An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Forgiveness Comes with Scars

A sermon on John 20: 19-31 & 1 John 1:1- 2:2 by Nathan Nettleton

“Forgive and forget” is a commonly heard phrase. It embodies an understanding of what forgiveness means. It suggests that in a situation where someone has been hurt, we can turn the clock back, put the injury behind us and go on completely unchanged; back in our state of innocence as though it had never happened. Such a view suggests that if someone who has been hurt by another is continuing to feel pained by whatever took place, and is continuing to be affected by the bad memories and the grief of what was lost between them, then that person is obviously not practising forgiveness. If they had truly forgiven, then they would have forgotten and let it go. They would no longer be affected by it, would they? “Forgive and forget”, so the saying goes. Well, yes, that is how the saying goes, but it is not a biblical saying. And I would suggest that the view of forgiveness it embodies is not a Christian view, and is an entirely unrealistic and unhelpful view.

Forgiveness is a major theme in the resurrection stories. It was there explicitly in tonight’s two readings from the writings of the Apostle John, and with their emphasis on harmonious community life, you could say it is assumed in the reading from Acts and the Psalm too. You don’t have to have been around churches for very long to have picked up how central the theme of forgiveness is to the gospel message, and especially to the stories of how and why Jesus died on the cross. There are various theological theories, both within scripture and within later church teaching, about how the death of Jesus is related to the accomplishment of forgiveness of sins, but whether or not you understand, accept or even know about any of the theories, you can’t help but notice that in the Christian view of reality, the two are somehow bound up together.

Tonight’s reading from the epistle of John is an exhortation to avoid sin. It says so quite explicitly: “My dear children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” But the apostle is no naive idealist who thinks that complete avoidance of sin might be readily accomplished. He also says, “If we say we have no sin then we are deceiving ourselves and making God out to be a liar, but that if we confess our sins, the One who is faithful and just will forgive us, and the blood of Jesus will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is no rose-coloured-glasses view of Christian living. Sin is real. We are all implicated. And although forgiveness is readily available, it has somehow cost Jesus his blood to secure it for us.

I’m not going to try to unpack the multitude of theories, biblical and otherwise, about how the suffering and death of Jesus serve to make forgiveness possible, but let me offer one, just so as to ensure that we have at least one way of comprehending the link between the two.

One of the things that is true of forgiveness, and of being forgiven when you have caused some serious hurt to someone else, is that it matters who offers you forgiveness. If I get drunk and run my car into a bus shelter and kill Garry’s wife and kids who are sitting in the bus shelter, my life is going to be torn apart by the burden of what I have done wrong and of the pain and death and grief I have caused. And it is not going to make an difference if Alex tells me he forgives me, and Frances tells me she forgives me, and Paul tells me he forgives me. I would need at least Garry to tell me that he forgives me, if not Lil and the girls, but unless they could come back from the dead that wouldn’t be possible. Unless the actual victims of my sin offer me forgiveness, I have to live unforgiven. The offer of forgiveness only means anything if it comes from the victim of our sin.

Now I think it could be demonstrated that God was always the ultimate victim of human sin, long before Jesus stepped into our world. Every expression of human evil and corruption tears apart the integrity of God’s creation, and the God who created the world and loves it cannot but be heartbroken over such wanton destruction of that which was created good. One of my early lingering memories of being indirectly sinned against happened when I was in primary school. I got interested in meteorology, and built a rudimentary weather station at school. It got lots of affirmation from the teachers and was used to teach other kids about the weather, and so one of my mates got insanely jealous and came in after school one night and smashed it to pieces. He didn’t hurt me directly; he didn’t touch a hair on my head or breathe a word of an insult in my direction. But by destroying my creation he hurt me deeply and we were never reconciled. I’m sure that the insult and pain and grief I felt over the destruction of my little weather station are only the tiniest hint of what God feels constantly over every poisoned waterway and every disappearing species and every abused child and every outbreak of hatred and hostility between people and nations. Whatever damage we do to ourselves and our neighbours and our planet, the God who created them and loves them is the ultimate victim.

