" ... repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem." -- Luke 24:47
I have been thinking lately about what it takes to live in community with one another, and these words struck me as holding the clue to this sometimes very difficult puzzle.
I made a vow a couple of years ago to do all that is within my power to promote unity. It is something I feel called to do. The division that is rampant between people is the cause and effect of much darkness in the world. Yes, both cause and effect, as it quite easily becomes a never-ending circle of unhappiness. One of the most significant turning points in my journey of faith came when I understood that I too could be excluded from a faith community. (Read My Lenten Talk for more background about this.) This gave me more empathy, let me tell you, for all people who are excluded, especially from faith communities.
But like most things that really bother me, especially things that really bother me about other people, I often need only look in the mirror. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but not the log in your own? Never were truer words spoken. You see, I often find myself struggling between wanting to promote unity despite the difficulty of doing so, and wanting to separate myself from difficult people -- or wanting to separate myself from better people when I have been difficult. It is like a tug-of-war within me: pull away, come together, pull away, come together.
My first instinct when I meet people who are unpleasant in one way or another is to pull away. But I know that Jesus taught that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Our neighbor, not our friend. And who was the neighbor in the story of the Good Samaritan? It was the enemy: the Samaritan was the enemy of the Jew. So we really are to love our enemy, and pray for those who persecute us. Besides, who am I to throw stones? I have made my share of mistakes, and persecuted enough people in one way or another.
When I read the words above, I thought, That is it, in a nutshell. Repentance and forgiveness are the keys to staying in community. Repentance requires recognizing one's disconnection from other people. That which requires repentance is rooted in our anger, dishonesty, disrespect, etc. Repentance means that we see the breach we have caused, and we desire to return to community. Forgiveness repairs the division or separation. When we forgive, we have reached out to the other and healed the breach; we have brought that person back into the fold of our community.
But doesn't forgiveness require repentance? Mustn't we wait for the transgressor to apologize before we forgive? No. Jesus said, Turn the other cheek. He did not say, "after they apologize." We are to forgive those who transgress against us without requiring their repentance. "How many times should I forgive?" Peter asked. "As many as seventy-times seven." Jesus replied. (And if anyone is counting then you have missed the point.) We are to forgive, as we have been forgiven.
Do we believe that God has forgiven us? Even before we have repented, God forgives us. Repentence is primarily for the benefit of the person who repents. Just as forgiveness is primarily for the person who forgives. When we repent, we are cleansed from our unrighteousness, we are given clean hearts. And when we forgive, we are blessed, as peacemakers and children of God.
Jesus told his disciples that they had the power to bind or loosen, and this is true. We do have that choice. The story of Adam and Eve illustrates the desire, perhaps inherent, in all of us to judge between good and evil. But the question is, How do we exercise this desire, this power? Jesus said, "He who is without sin, cast the first stone." Since, none of us is without sin, it is clear to me that I am to forgive those who transgress against me. Period.
But what about the person who causes harm? Do we just let them continue to cause harm? No, of course not. "If a brother sins, rebuke him." We must speak the truth, to ourselves and to other people, but we must do so with love. These words, too, were in the readings recently: "Whoever says, 'I am in the light,' while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling." (1 John 2:9-10) Any kind of disunion between me and another person creates darkness, either in my heart or theirs, or both. So I must continually try to replace that darkness with the light of truth and God's love.
In Martin Buber's "I and Thou," I find more directions of a similar vein. Buber writes that true community comes into being "on two accounts: all of them have to stand in a loving center, and they have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to one another. The second event has its source in the first.... A community is built upon a living, reciprocal relationship, but the builder is the living, active center." (pg. 94) Our loving, active center is God, who shines upon us in the life and teachings of his beloved son Jesus Christ, and who guides us with his Holy Spirit. When I keep God in the center, I have a better chance of staying in community.
But Buber realizes that this is no pie-in-the-sky endeavor for us. He writes, "He knows well that he cannot simply confront the people with whom he has to deal as so many carriers of the You [ie.God], without undoing his own work. Nevertheless he ventures to do this, not simply but up to the limit suggested to him by the spirit; and the spirit does suggest a limit to him, and the venture that would have exploded a severed structure succeeds where the presence of You floats above." (pg.99)
If I am to be a witness of the life of Christ in me, of God's Holy Spirit at work in me, to the world, then I must test my limitations against the limitations of the Holy Spirit each day. But is there a limit to God's love? Not according to Jesus. And so I must continue to seek unity in truth and love. Though it may be beyond my capabilities, it is not beyond God's capabilities or God's requirements.
Dear God, thank you for this lesson. It is the most important lesson, and one I need to hear over and over again. Love always, Pam