“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Romans 12:14
Are you a forgiving person? Who can’t you forgive, and why? What might be your conditions for granting forgiveness? The word “forgive” in English simply means to “let go.” The Greek word used in our Bibles is pronounced “apheeami”, which also means to “let go” or to literally “send away”. When somebody tells you or you say to another, “Oh, just let it go!” they are talking about forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not mean that you have to agree with another but that you can love them anyway. You can agree or disagree but need not hold onto grudges or anger. How can this be? We live in a world of such fighting and anger toward one other. Wars are being fought all the time to restore rights and carry out justice. But where are the acts of forgiveness?
Forgiveness, as I understand it, is based on the belief that you and I are Spirit or Soul rather than our bodies. This is a very hard lesson for most of us. Our primary identity is with our bodies or our ego mind, the body. But the ability to choose forgiveness when we are wrong or perceived as being wrong comes from a deep sense of identity with Spirit.
This is radically different from much of what we’ve been taught in the church. From the Fourth Century the creeds taught we are primarily our bodies. We may receive the Spirit for periods of time but it’s never really ours to own, or as our identities. The Fourth Century Apostles Creed says, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” For centuries, disposal of bodies through cremation was not permitted. A few years ago when the Roman Catholic Church finally allowed cremations, a fellow priest friend of mine asked me how then the body would be raised at the resurrection? If you travel to many cathedrals in Europe, you’ll notice hundreds of caskets interred around church sanctuaries, in chancels, beneath chancels and above chancels! The idea is that at the resurrection, they will not be overlooked.
The church since the Fourth Century also taught Jesus is different from us because he had both Spirit along with the body as he walked on Earth. In the June 2011 issue of the “Presbyterian’s Today” magazine, articles were written to teach what Presbyterians believe. It would be a good edition for you to read and discuss. Pastor Christina Berry of the Presbyterian Church of Sterling, IL, contributes an article about who is Jesus which is addressed to children. She writes, “But Jesus is really different from us, because he is the Son of God. When Jesus grew up to be a man, he went out to tell people about God. Through God’s power Jesus could heal sick people. When he touched them, blind people could see! And when Jesus died, God raised him from the dead, and made him alive again! His friends were so amazed to see him again! Jesus is still alive, and that is another way he is like us, but different. The Bible says he is in heaven with God.”
And so with the belief that we are mortal, fleshly bodies rather than spirit, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in wars in which forgiveness was not practiced. People who threatened bodies and forms were attacked. Historians have pointed out the many European wars fought between countries with opposing Christian groups, mostly Roman Catholic and Protestants. Even in many Christian churches today, we have the reputation of constant bickering, with winners and losers because we believe our true state is this temporary, unperfected, changing, and dying body!
Forgiveness and letting go can only come when we understand ourselves as something deeper than form or bodies. Early Christianity, along with thousands of years of prior pagan teachings, taught our essence as the Christos, or Christ. The modern book called “A Course in Miracles” a book channeled to a psychoanalytical researcher at the Columbia University School of Medicine, repeats many times, “I am not my body but I am free. For I am as God created me.”
Eternal Spirit cannot be destroyed. To think that one can destroy Spirit is to think one can destroy eternal reality. This was the basic message of Jesus’ death on the cross. Nothing happened! Jesus simply left the body behind and returned in Spirit to his Creator. But years later in the second and third centuries, his death became interpreted by church leaders as a blood sacrifice for our sins to be forgiven. It became a terrible teaching placed into the 4th Century Creeds. If there is one sacrifice ancient Hebrews never allowed, it was their children!
Yet the Christian church since the Fourth Century declared people who did not receive forgiveness of their sins in this life through the shed blood of Jesus were doomed to an eternal hell of punishment! In the June edition of Presbyterian’s Today, this question is also addressed; “Is it true that people who have not heard of or received Jesus’ blood atonement will ever be saved?” Cynthia Rigby, a Professor at Austin Presbyterian Seminary, answers this question with a quote from Karl Barth: “The Christian hopes that everyone will make it in the end, but preaches as though hell is real.” Then she adds: “This certainly is a very respectable ‘Presbyterian response.’”.
In the recent book, “Beyond Love,” Evangelical mega-church pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Rob Bell, suggests that we ought to stop condemning people to eternal hell who are not Christians and let the sovereign God decide. It caused quite a conversation in a Facebook group among evangelicals which I was invited to join. I haven’t written very much but I liked the response of Pastor Tony Clay from France who wrote a few days ago;
“Many people have said that they find it hard to see why there is so much controversy over this book. I think it is and ought to be controversial because the incorporation of the doctrine of eternal punishment has been used for the last 16 centuries to frighten people into the established church (Catholic and Protestant) and has portrayed God as cruel and unforgiving. The idea of sending anyone to ‘Hell’ who doesn’t reach the standard required for being in Gods eternal kingdom (with no second chances) has more in common with Hitler’s Mien Kampf than the Gospels and taken to its logical conclusion would mean that our creator is a ‘cosmic sadist’ (see CS. Lewis: a Grief observed) The reformation kicked out a lot of Catholic heresy but not this one and unfortunately it is still taught and preached.”
In my opinion, to teach we are only our bodies and that only a few will be saved by confessing belief in the redeeming blood of Jesus on the cross, is an awful and dangerous doctrine. It not only creates an enormous amount of guilt and mistrust of ourselves, but in others, and the results so often end in unspeakable violence.
I do not believe the Apostle Paul believed in the resurrection of the body but rather saw it as a temporary illusion of who we are. It was his own identity as Spirit as part of the unseen reality which gave him strength despite of all the apparent losses in his life. So he could write to the Romans, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God. For it is written, “vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No Paul says, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing this you will be heaping burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (From Romans chapter 12:14-21)
To paraphrase the gospel of St. Thomas, an early Gnostic Gospel, “Become an observer” “let it go!” When one identifies with Spirit rather than with mortal dying bodies, one becomes impervious to attacks upon one’s thinking, ideas, and body. We grow to become like the Volkswagen advertisement; we can take a beating! I like that recent advertisement showing a boy at his birthday party trying to break open a Volkswagen piñata! We can be criticized, attacked, and ridiculed. We can even be put to death but we just keep going on and letting it go.
I think in our modern world the example of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a wonderful example of this idea of forgiveness. Escaping from his own country in 1959 he now lives in Dharamsala, India. Many thousands Tibetans have escaped crossing the mountains to join him. Each week more escape. Thousands of Tibetans have been killed in the past decades along with hundreds of monasteries and villages destroyed by the Chinese. Yet in the times that I have read and heard the Dalai Lama, he never once has expressed hatred or revenge for the Chinese. One of his followers escaped after 20 years and was asked, “What was the hardest part of your capture?” He answered, “Not hating my captors!” The Dalai Lama and the teachings of the ancient Tibetan Buddhism teach also that we are not our bodies but that we are one in Spirit with the Mighty Creator of all.
When we can overcome our fear of God by forgiving our own faults and errors, in seeing we are not only mortal bodies of death, we will be at peace and be able to grant peace to others. Again the “A Course in Miracles” says, “The mind must think of his Creator as it looks upon itself. If you can see your brother merits pardon, you have learned forgiveness is your right as much as his.”
Forgive and be free! Forgive and feel free, and share it with all. Amen.
Talk given by Rev. David Persons, August 28, 2011 at First Presbyterian Church, West Seneca, NY