A Costly Forgiveness

I did not preach today. But if I had, I would have preached something like this:

17 On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18 And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, 19 but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. 20 And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the man who was paralyzed— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 25 And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. 26 And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.” (Luke 5:17-26 ESV)

Early in Luke’s gospel, Jesus forgives the sins of a paralyzed man. And the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the scribes and the Pharisees, are scandalized. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

And Jesus, after forgiving the man who had been lifted down into his midst, turns to the scribes and the Pharisees and he says, “Which is easier to say? Your sins are forgiven, or get up and walk?” And he then commands the paralyzed man to get up and walk. And he does. He grabs his mat and he walks home, free, healed, whole, forgiven, praising God all the way.

It’s a miracle, this forgiveness. And it’s proclaimed long before Jesus is betrayed into the hands of the religious authorities, long before he is tried and tortured and executed by the Romans.

Long before our crucified Lord utters the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We’ve heard this story for so long that we know how it ends. It bores us, this story of Gods’ Son incarnate in our midst, who forgives sins and performed miracles and taught with authority. We know it ends with forgiveness and resurrection. That ending no longer surprises us, no longer shocks, no longer amazes, no longer fills us with awe and wonder.

We yawn. Of course it ends that way, we say. We’ve told this story our whole lives. Our parents told it, and theirs, and theirs, and theirs, farther back than almost any of us can remember. We are the inheritors of a whole civilization — of law and order and power — built on that forgiveness, those miracles, that empty tomb, his commands to follow and make disciples.

Of course it ends that way. How else can it end?

We are entirely too complacent and self-satisfied about this story. We’ve told it so long we’ve forgotten what it really says and the power it really has. We’ve so focused on the civilization this story breathed into existence and its trappings, great and small, that we’ve lost sight of the story itself.

And in doing so, we’ve made forgiveness cheap. We’ve come to expect it. Even demand it. Of course God forgives us. That’s what God does. All is right with the world when those are wronged somehow forgive those who wrong them. After all, We’re the good and decent people God has forgiven. Whatever we confess with our lips, this — we are the good and decent people that God loves and forgives — that’s what we truly believe.

That’s how we truly live.

But we miss — we completely miss — the cost of that forgiveness. Jesus came into the world, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, and got nothing but heartache. “Only God can forgive,” say the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus heals the paralytic to show not that he can heal, but to show that he has been given the authority to forgive sins.

And for this, the scribes and the Pharisees and the Romans and the crowds eventually call for his death. And they kill him.

Because he forgives.

Even in the act of dying, of being murdered by the state and its brutal authority, Jesus proclaims forgiveness.

This is a costly forgiveness. Bought at a price. A bloody and brutal price.

And make no mistake, the hands covered in blood are ours. We have betrayed him, abandoned him, mocked him, called for his death. We have beaten him, flogged him, humiliated him, tortured him, compelled him to walk to his place of execution, nailed him to that cross, demanded he prove himself God and save himself. We followed and wailed and did nothing. We are not innocent. We are not good people. We have done all these things.

We do not deserve to be forgiven. We deserve a God who would smite us or drown us or reduce us to dust. God once looked upon a world full of wickedness, regretted that he had ever made humanity, and blotted out damn near every living thing on the face of the earth.

Yet, we are forgiven. The one who we have murdered — God as flesh in our midst, light from light, true God from true God — forgives us. We, who are killing him, are forgiven.

We do not deserve it. We are not good people. We are wicked and sinful, with murder and hate in our hearts. And we struck God dead. Because he spoke these words of forgiveness.

But we are forgiven. We, who betrayed, and abandoned, and killed him, we who ran and hid, we who gawked and did nothing, we are forgiven. We who are law and order and power are forgiven.

It is not cheap, this forgiveness. Because it strips bare any notion we are innocent. To be forgiven is to be reminded that we are judged and condemned. Remember that. It puts the lie to our favorite confession, that we are the good and decent people that God loves and forgives. We are not. Only one is innocent.

And we put him to death because of that.

No, we don’t deserve this forgiveness. And we should not expect it. Not given who we are. Not given what we do.

But we are forgiven. The God whose betrayal, arrest, torture, and murder we so readily arranged and took part in does not stay dead. And he comes to us — all of us — and says, “you are mine; follow me.” He shows his wounds, the wounds we eagerly inflicted upon him, and says, “I am risen. Do not doubt, but trust. Go and share the good news!”

The women and men who met the risen Lord, and lived into their forgiveness, who preached and taught and traveled, who lived and died this good news, built this civilization that so paradoxically allows us to forget who we are. What we did to God. And how God responds to us.

