Tuesday, 23 September 2014

They know not what they do

The parable of the workers in the vineyard can seem quite offensive to us who are brought up to believe and expect that you should be justly rewarded for the amount of work and effort you put in.
But I think the context of this parable is very important. Jesus wasn’t addressing the crowds or even “seekers” he was addressing his own disciples – people who naturally enough would have considered themselves as insiders.
It is a parable that seeks to tell the disciples that although they do have an important place as the people who responded first and boldly, they don’t have any special privileges for being first and working harder and longer. Those who will join them later will be receiving the same amount of generosity as they do. In terms of salvation, no-one gets more than anyone else. All who turn to the Lord are saved no matter when they turn to God.
And that phrase “when they turn” has become more important to me lately.
One of the greatest theological conundrums I have faced and had to work through over the last ten years is this notion that God forgives everyone no matter what they have done or how they feel about it. To be true to myself though I can no longer hold to that position where to cite a recent example; That is, a man cuts off the head of another man in cold blood and sees it not as a crime but a good thing. Is he automatically forgiven? No he is not - not automatically at all. To be forgiven, to seek God’s forgiveness one has to repent. In the most famous parable of God’s Grace even the prodigal son had to turn back nervously towards his Father. Of course his Father was waiting for him and rushed towards him to hug him overjoyed that he had decided to return....but the Son had to want to return.
Of course If true repentance is forthcoming, then we can be confident that the graciousness  of God will elicit God’s mercy.
What I realise after all these years is that I have been looking at “Grace” in a vacuum divorced from the righteousness of God who seeks righteousness in us.
I looked again at the words in the penitential rite I say every Sunday and the words I say are not, “Almighty God who forgives everyone no matter what”. What I say on God’s behalf is “Almighty God who forgives all who truly repent”. God forgives those who are truly sorry and who turn and want to sin no more and want to transform their lives.And then, through the merits of Jesus we are treated not according to the laws of Justice, but with mercy, and then forgiven and accepted.
Grace, if it is not to descend into what is known as “cheap grace” and perverted into a license to do whatever you like, must not be divorced from repentance and the righteousness of God. But of course not everyone by a long chalk does repent in this life.
So where does leave the Biblical hope that “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32)
Where I differ from many people is that I don’t believe that death is the cut off point for repentance. This is entirely Biblical. We know from Paul’s letter to the Romans that neither “death nor life” can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus but easily the most startling tract from the New Testament is in  1 Peter which states boldy “For Christ who died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteousness, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formally did not obey,
when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons were saved  through water”.
Saint Peter is convinced that Jesus reached out his hand to all those people who had already been judged and killed many years ago to save them! The Spirit of God transcends time and place. Grace and mercy to the dead is also always on offer. To turn and be saved in this life is preferable obviously, as this will make this a happier more just and righteous world, but if not, God never retracts the offer of eternal life.
And even then, in death as in life, the outstretched hand needs to be sought and grabbed hold of.
Repentance has to be genuine. And for genuine repentance there will be much pain in the soul when the full realisation of the monstrous things you have done is brought to light and you are forced to face their reality in the seering light of God’s sight.
I think this is what St. Paul meant when he wrote “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Cor. 3:15)
In the act of retaining the relationship between Grace and repentance to avoid it becoming a cheap excuse and a licence to do whatever we like and just expect forgiveness  I am constantly reminded of the words attributed to St. Augustine and which provided the strap line to the recent film “Calvary”.
Do not despair. One of the thieves was saved.

Do not presume. One of the thieves was damned.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Forgive them Father.......

Who finds it difficult to forgive? I thought so – because so do I. We all know we are supposed to forgive. It is ingrained in everything from the Lord's prayer to passages like this one in Matthew. Our churches are full of people who know they are supposed to forgive, who know intellectually that letting go of hurts is a positive and life enhancing thing and yet find it nigh impossible to do so. In fact telling people who have been hurt and shamed and left feeling worthless that they "ought" to forgive someone can just heap guilt on to them as well as all that bitterness and hurt when they find that they cannot do it.
This parable appears, at face value, to say that those of us who cannot forgive others who have wronged us will not be forgiven by God. But is that really what it means? We possibly need to look at the parable a little closer

The first exchange between Peter and Jesus concerns the extent and nature of forgiveness. "Seventy seven times" is Jesus' way of telling Peter that forgiveness is not a commodity that can be reckoned on a calculator. Not only is it limitless but it cannot even be quantified, so the language of numbers is completely inappropriate when contemplating forgiveness. This particular point is rammed home with the absurd amount that the first servant is indebted to the king. "Ten thousand talents" represents the wages of a day labourer in Jesus’ time for 150,000 years!!
The second piece of the reading is the parable where the king forgives one servant that absurdly huge amount who is then unable to forgive another servant a reasonable debt. This heartless ogre is then justifiably imprisoned and tortured by the king. But if we look on this parable whilst reflecting on the difficulty of genuine forgiveness it takes on a different tone.

