Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Why So Hard To Forgive!?

"he is kind to the wicked" (Luke 6)

I have been pondering recently why it is important to forgive and why it is so hard for us to do it. I suggest that the gospel portrays forgiveness as important in a different way from other important disciplines of the Christian faith. Growing in our capacity to forgive as God forgives us, imitating God’s forgiveness, cultivating a desire to forgive, learning to forgive, and becoming a better forgiver makes Christ’s love grow within us like nothing else does; and Christ’s love growing within us is the cornerstone that makes possible the overall transformation of our character which God desires for us.

In the homily I suggested that it might be helpful for us to think a bit about why it is hard to forgive. My reasoning is that if we can better understand why we get sidetracked in our imitation of God’s forgiveness that we might just be able to repent of the ways of thinking and feeling that sidetrack us and, in turn, grow in our imitation of God’s love and forgiveness.

OK. so why is it so very hard to forgive. Well, there is the egotism. The me first stuff. As the popular writer Karen Armstrong puts it - “people don’t want to put others before themselves.We are addicted to our egotism, our likes and dislikes and prejudices, and depend upon them for our own sense of identity. When we come out with a clever and unpleasant remark about somebody else, we get a rush of self-satisfaction.......”

I also want to suggest that there is a theological error we fall prey to that stands in the way of our imitation of God’s forgiveness. Here is how it goes for many of us: We rightly understand that God is opposed to unrighteousness, injustice, and every enemy of his peace, his shalom. And we know that we are supposed to think about things the way that God thinks about things - or at least as much as is humanly possible. But then we run into a situation where we encounter someone who has wronged us personally or we observe them doing things that we perceive to be unrighteous or unjust and then we imagine that what we are called to do in that situation is to imitate God’s feelings of justice towards this person. Here is the problem though - there is no way that we can imitate God’s feelings of justice towards people and this is why. God cannot think of justice without thinking of love and the cross of Christ, whereas our thoughts about justice are too often bound together with thoughts of retribution and personal offence. If we fancy ourselves to be in some way the imitators of God’s justice we say this sort of thing to ourselves : “I know that we are called to forgive but I am going to forgive only if they change, repent and ask for forgiveness. Until then I will be ready to forgive but I will feel towards this person as God does - “justly angry”. I will not seek retribution against this person but I will only leave it alone because I know God will seek justice.”

This way of thinking and feeling reveals the ugly truth that it is far too easy for us to think of justice without thinking simultaneously of love and forgiveness. This way of thinking also betrays a misunderstanding with regard to what God was doing with Jesus on the cross. Here Miroslav Volf is helpful:
“ ‘In Christ, wrote the Apostle Paul, ‘God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them (2 Cor 5:19)’. Not: Christ was reconciling an angry God to a sinful world. Not: Christ was reconciling a sinful world to a loving God. Rather: God in Christ was ‘reconciling the world to himself’..... God placed human sin upon God! One God placed human sin upon another God? No, there are not two Gods. The God who is One beyond numbering and yet mysteriously Three reconciled us by shouldering our sin in the person of Christ who is one of the Three. That’s the mystery of human redemption made possible by the mystery of God’s Trinity: The One who was offended bears the burden of the offence.”

I brought this insight of Volf’s regarding the mystery of the atonement into this discussion because I suspect that when we misunderstand what God is doing in the suffering of Christ we are likely to get mixed up when we think about God’s attitude towards sinners. If our view of the atonement is that God took retribution on his Son as a third party so that he could not kill some of us, a view portrayed in many popular and scholarly versions of conservative Christian groups, then I suggest we are crippled from the start when considering the nature of God’s love. In turn this leads us to be confused when we think of how God regards people, even people who hate him and love wickedness. Again, we find Volf helpful: "If God does not find what is pleasing in an object - if human beings have become ungodly - God does not abandon the object in disgust until it changes its character. Instead, God seeks to re-create it to become lovable again... God is not just generous even to the unrighteous; God also forgives their unrighteousness so as to lead them through repentance back to the good they have abandoned."

