Sunday, January 14, 2007

Beginning with Forgiveness

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” Amen. John 2:11

As you may have been reminded by our opening hymn, tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I was not quite one year old when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. (To save you time doing the math: that means I’ll be 40 this year). While I’ve read a number of King’s writings and something of the history of his life and the Civil Rights movement that inspired him, what usually comes to mind when I think of Dr. King is the haunting lyrics of the U2 song, Pride (In the Name of Love).

In the name of love, one man in the name of love
In the name of love, one man in the name of love
Early morning, April 4, shot rang out in a Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life. They could not take your pride

In the name of love, one man in the name of love
In the name of love, one man in the name of love

Now, as a theologian and poet, Bono far surpasses my abilities (he also sings better than I do!). But I do take issue with the word “pride” as used here. While it works better musically, theologically and morally I think what is at stake in Dr. King’s witness, and in ours, is not pride, but dignity. Dr. King’s dignity was rooted not in pride, but in humility: in his ability to see himself and others as no more, and no less, than human. It was his sense of the inalienable dignity of every human being, created in God’s image, that compelled him to live a life of sacrificial service in the name of love.

For it was in the name of the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ that Dr. King advocated for the dignity of every human being. This love embraces all, regardless of race, creed, gender, class, sexual orientation or any other distinction used to divide and discriminate among the children of God. Dr. King challenged the human tendency to define people in or out of the circle of God’s embrace based on some idea of purity. It is not that we must be pure (racially, sexually, or otherwise) for God to love us. Rather, it is God’s love that declares us pure, that secures our dignity in spite of ourselves. Nothing can separate us from this love, and thus our dignity is inherent in our humanity.

The significance of the sign that Jesus performed at the wedding feast in Cana has to do precisely with challenging the human and religious preoccupation with purity. Jesus instructed the servants to fill the stone jars for the rites of purification with water, and they filled them to the brim: between 120 and 180 gallons of water. These stone jars were normally used to contain the water for ritual cleansings, so that people could wash off their impurity. Isn’t that how we normally think about religious rites and institutions, as a container of water to wash off our sin and make us good?

By turning the water into wine – a lot of wine! – Jesus invites us to think about religious rites and institutions in a very different way: as a container for the wine that makes our hearts glad, as a dispenser of joy as we celebrate God’s presence with us. By performing this sign at a wedding banquet, Jesus is pointing to the tradition of the prophets of Israel, who pictured the coming reign of God, the kingdom of justice and peace, as a great wedding feast – an eternal fiesta, if you will. Jesus is inviting us to see God’s presence with us here and now, to join him in celebrating the restoration of a world in which human beings can realize their dignity.

Through this sign act, Jesus is teaching us that the spiritual life is not primarily a matter of purity, but of freedom and joy. He is reminding us that God created us for joy, and in Christ comes to set us free to embrace the joy of being human. Created for joy, we become bogged down by the weight of the world, the power of sin, and our captivity to self. How easily our joy turns to suffering and sadness.

The miracle of turning water into wine is but the sign of an even more profound reality: the gracious love of God that turns our obsession with our own sins and those of others into a joyful celebration of God with us in Christ, restoring our sense of human dignity. With respect to the stone jars, the question isn’t whether they are half empty or half full, but whether they are filled with water or wine. Do we see the spiritual life and our religious practices as an exercise in purification, or as an invitation to the party that God is throwing for us?

It seems to me that this distinction makes all the difference. I believe God is throwing us a party; a come as you are party, and our mission is to invite as many people as possible to share in the joyful celebration. We are, I think, gravely mistaken if we understand the life and ministry of someone like Dr. King as being focused on the sin of racism and the impurity of white supremacists. Rather, Dr. King called all people, black and white, to the party that God is throwing; and in so doing provided a means for both the victim of racism and the white supremacist to realize their dignity as children of God.

There is something a bit scandalous about this seemingly cavalier attitude toward the guest list to God’s party. The idea that people are invited without any preconditions, the idea that they don’t have to change beforehand or prove themselves worthy of the honor, is still very, very suspect. It ultimately got both Jesus and Dr. King killed. The Episcopal Church today is being torn apart over this idea.

The criticism leveled against Jesus and Dr. King is that this attitude is morally reckless, that it amounts to saying, “anything goes.” Let just anybody come to the party, and pretty soon nobody will want to come. That is the fear. The fear, however, is rooted in a sad misunderstanding about the nature of God, whose property it is always to have mercy, and the nature of humanity, which can never justify itself before God because God has already accepted us. In the game of forgiveness, God has beaten us to the punch.

St. Paul got it so right when he wrote that “rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:7-8)

“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ . . . For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Eph. 2:4-5, 8-10)

We begin from the place of forgiveness, confronted by a God who loves us and invites us to party with him forever: not the kind of party that is simply a diversion from life, a way of tuning out reality; but a real celebration of the joy of being fully alive and truly free and unconditionally loved.

James Alison describes this way of beginning with forgiveness, noting that “forgiveness precedes confession. And the form that forgiveness takes in the life of a person is contrition, that is, a breaking of heart, a deep shift in attitudinal patterns of the sort: ‘Oh my God, I thought I was doing something good, or at least normal, and only now do I begin to see what I was doing was deeply sinful against God and profoundly hurtful to my neighbour, and thus of myself. I must undo in so far as I can what I have done wrong, and make sure never to do it again.’ This breaking of heart is eventually received as an extraordinary gift, that of being given to be someone else who I didn’t know myself to be and who is much bigger and more splendid than what I took myself to be. The actual verbal confession, the apology, or the asking of forgiveness, comes way down the line, and is usually a sign that the person is already receiving forgiveness.”[1]

We begin by accepting the invitation to the party. We start with the fact that we are already loved by God beyond our wildest imagining. It is only later, in light of that love, that we begin to see the ways in which we and the world fail to express and honor the dignity of one so loved. This realization provokes a breaking of heart, an opening up of compassion for ourselves and others. The result is an enormous sense of gratitude for being invited to the party, and the desire that everyone might join with us in the celebration.

This is what Dr. King understood so well and why he insisted that even the white supremacist must be loved. King held open the possibility that by God’s grace, love could move even a cold-hearted segregationist like Bull Connor to contrition. King also held open the possibility that, by grace, Connor’s victims could see themselves, in Alison’s words, “as a recipient of forgiveness: in short, not someone who is primarily a victim and secondarily a forgiver, but someone who is primarily forgiven, and for that reason capable of being a forgiving victim for another, without grasping onto that or being defined by it. This is a huge emotional and spiritual task,” Alison admits, “but without it we will not, I think, understand the salvation which we are receiving from Christ.”[2]

This is a huge spiritual challenge: coming to believe that everyone is invited to the party that God is throwing for us; perhaps especially for those of us who have been told that we are not welcome at the party. First we must come to accept and rejoice that we are invited. And then, in time, we must come to accept and rejoice that our enemies are invited too, forgiving them from the heart without resentment. This is true joy and true freedom, to discover ourselves not only loved, but defined solely by that love, and not by the harms we have done or received. That is when the party really starts!

Jesus has turned the water of purification, the way of being religious that is defined by sin, into the wine of rejoicing, the way of being religious that is defined by forgiveness. He is welcoming us to the great wedding banquet, the eternal party that we celebrate at this table. I hope you will accept the invitation. The party is way more fun with you, than without you! Amen.

[1] James Alison, “re-imagining forgiveness” in On Being Liked, p. 36.

[2] Alison, pp. 37-38,

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