The first point to note is that human forgiveness is rooted in divine forgiveness. The king forgives the servant an incalculable amount. There is no way to measure divine forgiveness. Saying "seventy seven times" doesn't even come close.
Now when looking at the parable we note that there is an incredible gap in the parable. On hearing of his release from his obligation to pay this incalculable sum, the servant shows no appropriate response - no rejoicing, no gratitude, no celebrating with wife and children who are spared imprisonment, no reflection on the meaning of freedom. We know only that on the way out he refuses the plea of a colleague.
That "gap" in the parable has to be taken seriously. That first servant has not "discovered" forgiveness. We see that in the fact that although the debt is way beyond his capacity to pay he says "I will pay you everything"(18:20). It would be like me being presented with a bill for ten trillion trillion pounds and me saying “Oh I’ll repay that” when I won’t earn that in a hundred lifetimes.  He imagines he is dealing with the king on the basis of Justice, but what he receives but doesn't grasp is the king's mercy. The parable wants us to know that Justice and mercy are different beasts.
The first servant sees indebtedness and forgiveness as a power game. He hasn't seen himself as a "gifted" person, as a recipient of mercy so is unable to see himself as being in the same situation as the second servant. He has no empathy. The final verse (18:35) makes it clear that forgiveness is a matter of the heart, a transformation of the inner disposition of the recipient of mercy, something that first servant has not yet discovered.

"How does this passage address seriously injured persons, battling with shame and alienation? It portrays the incredible kindness of God who doesn't deal with us with justice but with mercy. It invites us, the listeners to think of ourselves as forgiven debtors - no more or less - living with and among other forgiven debtors. To be forgiven means to give up the power game of innocent versus guilty and to join a fellowship of forgiven sinners.

Only then, the parable would appear to be saying, can we even begin to start to rid ourselves of the self-destructive rage and sense of injustice that keeps historic hurts and trespasses alive and unforgiven in our hearts.

Until I or you accept ourselves as forgiven sinners we will always find it difficult to have empathy with someone who trespasses against us.

This I accept, but it still takes a lot of prayer and a lot of time...perhaps a lifetime...to accomplish. And does scale matter? Someone is rude to me. I can forgive them quite easily (mostly). But If a spouse cheats on you? How easy is that? How about the family of David Haines who was beheaded by Islamic state yesterday?

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Where two or three are gathered......

In Matthew’s gospel today we have very practical advice as to how disputes amongst church members, and how matters of moral conflict are to be settled.
First, you are to try and solve things privately. If that doesn’t work then you call on two or three other members of the church, probably the elders to get involved and make a decision on one side of the other. If the dispute continues then the whole community is supposed to get together and come to a judgement. If someone’s actions are condemned; they are an offense to the community they are to be shunned, excluded from the church. Now to get to that stage, the behaviour must surely be wilful and pretty awful!
The word “church” here refers directly to the local community rather than the massed ranks of Christians so can be seen as a process of damage limitation and gradual escalation but the interesting thing is that the local church has the authority “to bind or loose”.
This is a Jewish term that can apply a general prohibition to a particular action or behaviour. We can have confidence that we are acting under God’s guidance when the whole church has come to a mind on a particular thing. This confidence is built on the rock of faith in the revelation of God’s saving work in Christ.
A consequence of our faith that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself is that all Christians are to be ministers of reconciliation as far as humanly possible in situations  from the personal face off between two people right to the whole church getting involved.
As in all disputes, large amounts of give and take and forgiveness are usually required but also the backbone to name and condemn certain behaviours. This leads to a church that is meek and mild, wishy-washy and loses its cutting edge.
Of course we are a church that believes in Grace and boundless forgiveness but quite often we misuse that to mask and excuse our moral cowardice and the inability to name and shame bad behaviour.
When we are too embarrassed to face something or someone Grace can become a very convenient excuse for doing absolutely nothing. Grace then becomes a licence to whatever you like and we are straight back to St. Paul who railed against this attitude in his letter to the Roman church and I quote “What are we to say then? Are we to continue in sin so that Grace may abound? By no means”
Of course Jesus also said “Judge not lest ye be judge” . Again if we took that at face value then we would have no laws – we would have anarchy and no Christian judges or magistrates would be permissible.  I submit that what that in effect means is  “Am I willing to be judged by the same measure by God as I am using to judge someone else? And am I ready to face the consequences of that judgement?”
To use a deliberately extreme and hypothetical example: If there was a paedophile intent on preying on children in this church and  they saw nothing wrong in what they were doing and were intent on continuing  then I would have no problem in excommunicating them from this and any other congregation as well as reporting them to the police. Doing nothing out of a misguided understanding of grace and forgiveness is just not an option.
In bringing such a person out into the open and safeguarding children and making treatment for the offender more likely is the far greater act of love. As some of the hard sayings of Jesus make clear, tough love is still love. Compassion for an offender is far outweighed by the compassion for any potential victims.
Personally I don’t think that the “Live and let live” mentality is particularly Christian, it is weak and cowardly secular approach that sees all people, morality and situations as relative. Right and wrong has no place within it. Christian morality and ethics is played out within a complex but clearly defined set of checks and balances that includes love compassion and forgiveness but also has a clear sense of right and wrong, goodness and sin.
In discerning the right and wise path in any undertaking, Christians must pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and for unity in their deliberations and judgements. 

For we may be confident that  “where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them”.