Forgiveness

There’s been some conflict in the Corinthian church. We don’t know what the conflict was but whatever it was it created a rift within the congregation and it appears that someone was disciplined. Paul is watching this conflict unfold and feels the pain of the broken relationships. He writes that when one person is hurt everyone is hurt. Conflict between two people affects more than just the people involved. It harms the whole community.

In this passage, Paul urges the community to forgive the wrongdoer. The Greek translated here as forgive has to do with “giving freely.” The implication being that there is no requirement or expectation to forgive. When we think of forgiveness we often associate it with an apology which leads to the relationship going back to how it was before the hurt. You might have heard the phrase “forgive and forget.” With these words it seems that the hurt is over and done and now we can get back to normal.

But it doesn’t always work that way. I had a situation where someone scared me and I locked myself in my house for almost three weeks. When I finally found courage to tell someone, a meeting so that this person could apologize. After he apologized, I was told to forgive and forget. But I was scared and angry. For several months after this if the other person walked into a room I needed to leave.

Even though an apology was made and forgiveness was asked no one received healing. I didn’t feel the person involved truly understood what he had done or how it impacted me. A few weeks later, the same behavior that had scared me was directed at someone else. How could I forgive and forget when I knew the behavior that had caused me distress hadn’t changed. It was just directed somewhere else. In this scenario, it felt like the primary concern was in ensuring I made the other person feel better and that I was quiet about the situation so no one else needed to be upset. I was being asked to be responsible for his well-being. But seeking forgiveness requires repentance – a change in behavior. This person was not seeking forgiveness because there was no change in behavior. What he was seeking was my silence and in my silence I would give permission for his behavior to continue. I didn’t keep quiet and that raised other uncomfortable situations.

We can look at forgiveness from the perspective of the wrongdoer. If I have hurt someone and go to that person asking forgiveness, I am asking them to be responsible for making me feel better.  In order for me to feel better, I need someone else to tell me whatever I did was OK or somehow let me off the hook. Apology and forgiveness are often linked. In our culture, an apology means admitting that we hurt someone. The original meaning was about standing by a position and was not an admission of guilt. This is about explaining what we did and why and allowing the person who was hurt to decide whether the explanation resolves the conflict. This creates an opportunity for the relationship to be restored.[1] It does not pretend that the hurtful event didn’t occur. It does not simply smooth over conflict but invites a conversation about what was hurtful and how the relationship can be mended.  Truly seeking forgiveness requires repentance – a change in behavior. Someone once told me that repentance is “being in the same situation and behaving differently.” So the next time we find ourselves in a situation where there is potential to cause hurt we choose a different behavior. In choosing a different behavior, we seek and find God’s forgiveness. Incidentally, neither Jesus nor Paul encourage people to ask for forgiveness. In the passage we heard this morning, the wrongdoer has been punished in some way but there is no mention of them seeking forgiveness.

From the perspective of the person who has been hurt, forgiveness is for their own healing so that they are able to live fully. It is easy when we are hurt to blame the person who hurt us, to want to cut them off or to hurt in return. To forgive means to “give freely.” Paul’s letter is speaking to the people who have been hurt and asking them to love the person who hurt them. They are being asked to forgive so that the relationship between them may be restored.

There is an implication with the Greek word used here that in forgiving, both parties will be restored in the relationship. I want to show a video which shows the ways in which forgiveness functions in restoring relationships.

Paul’s letter reminds the Corinthian congregation to forgive, console and love the person who hurt them. It reminds me of Jesus’ words in the gospels:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28). The implication is the same: don’t hold onto hurts, don’t repay one hurt with another. This doesn’t mean ignoring what has happened but be actively engaged in creating the conditions for healing. In the video, the mother didn’t forget that her son was killed but she sought an opportunity to let go of the hurt in her own life. In doing so, she transformed her own life and that of her son’s killer. She didn’t set out to fix him or change him but simply to find healing for herself. Her work of building a relationship with her son’s killer showed courage, love, compassion, forgiveness and the strength of prayer. It did not bring her son back or condone the killer’s behavior but freed her for fullness of life.

