A message from our Minister, The Rev Dr Neil Dougall: July 2019
We seem to have a problem with forgiveness these days. Things people said many years ago have a habit of coming to the surface. With the internet nothing is ever completely forgotten. Twenty years ago someone said something stupid. They have no memory of this. It is not something they would ever dream of thinking, let alone saying these days. For some reason it comes to the light.
Immediately it is front page news. The individual faces a barrage of criticism. They apologise but it doesn’t seem to matter. The reaction is that since they said this once they can never be trusted again. Since they said something offensive many years ago they should pay a penalty for the rest of their lives. Some people who this has happened to have lost jobs and positions. Others have been shamed into resigning.
It turns out that there is nothing new about this.
The first controversy Jesus stirred up was over forgiveness. Four men brought their friend to Jesus for help. Jesus reaction was to say to the man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’. Immediately Jesus found himself plunged into controversy. The managers of society were appalled. They said to one another, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming!’ (Mark 2:5-7 ).
Jesus offer of forgiveness turned out to be radical and unsettling. His words challenged the order of the day. The managers of society exercised control by carefully controlling forgiveness. By deciding who could be forgiven, and on what grounds, they were able to imprison the vast majority of people. Because, all people mess up.
That’s the irony about the shaming that goes on these days. If everything that everyone had ever said was exposed to scrutiny, who would be left to criticise? All of us say foolish things, rash things and wrong things. Walter Brueggemann, a biblical scholar explains that ‘if a society does not have an apparatus for forgiveness, then its members are fated to live forever with consequences of any violation’*. Time and time again we see this happening. People are haunted by their past. Their mistakes are endlessly recycled.
As a society we don’t know how to forgive. We refuse to accept that everyone mess up. We aren’t willing to acknowledge this. As a result those who are found out are shamed. A minority look down on them, deluding themselves by imagining they are better than the rest. And the vast majority of us desperately hope that we will never be found out. It’s not a happy state of affairs.
Jesus offers a radical alternative. ‘Your sins are forgiven’ he told the man brought by his friends. ‘Your sins are forgiven’ he told the women who’d been caught in adultery. ‘Your sins are forgiven’ he told the thief who was crucified with him.
You and I may live in fear that our past may catch up with us. We don’t need to. Jesus offers us forgiveness. You and I may experience shame because our past has become public. Jesus does not condemn us. You and I may be filled with self-loathing because of what we have done. We don’t need to because when Jesus forgives us, he forgets what we have done.
Jesus forgiveness is much more than words. His forgiveness is powerful, liberating and real. That’s because he doesn’t just say, ‘I forgive you’. He also takes our penalty. He did that by dying on the cross. He took our wrongdoing and gives us his innocence in return.
* Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, (2000) p 85.
If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9 ).
To see other messages from Neil, click on the appropriate month in the table below.
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