But, however true that may be, perhaps it is too indirect for us to have ever really recognised it. Perhaps a message of forgiveness from such an apparently distant victim would have felt a bit like Frances telling me that she forgives me and she sure Garry does too. Somehow it is not sufficiently real because it is not sufficiently close. And perhaps God recognised that; recognised that if the message of forgiveness was going to get through we would need more than that. So God took action. God came to us personally in Jesus Christ. And when God came to us in Jesus, the moment of truth was at hand. In John’s writings, both the gospel and the epistles, the central feature of the concepts of sin and righteousness have to do with how we respond to the revelation of God in Jesus. To sin is to reject this revelation. To be righteous is to trust this revelation and live accordingly. And as John says, “if we say we have not sinned, we are kidding ourselves.” We might have only been trashing what God made before, without touching a hair on his head or breathing a word of an insult in his direction. But when God stepped in among us, in the person of Jesus, we spat in his face and strung him up. Even those of us who had been his closest friends and had believed in him and followed him and said we’d die for him, even we turned tail and ran, leaving him to face his gruesome fate alone.

No longer was God an indirect victim of human evil. In Jesus Christ, God was now the direct target of all the hatred, hostility and cruelty of which human beings are capable. In Jesus Christ, God was now clearly and unmistakably the number one victim. And as the victim of the ultimate in human evil, Jesus is now the one who can offer forgiveness and it will means something. It will mean everything.

On the first day of the week, Jesus’ dispirited followers gathered behind closed doors. No doubt guilt over their abandonment of him weighed heavily on them. Perhaps none more so that Peter, who had always been the most outspoken in his support of Jesus, and who even after Jesus had warned him, had gone ahead and lied about ever knowing Jesus to save his own neck. Or perhaps none more so than John, who frequently tells us that he was the closest to Jesus, but who close or not had run with all the rest and failed to stand by his closest friend and mentor in his hour of need. When all hell broke loose, they’d all left Jesus to face it alone. Now they were shattered, broken, and in hiding.

Suddenly Jesus appeared among them, saying “Shalom! Peace! All the best to you!” And then he proceeded to show them the deep wounds in his hands and side, before saying to them again, “Shalom, peace.”

There’s no loose talk of “forgive and forget” here. Jesus hasn’t forgotten. The wounds haven’t healed over. The scars are deep and raw and they’re not going away. And Jesus is not hiding them or pretending that they don’t hurt. But he is speaking words of peace to those whose cowardice and callousness allowed them to be inflicted. This is what forgiveness is really about. No sweeping things under the carpet; no superficial pretence that the lost innocence is restored. This relationship will never be the same again, because Jesus now wears the scars visibly and irreversibly. But forgiveness is shown in the willingness to speak peace to those who wounded you and to wish for and act for the best for them. And forgiveness is known in hearing the word of peace breathed by the victim of your own sin. And victory over every hatred and hostility is shown and known in the risen Christ who takes it all in his own flesh and refuses to return it in kind but rises above it, forever ensuring that tragedy cannot entomb love and hope.

Every time we gather around this table, we gather just as those dispirited and failed disciples did. We gather as those who have failed to live as God would have us live, and who have inflicted wounds on ourselves and on others and on the planet and ultimately on Jesus himself. And every time we gather here, burdened by our own brokenness and failure, the risen Christ steps among us and says , “Peace! My peace I give you. Here touch my wounds and know that it is me. Hold out your hands and touch my broken flesh. Receive my gift of myself given to you. Receive my forgiveness and my peace, made known to you in the only one who can really offer them, the broken victim of the sin of the world.”

And, just as he said to those gob-smacked disciples in that locked room that evening, so too he says to us, “Receive the Holy Spirit, all of you. As God sent me into the world, so, in the same way, I am sending you with the message of forgiveness. Go, empowered by the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven them. If you withhold forgiveness because they reject my message and refuse the offer of forgiveness and new life, then they remain unforgiven. Touch my wounds; know my forgiveness; and go, as my broken body, into the world, forgiven and forgiving.”


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