The heart of the Gospel

There is lots in that Gospel passage to intrigue any of us; the insistence that the risen Jesus was not an apparition, that his risen body was flesh and bone and not only ‘spirit’, that his risen body bore the wounds from crucifixion, that he could eat fish, that the Scriptures had been fulfilled…(‘Which scriptures?’, I want to know!). But today I want to focus simply on what Luke tells us is the message to be proclaimed in the name of Jesus – ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins’ – ‘repentance and forgiveness’. In our wondering about bodies, ghosts and grilled fish it would be easy to overlook that what Luke really wants us to remember to talk about is ‘repentance and forgiveness’. He talks about it a lot in his Gospel, perhaps, who knows,  because he had experienced it in his own life, but it’s certainly what he understands Jesus to have been all about and he wants us to talk about it too – among ourselves and to others too beyond our small community, to all the world. ‘Repentance and forgiveness’.

Luke’s Gospel is full of stories about forgiveness – his Gospel above all of them. For him the story of the woman anointing Jesus is a story about her gratitude for being forgiven (for what we don’t know). His is the only Gospel to have the parable of the prodigal Son – where forgiveness comes to the son even before repentance has been spoken. And it’s in this Gospel that Jesus says from the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ For Luke, the Gospel, the good news, really is ‘repentance and forgiveness’.

This has struck me so forcefully this year because I think we are living through times when parts of our culture have forgotten that repentance and forgiveness are both necessary for us human beings and possible for us, by God’s grace. Anyone who has even a cursory look at the comments on almost anyone’s Twitter feed or Facebook post can see how censorious and how self-righteous and unforgiving so much (generally anonymous) public comment can be. There is a viciousness and a violence about so much of what is said in criticism of others – and even when we might think the criticism to be just we can be shocked by the vehemence of some of it. You will have heard people talk about ‘cancel culture’ – and they are often referring to the way that some people can be banished from public discourse right now because of something they said, maybe even years ago, that doesn’t fit with what we judge is right today. You may have heard Jon Ronson’s programme on Radio 4 called ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’, where he reflects on how very unforgiving public discourse can now be. He tells the story of how one woman’s life was destroyed because of one ill advised tweet. The public forum today can be as punishing and unforgiving as any medieval village with someone in the stocks. And it’s also true, in related news, that repentance is not really regarded as possible either. In the public culture we inhabit today the sins of someone’s past live with them forever and are never, or rarely, forgotten and penance is never completed. People now have to ‘manage their on-line reputation’ and a digital culture that can play again and again our past leaves us incapable of erasing our foolishness. There’s another strand in our culture that refuses quite to recognise that we (the righteous ones) need to repent at all, that encourages us to think that talk of sin is just some kind of old fashioned prudery. So we have arrived at a strange place where we combine a kind of view that most people are basically kind and nice really – with the practice of condemning others with a self-righteousness that can be chilling. And we fix people either as good or bad, on our side or not, in our tribe or outside it. Into such a culture as ours the Gospel, the message of Jesus, has something very different, and much more wise, to say.

Repentance and forgiveness. The Gospel is a call to repentance, to change our ways. It recognises that we all need to repent, that we are all sinners, that we all have a tendency to mess things up. This is not Calvinist gloom or pessimism, it is a realistic, square on, assessment of who we are. We are not divided into angels and demons – all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Only when we recognise this about ourselves can we face up to it and do something about it. We all need to repent. We are deluding ourselves if we doubt that.

But just as the Gospel is deeply serious about repentance it is also deeply serious about forgiveness! The Gospel is that forgiveness is possible, and offered to us, and that this can be profound and transforming. We live in perhaps one of the most unforgiving cultures of all time – with little acceptance of the possibility of change in human beings or that forgiveness should even be offered to some. People can be ‘destroyed’ for a tweet, for a mistake, for a sin that today’s world has recognised with a new eye. Some things, today, cannot be forgiven by our culture. But the faith we share, while taking every sin more seriously than our culture does, also offers the possibility of forgiveness. It’s hard to convey how amazing, and how counter-cultural, this really is.

The story of John Newton is a story of repentance and forgiveness that Christians love to tell. The story goes like this; that the man who wrote Amazing Grace was once a slave trader, running ships that transported enslaved people, in the most appalling and cruel conditions, across the Atlantic. He had a deep spiritual experience, was converted, stopped trading in slaves and wrote ‘Amazing Grace’, one of the world’s most popular hymns, sung in public even by Barak Obama at the funeral of a descendent of a slave. But the story is not as neat as that – and in its raggedness and mess it’s even more true. In fact, John Newton carried on trading in slaves for some time after his conversion. It took some time before he really saw what repentance meant or demanded. It took him a while to recognise how amazing grace really is – and what it demands of us and well as gives us. We human beings do not find the path to repentance straightforward. He wrote Amazing Grace much later, looking back over his long and complex life – and recognising how patient God has been and how deeply he had needed to repent. We all need to repent and to go on repenting – and God, by God’s grace, will go on forgiving and forgiving and remaking us. That we even sing John Newton’s words is itself testimony that God does not cancel people, but redeem them.

So, as we meet as a church to look at our life together and what we stand for – what else is an AGM really for? – I hope we might want to celebrate that we belong to a community that takes sin as seriously as it needs to be taken, that calls for repentance and change, and that also celebrates the possibility and hope of forgiveness. We are all sinners, we are all offered forgiveness, as all hear the good news of repentance and forgiveness – and we proclaim that to the world we live in. We follow Jesus Christ who forgave even those who crucified him. Of course in today’s world even the words ‘repentance and forgiveness’ have lost their currency. But we must find ways to speak of the Gospel they embody and we must find ways to live the good news they have brought to each of us and will go on doing. Shame, sin, death – all may be overcome by God’s grace. The sins of our culture, our nation, our lives, even these can be repented of and overcome, by God’s amazing grace. We all fall – we may all rise. Amen.