(image from blueeyedennis-siempre.BlogSpot.com)
I am a firm believer that God deals with humanity from a heart filled with compassion and forgiveness – this is the mind, the character, and the will of God in action. And if we could grasp the reality of this, it could have a profound and life-changing effect on each of us.
Unfortunately what we grasp and understand are a different set of values – our human norms of justice. When someone offends or hurts me, I respond by seeking justice. If it is someone who commits a crime against me or my property then I can use law enforcement and the legal system to obtain justice. If it is not a crime but a personal affront then I can find my own way of getting even. We may also pursue means of restitution and compensation for wrongs committed against us and we can certainly demand an apology; all a part of our sense of fairness and justice. AND maybe, if the person has worked hard enough to regain my favor, then I might extend forgiveness.
Simply watch the news or read the paper – there are daily examples of people who are victims of someone else’s negligence or willful malfeasance. One of the stories that strikes at me is the shootings at the Amish one-room schoolhouse of Nickel Mines, PA back in October of 2006. I won’t recount the story to you but simply remind you that the local milk truck driver, Charles Roberts, invaded the school and took 10 little girls hostage. He shot all ten of them killing 5 of them and then committed suicide. It had to have been a horrific scene for the law enforcement agents, the emergency responders, the parents and the community. And it certainly had its impact on Robert’s family as well. Not a single one of us would condemn this community for pursuing justice on behalf of the 10 innocent victims to Robert’s heinous crime.
If you contemplate the scene outside of Jerusalem on the day that Jesus and two thieves were led away to be crucified, you should note that it was a gruesome and horrific event as well. Three bodies were stripped naked and nailed to wooden crosses for the purpose of torture, suffering, and eventual death. I honestly don’t think that any of us understands the vial and grotesque nature of crucifixion as the body struggled to survive while also loosing all control over its functions. This is what Jesus of Nazareth was condemned to experience as recorded by all of the gospels. But in the Gospel According to Luke, the author notes that after being nailed to the cross and hoisted upright, Jesus prays. His words were “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” It was Jesus prevenient prayer for forgiveness – not for himself but for those who murdered him.
Now stop and consider a couple of points with me. First is that every person there knew what they were doing. The Roman soldiers carried out their duties with the precision and efficiency with which they were taught and trained. The Pharisees, scribes and religious leaders had accomplished their mission – to discredit this heretic. The bystanders and thieves who spat at Jesus, cursed and reviled him played their role as well. Even those who mourned for Jesus did so out of their sense of human loss. So, what was it that they did not know they were doing?
The classical Protestant interpretation is that they did not know that they were crucifying the Son of God and the savior of the world. They (Romans and Jews) had participated in the rejection and condemning of the messiah. And yet Jesus prays for their forgiveness.
Reading through the gospel miracle stories it is interesting to me what transpires. People come to Jesus for healing, for release from evil spirits, for a touch that would bless, or to seek resurrection of the dead. No one came to Jesus seeking forgiveness. No one at the base of the cross was seeking forgiveness. And yet in the healing stories Jesus begins with the forgiveness of sins; at the crucifixion Jesus’ first words are a prayer for forgiveness of others. It is a prevenient prayer seeking prevenient forgiveness for his murderers.
In our Wesleyan theology we use the term “prevenient” to remind us that God’s grace comes into our lives before we are aware of it. That we are born into God’s grace and forgiveness; they are in constant operation around us and for us. The Sacrament of Baptism is a means by which God’s prevenient grace is received – especially for those are not able to conceive of it or understand it. The Sacrament of Holy Communion has the same power and effect as a means of grace. We may not know that we need forgiveness; we may not be able to conceive or understand that we need forgiveness but through baptism and communion God gives to us what we do not know we need. And what all of us do not deserve. God’s grants us forgiveness and the power of this forgiveness should drive us to repentance and transformation.
I do think that we have some things backwards in our theology and practice of repentance and forgiveness. We operate under the assumption and practice that we must ask for forgiveness to receive grace. The image is one of God who is standing in the doorway with arms crossed, tapping his toes waiting for us to confess and apologize for our sins. But this image is built upon our human understanding of justice – apology first followed by the granting of forgiveness. I would propose to you that God reverses this – God grants us forgiveness that has the power of love to draw us to repentance and transformation. My biblical witness to this – re-read the story of the father and his two wayward sons (or the Prodigal Son) and re-read the crucifixion accounts focusing on Jesus prevenient prayer – “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
The reason I lift this up is to encourage us to re-think how we deal with human conflict. I want to imitate Jesus Christ in my words and deeds; to live a life that represents his which means that I should learn to operate from a perspective of forgiveness first – justice second. I know that it sounds nearly impossible but consider this living example with me.
The events in Nickel Mines, PA were tragic but the response was filled with grace and hope. Instead of condemning Charles Roberts and his family, the Amish community of Nickel Mines enveloped them in comfort and forgiveness. They journeyed with the Robert’s family as they grieved over his crimes and death. 30 Amish attended Robert’s funeral and one Amish family invited his widow to attend the otherwise private funeral of their family member. The Amish community set up a trust fund for Robert’s wife and children. The Amish family went out of their way to extend forgiveness and comfort as their first response to the loss and tragedy of October 2, 2006.
It may be tough or counter-intuitive but we should learn to do the same. One of the articles on this event noted that their willingness to move beyond the need for justice or restitution did not undo the crime or negate the offense; rather it constituted a first step toward a more hopeful future. When someone offends or hurts you the response of forgiveness does stop the conversation; rather it invites one that will orient us toward a more hopeful future.
So, if you are in conflict with someone because they’ve offended or hurt you – maybe you should forgive them in your heart and say it out loud to them even if they have no idea they need to be forgiven. I do believe that it will open up a line of communication that will lead to a more hopeful future in your relationship.
God listened to the prevenient prayer of Jesus and has granted to each of us his prevenient forgiveness. Take a moment to confess and repent. Now go and grant forgiveness first so that we might take steps toward a future that is more hopeful.
Blessings for the journey.