Tag Archives: Forgiveness

1 September – Return

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Pentecost 12

Hosea 14
Psalm 89
Luke 14:7-11

In a sentence:
Grace can only be given into empty hands

‘Sin’ the church’s four-letter word.

Four-lettered words are ‘sharp’ words. We call them ‘swear’ words because of the way we use them to intensify an oath – a promise or a threat. Just as four-letter words which actually have four letters are real words referring to real things and yet most of the time are the wrong way to refer to those things, short-and-sharp ‘sin’ both marks something we know to be real but which often feels overstated. It’s uttered all over the place in the church but often with the wrong emphasis: it is not the place to start in characterising the human being in her relationship to God.

Of course, it’s a very biblical word but we hear it in tune with the way in which it has been taken up in the church through history. It ought not surprise us that people so capable of sin as Israel and the church might not be quite capable of speaking of sin properly.

The prophets, of course, are full of the accusation of sin, and we’ve heard plenty of that from Hosea over the last couple of months. His account and assessment of the wrong in Israel has been visceral. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of sin in the prophets.

Of course, the word of grace has been present alongside judgement of sin, and Hosea finishes with God’s willingness to reconcile – our text for this morning. This final chapter is structured as a confession and absolution: there is the call to Israel to ‘return’, the confession of Israel, and then God’s declaration of what good will now come to Israel. That good we have heard most weeks over the series as part of our own declaration of forgiveness in the liturgy:

4 I will heal their disloyalty;
I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them.
5 I will be like the dew to Israel;
he shall blossom like the lily,
he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon.
6 His shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive tree…
7 They shall again live beneath my shadow,
they shall flourish as a garden…

This final chapter presents, on the surface at least, the ‘standard’ approach to sin, confession and absolution in the churches: you are sinners (swear word), therefore you need to confess (also a swear word), and then God forgives (resolution). I say ‘standard approach in the churches’ because, in fact, this is not quite how things unfold in the prophets or in true Christian experience.

Grace is not conditional. It must be received to be recognised as grace, but it always precedes our reception and recognition. The very possibility of a return by Israel has its basis not in the repentant heart of the people but in God’s invitation to them: ‘Return’ (14.1).

Earlier in Hosea we read,

Their deeds do not permit them
to return to their God.
For the spirit of whoredom is within them,
and they do not know the Lord. (5.4)

Later, when Israel says to itself, ‘Let us return to the Lord,’ God’s response is ‘Seriously? What shall I do with you? I look for love and knowledge, not religious obeisance’ (6.1-6).

The engine which moves the story from judgement to restoration is grace, and not the perceived need on Israel’s part for something better. The people cannot return until it hears God’s invitation: ‘Return’. ‘Return’ is an invitation to claim the promise God makes in the face of all that has come to pass: I will heal, I will love, I will be like the dew; and you shall flourish as a garden.

To claim these promises is to let go of other things claimed. And so Israel’s confession includes, ‘We will say no more, “our God”, to the works of our hands.’ In its immediate context this is a casting away of wooden and metal idols (4.12; cf. 4.17; 8.6; 10.6; 11.2; 13.2; 14.8). But the prophets’ easy mockery of the worship of wood and stone disguises a deeper truth: there is nothing we can make or do which will bring us into God’s favour. The ‘work of our hands’ is not merely the silver statue of a god; it as much anything we imagine will impress God, will allow us to approach God, will place God within our reach; this includes even our willingness to confess as a kind of ‘offering’ to win God over (such as seems to be proposed in 6.1-3).

For Israel ‘the works of our hands’ were not only the religious idols but also the land, the kingship, the divinely-commanded religious obligations, even the half-thought of turning back to God – whatever Israel counted as for its own good. For us, it is the same kind of thing: moral achievement, reputation, continuity of history, correctness of theology or purity of association. What we most love and cling to, or create to keep at bay the threats we most fear – these become the works of our hands, with the strong temptation to identify them as ‘our God’. The principle ‘God is what God does’ morphs into ‘God is what we do’.

