I forgive you: A sermon by The Very Reverend Frank Nelson

Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 23- 26, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

One after the other they came into court, dignified, self-controlled, prepared to speak about what happened that day, and all the subsequent days since then. Under the quiet presiding of the judge, they delivered their prepared statements – most speaking directly to a single man. A man who, for the most part, has a name few care to utter, following the lead of their Prime Minister. Speaking shortly after the shooting at a Christchurch mosque last year which left 51 people dead, she suggested he should not be given the dignity of being named. He was named by a few; but by others he was given a new name, “Coward”.

Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ (Exodus 3:13)

Many of the names of those who spoke in court last week are strange to me – Sazada, Ahmed, Hisham, Rahimi – theirs is a background, religion and culture different to mine. But one man, with the very familiar and biblical name of John, deliberately chose to open his address to the court by quoting a very familiar Maori proverb: “He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.” The people, the people, the people. He was one of the few who chose to use the given name of the man in the dock and addressed him directly about the impact of the death of his fourteen year old son. Not only did John recognise that every single human being is dehumanised by the act of terror committed on 15 March 2019, but he acknowledged the shared humanity even of the prisoner! Incredibly, and astonishingly, given all that had happened, and the long years of continued suffering so many face going into the future, John chose to use the word ‘forgive’. “I have forgiven you Brenton.”

“Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good … bless and do not curse … Beloved, never avenge yourselves … if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink … do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (from Romans 12: 9 – 21)

I cannot imagine what it must have been like for those people to stand in court and offer their victim statements. I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to watch a father, a daughter, a friend gunned down in front of me. I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like to have someone burst into this sacred space and begin randomly killing people – fifty one of them in a single congregation. So how can I imagine being in John’s shoes and using that word, so familiar to us from our weekly ritual of Eucharist/Holy Communion – forgive? It’s there again in today’s services, in this, or a similar form, “Almighty God, who has promised forgiveness to all who turn to him in faith, pardon you and set you free…” Like St Peter, I struggle to lift my thoughts to divine things and, instead, keep them on human things. To me too, I am sure, Jesus will say, “Get behind me, Satan!”(cf Matthew 16:23)

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.

“What is this forgiveness thing?” is a question often asked – sometimes by people who really want to forgive someone but feel there is no remorse on the part of the wrong-doer, no reciprocal opening to re-establish a broken relationship. Perhaps it’s a little like choosing to give or withhold a name. There is a power play at work here. In the Exodus story of the burning bush God chooses to give what is essentially a ‘no name’ – I am who I am! In a culture where knowing someone’s name gave a measure of power to the person knowing the name, God continues to hold the power in the relationship. In effect, God says, “You don’t even know my name. How can you possibly think you can control me, manipulate me?” Yet, of course, that is what we constantly try to do.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.

In court last week, John did use the name of his son’s murderer. In doing so he, John, claimed the power in a different way. He held the higher moral ground. He did not have to give the man his name, but he chose to. Just as, despite the judge saying there were no signs of remorse on the part of the prisoner, John chose to forgive him. In doing so, I suspect John felt a great sense of relief, a lightening of the load of unbearable grief and heaviness. By offering forgiveness John will no longer be defined by the actions of another. In a very real sense, he chose to bear the sins of the other and so rise above them.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.

This idea is at the heart of the Gospel. Listen to the words, not, this time, of St Paul, but of St Peter when he writes: “He (Christ) bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) The betrayal, the cruel mockery, the whipping, the nailing, the taunting on the cross, the death of an innocent man – none of this made sense to those first disciples! How could God allow it? How could God be God and let it happen? And then they stumbled on the writings of Isaiah and those passages known as the Servant Songs. There they read, “He was despised and rejected by others … he has borne our infirmities … was crushed for our iniquities …” (Isaiah 53:3-5) Perhaps it was then that they remembered other words of Jesus, frequently carved into granite stones that serve as memorials to those killed in war: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.

Let me be clear about one thing. No one is saying that forgiveness is easy. And let no one castigate those who so clearly iterated their lack of forgiveness in court last week. Nor should we ever judge someone who is unable to forgive. But we cannot shy away from today’s Gospel reading. And I am not thinking of the harsh words of Jesus to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” No, it is the words in the next paragraph that are so very challenging. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) Let them take up their cross.

This surely is the hardest thing to do? To take up your cross – and follow Jesus. Follow him to the Cross, and through the Cross and then keep on following, taking seriously the words of today’s reading from Romans 12. I am not sure that I have fully grasped all the implications of that yet, but I think John had some understanding of the cross in his mind when he stood up in court in Christchurch and said, “I have forgiven you Brenton.”

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.