fail, and while we can’t be complacent, we mustn’t stop trying, nor pretend to a perfection we don’t have. We have to be realistic. We shall fail as individuals, and as a community; sometimes just struggling to make progress, sometimes more dramatically. We all remain capable of getting it badly – seriously, scandalously – wrong, and we need to know that to guard against it.

There is an argument over

And Christ himself is the means by which our sins are forgiven, and not our sins only, but also the sins of everyone.

1 John 2:2 GNB

Traditional translations (KJV) have “propitiation”, while some prefer “expiation”. Expiation, they say, removes the “defilement” of sin, while propitiation is about buying off an angry God with sacrifice. That’s not a Christian idea – but neither is the idea that God just has to chill out and forgive. Sin is not some ritual defilement; it is the very personal breakdown of relationship, caused when we rebel against God’s rule and direction. It is very personal, and serious – to the extent that it cost Jesus his death. John Stott writes, Christian propitiation “is an appeasement of the wrath of God by the love of God through the gift of God.” I think we need the language of propitiation, understanding that there is nothing petty about God’s response to human sin.

However you take it, Jesus is the pattern and the answer. Wherever his people gather, the calling of Jesus remains:

  • to be a holy (different) community
  • to be a humble community, that knows its failures, and looks to Jesus for forgiveness

Debt

Debt cancellation is a popular theme among those concerned with world development. How can struggling nations repay money which has long since been mis-spent or disappeared into corrupt hands, when they need to help their people to a better life? It is not a simple issue, but one example of how debt can throw a long shadow over life.

Paul tells Christians (we are reading Romans 13:8-14)

 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another

Romans 13:8a

and we might wonder how that works out in practice.

Jesus (Mark 12:31) summarised the law as loving the one God, and your neighbour as yourself. It brought together two vital strands. The love of God is a response to the love God first shows us, accepting his gift and putting it into use, our motivation for new life. But our love of those around us is a reality check. If we really love God, then it will show in our behaviour, even to the difficult or demanding. After all, God loved us when we were just like that!

But how are we to set about cancelling debts? Doesn’t society depend on favours owed and favours returned? Isn’t our social life founded on remembering who you owe? Perhaps some people do give the impression of a frantic counting and reckoning of who is owed what. But there is an alternative. The Lord’s Prayer taught us “Forgive us . . as we forgive”; – not a careful accounting, but a generosity which reflects the generosity of God’s treatment of us. I think what Paul is recommending is that generosity in our relations with our neighbours.

It may be in terms of money, including making sure that we repay anything borrowed promptly and willingly, but it is really about a wider generosity of spirit. Sometimes money is not the issue. Generosity may offer time and a listening ear (rather than advice!). It may find sympathy rather than blame. It will control irritation, contempt, and cynicism.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone is wise or does the right thing. But if there are words of guidance or correction, they will be spoken gently, and by the right person. And those words will only be heard after any personal anger or hurt have been dealt with, so that they are spoken with a positive slant, and with love.

Easy? Like so many Christian things, it is not complicated, just hard to do. But this is a response to a God who deals lovingly with me, so there is a reminder of what is possible!

Worst of Sinners -?

We don’t like the word “sinner”, and we certainly tend to think that if we have a few stains on our conscience, there are plenty others much worse. But Paul has a surprise for us

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinnersof whom I am the foremost. ( v15 in the reading 1 Timothy 1:12-17 )

WHAT? Of course, Saul had led the persecution of Christians, rooting them out and putting them in prison. But he doesn’t say “I was”, he says “I am”. Perhaps we have to think again about our status, and doubt that great sinners are so different from us!

Who has never ever said “I hate you!”; never driven too fast; never lied, been glad at someone else’s failure, caused trouble between friends, … we don’t like recognising evil in us; but that doesn’t take it away

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinnersof whom I am the foremost.

But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.”

Don’t imagine that you escape the label of “sinner”,
but don’t despair either. God is concerned about sinners, given the chance, he goes looking for them, brings them home, sorts them out –
and does it all very gently and patiently.

That’s why he has given us examples of those who found his love;
that’s why we are told about how concerned he is
not with the good, but with the outsider

You may know people in pain or difficulty, perhaps pray for them. Don’t forget those who may have caused the pain or difficulty. God cares – for all his children. Even the worst! There’s hope for everybody, if they want to take it.

And that’s why Paul pauses for a short hooray. Well, to be exact

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

God is good, with a goodness not overcome by terrorism, or any other form of sin, including yours and mine.
we celebrate that goodness (not our own)
and have the responsibility to take advantage, and to announce:
“ The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

The Importance of Heaven

[There is a comment on Acts 16:16-34 under the title “Waiting” ]

After the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to various groups of people, then after 40 days, ascended back into heaven. We celebrated that last Thursday, and today read of heaven in Revelation 22:12-21. (I prefer not to omit some verses – see later). People have some funny ideas about heaven. I can’t remember anything said in scripture about family reunions, about endless rest, furry animals, golf, or styles of music.

