Forgivenesss of our sins has always been central to the Jewish and the Christian faiths. I want to suggest over these three weeks that the concept of forgiveness came to be used, and then abused, by the Church and how important it is for the whole of humanity that we restore forgiveness to a central place in life.
Every week we say in the Creed – ‘I believe in the forgiveness of sin and the life everlasting’. Every day we ask God to ‘forgive us our sins AS we forgive those that trespass against us’. Forgiveness was a central part of the message Jesus came to restore to us.
But we have devalued the term. We say ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘Excuse me’ for so many trifling things that we no longer wait for pardon. We take the pardon for granted. It’s become a matter of politeness. A social technique. It works quite well among civilised people. It costs little, and the expectancy of automatic pardon justifies our assumption that rude and offensive behaviour is normal.
This is because the idea of guilt has completely vanished from our society–and tonight I want to start by looking at what the Bible says about forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a serious matter in the OT. Much of the language used there is about a release from bondage, the remission of guilt or punishment. A letting off. In OT times financial debt led to punishment or imprisonment or enslavement and that redemption, or forgiveness from such liabilities, meant liberation from prison or slavery, not only for the debtor but often for his family, too.
The Bible often understands forgiveness as a process which includes two parties, the perpetrator and the victim. Forgiveness can only occur when the perpetrator asks for it and the victim grants it. Both parties are changed by this encounter. A healing takes place –and new options are created for the future. A guilty past is redeemed and a new relationship created. In this way, forgiveness frees the future from the damaged past.
The word for guilt we find most often in the OT is the word ‘sin’. Today, the word ‘sin’ has lost its meaning for many people. Sin is no longer relevant because the word God has become a meaningless term. But in the Bible sin is an awful reality, that exerts a profound influence on life, on relationships and impacts on Creation itself – that’s something we need to remember – Sin affects creation itself. You might think of plastic bottles! When Cain kills his brother Abel (Gen 4:1-16) it is not only Abel’s blood that cries out for vengeance. The earth itself joins in the cry, we are told. Violence between two brothers shakes Creation to its core and hurts the Heart of God.
- The Israelites dealt with the reality of sin in two ways.By having commandments, rules to avoid sinful behaviour, called The Law. They had an agreement with God, a Covenant. There are the Ten Commandments, but there are also rules to cover every aspect of life. See Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy.
- But the Israelites knew that even the best intentions will be broken. So, they evolved the idea of atonement. Aaron set up a priestly class to perform sacrificial rites – religion, if you like – as a mechanism for gaining pardon from God if the Law was broken. In Leviticus we read that the sin of a human can be projected onto an animal, which is then slaughtered and its blood pays for the sin of the person.
The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities (Leviticus: 16:20 ff)
The accumulated violence of the community was projected onto a blameless goat, the scapegoat, which carried away the sins of the people into the wilderness. This put the Community back into a right relationship with God.
At the basis of Israel’s Law is an awesome insight – that people’s trasgressios are painful to God. God Himself is seen as a victim of human violence, and so God must be pacified, lest all Creation vanish in his vengeance. This is the basis of Temple worship. Offer an animal to be sacrificed – get right with God.
When the Jewish temple, by now a huge abattoir of running blood, was sacked and destroyed by the Romans in AD70, these practices vanished. What were the Jews to do now their way of gaining forgiveness was destroyed? The Jewish prophets had already been working on this.
It was better, the Prophets taught, to seek justice than offer sacrifices.
Amos: 5:21-24. The prophets taught that Justice was better than sacrifice. Atonement became faithfulness. Live justly, said the rabbis. God will forgive, if you live according to the Torah, the Law of God.
But Christianity took another route. Judaism, the religion of Law, became Christianity, the religion of Love. This is played out in the life of Paul the Pharisee, who can write those wonderful words in 1 Cor 13. In the life and death of Jesus, Christianity saw the Victim, Jesus the Lamb of God, who offered unconditional forgiveness to all who believed.
Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, but he is also the High Priest, who performs this Sacrifice: In Hebrews 4 we read:
Since then we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God,…Let us the with confidence draw near to the throne of Grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Jesus becomes the scapegoat, the sacrifice that will restore a right relationship with God. Not only is Christ the Sacrificial Lamb and the High Priest but he is also the Temple itself: Ephesians tells us:
Christ has abolished the hostility that rules the world by his body on the cross. The new temple is Christ Himself, the Temple that Jesus said he would rebuild in three days, is being built up in the middle of God’s Creation. (Ephesians 2:11-22)
But for most of its existence the Church has not understood or emphasised forgiveness. In fact, Christianity has been called one of the most violent and bloody religions the world has seen. It has even blamed the Jews for the Crucifixion, showing that the Old Scapegoating process is alive and well. The Jews and Pharisees have been blamed and persecuted, thereby undermining the universal meaning of the Crucifixion, in favour of the more familiar theory that some humans are wicked, and do not deserve forgiveness. Not only that but, in the name of Jesus, Jews were persecuted for centuries for the death of Jesus. So in true OT fashion, the guilt was passed on from one generation to another. I think the Pope finally forgave the Jews for killing Jesus in the Sixties.
This could only happen if the message of forgiveness had been distorted, often by the Church itself, and I want to look at that next week.