We have begun our fall mid-week evening gathering. At University Hill Congregation this has come to mean an open invitation to dinner at Janet's home. Janet lives in a home that reminds me of a prairie farm house. It is full of love with a table that can extend and extend and extend to make room for as many as arrive for dinner. The living room is a circle of couches and chairs, each with a blanket to cozy under if needed. Janet prepares a main dish with others often bringing a salad or some wine or dessert. As we do not own a church building we have grown accustomed to meeting in each others' homes. Over the years Janet's home has become our second home, a kind of "UHill annex".
By 7:30 dinner is over and all have arrived and we begin ninety minutes of conversation intended to inform and aid our formation as apprentices of Jesus and his way. This fall the conversations open up the challenge of Jesus' command that his disciples seek and practice forgiveness. On seven Thursdays we will host biblical passages along with articles and sermons that speak about Christian practices of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the curriculum this fall as a result of a sermon that hosted and proclaimed the story found at John 20:19-31. It was the Sunday after Easter Sunday this year. The text famously ends with the story of Thomas and his doubts. But on the way to that famous ending Jesus charges the church with a huge ministry - the ministry of forgiveness. In the sermon (the one posted here as A New Beatitude) I found myself saying this:
Then he says it again: “Peace be with you”. This is odd. Haven’t they
heard it the first time? Do they need to pass the peace of Christ again?
Except this time he says more: “As the Father has sent me, so I send
you.” Now the peace is not simply a comfort, a healing, an assurance.
Now the peace is a sending, a commissioning, a calling. The disciples
are sent in the same way that Jesus has been sent. They are sent to the
world. We are sent by the Father. Then Jesus breathes on them. Yes, he
breathes on them - he breathes new life into them for the task at hand.
Then he says “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any,
they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are
retained.” It is John’s version of Pentecost. Here, at Easter, the
church is inspired, commissioned, sent. Jesus’ life breath becomes the
life force of the church. Jesus' self-giving in forgiveness becomes the
church’s reason for being. The church as bearer and agent of forgiveness
in the world. Really? Wow. But how will the church - how will we - know
when to give, and when to retain, forgiveness?
It is a big question. One that the church too often rushes past, sure
that this cannot be our task. Yet the command to forgive and to live the
way of God’s forgiveness cannot be ignored. When Jesus arrives on the
scene John the Baptist announces: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away
the sin of the world.” Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, saying:
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” He eats
with the unforgiven, the outcast, the sinner as a sign of God’s amazing
grace. He lifts the cup and says “This is my blood of the covenant,
which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Now, here, at
Easter, Jesus sends the church on God’s mission of forgiveness, charged
with giving and retaining the mercy of God. But how? This is the most
difficult pastoral conversation I have in my ministry. You come, one by
one, to wrestle with the problem of forgiveness in your lives, your
families, your work, this nation. Forgiveness is not a simple
calculation. It does not happen overnight. The obstacles to
reconciliation seem overwhelming. We would sooner forget than sort out
how to forgive. But the gospel is clear. The good news is all about
forgiveness, the forgiveness of God met in Jesus Christ. If there is one
thing that the church should know about, should be practised at, should
understand in depth it is the work of forgiveness. This is the reason
that our weekly study in the fall will take us into an exploration of
forgiveness in the Bible and in our lives. We owe it to ourselves, to
the gospel, to our neighbours to be a people who are practiced in the
ways of forgiveness. It is our calling. Jesus says it clearly: “As the
Father has sent me, so I send you.”
To be honest, I wasn't at all sure what shape a weekly conversation about forgiveness would take and I had not sought anyone's wisdom on naming this as the subject matter for our time together. I simply knew that it is the faithful thing to do. I recall many heads nodding "yes" as I made this commitment. Then, this month, I saw the large number of people who signed on as participants in the discussion and knew that my intuition was correct. In some ways I wonder how it could have taken me so long in ministry before I stumbled on to such an obvious subject. Well, that is not totally true. We have been working on this over the years, especially in relation to the issues of broken relationships that have resulted from the church's involvement in Canada's Indian Residential Schools. But this seven session conversation about the Christian practice of forgiveness is something new for me and for us.
Part of my commitment to the group and to the congregation is to post summaries of our weekly discussions here so that everyone in the congregation can listen in to the conversation and, if it seems good, to post a comment, a question or an experience of forgiveness as part of the dialogue. Tomorrow I will post a summary of our first conversation.