The humility of knowing

30 April 2017

When we get to know our enemies we realise they are not as bad as we thought they were, nor we as good as we believe we are. When we get to know those of a faith different to our own we realise they are not as wrong as we thought they were, nor we as right as we believe we are.

Confident faith

30 April 2017

There is merit in having a confident faith for it allows us to live with doubt. The same cannot be said of certainty for certainty denies the reality of doubt and in the denial we cannot truly love.

The experience of the women at the empty tomb and the disciples over subsequent days gave them hope.

The obvious lesson to be drawn was that death had been overcome.

That life was affirmed even in the presence of persistent evil.

It was this message that Peter and James would use to convince their fellow Jews of the significance of Jesus in the unfolding story of God’s ongoing covenant with his people.

Paul would draw on the belief that God had done something mind-shatteringly new to reach beyond the constraints of the Law.

Putting it bluntly – in the resurrection of Jesus God had broken the bonds of sin and death.

For centuries much of the Christian Church has taught that what we do in this life determines what happens in the next; that what happens here and now is a precursor to what awaits us in eternity.

This teaching has been used to encourage and cajole as well as beat and abuse.

Do as the Church says and all will be well – or fail to do as the Church teaches and you will rot in hell.

The power of persuasion rested in the hands of the ecclesiastical elite mirroring the military muscle of the Lord of the manor.

By the late eighteenth century and the Age of the Enlightenment the Church had begun to lose its grip upon society. It is wrong to assume that the decline in the influence of the Church began only in recent decades. Apart from a few revivals as a reaction to loss of confidence the decline has been steady for around 200 years.

Up until then the afterlife was a clear and determining feature within Church life.

Once the age of science and bioscience began to open up new horizons of thought, belief in the here and now being the sole cause for concern grew.

In other words what happens within the term of a human life was all that mattered, not what may come afterwards.

This probably sinks home in popular culture when John Lennon writes ‘imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try no hell below us, above us only skies, imagine all the people living for today.’

Those who wondered whether Yuri Gagarin saw God above the clouds were to be sorely disappointed.

So if death, or to be more exact the afterlife, is not the determining factor in how we conduct our lives what is? And how can Jesus, in particular the disciples’ experience of resurrection, help us?

Do we still have a message as important, as influential as our predecessors in faith?

As a consequence of the development of thought these past two centuries there has been a significant increase in how the mind works. What are the factors that lead to a happier, more successful life?

Psychotherapists tell us that one of the most debilitating features in human life is the inability to forgive or be forgiven.

Over the course of my ministry some of the bitterest people I have met have been those who have harboured a grudge.

And their bitterness isn’t restricted to damaging their own well-being.

Their attitude and actions have heaped hurt upon those about them.

They have also been real obstacles to growth in the community, not least the impact of the church upon the neighbourhood.

Yet those who have exercised the most positive influence over others have been the ones who have addressed and come to terms with some great wrongdoing, either perpetrated by others upon them or indeed by themselves upon others.

These are not the ones who have never had anything major injustice done to them and have been extremely fortunate to travel through life without having to wrestle with costly forgiveness. No, these are the ones who have faced the darkest of days and the evil that takes up residence in the human soul.

I am thinking of those whom I have had the great privilege of meeting that have survived Auschwitz.

Of the teenager who, during the Kosovan conflict of 1999, despite having numerous bullets poured into her body by paramilitaries, managed to hold onto the thin thread of life until rescuers pulled her from the pile of bodies.

And then there have been those who have faced a no lesser evil when they have been gossiped about, when they have been bullied at work, when they have been cheated, when their trust has been broken, when the love they’d believed was theirs has been taken from them.

What does Jesus and the resurrection say to them?

Jesus does not take forgiveness lightly.

He knows that it is a costly exercise.

In fact it is only won after much struggle, after the body is drenched in sweat, when God and God alone can determine whether the cup of suffering is taken from our lips.

‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do’.

It doesn’t come easily.

But after wrestling with the dilemma, after struggling to understand why and finally arriving at some understanding of how all this came to be, forgiveness is possible.

Singer songwriter Tracy Chapman hits the nail on the head when she recognises that someone is using her for their own ends. But they are unable to acknowledge their own wrongdoing in the relationship:

Sorry Is all that you can’t say

Years gone by and still

Words don’t come easily

Like sorry like sorry

Forgive me

Is all that you can’t say

Years gone by and still

Words don’t come easily

Like forgive me forgive me

If it is difficult for many today to appreciate the overcoming of death in the resurrection experience, then at least one other obstacle to abundant life could be seen to be overcome. That is the inability to forgive and be forgiven.

That is not to take wrongdoing and injustice lightly, far from it.

But it is to recognise that wrongdoing and injustice do not necessarily win.

The image of the Birmingham girl, who happens to be of Asian Muslim descent smiling into the face of an aggressive EDL protestor a week ago reminds us of the power of inherent goodness.

She was the same age as one of those whom I mentioned earlier.

Saranda was the teenager who had survived the massacre Kosova that had claimed the lives of almost all of her family.

When she came to tell her story to a packed room of sixth formers seven years later the first question put to her from the floor was ‘Have you forgiven the men who did this to you?’

Without hesitation Saranda replied ‘On a good day I’d like to think I have, on a bad day I know I haven’t. I’d like to live long enough to say that I have for sure.’

The empty tomb tells us many things, yes that death has been overcome.

It also tells us that evil cannot win.

Alongside that is the good news that forgiveness, being forgiven and being able to forgive, is probably the most life-affirming act known to us.

And this is the victory of the one who forgave as he died.

May we forgive, not as we die but as we live.