What is said describes a beautiful and safe place; safe partly because among those excluded are those who would cause harm or bring deceit. Revelation 22:14 “Happy are those who wash their robes clean and so have the right to eat the fruit from the tree of life and to go through the gates into the city. 15 But outside the city are the perverts and those who practice magic, the immoral and the murderers, those who worship idols and those who are liars both in words and deeds.”

That helps to make sense of the story of Paul in Philippi, Acts 16:16-34. He delivers a slave girl from an evil spirit, but is persecuted for her owners loss of income – with lies, and official malpractice. He wins through, with the power of the Holy Spirit bringing faith to the jailer and his family – but the division which will be made in heaven is already developing. That division is NOT between “good” and “bad” people, – the key is not “performance”, but the acceptance of forgiveness. Verse 14 “Happy are those who wash their robes clean and so have the right to eat the fruit from the tree of life and to go through the gates into the city. ” Indeed, even as Revelation 22 tells us of heaven and those left out, it urges verse 17 Come! Come, whoever is thirsty; accept the water of life as a gift, whoever wants it.

The question is not only: “Do we want it?” (important though that is), but also do we want to share something so important, wonderful – and free? If so, we not only find ourselves praying for the gifts, fruit and power of the Holy Spirit to direct our Mission, but we also see why this is a time to think about Vocation. Vocation is not about bullying people into being ordained. It is about what God calls us to do, or put it another way, how we use the gifts he gives us. Some are leaders & organisers, some teachers, others are good with people, others can lead them to faith . . There are many different gifts, but we need them all. Do you know yours, and help others to discover theirs? Have you spotted people who should be encouraged to take particular responsibilities in the Christian family? (If not, why not?)

“Come, whoever is thirsty.” The gates of heaven are still open to us for a time. Now is the moment to repent, accept forgiveness, and work through what that means. I find it ironic that as we read vv18,19, warnings against adding or taking away from the book, it is suggested we leave out v18,19 – the warnings themselves, and v15, about the excluded. But until Jesus comes again, there is the opportunity to join those qualified to enter and eat the fruit of the tree of life. – Unless you know something more important to be thinking about today?

Forgive – again, and again

(The passage Matthew 18:21-25 is featured in the “Giving in Grace” programme: see http://www.givingingrace.org/Preach-Matthew! and the preaching notes http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/preaching_notes_matthew.pdf as well as Dr Jane Williams Sermon Reflections at http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/reflections_matthew.pdf )

Peter is a good man; in Matthew 18:21-35 he has listened to Jesus, he is committed to him as his disciple, and he realises that forgiveness is important. But he wants to get it right, so he asks a question – a good idea!  He doesn’t ask “Do I have to?”, but he knows its difficult and – he wonders “How many times?” Jesus would be generous about things like that – make a suggestion – make it big. Seven? bit much, but a perfect number – surely that’s enough?

“Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?”
“No, not seven times,” answered Jesus, “but seventy times seven,”
but don’t get this wrong, Peter, you’ve got to see it like this. And so Jesus tells the story. The story is about a man who owes millions, and his helpless plight draws the pity of his creditor, who lets him off. [Note, by the way, that this is not pretending he wasn’t in debt – he admits it]

What about you – do you have anything that needs forgiving?
Let me see – I did lose my temper last week, and I was late taking my library book back, and I was a bit greedy ..
Get real!
I asked if you had anything that needed forgiving, and that’s not it!
You’re selfish. The one thing you’ll protect at all costs – is you. You’re cruel – maybe you wouldn’t hurt a fly, but what you’ve said about people, what you imagined doing to the bully, the way you’ve treated your rivals.
God made you, gave you life, – and you feel good if you give him a thought for an hour or two a month; you’re not even that fit.

OK, enough, this isn’t meant to make you feel bad – and you need to provide your own answers. But take it from me, you have plenty that needs forgiving, and it isn’t the trivia, it’s the real things you prefer not to think about – great scars of anger, resentment, and refusal to serve & obey.

Where were we? Oh yes, “Do I have to forgive?”
Jesus story makes us annoyed with the man, forgiven so much, who can’t pass on the blessing. Perhaps he’s shaken by the experience, perhaps he want’s to pretend it didn’t really happen.
Do you know people like that? “I know I’m not perfect, of course, but (BUT), compared with them, or them, or the people you read about . .

Get real! Don’t ever go there!
What Jesus explains to Peter is that forgiveness is not about the irritation of people who annoy us, rather it is about seeing other people as God sees us. We’re hopeless, but he won’t give up.  We’re stuck in a selfish, violent, self-pitying hell, until he opens the way to heaven and helps us on the way.  We are foul (if disguised) until he starts cleaning.  We depend on a God who knows all this, and loves and acts to help.

