The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s025g05b Lockleys Second Sunday of Easter 3/4/05
"if you forgive the sins of any ..." John 20.23
I was grateful to have a lovely e-mailed question following my Good Friday sermon; (thanks Julianne) asking me to elaborate on my view of the traditional teaching about us being saved as Christians by Jesus' death on the Cross. It is good to be asked these questions, because it stretches my mind beyond its usual parameters. This, like all communion, is a good thing. I almost decided to do a second draft of my Good Friday sermon, but entertaining a five and a two year old, while their Sudanese mother delivered their new baby brother did stretch me somewhat.
Then I read again these words in the gospel for today, of the risen Jesus' invitation to forgive, and thought, how appropriate!
So, to start off with, I suppose the question is; does the recognition of the significance of the events of Good Friday, specifically the remission of our sins, secure for us personally, and for all time, the forgiveness of those sins? Well, when I think about it, I would have to say, that depends. I recall the words of the parable of Jesus entitled the parable of the unmerciful servant. In Matthew 18, we are told of a lord who forgave his servant ten thousand talents. As Christians, we know that this might as well be us. This is the cost of the Cross, at the very least. We know we have been forgiven, we know the cost of that forgiveness. However if we then don't forgive others the miniscule they owe to us (because they don't worship God in our manner or fellowship) the forgiveness we have received can and will be as easily taken back.
So yes; there is indeed forgiveness, but its permanence depends entirely on our own preparedness to share it with others. If it were independent of our own response, one could reasonably conclude that the bible was written for everyone else except Christians, for we would be the only ones who can disregard its message. This is hardly likely to be the case.
So it is really exciting to me that the first thing that the risen Lord says to the wondering disciples after reassuring them, is the command to forgive others; not to debate the reality or mechanism of their own atonement. It is this perception for which I thank Julianne.
And this causes me to reflect how often our Church is perceived as forgiving of others, particularly of religious differences. More often than not, we are perceived as being mainly concerned with the certainty of our own forgiveness, the orthodoxy of our faith, and how other people have to appropriately repent and make amends before they can earn (most often our) forgiveness.
Then it might be asked, how then can we be sure that our own sins will be forgiven? Well, other than letting others be, may I suggest that these words invite us to forgive ourselves; to include ourselves in our goodwill towards all people.
This is good news, for it means that the forgiveness of God is entirely independent of orthodoxy, church-person-ship, understanding, personality or devotion. We have only to extend this towards others to be forgiven ourselves.
Let me continue about religious differences, rather than personal disputes, being important.
I was composing my own parable the other day. It was about a priest on his way to worship, chancing to see a little boy beating a smaller girl with a stick. Naturally the priest takes the stick from the boy and tells him not to do it again he doesn't first debate whether the boy is doing the Lord's work in demeaning the girl or pondering whether she might be lesbian. Later that day he sits down to a roast lamb dinner that his wife has cooked, and reflected with some satisfaction on his sermon. He felt his biblical exposition on the subordination of women and the evils of homosexuality to have been particularly effective. All in all, a good morning's work!
Certainly there is good reason not to harbor anger and resentment in our hearts, but hopefully we will get over them and there are police and mediation that can be of assistance, before we start a war. But if our whole outlook and theology is being against others in the name of our god, then there is no stopping us. We can poison so many other people's lives, if not start a war. We have only to look at what is happening in the Anglican Communion at the moment.
Good people, Anglicans like you and I, want God to bless them while they curse others. There seems a great discontinuity between this faith and the scripture on which it is supposedly based.
I have to confess that often I've finished my Easter services, and while I have enjoyed them, I don't feel much different, not especially 'saved'. The words 'an indescribable and glorious joy' seem unfulfilled. In one sense this is not surprising because I know that God doesn't especially want me, or anyone else, different. God wants us to accept precisely this, and to forgive others and ourselves.
I began this sermon explaining that it's inspiration came from an e-mail I received, and I want to point to this as an example of how inspiration and new life has come to me and can come to us all. I have found the words for a complete sermon as I read, thought about and taken seriously the words of someone else. I have been energized by this interaction, and I hope that this 'rubs off' on others. I do not sit here in front of my Macintosh as the repository of all wisdom. I need human interaction with others, with the people in my own parish and in my virtual congregation, and it is only together that new life is found.
Of course God uses different ways to bring new life to people; through people around us, through the people who wrote the Bible, through the people of faith down through the years, through the real presence of our Risen Lord in the sacrament of Holy Communion; but I have gone to some lengths to show that it is always people who are the medium for God's blessing of us and others.
The way of new and risen life becomes ours as we forgive differences and learn from others. The way of death is to close our selves off from others.
The risen Jesus invites us to forgive. Our free will remains, for that will not be taken from anyone. There is nothing the risen Christ can do if we choose to do otherwise; to curse. But it is our choice, and at some stage we will have to take personal responsibility for how much we share the good news that God has extended to us towards others.
If we are given free will, to bless or to curse, then precisely the same amount of free will is given to each and everyone else. We can be the instruments of initiating and continuing blessing, or we can be the cause of continuing cursing and violence. We cannot point the finger and suggest that the state of the world is everyone else's fault; and how often do people perceive the church as doing precisely this?
The "good" news is that we as Christians have indeed been blessed. But nothing is for us alone. If we fail to share it, it goes as rotten as the manna in the wilderness; that people tried to store up for the following day.
Another, rather more radical exposition on this theme is from the Dean of Perth, a press grab of this can be found at: http://www.thewest.com.au/20050326/news/general/tw-news-general-home-sto130781.html
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