The Forgiver of sins
‘…Who can forgives sins but God alone?...’ (Mark 2, 7).
Previously Mark had demonstrated Jesus’ authority over the demons and then over sickness, now he describes Jesus’ self – declared authority in regard to the forgiveness of sins.
‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…’ Hitherto,
it was for God alone to forgive sins, and then only in response to the performance of elaborate rituals on the part of those appointed to carry them out. Hence the accusation of blasphemy levelled at Jesus. Here Jesus demonstrates conclusively, in a way that those watching could not fail to understand, that He possessed the authority to forgive sins; this he does by healing the paralysed man – a paralysis assumed to be consequent upon either His own sins, or that of his parents – later in His ministry Jesus would debunk the theory that sin and sickness were inevitably intertwined (healing of the blind man in John’s Gospel) – but for now it suited Him to ‘play the game’ according to their rules.
But even if the link between sin and sickness isn’t literally true, there is a powerful metaphor that emerges here: sin can have a paralysing effect on the lives of all of us. Sin is living life without any thought for God: Godlessness is sinfulness. Sins are those things we say and do – or fail to say or do – because in that moment, whether we believe in God or not, we act as if there was no God. Coming to faith in God gives us the opportunity to realise that those sins we will inevitably commit – let him who is without sin cast the first stone – can be forgiven, that forgiveness is a vital and essential aspect of Godly living, and God has shown us in Jesus that forgiveness will be available to each and all alike regardless because it was Jesus’ dying wish that sinners be forgiven – Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they do – addressing in particular those who had caused Him to be crucified as a common criminal – but addressing us too, because the subtlety of sin and its effects is to persuade us that what we do is of no real consequence, no harm done.
Acquiring the discipline of regularly asking God to forgive us our sins is the crucial component of a mature Christian life. There is no shame attaching to the fact that we sin, that we find ourselves saying and doing that which, if we were to think about it is offensive because that is how it is because that is how we are. But what is necessary is for us to appreciate that as we go through life we cannot afford to ignore the fact that we sin. The Church realised and as a result introduced what it called the ‘penitential cycle’ – sin, confession, forgiveness, absolution – and whilst in our traditions we do not do this in such a formal way, the repeating of the clauses at the heart of the so-called ‘Lord’s prayer’ ought to serve as a timely reminder of how important it is.
But how does it work?
How do we actually know we are forgiven, and how does that forgiveness impact on our lives, and more importantly how ought it to impact upon our lives? Well, it is a matter of trust, trusting that if we ask for it, we will receive it – it is the work of the Holy Spirit – The Holy Spirit will cause us to experience the reality of having been forgiven by God, a forgiveness asked for in the name of Jesus, made possible because God has promised that if we ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name, God will forgive.
The authority to forgive is Jesus’ alone, now that same authority is vested in the name of Jesus. Nobody is perfect, and if that is so then everyone of us, without exception will require to be forgiven – by God – but also by each other. Having the authority to forgive sins vested in Jesus says in effect that if we want to live as Jesus lived then we have to set an example to each and all in the way we are prepared to forgive those who would ask for our forgiveness. Indeed, the test set for us by Jesus as far as our appreciation of what it means to be forgiven is, having been forgiven how prepared are we to forgive? But more than that even, how prepared are we to ask forgiveness of another?
The heart of the Gospel is love – God’s love for the world – but that love remains an abstraction until it earths itself, and that is in the act of forgiveness, whether in the offering or in the accepting.
We, as members of the Church, followers of Jesus, have been entrusted with the message of forgiveness, as it were invested with the authority that was given to Him to forgive sins. But it isn’t that easy – in the story Jesus says to those watching, its easy to say to somebody that their sins are forgiven, but how does that translate in practical terms? It has to result in healing – not in the crudely simplistic way that Jesus’ audience understood that to mean – but forgiveness has to result in reconciliation, restoring of relationships, re establishing of trust between those concerned; a willingness to start over, to wipe the slate clean…so much easier said than done. And then there is another aspect that we have to be mindful of: there will be times when it will be impossible for us to forgive what another has done to us. Even though they ask our forgiveness, so deep is the hurt we feel that we cannot find it from within ourselves to forgive. The miracle of grace that is at the heart of the Gospel dares us to ask God to forgive our inability to forgive There will be times when we will ask forgiveness but be sent away broken hearted, and empty handed by those who are not prepared to forgive us. The miracle of grace that is at the heart of the Gospel dares us to ask God to be humble enough to accept that this is how it is for now…