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Unleashing the power of forgiveness (sermon)

April 9, 2010

Acts 5: 27-32               John 20: 19-31

There are several great texts which define the church… One of them you might know of as ‘the Great Commission’ from Matthew’s gospel, but there are others which could equally well be given the same title.

They are like Jesus’ last will and testament – but it’s not so much about dividing up his possessions as gifting them with a new life and direction.

I think of these great texts as something like meteors landing in the ocean they send tidal waves to the limits of the known world (the social universe). This may sound obvious, but for resurrection Christians the God of Israel, who raised Jesus from death is no tribal deity, looking out for the welfare of his own little group. For resurrection Christians, their mission can be nothing less than universal. They are caught up like flotsam on a wave of divine mission to all nations, to the whole world. Nothing less is worthy of God, creator of the whole universe.

The text from Matthew (the one we usually call the ‘Great Commission) emphasizes disciple-making. The mission of the church is (in a nutshell) to increase, in the population of the world, the number of people who live like Jesus. Jesus says “Make disciples!” Jesus friends, the disciples of the gospel stories, are sent out as a community of “apprenticeship” in the life of Jesus.

In Luke, Jesus talks about proclaiming and witnessing. In Luke the church is like a News-Reporter. We carry the news that the forgiveness of God has arrived, so the world can change (Luke’s word is “repent”). Mark is similar.

So the synoptic gospels leave us with two models – we are an apprenticeship program on the one hand, and a news agency on the other.

Our text for today comes from John’s gospel – is really another one of these great commissions. For John the disciples are “Peace-Bearers” Their part in that great wave rolling across the social universe is to be ‘Peace Bearers’. To my mind it ties together both the other two roles news agency, and apprenticeship program.

In order to show how it does that I want to quote from one of Australia’s foremost Christian thinkers, Dr Ben Myers who was interviewed on their National Radio at Easter… In the interview he was being challenged as to whether, in focusing so much on the death of Christ, Christians are in danger of glorifying suffering for its own sake. In response to this Ben was explaining how the New Testament holds together a paradoxical view of the power of God in relation to suffering. He says [transcribed by yours truly]:

The greatest exercise of God’s power is the power by which God makes himself weak. God is so alive that he can even freely submit himself to death. God is so powerful, so great, that he can even reduce himself to our level. God’s power, as the Saint Paul says, is perfected in weakness. …The significance of Jesus is that he overturns our assumptions about God. We assume that God is … a kind of supreme universal tyrant who rules over all things from above. But the true exercise of God’s power in the NT is the self-emptying, self-renouncing act whereby God becomes smaller, lowering himself to our level in order to gather us into fellowship with God. On that basis the Christian Faith doesn’t elevate suffering for its own sake…

Imagine [says Ben] if someone wrongs me. I know I am in the right. I have been hurt and offended. The easiest thing I can do is simply to exert my right to extract some kind of vengeance to ensure that I’m paid back for the wrong that has been done me. The hardest thing is to relinquish my right, the act of forgiving of humbling myself, making myself low, in order to forgive and be reconciled to that person. That’s not an act of weakness. That is the hardest thing, the most courageous thing I can do.

I think that’s a picture of a Christian understanding of suffering and of weakness, not that it’s a virtue for it’s own sake, but that there is a way in which our lives can reflect the shape of God’s own life when we choose not to exert power but to give power away in order to be restored and reconciled to one another.

Let’s take a moment in silence to remember our own experiences of being hurt or offended. [pause for silence]

In John’s Gospel Jesus comes to the disciples who have abandoned him. In today’s reading Jesus responds to the hurt inflicted on him by his friends. They had dedicated their lives to him for three years, leaving family and friends… it had been like a marriage and then in the last few days they abandoned him to his fate.

We are told that they were gathered in fear… fear of the Jewish authorities. But imagine the fear they feel when the one they have abandoned enters the room!

His first words are Peace to You. It’s just the standard greeting, ‘Shalom’… but in that context it’s electric. And we know it’s a loaded phrase because after he shows them the wounds of his abandonment he says it again ‘Peace to you’. And with those words forgiveness comes to them in their fear.