I encourage us to think of our journey as a church community at Grace Chicago as a journey to imitate God’s love and forgiveness within our communities of living, working and playing in Chicago. May God grant that they we be known for imitating him in this way.

1. We mentioned in the homily that we are called to advocate for God’s justice but that it is a misstep to fancy ourselves as imitators of God’s justice. What is the difference? Can you think of some examples to compare and contrast?

2. What do you do when you find that your anger towards someone’s actions is all consuming foe you, making it impossible to conceive of praying for them much less forgiving them?

3. How would you answer someone who says to you, I don’t want anything to do with a God who kills his Son so that a small percentage of the history of the human race might have eternal life?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Homily Recap (Tim Bowyer preaching)

If you want to read the text:
II Corinthians 5:14-6:2
Also, you may want to read the Mary and Martha story from Luke 10:38-42

This week, we focused on the reconciliation that God has accomplished in Christ This was Paul's emphasis to the church at Corinth in chapter 5. He proclaims the confidence Christians have in the love of Christ, convinced that Christ has died for all and was raised so that all might live in Him. Paul moves from this conviction to his statement about newness:
"So if anyone is in Christ, there is new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" For Paul the source of greatest hope, what made the gospel good news, was that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…"(v. 19). The grammar of this text is graciously clear. God is the subject, the author and originator of the work of reconciliation. We (in verse 18) and the world (in verse 19) are the direct objects. In this we understand that reconciliation is God's work, not ours. The way God restores right relationship, friendly relations, with us and with the world is through Christ.

We discussed how human beings are drawn to renewal, happy to think about change and newness, but often get lost in despair or in perfectionism. It is sometimes our tendency to think of ourselves as if we are orphans, left alone or abandoned by God. We may think this because we have been hurt in one way or another by others close to us. We may struggle against sin or emptiness, a feeling like God was withdrawn himself from us, that we are alone. We may have seen grievous hurt in the world around us so that it seems God far off. These feelings are legitimate. After all, Christ cried on the cross a cry of forsakenness. It is the human experience to feel alone sometimes, like no one quite understands or like we have no help. The text in Corinthians dispels this sense of abandonment, because we meet a God who has drawn near to us. In v. 21, we are told that for our sake the holy one of God ("he who knew no sin") became sin. Christ fully identified himself with our human condition. He walked in our suffering and faced what would be our forsaken death, so that we may know the nearness of God, that he is abundantly merciful. In this we are adopted into God's family with Christ as elder brother.

We also get stuck in perfectionism, because we have learned somewhere along the way that being good is what matters most and what wins us approval. This comes from our childhood experience in the home, in school, and often at church. It remains in our adult experience at work, in our society, and in our religious life. We learn to ignore or repress the parts of our lives that are morally incorrect, unsuccessful, or incomplete. We think about our relationship to God as a kind of moral formation, a path to newness that is marked by hard work, improvement, and success. We also tend to misunderstand what true gift is. We tend to think about things being given to us because of our merit, because we were nice and not naughty. We consider gifts a burden because they require our responsibility if not our purchase. But kind of morality and this thought about gifts inevitably leads to exhaustion because we know deep down that we cannot rise on our own to morality and we can never earn back the gift of God. The gospel we encounter in II Corinthians frees us from this burden. It is "in Christ" and not in our merit, our working harder, or our striving that we are made new. Instead of busying ourselves with the work of God, we have one thing required of us: We are to rest in the Lord and his work of reconciliation.

