Lent 1A (01-03-2020)

Read Romans 5:12-19  and Psalm32

Forgiveness First

“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, who sin is covered.”  (Ps.32:1)

“Blessed (or happy) is he whose transgression is forgiven.”  Leslie Weatherhead, well-known British clergyman, once said that the forgiveness of God is the most therapeutic idea in the whole world.  The path to recognising God’s presence and accepting God in our hearts usually passes through the doorway of God’s forgiveness.

While I was serving Deakin University as a chaplain, I found that often students would come to me just to share the contents of a guilty conscience, and then recede anonymously back into the thousands of people which make up a university, never to be seen again.  I sensed the students got what they needed simply by having a listening ear on which to unburden themselves of their guilt. 

Well, can it be so easy?  For a couple thousand years now, the Catholic church has provided a similar ministry through a structured confession to the priest (although I believe the name has changed from confession to reconciliation). You will have seen it in films: a person enters a booth and talks anonymously to a priest on the other side of the wall.  The priest hears the confession and then often assigns some form of penance such as the requirement to say certain prayers, and there it ends.

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”  In my experiences with students, they expected neither forgiveness nor penance from the chaplain, but then it was not the chaplain’s forgiveness which was being sought.  I doubt if the students were even consciously seeking God’s forgiveness, but this is certainly the reality behind the Psalmist’s words.  This is what happens.

This lifting of guilt and covering of sin of which the Psalmist writes comes from somewhere else; somewhere outside the sinner and beyond the consequence of the sin.  No other human being is involved; it’s just one-on-one with God.  In the Pslamist’s experience, God forgave, and the best way he could describe it was like a sickness going away.   Furthermore, I think this part of the process is as easy as it sounds.  God has no trouble at all with forgiving, anything at all.  Forgiveness is part of the nature of God. It is that easy.  

So why is it so hard to feel forgiven?  Why do people carry guilt around with them like Atlas with the world on his shoulders?  Perhaps a story will help:

A rich man entered a village and called all the poor people together in the town square.  He told them that he wanted to share his wealth with them by giving each person enough money to help begin a new life.  Some of the poor people rushed forward, grateful to the rich man and eager to accept his great gift.  Those who knew this rich man were not surprised, since they realised how generous he was, and that he asked for little in return.  Others of the village, however, said that there must be strings attached to this gift.  No one gives away something without hoping for something in return.  They accused the rich man of using his wealth for the sake of controlling others and so they refused to take any of his wealth.  When the rich man left the village, some of the people were ready to begin a new life, while others, who mistrusted the rich man, had condemned themselves to a life of poverty and hunger.

The gospel stresses that God’s forgiveness is unconditional.  Indeed, according to  theologian, Paul Tillich, forgiveness must be unconditional or it is not forgiveness at all.  But there seems to be something in us that cannot accept it.  Perhaps the Psalmist should have written his first line, “Happy is the one who knows his transgression is forgiven,”  because, although being forgiven is easy,  knowing it is quite another matter.   We have grown up with the idea that “you get what you deserve” and you have to earn what you want.  The notion of gracious forgiveness with no strings attached is alien, and even threatening.  It is alien because it is beyond experience for many.  Such people have never felt forgiven unconditionally, and so it is not possible for them to experience it nor to forgive others.  After all, the world says, “You made your bed, now you must lie in it.”  

But a greater one said, “Take up your bed and walk.  Your sin has been forgiveÎn.”  Here is one of the foundations of the gospel which we preach, and yet there are so many who cannot believe it.  When one refuses to believe that God forgives readily and unconditionally, a barrier is erected to God’s grace which God cannot breach.

It shows in two forms: first, the person who thinks, “I am a terrible person, beyond forgiveness,” and so won’t even entertain the possibility; and, second, the person who is self-righteous, who looks down on others and who thus takes morally superior position.  In fact they are forgiven, but both have closed themselves off from God, and so they don’t know they are forgiven.  

Who or what is responsible for this sorry state?  The answer is obvious:  All of those who had the opportunity to demonstrate the reality of forgiveness to those people early in their lives, but didn’t.  People like you and I, for starters.  But it goes further than that.  The church, the body charged with the responsibility of proclaiming the gospel of forgiveness, often has been the institution most interested in nurturing guilt.  Early in the church’s life were the inquisitions, the burning of witches and heretics, the threat of hell and damnation, and the selling of forgiveness which led to the reformation.

But even in modern times parts of the church has been big on denouncing sin and short on offering acceptance and forgiveness.  How often have you heard people say, “I don’t go to church, but I lead a good Christian life”?  People, in and out of the church, so often equate being Christian with being good.  The only time they’ve heard the church speak, it was about stamping out sin of one sort or another, be it gambling, homosexuality, prostitution, alcohol or whatever. They equate Christianity with a set of ethical and moral standards that have to be obeyed in order to qualify them to use the label, ‘Christian’.   Now I quite agree that a person who follows the way of Christ will indeed have characteristics that fall into the category of ‘good’, but to define Christianity through rules of ethical behaviour is nothing less than a perversion of the gospel, because it suggests that God’s love and acceptance must be earned, and nothing can be further from the truth.  

There was an older lady in my first parish (At least I thought was old at the time. She was 5 years younger than I am now) who never took communion.  One day I asked her why, and she said she had never in her 68 years taken communion because she wasn’t worthy.  She wasn’t worthy!?  She was, in fact, a lovely person by any standard, beloved by everyone.  Although I spent much time talking with her about God’s unlimited forgiveness and acceptance, in the end I failed to dispel the notion, which she had received from her early church life, that she was unworthy to take communion.

How easy it is to close someone off from God, and what a responsibility we have for making it possible for people to hear the gospel.  Before we ever utter a word about what’s right and what’s wrong; before we ever teach the 10 commandments; before we dare utter the words “sin” or “bad” or “repentance,”  we must teach forgiveness – express it in the way we live, the way we think and talk, and in our relationships.  Forgiveness comes first!   That’s the order it comes from God.  Forgiveness first!

To those who would say, “Forgiveness?  Certainly, but repentance must come first,”  I refer you again to theologian,  Paul Tillich, who said in a sermon, “God’s forgiveness is independent of anything we do, even self-accusation and self-humiliation.  If this were not so, how could we ever be certain that our self-rejection is serious enough to deserve forgiveness?  Forgiveness creates repentance, not the other way around. This is what is declared in the Bible and this is the experience of those who have been forgiven.”  Forgiveness first.

And so the psalm concludes, “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.”  Because God forgives, we are blessed and are able to rejoice.

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