OK! Peter, Andrew, anyone else listening – how should a person like that deal with other people they find less than perfect? Don’t count to 491 and let them have it.  Count to heaven, and let them have that.

Creation

Today we think about Creation, reading Genesis (1:1 – 2:3), and then from the sermon on the Mount Matthew 6:25-34.  Creation is an idea many of us have grown up with, so much that we find it hard to imagine alternatives.  Christians see God as one who is responsible for the (original and undamaged) Universe, who made things and declared them good.  That means we cannot see the world and ourselves as mere accidents, nor can we see material things as somehow “unspiritual” or an obstacle to deeper understanding.  Wasn’t it CS Lewis who said (roughly) “God likes things, He made them”, and went on to remind us that the use of bread and wine in the eucharist, and water in baptism, shows something of the importance of the physical.

So Christians enjoy what God made, and feel that the world deserves the respect due to its status as God’s work.  “Green” concerns, and respect for animals as well as humans, come from this.  What more is there for Jesus to add in the gospel?  He talks about the pointlessness of worry.  We need to think more deeply about Creation, and see that a God like that – a God who made things well, and enjoyed them – can and should be trusted.  Trust will stand against fruitless worry.  We may not understand everything, but here is an answer to “what if” disaster imaginings.  God cares, and while his Creation is now less than perfect (that’s the bit in Romans 8:18-25 about creation groaning), God hasn’t changed.

If you want to worry about something, then what God is doing and wants to see done is a much better concern that tomorrow’s meal.  Putting ourselves in line with God’s agenda brings purpose, joins us with other Christians, and puts our problems in perspective.  This is what we are meant to be about, part of our “re-creation”.  It helps with anxiety, loneliness, frustration, and the wrong search for celebrity.  Perhaps that is what Jesus means by “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  If what matters in your life is what matters to the Creator, you may well find purpose and peace, friends and forgiveness.  Of course, you may also find trouble – but you won’t face it alone.

Is that better?

“Nice people don’t do things like that”.  I wonder how many of us were brought up to avoid the bad manners of childhood with such words – and grew to apply them to adult crimes.  Murder, adultery, lying for advantage are often spoken against.  Most religions forbid such things in one way or another, and the ten commandments of the Old Testament are no exception.  (See Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21)

In today’s gospel (Matthew 5:21-37) Jesus seems to want more.  He is not content that we should avoid the action, but reaches further for the underlying motive.  Anger, lust, and self-centredness are the problem, whether or not the opportunity for action is present.  The idea that these (and other) attitudes might be replaced by the love, justice and mercy of God is wonderful, and very demanding.

In other places, Jesus will speak words of hope that murder, adultery, fraud and bitterness (as well as their underlying attitudes) are forgivable.  But he will not suggest that the sins can be combined with the holiness of character which is important to God, and to the life of God’s people.  The disciples he gathers will not all be exemplary characters, but cannot be content with their failures. We find hope in the fact that they continue to need grace and forgiveness, if the patience needed by the community is more difficult.

So how do we hear Jesus words?  We need to deal with our anger and disrespect of other people.  It doesn’t only become offensive if we are able to hurt them physically – the attitude is already a falling short of God’s standard – a sin.  Similarly with dishonorable relationships, whether unfaithful, or simply manipulative; and words which do not tell the truth in love (as in Ephesians 4:14-16).  This is something we shall fail constantly.  Yet this standard helps us remember the difference for those of different family background and life experience.  Christians are not called to be “nice”, but to become like God in our attitudes to all sorts of people and situations.

War and Disaster (Kingdom 3c)

The Christian gospel is good news – that is the literal translation of the word also translated “gospel”.  But sometimes you read a passage like Luke 21:5-19, and see reference to the destruction of fine buildings, war, disasters, persecution and betrayal, and think, “Good news”?

But the gospel is indeed good news, because these evils are recognised.  It is so easy to reduce Christian faith to a parody: “Be nice to people, enjoy the countryside, help those less fortunate.”  There is nothing wrong in any of those, of course – but without a strong reason to motivate a life of service and sacrifice, it is only platitude – so much hot air.

The reason comes as Jesus speaks of the sometimes painful reality of human life.  And it is the fact that he not only speaks of evil, but faces it himself, that gives weight to the way he leads.  Jesus faced a plot to kill him, was slandered and betrayed.  It is after he has been flogged and during his crucifixion that he forgives (as he had taught others).  By facing the evil of the real world, he overcomes it and offers us freedom.

The good news is about a kingdom where peace and justice rule, and healing and truth are found – a kingdom open to all who will admit their need of forgiveness and follow the one who leads the way through death to life.  Without the reference to the hard realities, it might seem just another bit of wishful thinking – a tale for children, to be left behind with childish things.  But a gospel which depends on one who lived this, went to his death by torture forgiving, and returned to encourage those who, despite their failures, wanted to be his followers; – that is a gospel for the real world, and for people who have grown to know some of how hard it can be.