Sometimes, though, we are reminded. Sometimes events reach through the fog of law and custom and culture and force us to see who we are. To see who our suffering, crucified God is. And to remind us, really remind us, that for all our wretchedness, for all we have done, we are forgiven. We don’t deserve it. But we are forgiven.

Respond to that gift with awe and wonder. With grace and forgivness. Knowing how it was bought. Remembering the part you played in it, as one unworthy of the Lord you helped put to death. Forgive, as you are forgiven. Remember the cost, and forgive.

Love your enemies, and forgive them, remembering that Jesus speaks not of an abstraction, of people far away across the sea who may mean you harm. He spoke to a people who were conquered and occupied, whose enemies lived in their midst, commanding and compelling, beating, and raping, and killing. Who dealt with those enemies every day. Because, all too often, that’s what law and order and power means.

If you don’t see your enemies in your midst like that, then consider — you might be the enemy someone has to love, to be blessed when you curse, prayed for when you abuse, turned the other cheek to when you slap, handed both coat and tunic to when you demand. Consider this costly forgiveness, that it’s yours, given freely to you, and let it change who you are.

Let it change how you live.

Do not be the kind of person who needs to be met and resisted with this kind of love. Lay down your power and your privilege and live as someone God has called to truly inherit the earth. Live as someone Jesus speaks words of blessing to, and not woe. God is merciful and kind even to the ungrateful and the evil, makes the rain to fall upon the just and the unjust. It better, however, to be kind, to be just. To forgive, as you are forgiven.

So be merciful. You helped kill God, and you deserve to drown, to perish so utterly the world would never know you existed. And yet, he has come to you in your fear and terror and shown you his wounds and you have been given new life. You met him in the teaching of the word and the breaking of bread. He still claims you. You are still his.

You have been forgiven. So take up your mats. And walk.

11 thoughts on “A Costly Forgiveness

  1. Earlier today I happened to be looking at a comment I made years ago (something I rarely do) in a discussion about whether horror stories are necessarily demoralizing, or whether they can have an edifying effect. I quoted Peter’s warning (in the 1st epistle): “Be sober! Be on the alert! Your adversary the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour. Resist him, being firm in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are being faced by your brothers and sisters in the world. ”

    Then I explicated:

    ‘That is much like the themes of most of the sort of “horror” stories which interest me. They are stories which force the reader or viewer to shake off the lazy inattentiveness of everyday life, and to realize that there is far more at stake than the trivia which seem so important in the mundane moment. We were “bought with a price”, and sometimes in return we are expected to pay a price ourselves in service and gratitude. Grace is free, but it is not cheap. That paradox is hard to get across in the mostly safe and comfortable societies of the West. In the first century Roman Empire, Peter’s simple exhortation was enough. Everyone knew the dangers facing them in a harsh and brutal culture.’

    Maybe it’s silly to quote myself, but anyway I thought there was some resonance with what you have expressed so very well above.

  2. Bonhoeffer said
    “Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake. Therefore, human love seeks direct contact with the other person; it loves him not as a free person but as one whom it binds to itself. It wants to gain, to capture by every means; it uses force. It desires to be irresistible, to rule. Human love has little regard for truth. It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the beloved person.

    Unlike spiritual love, which serves others, human, unregenerate love is idolatrous. “This is why human love becomes personal hatred when it encounters genuine spiritual love, which does not desire but serves. Human love makes itself an end in itself. It creates of itself an end, an idol which it worships, to which it must subject everything. It nurses and cultivates an ideal, it loves itself, and nothing else in the world. Spiritual love, however, comes from Jesus Christ, it serves him alone; it knows that it has no immediate access to other persons.”

    Spiritual love serves and continues when it is thwarted, as in by an enemy. Today I can’t help but feel a little bitter perhaps, as I might be one of the few people on Facebook who does not regard the acceptance of same sex marriage as some huge progress. Peoples love for one another is so sentimental. They imagine that if they approve of others or have some affection for them that they really “love” them.

    Maybe I’m just bitter and need a word of encouragement. I do not at all feel that same sex marriage reaches some zeitgeist of lovingness.

    Also, have you heard of the Clergy project? What do you think pastors ought to do if they no longer believe in Jesus?

    • Well, if one is a pastor in a church that confesses Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord, then if you don’t believe in Jesus, you have no business being a pastor anymore. I don’t have a problem with “recovering clergy” working things out together. But if you don’t believe, you cannot confess, and confession is central to who we are. I don’t know you could preside at worship, proclaim forgiveness, or consecrate elements. That’s just fraud.

