Reading: Col 3 . 12
“Forbearing one another and forgiving one another”
Paul’s words go to the heart of our life together in the body of Christ. What he is talking about is our mutual forbearance and forgiveness of one another. That such an exhortation comes from one who, to say the least, was hardly the easiest person to get along with, only adds to the power of its eloquence.
Paul knows only too well how hard we can all be to get along with. He knows as well how difficult he himself can be for others. And perhaps, just perhaps, there is that extra dimension of self-awareness in knowing, too, how hard we can be on ourselves. There is not only the tyranny of our self-righteous judgments against one another; there is also the harshness of our judgments against ourselves. We are, after all, our own worst enemies. “An enemy has done this”, as the gospel puts it; the enemy is ourselves.
Epiphany runs out in the themes of mercy and judgment. Today’s epistle complements and illustrates the gospel. Wheat and tares grow together in the field of the world. Wheat and weeds are there together, both the good and the bad. But who can be sure which is which? What is weed and what is wheat? This is to recognize the limitations of our judgments. “Let them both grow together until harvest”, says the sower. God is the gardener and God is the judge. Not you and not me. That is itself a great mercy.
This doesn’t simply mean the suspension of our judgment in the abdication of responsibilities. We have the obligation and the ability to discern right from wrong and, and by God’s grace, to act accordingly. We are bidden to be God’s good wheat in the world of wheat and tares. But it does mean a check upon our judgmentalism. Forbearing one another and forgiving one another is the counter to our judgmentalism. Our judgmentalism is our presumption to know what we cannot and do not know about others and even about ourselves. We would put ourselves in the place of God as judge. We would presume to have a total and absolute view when, in fact, our viewpoint is altogether restricted and limited. We see, at best, “through a glass darkly”. To know this is to be aware of the limits of our knowing. It is the beginning of wisdom. It frees us from the tyranny of ourselves.
The epiphany here is the light of Christ made manifest in us. It is our self-awareness of the limits of human judgment both with respect to ourselves and to one another. But is all this simply a cautionary tale? Are we exhorted here merely to a posture of skepticism? to a suspension of belief about the possibilities of knowing anything and therefore about doing anything? No. Quite the opposite. What we are presented with counters the cynical and false skepticism of our age which would deny any objective view about what is good and true while asserting as absolute its own relativism. And what we are presented with equally counters the religion of sentimentalism and self-righteousness which makes the church such a parody of itself.
At the heart of Paul’s exhortation are these strong, strong words about forbearing and forgiving. They impart an active quality to the virtues of “mercy and compassion, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering” - virtues which belong to our identity in Christ as “elect”, “holy and beloved”. We are reminded of who we are in the sight of God. That is no occasion for self-righteousness but for the deepening of our lives in faith, “put[ting] on charity, let[ting] the peace of God rule in [y]our hearts, let[ting] the word of Christ dwell in [us] more richly”. In every way we are drawn more fully into the light of Christ, the one who has come into the midst of the world of wheat and tares, the one who illumines the darkness of our hearts. We are at once convicted and comforted by the light of Christ.
There is a vision here. There is an epiphany of our lives in the light of Christ. We are given to see and to act out of what we are given to see. We are given to see something of the forbearance and the forgiveness of God towards us which compels us to forbear and forgive one another. “Even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye”. It is always what we pray. Our lives are lived in the sight of God “from whom no secrets are hid”. What we are given to see is the picture of his love for us. It counters all our pretensions and all the presumptions of our judgmentalism. Equally, it challenges our all-too-willing subservience to tyranny and bullying by institutional authorities, whether it be Bishops or Synods or whatever, who have betrayed the principles that govern their authority. Why?
Because it opens us out to the greater mercy of God in Jesus Christ. “Love bade me welcome”, George Herbert’s last poem begins, “yet my soul drew back, / Guiltie of dust and sinne”. There is the awareness of our sinfulness, Contrition that leads to Confession. The soul in confession says to God, personified as Love, that “I cannot look on thee” to which Love replies wonderfully, “Who made the eyes but I?” But the soul in the deep awareness of its separation from God can only seek for truth as justice, “Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame/ Go where it doth deserve”. “And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?” Our judgments upon ourselves would continue to separate us from the one “who bore the blame” and whose mercy bids us “sit down and taste my meat.” He is our Satisfaction. It means “forbearing one another and forgiving one another”. It means, of course, “put[ting] on charity.” It means “let[ting] the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom.” It is, we might say, “all for Jesus.” For “whatsoever ye do, in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Father Ed Bakker,
Priest and Missioner,
Anglican Catholic Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne