Sunday, June 21, 2020

Forgiving before the fact

Sermon for the second Sunday after Trinity

After Our Lord, one name dominates the New Testament and it is not St Peter.

St Paul not only features in the Acts of the Apostles, he is credited with the authorship of more books of the Bible than anyone else from the lofty epistle to the Romans to the little epistle written on behalf of of a runaway slave.

Yet, when we first meet him, St Paul - or Saul as he is then - is a persecutor of Christians. 

Saul becomes a Christian: he is saved from his sins. 

What justice is there for those he persecuted?


The fact of the matter is that St Paul is an accessory to murder. He consents to the death of St Stephen; He works to have Christians arrested; he delivers them up to the authorities who will torture and kill them. That means that the guilt of their blood is on his hands. Where is justice for the persecuted? If God forgives St Paul doesn't this make a mockery of the sufferings of those whom he persecuted?


First, we must note that before he is even converted, Saul is forgiven. St Stephen cries out for his forgiveness at the point of death. This is something Christians do. They forgive, and they are ready forgive not for their own psychological benefit but for the good of the person who wrongs them. The Lord's commandments are clear: love means forgiveness. It means abandoning pursuit of personal justice so that God can bring good out of evil. 

St Stephen's murder is not justified. It doesn't somehow become good just because God uses his murder to bring St Stephen home to heaven and to bring Saul to Christ. All sin is abhorrent to God and murder is sin. Yet this is God's victory over sin and evil. This is His victory over the Devil, that the intentions of those who perpetrate evil are thwarted when God brings about something greater. From the death of St Stephen comes the conversion of St Paul. From the conversion of St Paul comes much of the New Testament and, from the witness of the New Testament, more come to Christ. Those who seek to perpetuate evil find that good will spring forth. The trap that they have laid for others, they have fallen into it themselves.

There is only one unforgivable sin and that is to sin against the Holy Ghost. It is the hardened wilful act of denying the truth, calling evil good and good evil. If we refuse to come to God then He, out of love not insisting on its own way, will respect that decision. Saul does not commit the Unforgivable Sin.

But what about justice for the people he persecuted? They may have forgiven Saul, but can we forget? Can the horrendous acts of genocide that we witnessed in the last century be forgiven? Can all that pain and sorrow, that fear and bloodshed, that humiliation, degradation, and pitiless indifference to the humanity of others just be swept away in an act of forgiveness?

If we think God will forget all that misery then we have failed to hear his words to Saul: why persecutest thou Me? When we injure another person, when we hate another person, when we commit any form of inhumanity against any one of our brothers and sisters, we do the same to God Himself in the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Every blasphemous act committed in the Holocaust was as much committed against God as it was against any Jew, any homosexual, any non-conformist, any Roma, any Jehovah's Witness or disabled person.

God's justice is not like our justice. We can only try a criminal, find him guilty and sentence him to be punished. But we cannot make wrong right. We cannot mete out perfect justice. How can we find justice for the millions who suffer because of the actions of one man?

We cannot.

God can.

The best we can do is forgive and ask God to bring about His good in the lives of even the most ardent criminal. In recognising the humanity of criminals, in recognising criminals as our brothers and sister, we stop the Devil's intention to separate us from God and from each other.

This is hard.

But all sin is against God, and God is ready to forgive. The more that we forgive the more that we become like God. And still further, God promises to wipe every tear from our eyes. All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well. 

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