Sunday, April 17, 2011

On Receiving and Believing Forgiveness

What are the most significant words ever spoken?

Maybe, "Let there be light."

Or perhaps, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness."

Of course you would only believe these words to be truly significant if you believed that the Creator of all things actually did speak them, and that this was in fact effective speech. That, in truth, it was God who said, "Let there be light," and then there was light!

If you don't believe all that, fine. You might still consider the words significant (in a sociological way), but perhaps no more so than, say, the kama sutra. Words, any words, take on a certain power, a certain effectiveness, when they are believed. Even when a lie is believed, it effects things. This is something demagogues understand well. And obviously the demagogue (or any commonplace liar) is only believed because we have mistakenly deemed him or her worthy of our trust. See, what we think about the one speaking will have a great deal to do with how we receive the words spoken.

But if God had never said, "Let there be . . .", there would never have been a universe in which demagogues could mislead people. That's another level of effectiveness entirely.

But getting back to the original question, here's another candidate for most significant.
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
These words were spoken by Jesus of Nazareth while he was being nailed, hands and feet, to a wooden stake by Roman soldiers, almost exactly 2000 years ago.

But what didn't they know they were doing? They knew, certainly, that they were killing a man. This was an officially sanctioned execution. What they didn't know, I think, was who the man was that they were murdering.

Remember, these words are the more significant if they are truly effective. And their effectiveness rests, to a great extent, on who Jesus was (and is) and why he allowed himself to go to that stake. If, in fact, he is the Son of God, and if his purpose is what the Bible says it was, these are words then which have a similar effectiveness to "Let there be light," or, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness."

Jesus is opening the door, from the agony of the cross, to a new creation. He is saying, in essence, "Let there be . . ." all over again. He is saying, "Let the image in which we created them--even these who are crucifying me--be restored."

Magnificent words. Significant words. Amazing to think they were spoken over those men who were in fact at that point carrying out his brutal execution.

But again, there is another side to this coin of significance. If the significance of these words is to be realized, the words must be believed. Believing is what makes influential communication possible, but not all acts of communication are worthy of belief.

These words of Jesus, though, are fundamentally worthy, because Jesus is worthy. Because Jesus is who he is, his words do what the do.

But here's the rub. There seems to be something in us, something in our nature, something deeply ingrained in us, that reacts against these words of Jesus. I am speaking now of believers, people who call Jesus Lord. Yet, who have trouble believing themselves forgiven. Believing that the words of Jesus are in fact effective for them.

Someone can write a book, and maybe should, about why this is so. But I have no doubt of the remedy. We should frequently remind ourselves of who Jesus is and what he has done. We should remind ourselves that this was always the plan of God, even before he said, "Let there be. . . . " God is effective. He speaks, and things happen. He brings to pass his will, and cannot be denied, and it is his will to restore his creation, and even its pinnacle, man, to what he had intended. And he has chosen to make this happen through forgiveness, offered and received.

It is the season now to remember this. Something lifts from the shoulders of the forgiven man or woman. Something that had clouded his vision is removed. Something that had hindered her steps is taken away.

One of my favorite people in the Bible is a Roman centurion who had taken part in the execution of Jesus. This man, who must have seen a lot of dying in his day, saw the way Jesus died and heard the words Jesus spoke even in the midst of his agony (and, we might add, saw the effects that his death precipitated in the very creation) and it caused him to believe something shocking: "Surely this man was the Son of God!" [see Matt. 25:54]

Note, he did not say, ah, so now I am forgiven. He said, "This man must be God!" Receiving forgiveness depends on just this recognition. The "good news" begins here. Jesus is God!

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