Sunday next before Advent

21 November 2010

10.30 Woodchurch

Sunday Next Before Advent (Christ the King)

Rev’d Paul White

 Heavenly Father, may the words of my lips reflect something of your written word and so lead us ever closer to your living word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

  When I was training for ordination we once had a session on the theology of forgiveness. However, if I remember correctly, the session took place late on a Friday night and I think that I must have had a tough week at work because I was feeling very bolshy that night. I know that it is hard to imagine me ever being bolshy so you will need to use your imagination on this one.

 

Anyway, after a long week at work in Chelmsford, and I think that Henry was only a few months old at the time, I drove down to the All Saints Pastoral Centre at Radlett for a weekend of theology and the weekend started with forgiveness.

 

The session leader was a really touchy feely type and her opening gambit on Christian forgiveness was a terrible but true story which involved a vicar and his family. The story was that a person broke into the vicar’s house one night, tied the vicar up and then sexually assaulted his teenage daughter in the next room. The point of the story was that the vicar forgave the attacker for his actions whilst the assault was still going on and this was held up as a paragon of forgiveness to which we should aspire as Christians and wannabe priests.

 

Remembering, if you will, that I have two young children and that I had had a long week at work I may have said something to the effect that in similar circumstances I would forgive the attacker sometime shortly after ripping his limbs off. And I may not just have said limbs either.

 

I may have shocked the session leader a bit so I then tried to justify my comments theologically by saying something like true forgiveness can only follow repentance and that to offer forgiveness to the impenitent smacks of lily-livered cheap grace. If you think about the shape of our communion service we always confess our sins before receiving God’s forgiveness and that is probably where I was coming from, as well as the very human desire to see other people say sorry first.

 

The session leader, to give her credit, still did not agree that forgiveness should only follow repentance and she took us to several old testament passages to try and support this assertion. Unfortunately the passages she choose were not great and the bolshy lawyer in me spent the rest of the evening arguing that forgiveness without repentance was meaningless.

 

However, bless her touchy feely cotton socks, I wish that the teacher had taken us to today’s gospel because I think she may have been right after all and that I may have to repent of my bolshy lawyerness.

 

In today’s gospel from Luke chapter 23 Jesus is being crucified. Jesus who was without sin, who had hurt no one, who had broken no law and who was wrongly convicted by a kangaroo court is being nailed up like a common criminal among common criminals. What does Jesus say in those circumstances?

 

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

 

Who is he forgiving? The men nailing him to the cross? Pilate and the chief priests for putting him there? The mob who had bayed for his blood? The sinfulness of mankind whose reaction to a message of love and equality and grace was to kill? Yes, all of them and many more.

 

And yet, and here is the point for me, when Jesus sought God’s forgiveness on all of these not one of them had repented. No one had said “Sorry Jesus, we got it wrong, please forgive us.” But he forgave anyway. And the reason he forgave? Because they did not know what they were doing.

 

What does this mean? Of course they knew that they were executing someone, there was nothing accidental in what was happening, and in a sense they also knew they were executing the King of the Jews because they had nailed a sign above his said calling him exactly that. Of course they did not believe that that was who he was but still they were not entirely ignorant that they were executing someone very different from the criminals around him.

 

So what did Jesus mean when he said they do not know what they are doing?

 

I think it has something to do with what St Paul alludes to in the reading from Colossians: “He has rescued us from the powers of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son

 

Those involved in killing Jesus did not know what they were doing as they were still captive to the powers of darkness, they were trapped in their own sinfulness and ignorance. They were almost like feral children who had been brought up without education or love and could therefore hardly be blamed for their acts of spiteful wickedness.

 

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

 

This week, wherever I have gone around the village and beyond, there has been a great deal of anger expressed at the actions of those who have stolen the lead from our church roof. They have not only cost us a great deal of inconvenience but it is likely that they are also going to cost us a great deal of money and they may even prevent us from being able to afford doing some of the things we wanted to do in church. If I am honest, I have felt very angry too especially at the way in which they have come back time after time. But today’s gospel has spoken very clearly to me that as Christians and as a Christian community we need to remember and express and practice the language of forgiveness, even forgiveness in the absence of repentance. Those who have done this to us may still be subject to the powers of darkness in the way in which they live their lives but we who share Christ’s body and blood also share the inheritance of the saints in the light and we are called to express Christ’s forgiveness for those who hurt us.

In the words of the Lord’s prayer we ask God to “Forgive us our Sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

 

Yes, we have been sinned against, and grievously so and it is going to cost us dear, but we should also be grateful that this gives us the opportunity publicly and corporately to forgive those who have sinned against us. As we forgive others their sins we can experience true forgiveness for our own sins.

 

Christians are not a perfect people but we are a forgiven people and we should be a forgiving people.

 

But this does not mean that repentance for sin is not necessary or is without meaning. At the end of today’s gospel one of the two thieves recognises his own sinfulness – he accepts that he has done wrong and is being punished for his crimes:

 

And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds

 

and he then recognises that Jesus is much more than simply a wrongly condemned prophet when he says:

 

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

 

And Jesus responds: “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

 

The thief’s repentance and recognition of Jesus came after he saw how Jesus forgave others – his repentance flowed from forgiveness rather than being a necessary precursor of forgiveness. But his repentance made the forgiveness complete and transferred that thief from darkness to the kingdom of Christ.

 

On our weekend away we were told another story about forgiveness, and as it happens that story also involved a priest and their child. In the second story it was a female priest and her daughter had been killed in the 7th July bombs in London. However in this case the priest found herself unable to forgive and I am sure that many of us can totally understand where she was coming from and certainly during the course of that weekend I felt more empathy with this lady than I did with the other. And yet, tragically, this inability to forgive ended up destroying this women’s ministry as she was simply unable to use the language of forgiveness while she harboured so much unforgiveness for others in her own heart.

 

Whilst I am sure that we can all empathise with her situation I do not want unforgiveness and anger to dominate my heart or the heart of anyone here or this church as a whole. That risks destroying our ministry and own witness to the distinctiveness of what it means to be children of light. I want us, right here and right now, to forgive those who have sinned against us knowing that we too are all forgiven sinners:

 

Let us pray:

 

“Heavenly Father, in his darkest hour at the moment of his crucifixion Jesus forgave those whose sin put him on the cross and that included the sins of each of us. As your redeemed and forgiven children help us to extend the same grace to those who sin against us in their ignorance. Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.

 

And we repeat together:

 

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

 

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