This week I want to talk about how the wonderful message that God is a God of forgiveness, a message which was central to Jesus, became so distorted and peripheral to it.
Last week, I finished by saying that for most of its existence the Church has not really understood forgiveness. In fact, Christianity even blamed the Jews for the Crucifixion, showing that the Old Scapegoating process was alive and well. Blaming the Jews for Jesus’s death undermined the meaning of forgiveness in the Crucifixion, in favour of the more familiar theory that some humans are wicked, and do not deserve forgiveness. Christ’s message of forgiveness was distorted, often by the Church itself, and I want to look at that this tonight.
We’re told in Luke’s Gospel, even before Jesus started preaching, that forgiveness is the reason for Jesus coming. Simeon sees the baby in the Temple and says:
“As for you little child, you shall be called a prophet of the most high God..to make known to His people their salvation, through forgiveness of all their sins, the loving kindness of the heart of our God.”
Priests recite that every day in their Daily Office – it’s a shame their church forgot it!
Forgiveness was so important to Jesus that His first act on the night of His resurrection was to give His disciples the power to forgive sins:
“Receive the Holy Spirit, [Jesus tells them:] if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them. If you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’ (John 20:22-23)
According to John’s Gospel, Jesus sends his disciples out to forgive sins. The only thing said about the mission of the church in the Creed is that sins should be forgiven. To forgive sins is why the Church exists. What went wrong?
I believe distortion happened because the church became involved with State Politics. In AD 323 The Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. The Bishop of Rome, the Pope, became the most important man in Christendom. And he had some powerful biblical verses at his disposal.
In Matthew 16:18-19 Jesus said:
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church .. I will give you the keys of heaven and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.
Now, I think the power to bind or lose is given to the Church, not to one man. The rock Jesus refers to is the Faith of Peter, who declares Jesus is the Son of God. But these words in the hands of politicians, and any Pope is a politician, can be and were distorted. Those who possessed the keys of Heaven controlled who entered it. This Roman interpretation gave the Church great power. The sacrament of penance, of forgiveness, was changed into a means by which religious professionals – priests, monks etc – could control the consciences, and therefore the behaviour, of men and women. But you could buy your way out – the Church would accept money, instead of acts of penance.
This was one of the forces that contributed to the Reformation. Luther wanted the entire life of all believers to be one of repentance, because he saw sin as a lifelong condition of estrangement from God. For Protestants, genuine penitence consisted of two elements: first, contrition, a sincere acknowledgment of the depth of the sinful condition, and second, faith, that by the grace of God all sins are forgiven. This was a radical departure from the way forgiveness was taught by the Catholic Church – where the penitent had to perform a penance, do ‘works’ – perform an act, that would put them right with God. And a donation to church coffers could always buy your way out of any penance. The rich could do very well out of this, the poor not so well.
The resentment many people felt towards the Roman Church over this led many to become disillusioned, ultimately with Christianity itself. However, if the Romans made confession depend on works – performing a penance – Reformation Protestants also had a tendency to ‘privatise’ sin, to reduce it to a simple idea that sin is a matter between God and the individual. Is it enough just to say sorry to God and accept His forgiveness, and keep it private? As we have seen, sin has social implications.
Luther taught that the political world and the religious world are two distinct worlds. You give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. I must obey the state, as Paul taught, but my faith is between my God and me. This means that terrible crimes like genocide could be committed on the orders of the State. The individuals who committed them were only obeying orders, as St Paul commanded. Therefore they needed no forgiveness.
Today, we would rather point to Reconciliation. Sin damages both Creation and our relationships with others. Sin separates us from God, but sin also creates suffering, pain and injustice for victims. Sin has social implications, which we cannot always see. Forgiveness frees people from the violence and victimisation we heap on each other, when both parties are reconciled.
Jesus taught we will be forgiven as we forgive. ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive…’ Which means that as God is merciful to us, we must be forbearing and magnanimous towards others and ourselves. Confession is now called the Sacrament of Reconciliation, bringing parties back into relationship so both can all move on.
So it is important not only to stop sinning but to heal the wounds our greed and violence have opened. Yes, the Gospels show us that Jesus redeemed us from sin on the Cross, but also that he healed the sick, freed the captives, raised the dead. We are told (Matt 25) that in so far as we do the same, we do this for Jesus. Jesus identified with the victims of sin. He took their side. So when Jesus forgives sins, he unburdens those who are heavy laden. He eats with outcasts and seeks their company – this is, in fact, what most angered the authorities of the day. Jesus was put to death because He chose the wrong side.
Forgiveness has lost any meaning for so many people in the Church because it has fixed on the sinner and lost sight of the ‘sinned against.’ Sin inflicts hurt on people, so not only do we need to ask forgiveness, which a merciful God grants, but we then need to set about repairing the damage we’ve caused, where we can. Jesus’s teaching emphasised the importance of restoration and repair. The church forgot that. Today, we need to rediscover the restoration that forgiveness brings, and next week I will look at the Practice of Forgiveness.