  3. Laurie: Your post reminds me of “The Four Loves” by C. S. Lewis. I have them on cassette from back in the 80s (and of course originally recorded decades before that, since Lewis died in ’63), one of the few long recordings left to us in Lewis’s voice. I keep meaning to transfer them to mp3. To anyone today, they would sound like stuffy, old-fashioned lectures by a self-important bachelor Oxford don – which, of course, is exactly what they are. But he was a wise old Oxonian. His distinction between Agape and Eros sounds very much like what you quote from Bonhoeffer.

    I thought that the court decision on SSM was inevitable – 99% sure that it come down this week the way it did. I am not completely unsympathetic with its proponents. My youngest son is gay, and had been hoping for this outcome. It makes sense in today’s culture. It is of course based on the (unwritten) ‘true-love’ amendment – the principle that (romantic) true love is the purest of virtues, and the only path to lasting happiness, and anyone who stands in its way is an ugly old troll who deserves to be smashed with a troll hammer. Once popular culture accepted the lemma that gay love qualifies as true love, this ruling was a done deal.

    There are plenty of doubters about the true-love principle on the cynical left, who prefer to substitute some quasi-Freudian* idea that indulging one’s lusts is the only path to happiness-in-the-moment (or other variations). Dissenters from a conservative or Christian POV are very weak in this culture. How many pastors (even conservative evangelical ones) would dare quote Bonhoeffer’s words above at a wedding? A few, probably. Not many. Not if they’re looking for repeat business from the same families.

    Chares: Re: “a church that confesses Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord” – In this college-town culture-war-battleground town I live in (in reality, the college has long since won the war), you either believe the world was created in 7 days (of 24 hours, 0 minutes, 0 seconds each) our you are a unitarian (in effect). [More likely you think religion is a drag, with the possible exception of Yoga – if there are hot babes/dudes in the class.] The mainline churches probably have some members who take the creed and the lordship of Christ seriously, but they would be looked on as odd ducks, and if their opinions ever got in the way of anything Important or ever made anyone else feel Uncomfortable, they would be smashed with a troll hammer. This is one main reason I don’t go to church.

    *[Freud never said any such thing. He believed happiness was unattainable, and that, in order to live a productive life, one should learn to stifle oneself consciously, rather than unconsciously.]

    • Doug, I fear you are right when it comes to church. Which is pity. Because one cannot be “orthodox” without being an idiot to boot. I’d like to believe confessional orthodoxy combined with humility (what Stanley Hauerwas asks for) is possible, a humility that confesses truth BUT does not insist upon arranging the world that way. Maybe that’s just because I went to seminary and still, despite it all, have stars in my eyes.

      And yes, I’m planning on writing something about the SCOTUS decision. (That’s an ugly term, but I’ll use it.)

      • That’s well said – confessional orthodoxy (of a sort anyway — I guess some of my views are cranky) combined with humility. And cranky or not, I do not insist on reordering the world. Can’t be done anyway. Not by human strength. I admire the Calvinist nerve in standing up to the old regimes and writing themselves permission slips to order the world, and in fact much of the way the modern world is (good and bad) derives from their efforts. But nothing like that can be done again (except maybe post-catastrophe) because everyone knows that the Puritan will, though often benign and cleansing at first, turns out insufferable and hypocritical prigs after 3 or 4 generations. Sometimes sooner. In today’s world maybe immediately. I don’t know whether I’ll ever finish that comment I promised (I wrote a page, which didn’t get anywhere significant yet). Let me try to express it briefly. [Stop laughing!]

        I think exile and occupation are both valid aspects of the Church’s situation – it is not entirely wrong, and expresses something true to the faith to say “this world is not my home”, sojourner, stranger in a strange land, etc. And I will add without proof (as they say in the bad math books) my opinion that occupation has something to do with sin as exile did. C. S. Lewis used the term occupation in Mere Christianity (the radio talks during WWII), and also I think the Perelandra series (at least implied). And he emphasized that, from the point of view of Christianity, England was just as much occupied territory as France; for that matter, so was Germany. We are up against occupying powers and principalities more sinister and powerful than the Nazis. He may have been wrong, but I don’t think it is pietism to hold that view. It is compatible with the most ardent activism. But God must win the battles, we can’t. That was the Reformation view (*before* it became Protestantism in the sense you condemn), and there has hardly been a doctrine more revolutionary in it’s effect. At least in Western Europe. Co-opting by the German Princes (and the 30 Years War) drained the juice out of the Reformation in Central Europe.

        So what are we to do? [Was that the name of a book by Lenin?] God goes before us, knows the strategy, and wins the battle. And we follow. We fight in our own way. But the fight which matters for us is not to be little Gods (horrible idea!). We are to be the called and faithful. We do whatever little thing comes to us as best we can, expressing the Spirit in faith, hope and love as best we can. We will never know how much or little it contributes to fulfilling the grand plans of God. But everything good in life – every good possibility in family, society, friendship, art, etc. – depends on those little efforts of ours, as grace is poured over them by the love of God.