God has a great interest in what we love and fear, but not as the basis for our relationship with God. For us, what we most love and most fear form a bulwark against the world, against each other and, finally, against God. It is their potential to secure us in this way that causes the works of our hands to begin to look like divine things. Just this saw Israel lose the plot: the God who called them into being as a people is just not doing enough to secure what we love and keep fear at bay, and so let’s try other gods, run off to arrange political alliances, develop new liturgies and more convenient moralities, focus on the ‘important’ people and let the rest fend for themselves.

We fear that if we do not, ‘with our hands,’ create for ourselves parents to keep us safe, we will be but orphans. But the confession on the lips of Israel this morning concludes by letting go of this anxiety: ‘in you, Lord, the orphan finds mercy’ (14.3), in you is mother, father, for you lift us to your cheek.

‘Return, O Israel, for you have stumbled… ‘Return’ is the sharp word intended to catch our attention in Hosea, not the four-lettered accusation, ‘sin’, or the stumbling. The sharpness is not dark pointedness of profanity but the stinging light which reveals a path back to God. An orphan cannot un-orphan herself; love and care cannot be forced from another. But this was never the requirement: ‘your faithfulness comes from me.

The command to ‘return’ declares that we never were orphans, despite how things felt.

And so, however things feel for us now – whether pretty bad or, perhaps especially, if they are feeling pretty good – Return, and say no longer ‘my God’ to the works of your hands. ‘For I desire not your works, your sacrifices and burnt offerings, but love and the knowledge of God’ (6.6).

What we make of ourselves and the world is not unimportant but must not get in the way.

God has already embraced us, and we cannot ‘return’ that embrace if our arms are already full. Grace can be given only into empty hands.

10 February – ‘Forgiven’ is ‘commissioned’

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Epiphany 5

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 138
Luke 5:1-11

In a sentence:
To be startled by the call to follow but not by the declaration of forgiveness – this is not yet to be forgiven.

The story of the call of the disciples must be one of the more terrifying passages of the New Testament: ‘…When [the fishermen] had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus’ (Luke 5.11).

If this is intended to demonstrate what it is to be a Christian, it is a very hard word for most people to hear, ourselves included. Yet it is Jesus who makes the call; and we have heard it – some of us – scores or even hundreds of times. To be free to follow – although we romanticise it hopelessly – would this not be marvellous? For many of us, our memories of Sunday School or similar are of heroes and heroines of the faith who seemed to do the kind of thing these disciples did. And yet many of us are not free, at least in the way that the disciples seem to be in the story.

Still we do not despair, for we can rationalise their response to Jesus. Perhaps they heard him many times before and it is just that it is this time, after a long period of reflection, that they happened to put everything down and follow him. Or perhaps it was their understanding of the nature of the world which made the difference. You would be much more likely to drop everything and follow the prophet of the impending doom if you believed that the world was soon coming to an end. Or perhaps the fact that these men didn’t have very much in the first place meant that it was easier for them to cast it all aside. With arguments like this we finally reach a comforting conclusion: they are freer than we because their situation and expectations were quite different from ours: there is no fair comparison to be made between them and us.

Yet this way of thinking denies the text of the Scripture as it stands. If we were supposed to understand that the disciples’ thinking along these lines we might expect that the Scripture would say this but it doesn’t. Instead of trying to explain away the actions of the disciples here we need to shift our focus from a timid hearing of the text to the theological centre of what happens when God meets the world in Christ.

It is our tendency to want to place conditions on our response to God’s call. Yet, while we approach God with our terms and conditions, the church declares that God approaches us unconditionally. There is no calculation on God’s part of achievement, no reckoning of debt or interest or repayment. This is the meaning of the word ‘grace’ which is so loved by Christians.

