forgiving, forgiven (two)

Each week when we gather for a conversation about forgiveness in Christian community we read scripture together and discuss readings that we have read in preparation for our time together. As part of that preparation I offer a page with selections from the readings as well as with some questions to stimulate our discussion. Here is the worksheet for our discussion this week, session two ...

* Read Psalm 51. Which verse(s) resonate with your life/heart/soul? Which verse(s) seem dissonant to you?
“Psalm 51 is the best known prayer of confession in the whole Bible. It is the passionate admission that life is a mess. It is an honest, guileless yearning for innocence. The Psalm dares to imagine that even a burdened, trapped person can receive from God a new innocence. The Psalm is identified as David’s prayer after his mess with Uriah and Bathsheba. It could, however, be a prayer of any of us, knowing that we, like David in his guilt, are enmeshed until we can be forgiven. Starting again, as David understood, requires being forgiven. We cannot forgive ourselves, but we must find someone who is willing to forgive and who has authority to forgive .... This open-handed, empty-handed submission is a powerful act, one we mostly resist. What we know from the Bible, however, is that this yielding is the price of a new innocence and freedom. While we hold back, there cannot be real newness ... We will not be forgiven unless we place our life in the hands of another ... It not only costs to ask to be forgiven, as with this voice in the Psalm. It also costs the one who forgives. It costs God to forgive us. Forgiveness is not a causal verdict given by a detached outsider. Forgiveness is rather an entry by God into our guilt and hurt and yearning, to work a newness, begin again with our broken pride and our exposed ache. This is why the gospel is not a statement of easy forgiveness and casual beginning again. That is why, at the center of our good news, is the cross, the reality of Jesus suffering, and God suffering in the life of Jesus, for our new life.”  (Walter Brueggemann, from 'The Gift of a New Chance" in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Westminster John Knox, pp. 350-351)

* When are we able to dare to tell the truth about our need for forgiveness?    
* What is the cost of forgiveness?
* How might the church be a vessel of God’s gift of new innocence to those who are burdened and trapped?

“One Sunday when I was struggling with this, the scripture reading came from the sixth chapter of Luke: “Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.” Now, try as I might, I cannot find a loophole in that. It does not say, “Forgive everyone, unless they’ve said something rude about your child.” And it doesn’t even say, “Just try.” It says, If you want to be forgiven, if you want to experience that kind of love, you have to forgive everyone in your life - everyone, even the very worst boyfriend you ever had - even, for God’s sake, yourself .... And I finally got it. The veil dropped .... She was the one who seemed to have already forgiven me for writing a book in which I trashed her political beliefs; like God and certain parents do, forgiven me almost before I’d even done anything that I needed to be forgiven for. It’s like the faucets are already flowing before you even hold out your cup to be filled. Before, givenness. ” (Anne Lamott from "Forgiveness" in Traveling Mercies, Anchor Books, pp. 134, 136 & 137)

* What is your experience of the relationship between God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness? Is one prior to the other? Is one dependent on the other?

“This suggests that people are mistaken if they think of Christian forgiveness primarily as absolution from guilt; the purpose of forgiveness is the restoration of communion, the reconciliation of brokenness. Neither should forgiveness be confined to a word to be spoken, a feeling to be felt, or an isolated action to be done; rather, it involves a way of life to be lived in fidelity to God’s Kingdom. Baptism provides the initiation into God’s story of forgiving and reconciling love, definitively embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In response, people are called to embody that forgiveness by unlearning patterns of sin and struggling for reconciliation wherever there is brokenness.

That is, forgiveness is at once an expression of a commitment to a way of life, the cruciform life of holiness in which people cast off their “old” selves and learn to live in communion with God and with one another, and a means of seeking reconciliation in the midst of particular sins, specific instances of brokenness. In its broadest context, forgiveness is the way in which God’s love moves to reconciliation in the face of sin. This priority of forgiveness is a sign of the peace of God’s original Creation as well as the promised eschatological consummation of that Creation in the Kingdom, and also a sign of the costliness by which such forgiveness is achieved. In this sense, then, forgiveness indicates the ongoing priority of the Church’s task to offer the endlessly creative and gratuitous gift of new life in the face of sin and brokenness.

Christian forgiveness involves a high cost, both for God and for those who embody it. It requires the disciplines of dying and rising with Christ, disciplines for which there are no shortcuts, no handy techniques to replace the risk and vulnerability of giving up “possession” of one’s self, which is done through the practices of forgiveness and repentance. This does not involve self-denial, not the “death” of selves through annihilation. Rather, it is learning to see one’s self and one’s life in the context of communion.”(L. Gregory Jones in “Embodying Forgiveness”, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1995, p. 5

* What difference, if any, does it make to think of the purpose of Christian forgiveness not as absolution from guilt but as the restoration of communion?

* If Christian forgiveness should not be confined to a word, a feeling or an action but, instead, “involves a way of life to be lived in fidelity to God’s Kingdom” how would you describe what such a life looks like? What are some of the characteristics of a life lived within the story of God’s forgiving and reconciling love? What are signs that a congregation is “unlearning patterns of sin and (is) struggling for reconciliation wherever there is brokenness?”

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