Wednesday, April 20, 2011

As We Forgive

‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

The individualization of faith is a persistent problem in Western theology – the emphasis on the personal to the neglect of the corporate. “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” is the prime evangelical inquiry posed to each individual. There seems to be no corporate counterpart, however: “Have you, as a church, accepted Jesus Christ as your corporate Lord and Savior?” I have never heard that question, or any equivalent, asked.

Yet, scripture surely emphasizes the corporate as much as it does the individual. The narrative structure of the salvation story is corporate. God forms a family from Abraham and a people for himself and works cosmic salvation through Israel. Jesus comes preaching not personal salvation but the citizenship in the Kingdom of God. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit breathes life into individuals to form the church. The triune nature of God and of salvation history is inherently corporate.

St. Paul champions the corporate and unapologetically situates the individual within the corporate context of the church, as this extended selection from 1 Corinthians 12 shows.

But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it
(1 Cor 12:18-27, NRSV).

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it. Every individual action has corporate implications. Might the same hold true for sin? If one member sins, all sin together with it? I do not want to press this too far and eliminate individual responsibility, but neither do I wish to minimize the corporate effects of sin. It is simply not possible for an individual member of the body of Christ to sin without harming the entire body, without enmeshing the entire body in the consequences of that sin. Perhaps you have seen a church rent asunder by the sin of an individual, making corporate and public what was thought to be individual and private?

If sin is ultimately a corporate affair, then, forgiveness must also be corporate. If a member of the body sins against me and I refuse to forgive, then I bind that sin to the very body of which I am part. My refusal to forgive binds my brother’s sin to me and to the church of which we are both members. I cannot be forgiven if I am unwilling to forgive. Forgiveness of others is not an arbitrary prerequisite to my own forgiveness; it is the only forward into my own forgiveness. I cannot loose sin from myself by binding it to other members of the body to which I belong.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. This is not a bargain we make with God; I will forgive only so God will then forgive me. It is, rather, the very way in which God forgives. Unbinding my brother through forgiveness, looses his sin from the body and thus from me. It cannot be otherwise. In the body of Christ, nothing is purely individual – neither sin nor forgiveness. Thus, we confess our sin not only to God and not only to a priest, but to the whole body of Christ. The bidding to Confession of Sin in Morning Prayer (BCP 79) embodies this corporate aspect of confession and forgiveness:

Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to set forth his praise, to hear his holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation. And so that we may prepare ourselves in heart and mind to worship him, let us kneel in silence, and with penitent and obedient hearts confess our sins, that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy. Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.

Following this bidding, we confess that we have sinned and we pray that God will have mercy on us. Through our incorporation into Christ, we become more part of one another than we can begin to imagine. Through the mercy of God, forgive this sinner please, even as I also forgive you.

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