[1]. James Rowe Adams, The Essential Reference for Biblical Metaphors (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2005), 119.

Pentecost Whirlwind

From this experience of Pentecost, the new community of Jesus-followers received gifts. Not one gift. Not the same gift for everyone. Except that these are not ordinary gifts. The Greek translation means something more along the lines of “spirit induced phenomena.”[1] We think of a gift as something given freely once and for all. But spirit induced phenomena only works when the spirit is at work. A gift should be something we can pull out whenever we need or whenever it pleases us. A spirit induced phenomena is not about us and what we can do. It doesn’t rely on our willingness to share whatever our “gift” is. A spirit induced phenomena is what happens when the spirit works through us.

In this passage, we hear Paul writing to the community. He identifies that the community used to be pagan. Again, the translation needs an explanation. Pagan in the Greek simply means a group of people who share something in common. This group was outsiders. They were not part of the Jesus group. Nor were they viewed as part of God’s people. And yet the spirit of God worked through them. The Jesus followers wondered how this group of outsiders could say “Jesus is Lord.” They wondered how this group of outsiders could praise God. The Jesus followers clearly saw this group as outsiders who had no claim to God or to Jesus. Paul reminds the community that following Jesus is not a head decision. It isn’t something that is necessarily logical or even tangible. The spirit comes upon people unexpectedly and moves people to extraordinary actions. Through those actions the spirit—and by extension—God is experienced.

We run into problems when we want to only use our heads and think logically about using our gifts. Our minds sometimes limit the possibilities. We might ask “what’s in it for me?” We might think to ourselves, “I’m tired of sharing my gifts and no one notices anyway.” “What difference does my little gift make in the grand scheme of the world…It seems like a pretty pointless gift.” When we think this way we think of our abilities and resources as gifts. They are something that have been given to us. They belong to us and we can choose to use them and share them—or not. Our ability to use our gifts relies on how generous we feel at any moment.

In that first Pentecost story, it wasn’t gifts that were at play. It was a spirit induced phenomena. Who knew those Jesus followers could speak so many languages? Who knew that speaking a different language could influence so many people? Three thousand people were baptized. And it wasn’t an orderly, planned experience. It was spontaneous and unexpected. It was a moment where the spirit moved in a community and the entire community recognized and was touched by that spirit of God. It wasn’t about the spirit touching one person for their own benefit. The entire community was touched by the spirit for the benefit of the entire community.

The way that the spirit moves is different in each person. It looks different and we are not expected to all receive the same abilities through that spirit. But each of us do receive a little bit of the spirit, which the spirit uses for building up the entire community. When the spirit is at work we no longer ask, “How does this benefit me?” Instead we ask, “How does this benefit my community or the world?” Maybe we don’t even stop to contemplate the benefits. Sometimes the spirit is described as a whirlwind. If you get caught up in a whirlwind there isn’t time to stop and think. It isn’t until the whirlwind stops that you can reflect on the experience. The whirlwind might seem scary as we see it coming towards us and we might hope that thinking, asking questions and getting caught in our answers will stop the whirlwind or at least slow it down. And so we ask: “What if…?” “What will so and so think…?” “What’s in it for me?” Sometimes this works—temporarily. But the Spirit doesn’t stop or do what we want. The Spirit is always in motion and always working through us—even when we try to slow it down or stop it. So we have a choice. Fight against the Spirit. Resist the Spirit with all our might or embrace the Spirit. Get caught up in the whirlwind and see where we land.