        I think we risk wandering over into very dangerous ground if we claim that the gospel is more FOR some people than for others. [We could postulate some abstract ‘elect’, but that is not the point here.] Jesus became exasperated with the rich, but the poor also got on his nerves. He was even more exasperated with the rabbis and priests, many of whom were sincerely trying to seek out and do God’s will – that is precisely why he was so exasperated with them, because they were doing it all wrong! He was maximally exasperated with his own disciples on his last night of human life.

        Even Donald Trump is poor and occupied. Why do you think he keeps looking for a job in politics, reality TV, anything…? The poor guy. If he has had his reward in this world, I don’t envy him for it.

        I don’t mean to minimize the terrible sufferings of so many who are vulnerable. But the suffering cannot be enumerated or classified. Many of the worst things happen far even from our imaginations, in the dark corners of the world hidden from our awareness. But not hidden from God.

        It makes sense to reach out to the powerless, the widow and orphan, the murdered whose blood cries for justice, the despised and the rejected. But what can we offer them? Some may still want well-meaning friends and social services. Others have had enough. Only God can help them out of despair, forgive them, justify them, sanctify them, transform them. Make them children of God. Make them giborim milchamah – those who are mighty in the battles of the LORD. In Christ there is no rich or poor, no Jew or Greek [Greek = Roman = occupier]. We are equally guilty, equally bereft, equally children of the promise by adoption. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.


      • Uhhh … which is the ugly term – SCOTUS or decision? Or writing? Or planning? All kind of unnerving. I’m pretty sure SCOTUS (like POTUS and the rest) originated as an abbreviation used by telegraphers in the later 19th century. They had lots of them.

      • BTW, in the my long comment above on occupation etc, I used the expression LORD [supposed to be small capitals]. That practice is a pet peeve of mine. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one.) It is crucial in the Hebrew Scriptures that God has a specific name. (maybe several, or many, but one above all others) Speaking the name eventually became taboo, to be replaced by Adonai or ha-Shem, depending on the situation. I’m for ending the taboo, for Christians, at least. We should read the tetragrammaton as a name. One Jewish writer, in a book on the prophets, used the name Jehovah; he said it was quite convenient – it was not the correct pronunciation, so it was not forbidden, but close enough to give the real flavor of the original intention of the texts. I say amen to that! If we are not sure enough about Yahweh to use it consistently, then let us revert to Jehovah (which I think was in the original KJV, or some edition not long after). We do not serve some generic LORD. We serve the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who brought Israel out of Egypt. The first commandment is to know that that very particular being is the one we worship. I shall not want, because YaHWeH is my shepherd!

    • Well, I love reading old stuffy white men and in some way have found faith through them. I’ve read tons of C.S Lewis and am currently reading LOTR all the way through. My life is actually much more exciting when I imagine theology in the same way as Frodo Baggins carrying a ring to Mordor, pitting a small sliver of goodness and courage against power and evil. The love of reading has been a great gift for me.

      I understand the other side of SSM, and sometimes it gives me pause that so many people I like have taken the other view. I don’t want to be seen as an ugly troll, but the the orthodox position on marriage is really the only one that makes sense to me. I know good women who are raising children on their own, and I can’t help but think how much easier their lives would be if a good man was also helping and I think about the children who come into the world adrift, without the guidance of a man and a woman who love them. Its enough to make me Catholic.

  4. One last word about the SSM amendment: Though Scalia was entirely right that this decision has nothing to do with the constitution (where does it promise ‘equal dignity before the law’?), the way it came about, in conjunction with the troll-hammer smashing Indiana got for it’s ill fated ‘religious rights’ bill (whatever it was called), shows that today’s national culture would undoubtedly support a constitutional amendment to the same effect. When the Vox Populi is that loud, the result is not illegitimate.

    It is far too late to assert traditional values or Christian values in the secular culture, just because they are traditional or Christian. That option is long gone. We have to start over, and will thereby end up (even if Christianity or Christendom triumph) with different traditions and different values. Meanwhile, there’s many a troll hammer twixt cup and lip.

  5. This court decision is very unlike the situation with Roe v. Wade. That seemed to come as a bolt out of the blue, and did not have any sort of Vox Populi consensus behind it. A constitutional amendment enacting the same force of law would not have been possible, then or now. On that issue, medical science has taken over for tradition. Now that preemies can survive from the mid-second trimester or so, and ultrasounds show accurate 3-D depictions of the fetus in action, fewer people have the heart to snip out what are obviously already babies. Except for the small but growing number who don’t mind killing babies after birth, like the Spartans did.

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