Sermon for the Third Sunday of Trinity
12th Jun 2016
A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Trinity (Year C)
"Your faith has saved you; go in peace".
This morning’s readings explore the meaning of forgiveness, whether it be the forgiveness shown by the prophet Nathan to King David for the murder of Uriah the Hittite - or of Christ to the woman who, in a dramatic reversal of David’s story has been anointed by a prostitute whose tears fall onto his feet. There can be no more telling contrast between Israel’s greatest King and the woman with ‘a bad name in the town’. And yet in this contrast, we see the frailty of human nature with that of the subversive and transforming intervention of Christ’s forgiveness: Nathan said to David “The Lord, for His part, forgives you your sin, you are not to die” Jesus says of the woman “Her sins, her many sins must have been forgiven her, or she would not have shown such great love…And he said to her, “Your faith has saved you, go in Peace”.
Notice that the forgiveness she is given is placed in the past tense. The welcome love that she has shown is a grace, a gift through which understanding and forgiveness is made possible in the present: ‘her faith has saved her’. As a prostitute she has offered him a prostitute’s welcome as she uses her tears and her hair to wash and anoint him. She ranks alongside the widow and her mites in giving what is specially and only hers to give, all she knows. And for Jesus, this is a distinctive mark of a working faith. There is so little judgement here, only understanding. Jesus does not offer this understanding as a mere reaction to what he but sees deeply and has great compassion. Christian forgiveness recognizes the complexity and fragility of human nature with the generous mercy of God whose continuing desire is to restore us into his likeness and to inhabit his peace.
It is no easy thing to forgive others, especially those who have hurt us, to really forgive, from the heart. It might feel like going against a big part of our nature, and so is not realized easily… We are often too stubbornly wedded to our own pride and its companion, fear. And there is no ready answer to this, except for the Christian emphasis upon healing. We need healing communities which take the human being seriously and which can offer ready understanding, and encourage mutual self-acceptance and tolerance. A healing community is a community of faith which has the capacity to heal and be healed in the one communion bond of trust. But for us in the Church this is not a work which can be realized in our own strength alone, but in the strength of God alone and in His Name and through the Name and the love of his Son, Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, he may use us as powerful agents of healing, for as the poet William Blake once put it,
We are put on this earth a little space to bear the beams of love.
The work of the South African truth and Reconciliation Commission, following the atrocities of the Apartheid Regime, remains instructive for us. It charted a way of forgiveness for a whole nation – a fractured and torn South Africa. It offered a distinctly Christian means of forgiveness in action at the national level. How to heal a nation? How to restore the nation’s moral equilibrium? People wanted to forgive and to reconcile but they also wanted to hold people accountable for past atrocities. Archbishop Desmond Tutu argued that to have offered a general amnesty to the perpetrators of murder would have been to practice amnesia, denying an experience which was brutalizing and violent and which would haunt both perpetrators and victims unless it was thoroughly acknowledged. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission therefore offered amnesty for specific crimes committed, but only to those who pleaded guilty and accepted responsibility for their actions. Remorse was not a requirement for amnesty, just an admission of guilt, but this admission of guilt had to be made in public and it had to be put into a form of honest words.
In practice, perhaps surprisingly, most people did express remorse and most victims did want to forgive - he describes one victim pleading with the perpetrators of crimes to come forward because they wanted to forgive but did not know whom to forgive. Archbishop Tutu claimed that forgiveness gives people resilience to emerge still human despite efforts to dehumanize them, and that the oppressor was as much dehumanized by his actions as the victim. But Archbishop Tutu also reminded the world that alongside the basic pursuit of human justice, true forgiveness deals with the past, with all of the past, in order to make the future possible. That is a significant contribution The Christian Gospel can make to the difficult questions we all face today. As Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little”.
Forgiveness is for the remission of sins – For it is by this that what has been lost and was found is saved from being lost again. St Augustine.
Never forget that the key to the situation lies in the will and not in the imagination.
So much of what we have found impossible to forgive is based on hurts and betrayals and perhaps misunderstandings from a past that is carried around as unwanted baggage and felt as a wound. Many would say that it lies within the realm of psychotherapy and analysis to treat such things in a properly formal and scientific way. But science doesn’t supply all the answers – and the psychologist is not in the business of offering forgiveness. But it is possible to come to the re-telling of the life story as found in renewed relationships and to find new ways of telling old stories from within communities of Christian Faith. We may begin to realize that nothing in our experience is written in stone, and that new life can become possible for all of us in the unlikeliest of ways and in the unlikeliest of places and among the unlikeliest people. In this there is the hope for life transformed within the context of Christian communities like ours at Holy Cross.
We begin to learn to forgive as we begin to understand and act on that understanding. For us this is to find life in and through the Cross of Christ. New life for The Church is now and always mediated through the Christ who has ‘been through it’ and redeemed our fallen world. For Christ is the One who has offered forgiveness to the woman who is able to anoint him even from the point of her own greatest need; the need for understanding and forgiveness. If truth and reconciliation was made possible for her, even more, in Christ does it now become possible for us, too…