One of the other images used for Holy Spirit is fire. I’m hesitant about using this image right now because we all have the destructive images from Fort McMurray in our minds this week. These images conjure up danger, horror, worry, despair, desolation, grief, lament and helplessness. There may be some similarities between fire and our experiences of the Spirit but to draw those similarities out feels unhelpful. It seems to trivialize the very really experience of people whose worlds have just collapsed so I am not going to attempt to draw that parallel today.

But I will ask some questions to help us see the Spirit in a place that seems desolate. How is the Spirit at work in the midst of destruction and grief? How is the Spirit rebuilding and restoring the community?

The Spirit is messy, disorderly and inexplicable. It brings with it chaos and uncertainty. It doesn’t stop because we are hesitant or uncomfortable. It brings with it moments and experiences we can’t explain. It works through us and others to transform the world.

[1]. Bruce J. Malina, and John J. Pilch, Social-science commentary on the Letters of Paul (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 112.

Life after Death?

One of the biggest questions in life is often what happens after we die. Some people embrace death. Some people are comfortable with their own mortality. Some people resist death. Some people are afraid of death.

When the first Jewish scriptures were written there was no concept of an afterlife within the Jewish faith. Other faiths and cultures had a concept of an afterlife but the Jewish people did not. By the time of Jesus, the idea of an afterlife was being debated within Jewish culture but there was no consensus. Some Jews believed in an afterlife. Some did not.

For those that believed in a resurrection they had in image of an event sometime in the future. At that moment, all the dead would be returned to life. What that afterlife looked like was also up for discussion. No one knew for certain. No one knows for certain.

Jesus lived within the Roman empire and the early churches were established within that cultural context. The Romans absorbed the religious beliefs present within the empire. Corinth was a Greek city and many of the new Christians in Corith were Greek and so they brought their beliefs with them to their new faith. Within the Greek traditions, usually the after-life began at death with a trial and followed by a movement either to something like paradise or hell.

These traditions evolved into some of the Christian beliefs about heaven, hell and judgement day. These beliefs were absorbed and adapted from other religious traditions.

So Paul is putting his two cents into this conversation about what happens after death. Some of the new Christians believed that there would not be a resurrection of the dead. Paul argues that if there isn’t a resurrection for those who have already died then Jesus wasn’t raised either. The same rules apply for everyone. If Jesus could be raised, then others could be raised. If Jesus was not raised, then no one else could be raised either. Jesus must have been raised because there were witnesses to the resurrection.

Paul quotes from the Hebrew scriptures to ground the new Christians in what is already familiar to the Jewish Christians and what might bring a new word of hope to the Greek Christians. He quotes the prophets who believed that there would be some type of cataclysmic disaster—something terrible would happen. From that God would create something new that is more perfect than the world that has been. It wouldn’t be the end of the world but it would be a decisive moment where everything would change. In the same way, death is not the end but a moment where God’s action can change everything.

There continue to be many different beliefs about death within the Christian faith. Some Christians believe that the dead are sleeping and waiting for the moment when they will wake and be resurrected. Some believe that when we die we are judged and go either to heaven or hell depending on our relationship with Christ at that moment. Some Christians believe that God is a God of compassion and we are all welcomed into heaven. Some Christians believe that our spirit becomes part of the larger cosmos—no longer a distinct entity but one with God and all other spirits. For myself, I don’t know exactly what happens after we die. My faith tells me that there is a spirit within each of us that continues to exists separately from our bodies. I believe that God is present after death and that in some way my spirit will be united with God. Beyond that, I can say nothing with certainty but I trust that the loving and compassionate God will be present beyond death.

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Earlier in Corinthians Paul reminds us that love is at the core of our relationships with each other and our faith in God. In the conversation about death it seems important to hold love as central to our beliefs to alleviate some of our fear or discomfort. If God is love and we are united with God after death then there can be nothing painful, hurtful or evil—only love. The scriptures that we heard today remind us that death doesn’t have the last word but that God’s love overcomes even death. The New Creed ends with these words:

In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. Thanks be to God.

In my mind this is all we can know for certain.