Sunday, 1 April 2012

Forgiveness - The Palm Sunday Gospel

In 1992, Simon Wilson - a personal friend and one of Matthew’s Godfathers, was the victim of a hit and run car crash in rural Norfolk which left him chronically disabled. The driver was never caught but Simon’s experience led him to train for ordained ministry.

Recently he said, ‘For me forgiveness has been about making sense of what happened to me.  I was 25, living with my parents and doing temporary work when early one morning I was the victim of a hit and run accident.  The car came from nowhere, cut across me and forced me into the ditch.  The next thing that I knew was that I was in intensive care having undergone major emergency surgery.

I was in hospital for three months and in the following years had 12 more operations.  Then, four years ago, I was told that my condition was incurable and that the prognosis was not good.  In a way that was almost liberating because up until then I’d always thought I could fix it... [as the year’s passed] I became difficult to be around. But I knew I had to work though it - find some sort of forgiveness so that I could bring closure to the situation.

Forgiveness is something you have to do every day and it’s something that you have to keep doing because anything can trigger that anger again. I’m not angry that the driver wasn’t locked up, but sometimes I do feel angry that they just drove off without checking to see if I was alive or dead.

One thing I find difficult is that in church I’ve heard sermons about forgiveness and thought ‘who are you to tell me to forgive?’  It can sound so easy but it’s the hardest thing in the world.   Some people within the church believe you can’t forgive unless the other person repents but to me repentance isn’t a condition of forgiveness because ultimately forgiveness comes from within.  Only I know whether I forgive or not.

Some people think I’m being pious telling people to forgive but actually I don’t tell anyone to do anything, I simply tell people that the place I’ve reached is a better place than the place I was at before....’

Forgiveness provides the lifeblood to the whole of Jesus’ ministry, even during this, the bleakest and darkest few days of his life.  Yet, forgiveness is so often the antithesis of the way we react in any number of situations.  Take Simon’s situation for example - wouldn’t a more ‘normal’ response be anger, fear, revenge.  Forgiveness seems inappropriate even foolish.

How apt it is that April Fool’s Day - a celebration of ‘the fool’, the everyman who provides some light relief from the harshness of life -  falls today, on Palm Sunday, where Jesus offers everyman... and woman and child relief from the harshness of life through forgiveness, reconciliation and the offer of eternal life.  The cross itself epitmenises this paradox - on the one hand it is the instrument of torture and other the symbol of forgiveness and life - and it is a paradox- for through it God’s glory comes near.

Even here, facing death himself, Jesus offers someone forgiveness.  He is crucified with two thieves.  One is penitent.  About to die, he has no time left to put his house in order or to make any reparation to those he has injured. Yet, when he asks to be remembered, he is promised paradise. Heaven is promised to the undeserving. That promise is our only hope. Foolishness!  The other thief, too, turns to Jesus and, in his own bitter and sarcastic way, prays to him. I identify with him, for I, too, have said to Jesus: "If you are who you claim to be, then, for all our sake’s, do something!" Is there any hope for him? Is there any hope for others of us whose prayers are sometimes as angry?

If the penitent thief was promised paradise because he was penitent, then there’s no hope for the impenitent. You don’t need a degree in theology to work that out. But, if he is promised paradise, as Luke seems to believe, because God accepts the least deserving, then there’s a glimmer of hope for the impenitent thief, too — and for me. If God’s grace, displayed on Christ’s cross, is truly for the last ones you’d expect, if it is not conditional on the quality of my apology, then there is real hope.

It is far easier to discuss God’s forgiveness than to offer forgiveness ourselves. We still need to ponder what the Revd Julie Nicholson, a Church of England priest, said in the aftermath of the 7 July bombings in London in 2005, in which her daughter was killed.  Her vocation was to preach the foolishness of forgiveness and then in a split-second, discovered that that foolishness was too much to bear.

Forgiveness is a foolish act and is impossible for us to offer without God having offered it to us first  - through foolishly becoming one of us, through ridiculously standing against the religion of his day, through speaking and acting life in the face of death, through triumphantly entering the city as king on an ass, through hanging on a cross. 

Forgiveness is nothing short of holy madness, but God doesn’t offer it from a distance, aloofly, but from within, alongside us, from our side of the divide between us for it is from the heart of desolation and darkness on the cross flows liberating grace.

God has offers me, the impenitent thief, hope, even in the face of death.  God stumbles into the broken monotony of my life singing of destabilizing subversive grace and freeing me to become what Martin Luther King called ‘creatively maladjusted’ to the way the world works and how it expects me to react.  He calls me to hold fast to the foolishness of Christ - not to rationalize or understand it -  knowing that it is in his foolishness that our wholeness lies and that from him, and then even through me, that forgiveness flows.

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