Now, the question is: despite all of our attempts to rationalise our response to it, can the call to follow – when it comes – also be a word of unconditional grace? When we try to rationalise our response to God’s call, we demonstrate that we hear it only as law – as mere demand, and so as bad news – for rationalisations are simply the application of laws. I suspect that this is typically how we approach the question of God, or God’s questions to us. We hear a command – perhaps to follow Jesus, or even ‘simply’ to believe – as bad news, and we seek to see whether, on balance, we can find any good news in it for ourselves; ‘balance’ is what it all comes to be about.

But, can the call of God be a word of grace and not merely a demanding command? Church talk about God’s ‘unconditional grace’ is usually talk about our access to God: by grace we are free to approach God. But unconditional grace is not about our access to God – our freedom to find salvation; it is about God’s freedom to find us. There are no conditions which might separate the love of God in Jesus Christ from us, and so no conditions which God has to meet before he may heal us; God’s ability to heal is simply a matter of his choosing to do so.

Now, if God is free to approach us to heal, he is also free to approach us to call; there are no conditions God needs to meet to call us to follow. So we must say not only the part which appeals – that ‘by grace we are saved’. We must also say what unsettles: by grace we are called – the same grace as that by which we are saved.

And it is the same grace. To defend ourselves against God’s freedom to make a claim on us is to deny that we are saved by grace. To say No to the call to obedience – whether it is obedience in dropping everything in response to a ‘special’ call or merely obedience in following God’s ‘standing orders’ – is to deny the salvation by grace we claim so strongly. To be startled by the call to follow but not by the declaration of forgiveness – this is not yet to be forgiven. To be uninspired by the direct call of God is to have become bored with his forgiveness.

To be called to follow, then – to be commissioned to ‘fish for people’ – this is the shape of healing and forgiveness from God. There is no forgiveness which then seeks an action in response – which looks for something to do – and actually might not get around to finding an action; the one who knows herself forgiven is the one who is free to respond to God’s call. ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ cries the frightened Simon Peter after the great and unexpected haul of fish. But the decision of Simon to follow Jesus is the response of a confessed sinner who nevertheless has also heard that he is deemed fit for the service of God’s unfolding kingdom. That is, Simon has received God’s welcoming grace in the call to mission: he is commissioned to God’s mission in the word of forgiveness.

This is what we miss in our allergic reaction to the disciples’ following Jesus so seemingly carelessly. ‘From now on you will fish for people’ is not simply a task given to these disciples but the word of acceptance by God – the demonstration of forgiveness. What seems to us to be a careless and risky throwing away of their lives in launching after Jesus is in fact their taking up of the free offer of a share in God’s healing work in the world, a healing which begins with their acceptance of the invitation to participate.

In contrast to the idea that this commissioning is itself the word of forgiveness, our own reality is too often that we freely embrace what we consider the gracious gift of God – his forgiveness – and quickly name as an affliction what we consider the unreasonable conditions of discipleship: that we should follow.

But we explain away the first disciples’ response to Jesus at our own peril, for to save ourselves from participation in God’s mission is to insulate ourselves from God’s salvation. It is the call to be available to God which is the word of forgiveness.

Surprisingly, perhaps, what is needed to be able to say yes to God’s call is a greater sense of our unworthiness: ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinner’. For the call to service in God’s kingdom would then entail a greater sense of forgiveness, and so of gratitude, and so of freedom to say yes to the one who has given without bounds.

We have heard the response of those few disciples to the call of Jesus, and now it is over to us.

May God’s people not baulk at the invitation to follow but embody the grace of God toward them in service towards others, and this not in fear or resentment but with joy. Amen.

8 July – Greater than our hearts

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Pentecost 7

1 John 3:18-24
Psalm 123
Mark 6:1-13

In a sentence:
Our lifeblood is not our blood, but God’s very own

‘…for God is greater than our hearts’

This is, in fact, all we need to hear this morning – God is greater than our hearts. But, alas, the preacher will not stop here! That this is all we need to hear is simple enough but why it might be all we need to hear is not simple because our hearts are not simple.

