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~ The Economy of Forgiveness ~
Many Weekly Reflections speak of the humility and servitude of Christ. I am just so awed by it, however, that I must write about it again. The context in which I am reflecting is that of Christ’s pre and post passion days.
Jesus knew of the betrayal of Judas, the abandonment of His apostles, Peter’s verbal denial of knowing Him, how they would sleep through His agony in Gesthsamane. Yet at the last Passover meal together, Jesus washed their dirt-crusted feet, lifted His body and blood, invited them to consume the elements of His humanity and divinity, and allowed Himself to be lifted on the cross, crying, “Father, forgive them...” Jesus knew they would be in hiding after His death and would not believe the news of His resurrection.
At a dawn walk along the seacoast, Jesus saw a few of His apostles coming in after an unsuccessful night of fishing. Some had gone back to their former profession to earn a living, not understanding their future. Jesus called to them to cast their nets one more time. Not recognizing Him, they did so anyway in spite of their pessimism. Those of us who ever fished know the hope of the last cast. The haul of 153 fish was too much for the crew to handle and they struggled to get to shore. John recognized the signature of the multiplicity of fish and yelled, “It is the Lord!” Hearing that, Peter jumped overboard and waded out to meet the Christ.
Jesus not only filled their haul with fish for market sale, but had breakfast already cooked and keeping warm on hot coals. Fish and bread, familiar symbols of Christ’s blessings. I imagine Peter and the rest, now soaking wet and cold, warming their hands over the glowing fire of coals. Peter perhaps had a flashback to when he last warmed himself by a coal fire in the outer courts of the temple just as he was approached with the question, “You are one His followers, aren’t you?” “No!” he cursed on three occasions.
Jesus did the asking now, after they finished breakfast. He inquired, three times also, “Do you love me?” The first two times Jesus used the word “agape” meaning that sacrificial, unconditional love that has no bounds. At the Passover meal, Peter did assert such a love. Now, he was not as confident, so he used the word “phileo” in response, indicating the love of a brother or good friend. Jesus asked the third time, using Peter’s descriptive of love, and still gave him the same mandate: “Feed my sheep.”
After all that happened, Jesus still blesses His follows physically and spiritually. He forgives, overlooks and invites. He told His followers to love each other as He loves them. This I cannot do myself. I can only pray for the grace for Him to do that through me.
A friend of mine lamented how he just did not feel worthy to consume the elements of the bread and wine, fearful of bring judgment upon himself as Paul warned in 1 Corinthians 11:27-34. He could not understand how he could be forgiven sins over and over, day after day. I was reminded of Paul’s own angst: “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (Romans 7:21-23). Paul’s conclusion to this universal struggle is “Christ will deliver me.”
Christ is not escapable and He will always win at our adult game of “hide and seek.” “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-10, NIV.)
Jesus likes to feed us. On two recorded occasions He fed over 12,000 people (5000 men, heads of households in those days, plus the women and children) and on the other over 10,000 (4000 men and family members) with just a few fish and loaves of bread. As these throngs were surrounded and watched carefully by the ecclesiastic authorities and the Roman Empire occupiers, I recall Psalm 23: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
Jesus feeds His errant disciples breakfast and His own Spirit. Part of the feast is the essential point of His passion...deliverance from the shackles of sin and all that afflicts our souls. So He says, “Come, have supper with me,” and “Come to the wedding feast of the Bridegroom.”
There’s something quite interesting about that feast. You may or may not like the company, depending on your level of forgiveness and love. Among the many metaphors for “what the kingdom of God is like,” Jesus related a story about a king who invited his wealthy and famous contemporaries to a wedding banquet. They had better things to do. Thus the king ordered his servants to “’Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests” (Matthew 22:8-10). That human king was forgiving, accepting, loving and respectful, obviously believing in the worth and redemption of all people.
Bread and water has profound symbolism in many cultures, representing life itself. Prisoners of days past (and in many nations today) live for years on the proverbial “bread and water.” In fine restaurants, no matter how large your meal, bread is served. In most western and eastern European households, bread is always on the table. Bread, water and the fermented juice of grapes are ancient symbols of the divine presence. Though they don’t know it, the traditional wine toast of Europeans and many Americans, “To your health,” evolved from liturgical references to the spiritual sustenance derived from consuming the body (bread) and blood (wine) of Christ. The clinking of glasses symbolize the unity we have in Him in the partaking of His blood, though that is forgotten.
In many households and “cultured” restaurants today (particularly outside the US) it is considered “gouche” or ill mannered to slice the table bread. It is properly torn apart, everyone sharing the same loaf. (Pre-sliced bread is a recent innovation.) The symbols of Christ’s sacrifice, scourging, bleeding, emptying, sharing Himself and inviting us to His supper are ingrained in our secular rituals, as it is in our daily writing of dates, like AD 2004. Twenty-five years ago, few of us could predict the US Supreme Court would be hearing arguments to remove “under God” in the US Pledge of Allegiance. It is not beyond belief that the Court, or the U.N., less than twenty-five years from now, will be hearing arguments for a new calendar that does not offend people with the designations of BC and AD. (People are trying now by using “BCE” (Before Common Era), but that is truly a lame attempt. So we don’t say “Before Christ.” Call these last two thousand years the “Common Era,” but who marked the change? Christ again, sorry.)
I seem to digress but not really. I underscore how the incarnational presence of Christ is prolific in the manifestations of the seasons and rhythms of nature and the rituals and practices of humans, even if they aren’t recognized. Most of us do not recognize Christ in the poor, imprisoned and afflicted, but it is among them He is most evident. Human individuals and institutions will continue to revise memory, references and history to exclude Him from the human experience. As they attempt to do this, they must hold Him as an adversary and thus be obsessed with Him. That is why Christ told the church of Laodicea, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16). If you are cold to Christ, He is eating at you. That’s good. If you are hot to Christ, you are feeding on Him. That’s better. If you are lukewarm, you are oblivious and, as a friend of mine share in a personal joke, “you’re out of the zone.”
What is the response of those who experience the heavenly gift of forgiveness? Joy, freedom, love and a desire to serve in gratitude. Our ministry team advocates for prisoners. One prisoner experienced a set back in the work for merited freedom. Here’s his response to me: “Two days after receiving the news that my appeal had been denied I had to preach God’s word at the Leadership Training Class we normally hold on Sunday afternoons. Before your parents delivered the news I had been asking the Lord to give me a message for His people to hear and be edified. I didn’t know what to preach on and had been pondering about two topics that were rotating in my head. But finally, during my conversation with your parents I knew I was given the right message to preach. And this was it: ‘I still believe in God.’
“The Lord took me to the book of Daniel 3:16-18 where it says, ‘Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego answered and said to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.' Truly, my resolve and faith in God is the same as these men’s. I know, deep in my heart, that the God I serve is able to get me out of this place, but even if He chose not to, I will still serve Him and remain faithful to Him. I will not bow to the gods of unbelief and disillusion. Many were touched by the message. There was even a brother who at the end of the preaching asked me to pray for his wife. He felt he message was for him because his wife has been going through many trials that has even induced questioning about if there is really a God. I know that He is still the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. It doesn’t matter how bleak and gloomy things may seem to be, God is still God. Whether He answers my prayers or not. I still believe in God!”
That prisoner speaks in a heart of gratitude and love for his freedom
through the Christ incarnationally living in Him and all of us who rejoices
at His invitation to His supper of forgiveness, love and redemptive restoration.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Spiritual Resource Services © April 30, 2004
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