After a hiatus due to traveling that kept me away from the book I am discussing, we return today to N.T. Wright's The Lord and His Prayer and the particular phrase:
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
I used to reach this phrase in the prayer and run through a mental examination of my life in the day – or whatever time had elapsed – since the last time I confessed my sins. The words of 1 John 1:8-10 weighed as a heavy burden in the back of my mind. At times I would agonize over the possibility that I might leave something unconfessed and therefore find myself excluded from grace. This would lead to an exhausting examination of every detail, wondering whether a particular act or thought constituted sin.
At other times I would pass lightly through these words, confessing my sin in broad, general terms without feeling the need to do a thorough examination of my conscience. Now I doubt that Jesus had either of these responses in mind when he gave us this example.
N.T. Wright, not surprisingly, connects these words with the events of Israel's past, reminding us that Israel's oppression and exile were always related to their sins. Therefore, proclamation of forgiveness from sin was to announce freedom and this is precisely what Jesus brought through his life, death and, ultimately, through his victory on the cross. Forgiveness of sins meant not only something spiritual and existential, but something real and tangible. It meant walking, or seeing, or even rising from the dead.
It meant sharing bread and wine – partying – with those whom “spiritual” people consider outcasts.
"Healings, parties, stories and symbols all said: the forgiveness of sins is happening, right under your noses. This is the new Exodus, the real Return from Exile, the prophetic fulfilment, the great liberation. This is the disgraceful Advent of our astonishing God."
As those who have received and who daily or regularly receive once again this forgiveness from God, who now participate in the freedom of life in Jesus, we are rightfully called to reflect that same forgiveness to others. We cannot expect forgiveness for ourselves while withholding it from others. Not to extend forgiveness to others would mean, as Wright says, that we haven't really grasped what is going on.
"The only reason for being Kingdom-people, for being Jesus' people, was that the forgiveness of sins was happening; so if you didn't live forgiveness, you were denying the very basis of your own existence."
Forgiveness is a key part of the life of a Jesus-follower. It is central not only to the personal, individual life of faith, but crucial to the very life and message of God's people, the Church. Without receiving the forgiveness of God ourselves AND extending that forgiveness to one another and to the world, we cut ourselves off from the very grace by which we claim to live. Our practice of forgiveness should draw people to this astonishing God who practices forgiveness freely and abundantly.
"The church is to embody before the world the disgraceful, glorious, shocking and joyful message of the arrival of the King. When the world sees what the Church is doing, it ought to ask questions to which the proper answer would be a story about a father running down the road to embrace his disreputable son."
Now, ever-so-slowly, I am changing my understanding and practice of this phrase. Yes, I still need to examine my heart for the personal trespasses of any given day: the anger toward another, the overeating at lunch, the bad attitude toward my boss. But I also strive to allow God's Spirit to show me where I have failed to be an ambassador of his Kingdom on a larger scale, such as how I have perpetuated a lifestyle of privilege and indulgence that harms his world and my fellow humans, or how I have failed to love those who I find unlovable. At the same time I ask God to help me forgive, to truly set free, those who have wounded and hurt me, those who by their actions or inactions have placed me in a position of bondage through my own anger, hurt or other woundedness.
I'm still figuring out what this looks like in practice. I have found this chapter in Wright's book the most difficult to work out in practical terms. But two thoughts he shares in closing make a good starting point.
"It is our birthright, as the followers of Jesus, to breathe in true divine forgiveness day by day..."
"As we learn what it is like to be forgiven, we begin to discover that it is possible, and indeed joyful, to forgive others."
How have you experienced the connection between forgiveness and freedom?