That this is so we see – again­ – if we read around this declaration in 1 John. It is a rare joy in reading this letter to find two sequential sentences such that the second clearly follows on from the first, and the same with the paragraphs. Circular logic and straight-out self-contradiction are part of John’s theological method. When scholars strike a problem like this in an ancient text like 1 John, one temptation is to conclude that later editors have chopped and changed the text in order to give it more sense to their own readers. But for John the problem is not that someone got the pages of the original in the wrong order but that he is trying to say a simple thing – that God is greater than our hearts – in the middle of the complex reality that we are. And so he slips quickly from word to action and back again, from doctrine to ethics and back again, from the sin of the believer to her sinlessness and back again, from the commandment to believe in Jesus to the commandment to love each other and back again. This slippage occurs because each apparent ‘pole’ is as important as the other, and yet we can only do or think them one at a time and so risk skewing in favour of one against the other.

What binds all this together is that ‘God is greater than our hearts.’

What John means when he says this is not a matter of scale. What he is comparing is the voices which are God and our hearts. That is, ‘if your heart condemns you’ – if you find you cannot stand before God for whatever reason – take heart; God is not impressed by your heart-voice. It is God’s voice which speaks what and who you are, and not your own. If our hearts condemn us – if we judge ourselves worthless – then God calls us to boldness before God, to lift up our heads, to open our mouths, and to be filled. We are empty indeed but with this God it is always emptiness as a precondition to being filled. Is this not what we declare every time we gather around the table: that we are empty and wait to be fed?

But then John goes on to say the same thing by saying the opposite: if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God. That is, if we know that we are filled not by ourselves but by God, we are indeed filled.

Our hearts, then, condemn us and do not condemn us, and this double-speak is the grounds for boldness before God. This only works – only makes sense – if, in the end, what matters is not we ourselves but God, or ourselves-in-God. Our righteousness and our condemnation are not a matter of what we do but of God’s ‘doing to’ us.

This is not a theoretical matter, or mere gobbledegook. It touches upon the spirit in which we act. This is a liberating Spirit, because it enables a confidence not in ourselves and our ability to justify what we say and do but in the God whose defining feature is that he raises the dead – you and me – in every moment of our being, in each word and action. And so we do not arrogate that we are right in any word or action, for there is nothing to refer to for justification but God’s claim to be the one who justifies.

What this means, or feels like, is what some Christians – beginning with St Paul – call a life lived in ‘fear and trembling’. This is not afraid-of-the-dark fear, but the recognition that nothing I do will impress God, nothing I do will change God’s opinion about me, and yet I must still do and be in the world before God. Right or wrong, Paul knew himself as belonging to God: Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, a heart set free or a self-condemning heart – in all of these are ways of being human which give shape but not content to our humanity before God.

God’s opinion about me is more weighty than anything I could lift up to him – even my heart. That weightiness is love expressed as a cross, driving out all fear. We are complex, and it is in this that normal fear resides: am I OK? Have I joined all (or enough!) of the dots? Will God accept me, or reject me, will you accept or reject me? The fear and trembling which is Christian existence is the refusal to know the answer to these questions, because the knowledge of good and evil is not ours to hold but God’s.

We must speak, must act, must determine and decide. But the greatness of God’s heart, and our uncertainty about our own, must qualify all of that. This matters for the spirit in which we design church buildings run mission outreach programs and order our liturgies. It matters for the spirit in which we make decisions about marriage and address the powers in our society. It matters for the spirit in which we define borders and manipulate economies. Some of these things, of course, are beyond our control but they are not beyond others’ control.

God is greater than our hearts: greater than all the desire or fear, belief or doubt, fullness or emptiness which our hearts might beat out. For our lifeblood is not our blood, but God’s very own, given that it might flow for and through us.

Filled in this way, our hearts ought not condemn us but simply hear the call to beat in a different rhythm – that of God’s own heart. And then we are to begin to live, boldly.