This kind of freedom characterizes the new economy that God sets up in giving his son Christ. In the story from Wendell Berry, "It Wasn't Me," Elton Penn had to learn about this new economy:
(My paraphrase):
"He didn't like the thought of being in debt, let alone to a dead man, someone he could never repay! In a conversation with the town lawyer who was settling his case against the old man's children, Elton learned something about the economy of this little town. Wheeler Cattlet had to convince Elton that this is how the community worked. He instructed Elton, “Everyone in the whole community is in debt to someone they'll never pay back. Everyone is in a long line of succession. We've stopped keeping track of who owes who."
In the old economy we must somehow win God's approval, earn back the gift of reconciliation, or prove to Him that we are worthy of it. This misses the point of course and sets us up for exhaustion.
In the new economy, marked by the perfect gift of God, we find relieve and newness when we sit at the Lord's feet and RECEIVE his love. This sets up a whole new way of understanding ourselves and interacting with the world around us. It liberates us from the weight of duty and helps us find our core identity in God's love.

Discussion Questions:

1. Where is God? It is human to wonder this. Where have you sensed God's distance and how have you dealt with that feeling? How do we build the kind of confidence that Paul points to in II Corinthians, confidence that God is near and that we have not been abandoned?

2. Why is it our tendency to think that what we do is what primarily identifies us? Is this true? What does it mean to you to know that your identity as a Christian is (as Colossians 3 says) lost in Christ in God? How do we live and ACT as though we are primarily recipients in the work of reconciliation?

3. How does understanding that God is with us and that he has done the work of reconciliation effect our community and our relationships with others who are our enemies?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Epiphany: Jesus's Story is Our Story

This morning we meet the mysterious magi - the wise men from the East who help Matthew make a very important point about Jesus: he has come for all people. This wondrous truth, that Jesus had come to form a redeemed humanity, a new human race, was one that the early church came to embrace powerfully by understanding that the gospel of Jesus Christ could reconcile people to each other who would otherwise be enemies. In the same way they understood that the gospel could empower those who were living under the power of others - whether slaves, women or children or simply peasants in the harsh context that was the Roman world in which the gospel took hold - those who previously had no hope, no story that would help them see their lives as hopeful, are brought into the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and are told that their lives are now bound to his. Our destiny is bound up with Jesus’ destiny.

We all know how it is when we come face to face with our fears, our sins, our failures. It can be quite discouraging. We can really start to wonder in the midst of these moments of self-reflection who we really are and what will come of our lives. Sometimes it seems that other people will have more to say about who we are and what is most true of us. Perhaps a mean-spirited boss, parent, or other authority figure has had such a strong effect on us that we feel like we are puny, helpless, and incapable. Maybe some of us have a self-defeating tendency where we engage in actions and thoughts that make us feel paralysed. Or, maybe we have a prideful self-confidence - a swagger that usually makes us feel good about ourselves with little thought of how we are impacting others. For the proud there is always a day that comes when a loved one is so injured by the proud and selfish one that the latter has a moment where he wished he could be different but doesn’t know how. These are so often the stories that we live - stories of paralysis, shame, self-doubt of narcissistic pride. On Epiphany Sunday we remember that God is the one who desires to write the story of our life. His glory has been made manifest to all people in all circumstances! His mercy and forgiveness is always near and the story of Jesus is always the story we are invited to live into. Epiphany Sunday reminds us that we are never at the mercy of a trap or snare, we are never doomed to continue in destructive behavior; as those made in God’s image we are always meant for more! God is the one who is writing the story of your life. The Jesus story is now your story. May God grants us the grace to live into that story.

Questions for discussion:

1. It was suggested in the homily that keeping with the rhythm of the liturgical year can be a helpful way to be reminded that Jesus’ story is bigger than any one of us and that even our failures have a redeemable place within that story. Can you think imaginatively about how the liturgical year can speak to the seasons of your life in hopeful way?

2. What role does Christian community play in increasing our faith that we are living in Jesus’ story, that we have been united to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, that his destiny belongs to us?

3. In the early church it was quite remarkable for a slave or another powerless person to be brought into the power of Jesus’ story. The stories around them told them that they were powerless; the gospel told them the exact opposite. Can you think of examples from your own life when what someone else thought of you really governed your life in a negative way - a way that kept you from God’s love? What helps you get free of those life-killing stories?