In an interview on TV a few years ago, U2 lead singer Bono was asked about his Christian faith. The interviewer was trying to make it sound like Bono was just being counter cultural by openly professing his belief in Jesus Christ. But Bono simply answered that “Other people can believe what they want; I believe in forgiveness, Christianity is a religion of forgiveness, and I need that.”
Everyone needs forgiveness. Everyone needs to hear that all is forgiven. Just a normal day’s catalog of offending and being offended adds up pretty quickly. So it’s a good thing that Christianity is a religion of forgiveness, as Bono says. In fact, if you were asked to compress the core message of Christianity into a tweetable form, you could not give a better answer than “All is Forgiven.”
This is exactly what we read in our passage from Hebrews today. The writer first addresses the inadequacy of religious system to forgive sin. “Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” The temple sacrificial system – offering the blood of animals to atone for our sin, did not have any kind of permanent power. Therefore, the priest had to stand day after day at his service, offering again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.
Although we may not relate to an animal sacrifice, we do relate to the indelibility of our sin. Whatever or whomever is to effectuate forgiveness has to be extremely powerful. Here’s what I know about people, including this person. We have a very hard time believing that we can be forgiven, that “all is forgiven” includes us. The place to start with that suspicion is the kernel of truth that lies within.
To be honest, most of us have done horrendous things in our lives. And if we haven’t done horrendous things, we have thought horrendous things. And for sure, we are all capable of horrendous things. We should all be very thankful that we have a thriving jail ministry here at Christ Church, because you never know when you are going to need a visit. I feel like I’d really need a visit from Willis when I’m in jail.
When people come tell me about what they’ve done or left undone, they feel like they are the only ones capable of such wrong. What is wrong with me that I have done what I have done? How could I have done this terrible thing? This is why I spend time normalizing wrong behavior – not justifying – but normalizing.
I’m on solid biblical ground here. Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Jeremiah says that the “heart is deceitful above all else.” Jesus says that there is “no one who is good except for God”. Our Book of Common Prayer summarizes these biblical insights by having us confess that “there is no health in us.” If you are struggling with some sin or wrong, then welcome to the human race.
None of this is to imply that there aren’t awful consequences for our sin. Our sin always hurts, and sometimes destroys ourselves and others. Sin wreaks horizontal, collateral damage. I hate this. The only way to deal with it is go through it. When I’ve done or said something terrible to Christie, for instance, I will quickly ask for forgiveness. This is not because I’m a saint, it is because I hate living in the pain that I’ve caused. I just want to go back to watching ESPN with a clear conscience.
In a recent Washington Post interview, our friend Nadia Bolz-Weber describes this as being punished by our sins, rather than for our sins. She uses the common example of holding a grudge.
“Harboring resentment instead of forgiving someone — that’s like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. That’s its own punishment, just like shopping at Wal-Mart is its own punishment. Being punished for your sins implies that God’s going to wreak havoc on you, God has this score sheet, and if you go over a certain number, then God’s going to make some horrible thing happen to you. God doesn’t have to do that. We do it to ourselves. Good Lord! We create our own hell.”
So to be forgiven we need a powerful forgiving agent, much more powerful than a “priest standing day after day at his service offering again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” Confessing that we are inherently sinful is not shame talk; it is a reality check that readies us for true deliverance.
Of course, that true deliverance comes to us from the True Deliverer. “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” …for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” What religion was powerless to do, what the Law was powerless to do, Jesus Christ did once for all, for all time with his death on the cross. All is forgiven. He drank the poison that He did not deserve, so we could live. To finish Isaiah’s thought, “all we like sheep have gone astray, but the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
All is forgiven. The magnanimous offense of the gospel is that all is forgiven. Jesus died once for all, for all sin, and for all time. In the words of Cranmer, He suffered “death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”
Sounds nice when the clergy are up there saying that with candles and flowers on the altar and 1820’s silver on the Fair Linen. But don’t be fooled: All is forgiven is Christianity’s most offensive word. This is because forgiveness extends to the perpetrators and the victimizers just as much as it does to the perpetrated and the victims. Jesse Matthew. Isis. Pedophiles. All is forgiven.
People understandably talk about the need for justice in this world. And, yes, justice is a good thing. I’m glad we have a judicial system. It is good that people who do wrong are “brought to justice”, as we say. If you are worried that forgiveness runs roughshod over justice, then you are right to worry. But would you really rather have justice than forgiveness? Justice will turn on you the minute you transgress its demands. If justice is the last word in this world, then we are all in trouble. In theory it is easier to make sense of the world through the lens of justice. In actual practice, the only way to live in the world is through lens of forgiveness.
If confession and forgiveness are not open and available for everybody, for the worst of us and the worst in us, then confession and forgiveness are not open and available to any of us. I don’t know about you, but like Bono, I need forgiveness, just as much as the thief dying on the cross. Jesus granted him forgiveness, running roughshod over justice. He turned to the thief hanging next to him, a man presumably crucified for doing horrible things, and said “All is Forgiven.”
You may have heard of the famous scene in the Hemingway short story called “The Capital of the World.” The main character is named Paco (a typical name in Spain). He a falling out with his father and runs away from home. Determined to find his son and bring him back home, the father searches for him fruitlessly all over Madrid. He eventually becomes desperate and decides to put a short ad in the paper, which reads: “PACO, MEET ME AT THE HOTEL MONTANA. NOON TUESDAY. ALL IS FORGIVEN. PAPA.”
When Paco’s father arrives at the hotel plaza at noon on Tuesday, he cannot believe his eyes. A squadron of police officers has been dispatched there to control a crowd of 800 young men, all named Paco, all of them looking to reconcile with their father. All 800 of them needed to hear, longed to hear “ALL IS FORGIVEN.”