Once again Jesus is preaching the gospel of forgiveness… a lesson he repeats in parables and miracles, in word and deed right up to his final prayers offered from his final altar. From the torment of the cross, Christ cries out: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. In that single sentence, Jesus scales the heights of love… in forgiveness. And he plumbs the depths of sin… in ignorance.
The term “unconditional love” has come into broad use over the last several years. But attaching the modifier “unconditional” is a gross redundancy… because, quite simply, if it ain’t unconditional, it ain’t love. It may be admiration or attraction. It may be a sentimental soft spot. You can even throw in romance. And it still isn’t love, if it’s not unconditional. As St. Paul famously tells us, love is a litany of many lovely things, but “conditional” is not one of them. In calling for forgiveness from the cross, Christ’s love is clearly as pure and intense … as “unconditional”… as love ever gets.
For they know not what they do: plainly identifies ignorance as the source of the immediate evil that brought Jesus to the cross. That ignorance is not a lack of intellectual firepower. It is a willful ignorance of God’s will. It is being purposely oblivious to God’s love made flesh in Jesus. The divine Jesus could see his sacrifice reverberating down the centuries. He could see every sin and every sinner that ever was or ever will be. But the human Jesus had a more limited view. He was face to face with blind hatred. He stared into brutish eyes caught-up in the evil exaltation of the moment. They stared back at the Messiah, the son of God and all they saw was an object for their sadistic amusement. It was pure ignorance-induced evil that tragically keeps repeating itself over the course of human history. Thirteen years ago this past week, ignorance and evil came crashing home to America and slaughtered 3,000 of us at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. So while the memory of the blow is still relatively fresh, this is a good time to re-visit forgiveness and the central role it plays in our lives.
Every now and then the liturgical calendar, history’s calendar and our own emotional calendars are precisely in synch. That’s what is happening now. The anniversary of 9/11is linked to a gospel that reminds us that we must forgive if we are to be forgiven. Even after all these years, the pain of 9/11 remains… intense for those closest to the victims, a dull ache for those of us further removed. Jesus reaches out to us from this gospel to take our pain… if not with an instant remedy, surely with a sound road to recovery.
As Christ demonstrates over and over, forgiveness is the essence of Christian love. It is not restricted to overlooking petty faux-pas or even gross insults. Forgiveness is the transcendent courage to absorb a despicable blow without being consumed by a blood lust for revenge. Forgiveness is not a largesse we dispense by power of our innate superiority. It is the grace of God transmitted through us. It is the ultimate witness of Christ’s love in the world.
But don’t be confused. Forgiveness is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for perpetrators. Civil justice should be tempered, not eliminated, by Christian love. God has not issued an easy-pass for evil in the world to benefit the bad guys. We are the principle beneficiaries of our forgiveness, both in this world and in the next. We can choose to spend our lives obsessed with settling scores with terrorists, with rivals, with noisy neighbors, with line jumpers, with the wise guy in the other lane or even within our own families. Life presents us with infinite opportunities to constantly get even or to forgive seven times seventy. We can live in love or we can live in hate. Both are transformative forces. We become the sum of what we value. With God’s grace, we can embrace forgiveness and live in his love. Or we can become the evil that obsesses us. The choice is ours. From painful personal experience, love is better.
You can’t fake forgiveness. It’s a hard road. Our primal instincts reject it. We have to work at it… to pray on it… to commit to it, even when our instincts repeatedly keep rejecting it. It is a long painful process, not a shake and bake solution. It requires muscles built by the rigorous exercise of living in Christ’s love. But we have no useful option. We are not being advised to forgive by our therapist. We are being commanded to forgive by our Lord and Savior. And lest there be any room for confusion, our loving, forgiving, merciful God puts it plainly. We can forget about our own forgiveness: Unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart. Forgive and be forgiven. That is the essential Christian quid pro quo, the antidote for all the ignorant evil in the world… our formula for forgiveness.
The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.
“September 11 Photo Montage” Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons