The Church is a community which is both forgiven and in the process of being forgiven and it is called to reflect this reality to the world. In a society which permits everything but forgives nothing, the Church has a particularly daunting task to combat the fear which comes from not recognising one’s forgiven-ness. The Church needs to provide the environment where its members can share their joys and triumphs as well as their weaknesses and vulnerabilities and the sharing needs to be done in such a way as to encourage others to want to be part of the community. As such the church is a sacrament of reconciliation.
Whenever the Church fails to show itself as a forgiven community, then it is no longer fulfilling its vocation. There is nothing wrong in the church being a community of struggle, but if there is a spirit which leads to exclusion rather than inclusion, then it needs to turn to deeper prayer to ask whether it really is following the Spirit of God or whether it has succumbed to the spirit of the world. The Church is the place where the inbreaking of forgiveness is celebrated and recognised as an act of God and a sign of the Kingdom.
The Church is also a forgiving community which constantly points to God’s forgiveness, naming it as a gift from God regardless of where it is witnessed. The Church has a role in making available the sacraments which help make God’s forgiveness real to people. The Church’s role in Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa and Sierra Leone as well as in Northern Ireland and the Middle East is a reminder that forgiveness, which is more a virtue of faith than an activity in politics, can nevertheless play an important role in politics. Thus, the Church also needs to be a place of welcome and encouragement to those outside who are wanting God’s forgiveness but are unable to find it. The Church, then, needs to be a place that models forgiving and being forgiven.
Forgiveness is the breaking in of a new order of relating. It involves seeing the world reconstructed and lived from the perspective of the reality which is profoundly simple to hear, but often extremely difficult to live, namely that God forgives each of us and our taking hold of this truth is reflected in the way each person is able to forgive others. The Greek word used for forgiveness in the New Testament means to ‘let go.’ Forgiveness means letting go of the wrong and being willing to move forward. This letting go is making sure that one is not controlled or imprisoned by the wrong. But we end with a remarkable prayer which comes from the concentration camp at Ravensbruck where 92,000 women and children died. This prayer, which is both glorious and challenging, offered by a nameless woman and placed beside the dead body of a child, responds in a way that little else can to the question raised earlier about whether some wrongs are beyond forgiveness. It also helps us understand the miracle that we celebrate over Good Friday and Easter and reaches the heart of forgiveness:
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to the judgement let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.
Adapted from my book, Reconciling One and All – God’s Gift to the World.