The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Luke 7:36-8:3

The six wonders of the Ancient World–the grandest and most awesome of all they were deemed: the pyramids of Egypt; the hanging gardens of Babylon; the statue of Zeus at Olympia; the Temple of Artimis at Ephesus; the mausoleum at Hali-car’-nes-sus; and the Colossus at Rhodes. As to the seventh of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient world,” there have been debates. Some claim it to have been the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Others say it was the walls of Babylon or the palace of Cyrus. I guess you can take your pick.

But if someone were looking for the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World, & perhaps the most “wondrous” of all, surely it would be the forgiveness of Jesus. What a wonder it was, in all its many aspects.

Take for example the paralytic who is lowered on a pallet through a hole punched in the roof by his friends. With chunks of plaster falling on his head, and specks of dust falling into his eyes and mouth and beard, Jesus gazes into the eyes of the paralyzed man, not with consternation or irritation, but with mercy and compassion.

And sizing up the situation and the condition of the man – body and soul – whatever that may have been, Jesus cuts to the chase and declares with authority, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Since, in Jewish thought, only God had the right to forgive sins, that Jesus would do such a thing – make such a pronouncement – bordered on unbridled temerity at best, or blasphemy at worst.

Mind you, this forgiveness of Jesus is granted without so much as a whisper of “confession” on the part of the sick man. It comes forth without any sign of “repentance” or intent to change. Forgiveness is extended without one whit of evidence that the man was sorry for whatever it was he needed forgiveness for. It’s simply given as a matter of grace.

At another point in Gospels, Peter asks Jesus to lay out the limits of forgiveness by asking, “How often should I forgive?” Expecting to hear once or twice at the most, instead Jesus tells Peter to forgive always and forever, –up to “seventy times seven.”

And other examples abound. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the father forgives, not because of the son’s well-constructed confession, or his plea bargain to be a hired hand on the ranch, but because forgiveness is the father’s nature.

In the Gospel according to John, a woman gets caught in the act of adultery (where the man is we’ll never know–probably in the crowd holding a rock.) And Jesus forgives her on the spot. No mention is made of her confessing contrition to Jesus over the act. Nevertheless, she is not condemned but told to go on her way and not to sin again.

Finally, dying in blinding pain, with Roman spit on his face, whipped and jeered and speared and humiliated beyond the pale of human comprehension, deserted by his friends, betrayed by his people – the human family he loved so, Jesus is still able to say, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

If that isn’t a wonder of the world – if that isn’t the greatest wonder of the world – I don’t know what is.

But there’s more. With stones pelting his body, Stephen manifests the forgiveness of Jesus as he prays with a dying breath, “Lord, don’t hold this against them.” Meanwhile, the “officer” presiding over the execution of Stephen – again without the slightest hint of any contrition or remorse on his part – undergoes a roadside epiphany that changes his life forever. On his way to Damascus to arrest still more followers of Jesus, the Risen Christ appears to “Saul,” soon-to-be “Paul.” And what it takes him years to sort out, and what ultimately changes his heart forever, is that Jesus gave him mercy, not justice. Jesus didn’t try to get even with Paul, he forgave him. And then called him to be a servant of grace.

Accepted by grace alone, Paul could go on to work and suffer and die for Christ, and in so doing, count everything else as “rubbish.”

Grace and forgiveness are at work, too, in the story from this morning’s gospel reading. A Pharisee named Simon is giving a dinner party. And among his esteemed guests is the popular and impressive young rabbi, Jesus. Everything is going well until to Simon’s horror, an unexpected guest – a lady of the evening – shows up at his doorstep. And to Simon’s additional horror, she begins to weep at the feet of Jesus.

And with her very tears, the woman washes Jesus’ feet. Her tears are grace, as are most tears. Tears of acceptance in spite of. Tears of dignity returned. Tears of years of self-rejection and numbed guilt were being released. And tears of self-forgiveness and self-love were returning, as God’s grace and love and forgiveness were poured out on her, washing her clean.

“If you, . . then I . . .” is usually the way forgiveness works in our world–when it appears at all. It is other-generated: If you’ll change, if you’re really sorry, if you promise never to do it again, if you make the right amends over the right amount of time, THEN I might get around to forgiving you. Maybe. There are no guarantees. It depends on how you act and how I feel. My self-respect, my offended pride, my value system must be satisfied.

But that is not the forgiveness of Jesus. Did Pilate confess? Did Caiaphas repent? Did Peter say he was sorry? Did Saul lament his wrongness? Did the lynch mob who ended Stephen’s life show any remorse? Of course not. But “Jesus-forgiveness” is not other-generated; it is God-generated.

To forgive in the name of Jesus – in the likeness of Jesus – emerges independent of the attitude of the offending other. That is why the capacity to forgive is also a gift from God. Everything ‘human” in us recoils at such a thought. The eye-for-an-eye grip is simply too strong. It’s entitlements are just too precious to give up.

But there is a severe cost. The legitimate hurt and anger over being wronged, over time, (if we can’t let that go) begins to turn one cold. The chill of resentment glazes over the human heart, and what was meant to be a warm furnace of love becomes instead a deep-freeze of bitterness. An arthritis of the Spirit–& what my friend Barbara Taylor calls “cardiosclerosis” sets in. & Life shrinks, and shrinks, and shrivels. (Life shrinketh and life stinketh.)

So what’s the payoff for unforgiveness? Why is it so popular? Well, the payoff, of course, is that the offended party can stay offended. We can be “right” for the rest of our lives – and further, we can keep others in the wrong for the rest of our lives. We can be justified to the end – unconscious of our own corruption while confidently pointing out others’. Unforgivers, who seem heedless, clueless of our own “debt” to God & the log in our own eye, while keeping impeccable records on the speck in our neighbor’s eye.

Perhaps the most powerful symbol of Jesus-forgiveness – Christian forgiveness – in the modern world rests on what is left of the high altar of the charred remains of Coventry Cathedral, firebombed by the Nazis in World War II. On the altar is set a cross – an unadorned cross of nails – stark, simple, powerful. A cross that makes everybody looking at it stop and be quiet. & Underneath that cross are the words: “Father, forgive.”

Not, “Father, forgive those murderous Nazis,” but simply, “Father, forgive.”
Forgive them.
Forgive us.
Forgive everybody.
Forgive Simon the Pharisee.
Forgive the lady of the evening.
Forgive those of us who live our lives somewhere in between.
Forgive, Father, those who are offended by your unprovoked, unmerited forgiveness.

Forgive us all,
And, in turn, let us forgive all those who have sinned against us.

This we ask, this we pray, in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.