Let us, then, live.

15 April – Not afraid of the dark

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Easter 3

1 John 1:5-2:2
Psalm 4
Luke 24:36b-48

It is an assumption at the heart of contemporary Western religious (and non-religious) thought that God is simple. This means that God is one, undivided, without paradox or complexity in Godself. Not all religious thought holds to the simplicity of God as a basic principle (think, for example, of the complexity of the Greek mythological world) but it is fundamental for people like us in places like this, and it has ancient roots.

(To say that God is simple is not to say that speaking about God is always thought to be simple, but the difficultly of speaking of God is usually attributed to our poor articulation or the built-in poverty of human language rather than to how and how God actually is).

An instance of the idea of the simplicity of God appears in our reading from 1 John today: ‘God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.’ This is not much different from, ‘God is one, and in God there is no division’ or ‘God is pure, without blemish.’ Christians need have no particular problem with such ways of talking about God, although this will depend on the consequences drawn from a particular statement of God’s simplicity.

Such consequences are just the issue with which John wrestles in our text today. Any statement about God which is worth making will have consequences for us. More specifically, anything we say about God will imply certain things to be said about us: theology implies anthropology.

Reading between the lines in our passage this morning, the general affirmation that ‘God is light’ has been extended by some in that community to imply that there is light without darkness in those who believe in, or reside within, or walk with such a God. The simplicity of God is extended to a simplicity in God’s people: God is whole, undivided, pure and light – and so are we, the people who know this about God.

To this John has to say, No: ‘if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1.8). But crucial here is why John says this. The reason is not, to get just a little anachronistic, paedophile priests. John is not looking around at the church and seeing that it is still caught in the grip of sin. It is undeniable that sin continues in those who confess that God is light, but the good news about Jesus – that through him sin is forgiven (1.9, 2.2) – is not an answer to our sense for the sin which is in and about us. If it were, the sinfulness of humankind would be the first word of the church. Indeed, the church sometimes begins here but without benefit for anyone, because God is then constructed out of our darkness.

But John doesn’t contrast an idea that God is light with an idea of human sinfulness, one abstract thought to counter another. Rather, his awareness of human sin comes from the God who is light: ‘if we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.’ (It’s not quite clear whether the ‘him’ here refers to God or to Christ but the distinction does not matter much for John’s argument). God has said something, and the question is whether what has been said is true or not.

What, then, does God ‘say’?

God ‘says’: Jesus, in the flesh.

For John, the nature of God as light and the sinful character of human existence are not contradictory ideas to be balanced with each other but are, rather, to be found together in the person of Jesus. It becomes clearer further into the letter that the problem of how to understand human sin is caught up with the question of who Jesus is and how he was. In particular, the question of the humanity – the fleshliness – of Jesus seems to have been the basis of split in the community: those who denied that Jesus was the full, fleshy incarnation of God and died a fleshy death on the cross left John and his community. (We will likely consider that more closely as we move further into the letter).

But John insists that the cross cannot be set aside; whatever the brilliance of the light which God is, there is a bloody mess in its midst. If God is light, then the crisis of the cross is light, is part of a Christian experience and understanding of God. When John says ‘God is light’ he means that the ‘crossed’ God is light – the God and Father of, and with, Jesus the crucified.

And if the cross is a part of what we have to say about God, then it is part of what we say about ourselves before God. Which is why the centre of all Christian conviction is not human sin left behind, but forgiveness – the point at which light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it, though the darkness continues (John 1.5).  ‘We have an advocate with the Father,’ John says, ‘Jesus Christ the righteous.’

Life in this God is a confessional life – a life which confesses how God is (this is our Creed) – and then confesses whatever shadows in us God’s light shows to require the confession of contrition. If Jesus Christ the righteous could be crucified by those who saw the cross as God’s righteous judgement on him, then the power of sin in human life is more than can be imagined.

