Preachers had a daunting task yesterday as we sought to offer a word of lament, consolation, and hope after the carnage of recent weeks. Words are what we have to offer, although in humility we know they are not enough.
I preached at the University Baptist Church in Baltimore, a venerable congregation just across the street from Johns Hopkins. I chose to preach on forgiveness, a challenging spiritual practice in these fracturing times. The new pastor, Dr. Tom Harrington, had projected a series on “next steps” in discipleship. It seemed to me that the next step we all need to take is the strenuous work of forgiveness.
I used John 20:21-23 as my text, a post-resurrection appearance that includes a commissioning. Jesus offers a greeting of peace, he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, and he charges them to practice forgiveness, just as he has. The whole of his ministry has revolved around proclaiming and embodying forgiveness.
The gift of the Spirit makes forgiveness possible, and the community enacts forgiveness to continue Jesus’ work in the world. I am always amazed when persons of faith proclaim their willingness to forgive shortly after a traumatic event. Most of us require a longer journey.
Paul Fiddes calls forgiveness a voyage of anguish and discovery, whereby we face the pain we have caused or experienced and learn the depths of what the other has felt. Gregory Jones has suggested that forgiveness does not merely refer backward to the absolution of guilt; it also looks forward to the restoration of community. Such is an urgent need in our time.
We usually think there is an appropriate order to the process of forgiveness: we will forgive when our nemesis repents. This is not God’s order, however. God forgives long before repentance occurs; the cross is supremely a manifestation of divine forgiveness. Rather than asking how can we forgive if the other does not repent, perhaps we should ask how one might repent if we do not forgive?
The church should be the place where forgiveness is best embodied. How can persons believe that God forgiveness if the people of God do not practice forgiveness? Year ago I witnessed the power of the Christian community to restore a person. A prominent man in our church committed a crime, was publicly humiliated, lost his medical practice, and was sent to prison. His Sunday School class rallied around him; sending him notes, visiting him, and reminding him that he was beloved.
When he was released, he was welcomed back into the community, and before too long, was invited to serve as a deacon once again. This congregation made all the difference for him, and he became the most merciful person imaginable.
When we remember that we have been forgiven much, we can better offer this grace to others. Forgiveness is literally the most loving and powerful practice of all. Jesus instructs us not to “retain” the sins of others.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares creative leaders for diverse ministry contexts.