God Forgive Us
Acts 7.60 Stephen cried out in a
loud voice, "Lord! Do not remember this sin against them." He said this
Occasionally one comes across
something truly startling, something which cries out loudly, which sets
lights flashing. Such was a recent report in a British newspaper
. It told of a man being left outside to die in
the cold while a Christian congregation feasted inside their church
An easy response is to condemn the sixty or so older
people and their minister concerned. This, one might say, is not what
Christianity is about. Jesus healed the sick and welcomed the outcast.
So should his followers.
But wait! The people were elderly. They did telephone
the police. The man was nude and behaving threateningly. He was given a
blanket, a hot drink and a sandwich. But he was shut out of the hall and
was dead of hypothermia some five hours later.
So a more difficult response is first to try to
understand why these good people behaved as they did. Their neglect
doesn't make sense. On the face of it, because they were Christians,
they should have behaved differently.
It's too easy to explain it by saying that they were
afraid (the minister's excuse), or that they couldn't handle the man's
aggressive behaviour (the people's reason). Somewhere far in the
background is something more subtle, less easy to identify. These were
not hard-hearted people. Nor was their minister unaware of the demands
of his religion. Something else must have subverted their goodwill.
Strangely, a possible reason is located in Stephen's
call to forgive his killers as told by Luke in The Acts of the
Apostles. Stephen's words echo those of Jesus as he died on the
cross: "Forgive them, Father! They don't know what they're doing" (Luke
23.34). Luke was making a theological statement in these two passages.
He was saying that it is God who forgives sinners, not us. We forgive
others in some sense, but it is God who does the real thing.
To dig yet another layer deeper is to recognise that
many Christians see themselves as set apart from the sinful world.
Christianity is often equated with going to Church, with worshiping God,
with prayer and with holiness. Leaving a man to die outside is entirely
consistent with this outlook. For if one is primarily concerned with
spiritual matters, then the demands of this world tend to lose their
urgency and immediacy.
It seems uncharitable to state it like this. But this
conclusion or something very like it is inescapable. Holy people
separated from the world may find it all-too-easy to pass by on the
But if we are to encounter this world anew, it is
who have to learn forgiveness, not God. God forgives whatever we do.
What miracles might there have been, for example, if Christians
worldwide had publicly affirmed forgiveness of the World Trade Centre
attackers, instead of trumpeting condemnation and retaliating violently?
There has always been this tension between openly
welcoming sinners on one hand, and building walls to keep them out on
the other. One part of the Church has always claimed forgiveness for
itself - and then refused forgiveness to others, excluding them from the
family meal. To this day we condemn our Muslim brothers and sisters; we
shut out gay bishops; we prevent women exercising a full ministry; and
we feast while millions outside starve and die.
It is instructive to notice what so-called sinful
heathen, naked and distressed outside in the cold, do in fact take
notice of. Not of spiritual people worshiping God, set aside in a holy
building. Not of doctrinally impeccable sermons, nor of loud calls to
On the contrary, they immediately recognise Jesus in
Mother Theresa's ministry to the sick and dying in Calcutta. They know
without effort when they are accepted and welcomed to the feast in the
name of Jesus. They need no persuasion then.
Forgiveness is ours to give to everyone, a gift direct
from God. And we all need it.
 London Times, 6 December, 2003