Those of you who were able to join our service last Sunday morning 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 Gospel 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 children on the distant horizon was enough to bring a chill to one’s soul. Indeed, I can remember driving along a residential street one day, and observing the two of them rampaging through various people’s front gardens and trampling down their flower beds, as their helpless mother stood on the pavement making various ineffectual attempts to call them to order.
But as I got to know that family and watched them interact, it occurred to me that one of the sources of the problem was that those children never gained any real sense that their behavior was unacceptable. Their (very nice and very well intentioned) parents were always far too quick to let them off the hook: to explain away their behavior to others (‘they are always like this when they are tired’) and to accept the most obviously insincere of apologies from them; as well as the fact that they never carried 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 own 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 rage, 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.
However, the reality of making that a reality is of course easier said than done.
Traian Dors, one of the renowned spiritual leaders of the Romanian Church during the modern era, was imprisoned for seventeen years because of his faith, and kept on such meagre rations that his captors did not expect him to survive. He knew better than most how challenging the Gospel imperative to forgive our enemies can be. And I have always respected his astonishing honesty and openness in admitting that.
Sometimes forgiveness does feel as if it is beyond our human grasp, frail creatures that we are. It is particularly hard to find a way to try to forgive someone whom you know has no intention or desire to be forgiven.
But what strikes me most about the passage that I am about to read you, in which Traian Dors describes that reality, is that he will nevertheless not give up. He will strive, with God’s help, until he manages to reach that shore. He wrote this:
I have not yet reached the shore where there is no hatred;
the clouds of unjust struggles have not yet past.
The scars of wounds endured have not yet closed,
warm trust in man lies totally dead.
From the springs of forgetting I have not drunk wisdom,
weary memories still poison me.
From the glades of forgiveness I am still distant,
from the sanctuary of refuge I am a great way separated.
Lord, bring me the clear dawn of other days,
may all painful shadows depart from me.
Let me look with tender emotion on the scars of my wounds,
and with meek goodness upon the faces of my enemies.
Bring me the dawn whilst the way is so long,
but do not hinder my striving until I reach the shore.