Parish Eucharist 10th June 2018
I try to bicycle to work, but when the freedom pass in my pocket gets the better of me, I can't resist reading the headlines of other travellers' newspapers. A fortnight or so ago I was struck, and rather depressed, by the headline in the Metro: "No God will forgive them." It was said by the parents of the unfortunate au pair girl murdered most horribly by the couple that employed her. The case involved spectacular cruelty by two very depraved people. One couldn’t be surprised that those, apart from the victim, most affected by the wickedness should think, and wish, that it should not be forgiven. I could understand their feelings, but I think they are wrong, in part because I want to believe that God can and will forgive even the most terrible evil, and that in a way Voltaire was right to say (however flippantly) that forgiving is God's job - "Dieu me pardonnera; c'est son métier"
I found myself wanting to say yes, God's grace is not limited, not conditional, and yes he will, and does, forgive anything. We may need a bit of scrubbing, as Doris Asher put it, before we meet our maker, but he will forgive us whatever we have done. But I also wondered whether this could make sense. Was it even logical to call it forgiveness if it applies so unreservedly, so indiscriminately, to anything? Sin seems to lose much of its meaning if there is apparently nothing that cannot be forgiven.
Before trying to tackle the question, I need to clear away some misconceptions. It might seem that if God will always forgive you, then anything goes; I can murder, rape and pillage my way through life and still claim the same reward as the virtuous at the end. First, however, this fails to take account of the two way nature of forgiveness. God will, I believe, forgive anything, but we cannot be forgiven unless we want to be forgiven, which necessarily implies remorse and contrition (and perhaps more fundamentally, recognition that what we have done is wrong). God’s forgiveness and grace are available, and unconditional, but they have to be accepted to work.
Second, more mundanely, being forgiven does not mean exoneration from the consequences of wrongdoing, which in most societies will include the penalties for criminal conduct and more universally, the need to reconcile oneself with the victims of crime, or perhaps just the victim of an ill-considered, lazy, or mistaken comment. This is surely one of the major points of the story of Adam and Eve’s fall; they are forgiven, but must still bear the consequences of their disobedience. Being forgiven by God, and knowing one is forgiven does not mean life will be easy, but does I think, mean that real life will be possible. So to think God’s forgiveness is unlimited doesn’t mean anything goes nor that it’s get out from the consequences of sin.
In the Gospels, and pervading Christianity ever since, there has been an essential connection between forgiveness and salvation; the Gospel message is of healing, reconciliation, freedom and plenty and sin, the distancing of ourselves from God and his Kingdom, is characterised by disease and disability; alienation and rejection from society; imprisonment by delusion or idealism; and spiritual and physical starvation. Jesus’ Gospel brings release and relief, and yet there is quite a lot in the Gospels which rather suggests that God’s forgiveness is not universal and that salvation is not available to everyone. We heard just now in Mark’s Gospel that those who blaspheme against the Holy Ghost can never have forgiveness. In Matthew’s Gospel there is a particular emphasis on the final judgement waiting for those who will not repent; that is John the Baptist’s message at the start and the final words of his Gospel are Jesus’ sending the apostles out to release or retain forever, the sins of those whom they encounter. Eternal damnation is certainly a possibility for Matthew.
Luke’s is, in most ways, a milder Gospel and the parable of the Prodigal Son is typical. It would be better called the Lost Son as his prodigal behaviour is not, superficially at least, the real point. That point is rather the father’s generosity in forgiving and welcoming him home. That does suggest a belief in a generous and all forgiving God. One might object that the son’s behaviour, although reprehensible, is not really so bad. Indeed, it’s everyday bread and butter stuff for the solicitors, like me, who try to look after wealthy families. The point, of course, is that the inheritance which the prodigal squanders is the heritage of Israel, the special relationship of God with his people. In rejecting his father and going off to another country, the prodigal son rejects his religion and his identity. But even so his father rushes out to welcome him home before the son has the chance to say sorry. This is surely the loving God in which I want to believe; the father who will have me back whatever I have done, if only I am prepared to approach him and accept his love.
So how should we explain Mark’s hard words about blaspheming the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit represents, I suggest, the loving and creative force of God. The force that organised creation and which breathed life into all living beings. To deny, or fight against, that force is to deny life; to side with destruction and death. Those who do that cannot enjoy life to the full; salvation, the kingdom of heaven or eternal life (they all amount to much the same thing) are denied to them, because they exclude themselves. Sin is that self-denial. Jesus’ harsh words in Mark only set out the stark logic.
They help us to see through the apparent illogicality of believing in a God who will forgive anything and everything. Forgiveness is more a question of our being willing to receive than God’s willingness to give.
Nevertheless, there is a danger here too. When Voltaire talks of God’s job being forgiveness, there is more than a hint of a suggestion that human beings have invented God just for that purpose. It is after all rather convenient that however bad we are we can still expect to be forgiven (and although I have said that doesn’t mean they escape the consequences - in fact many wicked people do seem to escape any adverse consequences of their behaviour, in this world, at least). To have invented such a God would, however, only be an illusory comfort. Being forgiven and experiencing-to whatever limited extent we may experience it - the eternal life or the Kingdom of heaven, does not imply a bed of roses. Forgiveness and the acceptance of grace is a comfort, but equally a challenge. To do so we make ourselves agents for God’s creative purpose; we have first the task of reconciling ourselves with those whom we have offended and rebuilding or repairing the damage we have done, and then of taking love and peace and the fruits of the spirit forward. Those are not tasks which we would invent for our convenience and, of course, they depend on a faith – it’s not something that could be demonstrated by human logic - that the world is good and that its creator loves his creatures, if only they will accept that love. And if we do accept that loving forgiveness, then we can hope to be freed from debilitating guilt, freed, that is, to work towards restoring creation and building the kingdom. Amen.
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