John is in no doubt – and neither should we be – that if anyone is in Christ then she or he ought no longer to sin. But the ‘ought’ is contravened not only by moral weakness in us; this is too simple. The ‘ought’ awaits also the final consummation of all things, when God’s light does not transport us on a rainbow out of the world but makes us-in-the-world new.

Our part is simply to be made new, and new, and new, as often as it is necessary, and so to become a pointer to the promise that God will restore all things. We are then, not afraid of the dark – the dark in us or around us – because God overcomes it, and will overcome it.

As John says, ‘We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’. On him we ever rest, as we get on with the business of living.

Let us, then, rest in him, and get on with it.

LitBit Commentary – Robert Jenson on Forgiveness

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LitBits: Whether it be the preaching of the gospel or “Hello”, a successful event of the word is an occasion on and in which a transforming vision of the future opens up, as the realistically entertainable future of the ones who are already there to be addressed, defined by all that has happened to them and to their world. Therefore for Christians “the word” is the word of forgiveness, which opens a future that is ours no matter what the past may have been.

Robert Jenson , Essays in theology of culture, p.42


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BasisBits – Paragraph 3: Built Upon the One Lord Jesus Christ A


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The Uniting Church acknowledges that the faith and unity of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church are built upon the one Lord Jesus Christ. The Church preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God the Father. In Jesus Christ “God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19 RSV). In love for the world, God gave the Son to take away the world’s sin.

From Paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

BasisBits – Paragraph 6: Sacraments


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The Uniting Church acknowledges that Christ has commanded his Church to proclaim the Gospel both in words and in the two visible acts of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Christ himself acts in and through everything that the Church does in obedience to his commandment: it is Christ who by the gift of the Spirit confers the forgiveness, the fellowship, the new life and the freedom which the proclamation and actions promise; and it is Christ who awakens, purifies and advances in people the faith and hope in which alone such benefits can be accepted.

From Paragraph 6 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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LitBit Commentary – John Wesley on the Lord’s Supper

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LitBit: It is the duty of all Christians to receive the Lord’s Supper is often as they can … because it is a plain command of Christ, … because the benefits of doing it are so great to all to do it in obedience to him; viz., the forgiveness of our past sins, the present strengthening and refreshing of our souls.… This is the food of our souls: This gives strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection.

John Wesley, “The duty of constant communion” alt


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LitBit Commentary – Gordon Lathrop on the Lord’s Prayer 1

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LitBit: The ecclesiology of the Lord’s prayer is this: the assembly is the community given this prayer, taught it in baptism, repeating it at Eucharist, invited to stand articulately with humanity—indeed, with all things—where Christ is amid the loss and fear. The assembly is made up of ordinary people, people themselves in need but also people willing to stand with the need of others. The assembly is also the community which, by the power of the Spirit and the presence of the Risen One, is given now, as an earnest-gift of all that God intends for the world, the bread and forgiveness that the world needs. The assembly is the community, therefore, that confesses the enfolding presence of the triune God and is called to practice the word of forgiveness and the meal of resurrection.

Gordon Lathrop, The Pastor, p.34alt


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LitBit Commentary – Gordon Lathrop on the Lord’s Prayer 3

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LitBit: …in the heart of the Lord’s prayer, we ask God, with an astonishing confidence—there is that word again—to forgive us now and give us bread now. …we borrow first-century Jewish apocalyptic language, but here we find that language transformed, reversed. These things are the presence now of expected end-time gifts. Only God forgives, and that at the end. Only God will spread the great, life-giving feast for the called ones: at the end. Here, in the assembly, in celebration of the actual presence of these things, Christians turn to each other in mutual forgiveness, which corresponds to and receives God’s forgiveness now, and the community holds a meal that it believes to be already God’s meal. Christians dare to do this, of course, because of the presence of Jesus Christ in the Spirit, the source of forgiveness and the grounds of the meal.

Gordon Lathrop, The Pastor, p.32alt


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