It’s not as if ‘showing them his wounds’ is like merely proving his identity, like handing over his id card. In showing them his wounds he is showing them the consequences of their abandonment of him. The peace comes in the wake of the wounds.

As Ben says, there’s a link between the power of God in weakness and the act of forgiveness. It’s the hardest thing in the world to give up my rights for vengeance and to lower myself to forgive. It takes the power of God. And it’s not as if the God who gives himself to us body and soul to be brutalized on the cross turns now into something different in the resurrection – a distant monarch. The wounds are the mark of his life’s deep shape. For in the room with those who abandoned him, we see the same giving of self, the same lowering and surrendering to include his friends.

And those who abandoned him are here given a place in his mission again.

As the Father sent me… [In the same way that the Father sent me], I am sending you.

You and I, in spite of all the everyday simple, boring ways we abandon Christ, you and I are given a place in God’s mission to the world. Christ entrusts his work in the world to us! The strength of God is still made perfect, even in our weakness… but first of all because of the weakness, the self-lowering of Jesus to give himself again in forgiveness (commissioning forgiveness)

You and I have a place in the ‘great sending’ which is the Father sending Christ. When Christ sends us to live in the mode of his own sending by the power of his forgiveness, we are like paper sail-boats caught on a great wave. We are an echo of Christ, a consequence, a part of something.

In John’s gospel, the great commission is the unleashing of forgiveness on the world.

Something has happened… we have news of forgiveness to share, the news is the news of peace, peace has arrived. We are a news-agency. We also have disciplemaking to do. We are part of the apprenticeship in his peace. Jesus goes on:

If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.

It’s all about peace and depends on the practices of forgiveness… the peace comes from Christ… but it needs to play itself out in practices of peacemaking of which forgiveness is at the center.

Remember forgiveness is not weakness… it’s the hardest thing to do. We might say, it’s often an impossible task apart from the empowering work of the Spirit within us. That’s why it matters so much that Jesus did not merely commission them in words, he breathed the Holy Spirit upon them.

We have a place in the mission of God, which is above and beyond anything we can actually achieve in our own strength. When we forget that, we start to slip in to accepting the way the world is, setting ourselves realistic goals. God has caught us up in a wave of mission which has completely unrealistic goals.

Peace is a risk… peace means being vulnerable… If you think about it politically, what nation is going to risk their precious ‘national security’ for peace? What business is going to risk their precious ‘bottom line’ for peace? Realism requires that nations and businesses have their cake and eat it when it comes to peace. But we are not a nation or a business. We have been given the Spirit who empowers us with the same power that empowered Jesus… the same power that frees us to let go of power for the sake of vulnerable forgiveness and so of peace.

We must look different! We must be different! We are God’s social experiment – sent by the Son, in the embrace of the Father, by the power of the Spirit.

Bruce Hamill (St Clair and Green Island 11.4.10)

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2010 12:06 am

    Thanks for your very kind words, Bruce! I’m glad you found the interview helpful.

  2. April 10, 2010 5:16 am

    You quote Dr. Myers: “Imagine if someone wrongs me. I know I am in the right. I have been hurt and offended. The easiest thing I can do is simply to exert my right to extract some kind of vengeance to ensure that I’m paid back for the wrong that has been done me. The hardest thing is to relinquish my right”

    My thought: The Old Testament phrase representing God as saying, “Vengeance is mine,” can be interpreted as an injunction to sacrifice something dear to us, in the same sense we find in the phrase “Every firstborn in mine.” Behind the immature sense of the phrase, which seems to say “Hold your peace because God has promised to kick your enemy’s butt for you” lies the much higher and holier meaning that takes every alleged right of human vengeance and blood guilt out of our hands – and off of our hands – and renders it henceforth dedicated to God, turned over, given up, sacrificed, even consecrated – in suffering. Otherwise it’s just too hot to handle, leading to spirals of violence.

    I think this post is superb overall, and it has inspired other thoughts which I may come back and share or post on my own blog. Thanks, Bruce (and Ben).

  3. April 10, 2010 6:14 am

    Nice thought John… a kind of christological reworking of a tradition that is on the way towards a non-violent conception of God – the conception that emerged from resurrection faith. I look forward to reading your blog these issues.

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