Today’s gospel reading may sound familiar. It was read the week after Easter. I did not want to repeat myself too much so I reread my homily for that day. This is not for the faint of heart. There was something wrong with it and it was at first hard to define exactly what that was. The interpretation of the scriptures was fine, the examples were good and phrasing acceptable. But then I remembered a quip by the famous British Catholic wit G K Chesterton. When asked by a newspaper to answer the question what is wrong with the world. He answered, “I am what is wrong with the world.’ What is wrong with that homily? I am what was wrong with that homily.
To give a brief review. I used the example of the massacre of parishioners at Emmanual Baptist church in Charleston while they were at Bible study. Most directly I recalled the forgiveness fellow parishioners offered the murderer of their pastor and friends. This I noted was heroic and demonstrated the Peace Jesus offered in the reading, the peace the world cannot give. John sees it as a gift of the Spirit but unlike St Paul who lists 7 gifts (Isaiah 11:1-2) he gives us one: forgiveness. Only with forgiveness can true peace be found. He saw this as the key requirement for building up the church and the world. So far, so good.
Then I got into trouble. I commented that some people questioned the wisdom of such immediate forgiveness. They did not accept this gift of the spirit and thus could not understand the experience of those who did. I did not ask myself if I accepted it and the rest of the homily became unconsciously but inevitably evasive.
The events of the last few weeks have made it impossible to evade this any longer
Where do we start? In the food store in Buffalo or the subway car in New York? Should we remember the videos we see every night from Ukraine or the picture of the desecrated altar so close to us in St Augustine’s? Is it clearest in the slaughter of the innocents in Texas? Although not touched directly by any of them I still cannot really forgive the perpetrators. I pray for those who have done these things but with so little conviction that I experience little Peace. Do you? Do these events reveal in any of us the Peace the world cannot give? Peace is shalom, perfect harmony between God and humanity, all humans and humanity and nature. This Peace is what the other Gospel writers call the Kingdom. Living under the rule of God.
Are we there yet?
I must speak for myself and answer: not fully. This is not an excuse. The Kingdom we have seen repeatedly is already here but not yet. This is the work of God into which we can participate. We can tell the extent we have by the shalom-peace we experience in times of trial. These are of course found in our personal lives, but events of the past few weeks are a general test for us all. To the extent we experience shalom-peace we are experiencing the kingdom, to the extent we do not we are in the “not yet’.
John’s insight is key, forgiveness must come first, and I would like to make an observation and a suggestion.
Do we want to be forgiven; will we ask for the gift of Jesus’ peace? To be able to forgive is to be in a superior position. We have in some way been wronged and when we forgive, we erase that superiority, that is hard to do. Feeling superior to another person is very pleasant and affirming. It may also bring us closer to other people. More than St John however urges us to forgive. The Lord’s Prayer both in Matthew and Luke make forgiving our neighbor a non-negotiable for discipleship. Furthermore, St Matthew tells us about the dire consequences for a steward who was freed of a great debt but hounded his associate for a tiny one. (Matthew 18) God has so forgiven us that we are redeemed of all sin and has commanded us to forgive others in return. No debt can be as great. This prevents righteousness from slipping into self-righteousness but there is something more
Chesterton’s quip became so famous that he wrote an entire book called “What is wrong with the world?” Mischievously he did not repeat his one liner directly but changed it to “What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.”
What is right for the Christian? The week after the events of our reading today Jesus told the disciples that blessed are those who have not seen but believed. In last week’s gospel Jesus said that he prayed not only for his first disciples, but also for those who will believe in him through their word (Jn 17:20) All Christians have the same mission, to bring Christ to the world so that we may all share God’s very own love for himself. This is not one thing among many but is the central aspect of our Chirstian life: we were created to share God’s love and are only fulfilled when we do so. John sees quite clearly that that is impossible without forgiveness. Jesus hanging on the cross calls for the forgiveness of his murderers. In the Acts of the Apostles the first martyr St Stephen does the same. My suggestion follows and is simple but difficult: accept forgiveness as revealing the love that makes us who we are and share it with those who most need it. It is always not only the right thing to do but the most powerful.
As the horrors mount, we will need everything God has to offer us, but let us never forget John’s insight that without forgiveness we will receive none of the gifts of the spirit, but with it we can make all of them real.