Forgiveness - St Bride's: Reflection

Updated 23/03/20: Following a statement from the Bishop of London, St Bride's Church is now closed to the public due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Further Information →

St Bride's: Sermons

Forgiveness

In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

When I was a graduate student, I spent two years living in a community house owned by SCM, the Student Christian Movement.  There were eight of us living there together officially (although there were generally other floating residents there from time to time as well).  And we lived together, we cooked together, we ate together, we shared responsibility for the house and its upkeep, and quite a few of us worshipped together at the same church. 

They were two of the most wonderful - and the most challenging - years of my life.  Wonderful, because so much of it was hugely enjoyable, and it led to some lasting friendships; and also because those two years taught me so much about myself and about other people.  They really were formative.  They shaped me in very many ways.

But goodness me was it challenging - because trying to negotiate your way through a shared life with a disparate group of people, with their own ideas, and priorities, and needs, and aptitudes, and blind spots, is never easy.  A shared life can be hard enough with members of your own family, as many have been discovering anew during this period of lockdown.  Sometimes it can take a great deal of grace and forgiveness for relationships under pressure to survive intact.  And all too often community life breaks down when those qualities are missing or in short supply.

Which is perhaps why the vision of the corporate life shared by the first Christians, who held their possessions in common, which was described to us in our first reading from Acts this morning, was a vision of life that never really caught on. But it does leave us with a very interesting question: namely, what should the Christian life look like?  How should we live as Christians? 

Our second reading from 1 Peter certainly speaks to us of how we should live, although its primary concern is not so much how we should organise ourselves, as with our inner disposition.  How should we respond when we know we are unjustly punished or threatened or abused?  In response we are pointed to the model of Christ himself, 'When he was abused, he did not return abuse.  When he suffered, he did not threaten.'  And we are charged to return to him, the shepherd and guardian of our souls.

In the Old Testament, it was a very important principle of justice that punishment should be proportionate to the crime committed and never vengeful.  That is what underlies the phrase, 'an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth': and it has its own kind of commendable logic: the notion that the punishment should fit the crime.  But although that principle might satisfy the basic human need to see justice done, Jesus repeatedly makes it clear to his followers that, for them, it will not do.  He requires more of them than that. 

Because as a principle, 'an eye for an eye' might well serve to maintain society, but it is not a strategy for transforming the hearts and minds of those within it.  Or to put it another way, in order to make the world a radically different place - a place of true healing and hope - we need to look beyond ordinary human notions of fairness and just deserts, to something more.  Something far more powerful and infinitely more transformative: by drawing the healing love of God into situations of aggression and violence and injustice.  Indeed, in chapter 5 of St Matthew's Gospel we find a whole cluster of famous sayings by Jesus on this very theme, one after another: '

You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth ... 'You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you ... for if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do that?' 

So, how do we respond to those whom we find challenging?; those who would do us harm?; those who try to make our lives difficult?; those whom we really do struggle to love?  I wonder.

I am currently reading a very good book written by Richard Carter, one of the clergy at St Martin in the Fields, just down the road from here.  The book is called The City is my Monastery.   Before coming to St Martin's, Carter lived for several years as a member of the Melanesian Brotherhood, an Anglican community based in the Solomon Islands.  While he was there, he taught theology, and one of his students was a man who was originally from one of the fiercest tribes in the Pacific Islands, but who had converted to the Christian faith.  'Why did you decide to become a Christian?' Carter asked him.  The answer the man gave was a single word: 'Forgiveness'.  He then went on to add: 'There is no forgiveness among my people.  The Christian gospel is forgiveness.  I need that forgiveness from Christ and so do my people.'

It is forgiveness that gives true meaning and depth to our understanding of the love of God.  It is forgiveness that can give a quite different quality to our life as a community.  It is a forgiveness that Christ exemplified in his life, and in his sacrificial death, and which unleashed its full transformative power through the resurrection. 

Even in that short time that I spent living in a Christian community, one of the lessons that I learnt was that the rifts that were hardest to heal were always those where the impetus to seek and find forgiveness had been lost somewhere along the line.  So how does one acquire and maintain the capacity to forgive?  Especially to forgive those who have wronged us profoundly, or who have no desire to be forgiven. 

Back in 2006, Gee Walker, the mother of the murdered teenager Anthony Walker, and herself a woman of faith, was interviewed on Woman's Hour about how she was able to forgive her son's killers.  She replied, very simply, 'Forgiveness is something we need to practice.  It helps me heal and move forward.'  Forgiveness is something we need to practice.

And she is so right.  True forgiveness is not simply a rational choice that we make.  Rather it is a human quality that we need to cultivate, and to inhabit, until it becomes part of who we are.  And we do that by striving to live it.  By practising it.  In that sense there are no short cuts.  Yes, we can and will fail and fall short; yes we can find that we are lacking in love, and in the inclination to heal what is broken; but the thing that matters is that we always continue to try, trusting in the example of the Good Shepherd, who is always there ahead of us.

Our first reading this morning from Acts not only describes how those first Christians shared their possessions, but also how they 'ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.'

Perhaps another key to deepening our life with one another and within the communities of which we are a part, is to be found here. Secular research has demonstrated that those who are able to approach life with a fundamental sense of gratitude for the good things around them, enjoy the greatest and most lasting sense of well-being. 

How much more true that can be for those of us who strive to follow the call of the Good Shepherd; the one in whom we trust; the one who brings healing and hope. 

The one in whom, and through whom, we can learn the true nature and the true power of forgiveness.

Amen.

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