Forgiving God?

Scriptures: Mark 16:1-8, John 1:14-18

How would you explain Easter? The Christian Bible affirms that Jesus rose from the dead. Do you believe in a physical resurrection? That’s the way the New Testament gospels tell the story. Or, would you say that you don’t believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, but that the first Christians must have experienced the presence of Christ in a powerful and compelling way, because this experience transformed their lives? That’s what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. He argues against physical resurrection, but proclaims Jesus is the "first fruits" of a spiritual resurrection that will include all who are faithful.

Of course, we might believe that the story of the resurrection has meaning for us today whether or not Jesus was resurrected in any way. Yet, those who do not share our faith would remind us that important questions remain unanswered. What does the Easter story actually mean? And why should we celebrate a story that isn’t factually true, even if the story has meaning for us?

The key, I believe, to answering these questions is hidden in the simple phrase "forgiving God." This phrase has at least two possible meanings, and I believe each is extremely important.

First, at Easter we celebrate the forgiveness of human sin, in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Certainly, it is not obvious that the death of Jesus represents an act of forgiveness on God’s part, especially as traditional language claims that Jesus "paid the price" for our sins by being crucified to atone for human transgressions. Instead of verifying God’s forgiveness, this language seems to justify divine wrath. It sounds like God, having been wronged, requires the death of Jesus, even though he is innocent, as retribution for human sin.

Clearly, the New Testament story is not about a forgiving God, unless we affirm (with the church) that Jesus is God incarnate, both God and man. The church teaches that the suffering and death of Jesus is not just the suffering and death of a man, but is also the suffering and death of God. When understood in this way, the Easter story reveals a God of love, who chooses to suffer for the sins of us all. Such a God, we might well conclude, is a forgiving God.

But why must there be punishment for sin? Because the God of the Bible is just. In the story of scripture, again and again God has called for righteousness and has promised punishment for wrongdoing. In the Bible, God is limited by what has been said and done in the story. Promises and prophecies about God have been made and cannot be ignored. Yet, the New Testament offers a new conclusion to the biblical story of God and humanity. The good news the church proclaims is that God forgives us by becoming one of us (the "word made flesh") and by bearing with us the unjust suffering and death of life.

The second meaning of the phrase "forgiving God" concerns our response to suffering and death. The Easter story challenges us to forgive God for our suffering and our death. Easter is not merely about God’s forgiveness for human sin, but also about (our) forgiving God for suffering and death. In the Bible story God is Creator of life and history. All that happens in the world is a reflection of God’s will. The sin of Adam and Eve occurs, because God has created men and women who make their own choices, rather than simply obeying God. The Bible story tells of a God with the power to prevent suffering and death, who imposes both suffering and death on humanity, because human beings have exercised their God-given power to disobey.

It is hard for us to admit that we might be angry with God for our suffering and our impending death, as well as for the suffering and death of those we love. It is extremely hard for us to think of life as a journey towards death – perhaps even a painful and depressing death. Yet, this is life, and the Bible story tells us that this life is a gift from God. The New Testament does blame Satan for the evil that afflicts the world, and portrays a cosmic battle between the forces of Satan and the Messiah. But God ultimately has responsibility for the world, and in the story God permits Satan to wreak havoc upon humanity until God’s plan for creation is fulfilled. We have good reason to be angry with God!

In the Christian story "the death of God" on Good Friday represents our repressed anger at God for the consequences of God’s creation – for our sin, our suffering, our death. The rebirth of God from the earth on Easter represents the healing that comes with the release of this anger. Story and symbol liberate us in a way we cannot understand and may even resist.

Easter marks a transformation in the character of the biblical God, and thus also a transformation in our relationship to the God of the church. On Easter we are offered release from "the tomb" of our resentment because God will not take "the cup" (Mk. 14:36) of dying away from us. Despite the darkness of death all around us, the sun shines brightly once again, bringing new life to the earth. Easter inspires us to make a new start, from wherever we are in our living and our dying – to be more creative, to be more loving, to be more faithful.

Can we find this meaning in the Easter story? The question cannot be answered apart from our lives. Can you find this meaning in the Easter story? Only you can know if Easter will stir in you a sense of God’s forgiveness. Only you can let go of the resentment you have, because your life has not been all that you hoped for.

Why celebrate the Easter story as though it is literally true, if we do not believe that it is? How would you answer? How would you explain to your children or to your friends, who may not be in church this morning, why you bothered to come?

I came because I do not trust the good reasons I have for not coming. I came to be stirred by the music and rituals the Easter story has inspired. I came to be forgiven by God and to forgive God, so I might be more forgiving of others. Amen.

Easter, March 31, 2002 © Robert Traer 2016