St Bride's: Sermons

'As we forgive them...'

Luke24: 36-48

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36 And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.

37 But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit.

38 And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?

39 Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.

40 And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet.

41 And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat?

42 And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb.

43 And he took it, and did eat before them.

44 And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.

45 Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures,

46 And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day:

47 And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

48 And ye are witnesses of these things.

'As we forgive them...'
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Those of you who were here last Sunday will have heard the story from St John's Gospel in which the Risen Christ appears to Doubting Thomas - which, interestingly enough, is a story that has a great deal in common with the incident we heard described a moment ago in the Gospel of Luke.

On both occasions the Risen Christ suddenly appears mysteriously in the midst of the disciples - and yet both stories also emphasise the physical bodiliness of Christ. This is a Jesus who can be touched, and who in today's story, cheerfully tucks into a plate of broiled fish - you can't get much more physically present than that.

But there is another point of similarity between the two stories which is perhaps more easily overlooked - which is to do with the theme of forgiveness. In last week's reading, you might recall that the Risen Christ breathes on the disciples, imparting the Holy Spirit to them and empowering them to forgive the sins of others. In this week's reading, the disciples are sent out into the world specifically to bear witness to the forgiveness of God. In both stories the basic message is that forgiveness is not an optional extra in the Christian life; rather, it is central to the calling of all those who would follow the Risen Christ. Which should not come as a total surprise, given that it lies at the very heart of the prayer that Jesus taught us: 'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.' But the kind of forgiveness of which Jesus was speaking can be much harder to grasp, and indeed to live out, than one might imagine.

When I was a curate many years ago, I got to know a delightful young couple who had two of the most appallingly badly behaved children I have ever come across. My own offspring undoubtedly had their moments of being utterly unspeakable - most children do - but these two kids were in a different league altogether: their conduct was not merely disobedient - it was actually quite nasty and unpleasant, and they were like it all the time. Just glimpsing the approach of those kids on the distant horizon was enough to bring a chill to one's soul.  

But as I got to know that family and watched them interact, it seemed to me that one of the major sources of the problem was that those children never gained any real sense that their behavior was unacceptable, for the simple reason that their (very well intentioned) parents were always so quick to let them off the hook: to explain away their behavior to others ('they are always like this when they are tired'); to accept the most obviously insincere of apologies from them; and never carrying out any of their threatened sanctions. As a result of which those children had never been required to look at their own behavior and understand that it had consequences. And as a result of that, they had never experienced any need for forgiveness precisely because they were always so readily forgiven. It cost them nothing, so it was worth nothing, and it meant nothing.

The forgiveness of God is itself profligate, excessive, and outrageously generous. It is a forgiveness that is always ours simply for the asking.  But - and this is a very big 'But' - unlike those two well-intentioned but profoundly misguided parents whom I have just described - the forgiveness of God is never ever cheap. Because the forgiveness of God is always accompanied, as it is in our gospel reading today, by another equally important notion, which is repentance. The forgiveness of God is indeed ours for the asking, but realistically we cannot ask for it until we recognize our need for it. Which is why forgiveness and repentance are always deeply and inextricably linked. And the deeper our sense of repentance, the more profound will be our experience of the freedom that God's forgiveness brings.

So much for our need for forgiveness. But what of our own ability to forgive - because, as you will remember from the Lord's Prayer, we are also required to forgive those who trespass against us. Forgiveness is, as I suggested earlier, one of those concepts that is much more easily talked about than actually lived out. It is very easy to speak about the importance of forgiving other people if one has never had to live through the experience of feeling so wounded, or so wronged, or so betrayed, or so devastated by the actions of another - or perhaps, harder still, seeing someone who is close to us being abused in that kind of way - that one's whole existence is consumed by resentment or range, by the desire to hurt back, by the desire to see the person responsible suffer for what they have done. It is perhaps only when we have experienced at first hand that kind of anger and sense of bitter grievance against another person that we can discover both how desperately hard, and how desperately necessary, the grace to forgive can be.

Because forgiveness is in fact about being set free. If we are unable to forgive, then it is we ourselves who end up in prison: the prison of our own feelings of anger and resentment; the prison of our own desire for revenge. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said that 'Forgiveness is the best form of self-interest' - forgiveness is the best form of self-interest - precisely because it releases the victim from the powerful grip of the perpetrator. Conversely, nursing one's grievances can be a superficially satisfying activity for a while - but unless we are able to free ourselves from such grievances, and relinquish the role of victim, in the end it is we ourselves who will end up being poisoned by them.

The ability to forgive has the power to set us free. But it can also do more than that. And it is at this point that we come close to the very heart of the Christian Gospel. Because if, by the grace of God, we are able to forgive those who trespass against us, then perhaps, just possibly, we may be instrumental in helping to set them free as well. It is in Luke's Gospel that Jesus, in his dying words on the cross, asks forgiveness for his murderers: 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.' The forgiveness of God has the power, not only to change hearts, but to change the world.

One of the most startling and most powerful testimonies to that kind of liberating forgiveness was found in the most astonishing of contexts: This month marks the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of some of the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps: Buchenwald on 11th April; Bergen-Belsen on 15th April; Ravensbruck on 30th April 1945. And when Ravensbruck was liberated, the following prayer, its author unknown, was found scribbled on a scrap of paper - according to some accounts, left alongside the body of a dead child:

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will
But also those of evil will.
But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us;
Remember the fruits that we have borne thanks to this suffering -
Our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity,
The greatness of heart that has grown out of all this;
And when they come to the judgment,
Let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.


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