HOW SHALL WE describe the Christian Way? We are, each of us, apprentices of a master craftsman. A pattern of life entrusted to us through baptism. Like any apprentice, we need a mentor; and it is to Jesus of Nazareth we look for guidance and enlightenment if we wish to become accomplished in our craft, namely the Artistry of Faith – the acquisition and embodiment of those basic skills and essential competences which enable us to share in his faith and to minister in his name.
As you would expect, the artistry of faith finds its definitive exposition in Jesus himself, the artisan whose craft extended beyond making objects out of wood to fashioning the beauty of God from the raw material of our humanity: reclaiming lives abandoned to unworthy pursuits or to premature degeneration, revitalizing despairing spirits dampened by oppressive climates, reforming the fragments of a broken past into an emerging integrity, redeeming seemingly unredeemable experiences of suffering or despair, building inclusive communities capable of embracing diversity, transforming corrupt regimes and structures in the name justice, truth and peace, restoring a playful innocence where ambivalence or jaundiced cynicism once reigned.
This is our craft – fashioning the beauty of God within the raw material of our humanity. And the artistry of faith, those basic skills and essential competences, is so fundamental as to be readily accessible to all apprentices, yet sufficiently comprehensive to enable each of us to practise the art wherever we may find ourselves and in whoever’s company. So let us attend to the master and learn from his ways.
We begin with the Art of Forgiveness and with a Synagogue service in Nazareth, where Jesus is reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah from the Hebrew Scriptures:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4.18-19)
Luke records that, having read these portions from chapters 61 and 58, Jesus rolled up the scroll as was common practice and returned in to the attendant; but, it seems, he did not thereby surrender the vision it articulated. A radical vision no less revolutionary than the one that spawned the Jewish nation from a disparate collection of slaves and nomads under the inspired leadership of Moses centuries earlier.
Isaiah gives expression to a hope of liberation from exile, from the barren experiences characterizing existence where God is known by absence and where substitutes for divine blessing fail to sustain or inspire. The background to this vision is what we may refer to as the Dispensation of Forgiveness, the Jubilee, described in Leviticus (chapter 25) and Deuteronomy (chapter 15).
Every seventh or fiftieth year (both figures are mentioned), God’s people were expected to cancel outstanding debts, liberate slaves, reduce profits, return land to its ancestral owners and be generous to those in need. What was the purpose of this thoroughgoing programme? To remind God’s people that they were bound in covenantal relationship with the God of Forgiveness, who liberated them from thraldom in Egypt and led them into the spacious land of opportunity and blessing. And as God’s forgiven people it was incumbent upon them to practice forgiveness – to mirror God’s generosity and so to be a source of blessing to others.
Whether this Dispensation of Forgiveness was ever observed by ancient Israel remains a matter of debate, but it certainly shaped a hope that one day God’s liberating, gracious and restorative presence would break through the firmament of heaven and rain down upon his people.
And after reading from Isaiah, Jesus declared, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (Luke 4.21). It is no surprise, therefore, to find the Gospels packed with testimonies to his capacity to liberate from a broad spectrum of servitudes:
- the debilitating, excluding and stigmatising effects of disease overwhelmed;
- destructive, dehumanising and addictive patterns of behaviour broken;
- children told they are teachers;
- women offered back their dignity;
- the uneducated impassioned for learning;
- the hungry invited to feast;
- lonely people given an opportunity to belong;
- sinners extended the privileges of sainthood;
- those fearful of living or dying granted peace;
- the unredeemed time of ordinary people saturated with significance;
- people weighed down with the worries of life inspired with joyful abandon;
- guilt-ridden offenders disturbed from their self-preoccupations;
- victims of broken relationships empowered with reconciling overtures;
- politicians challenged with the truth and justice they were authorized to uphold;
- religious gate-keepers of God’s kingdom reminded of their responsibilities;
- complacent Jews called to account;
- trusting Gentiles granted the desires of their hearts.
Many of those who encountered Jesus experienced forgiveness as a liberating reality drawing them out of their exile of unbelief or oppression or disease or isolation or meaninglessness or prejudice or poverty or fearfulness or boredom or worry or shame or brokenness or greed or exploitation or self-aggrandizement or success or intellectual arrogance or wealth or religiosity, or self-centredness, into a creative space where they found the freedom to be – to take responsibility for their existence and to make determinative choices.
It is true that when Jesus went up to Jerusalem to cries of ‘Hosanna, Liberate now!’, he did not overthrow the rule of Rome, but throughout his ministry and beyond he repeatedly led people out of slavery into a spacious place where God could be encountered as the source of wholeness, integrity and authentic life. And surely this is the gospel – the good news – entrusted to us. The experience of forgiveness – a mediation of divine generosity with transforming effect.
And one of the most striking and controversial aspects of Jesus’ practice of forgiveness was its profound gratuitousness. From what we can gather, Jesus recognized that forgiveness must be just that – a gift given in the name of the giving God, freely offered and without condition (although given for a reason and not without hope of response). Not a reward for repentance nor an inducement with penitential strings attached; but an unmerited and sometimes unsought communication of creative energy and divine attention.
At a time when many faithful Jews were protecting their inheritance through amplifying the distinction between the upright and worthy, on the one hand, and the wayward and undeserving, on the other, Jesus adopted an altogether different strategy. He recognized that grace is the catalyst for change – where there is no forgiveness, genuine repentance remains elusive and unattainable. It is forgiveness alone that is able to create opportunity for genuine choice to be exercised and life-changing decisions made.
No doubt, many of those among whom Jesus practised the art of forgiveness chose not to share his faith nor to pattern their lives on his, declining his invitation to discover a truer self within God’s economy of blessing. Few, it seems, were numbered along with Bartimaeus who, once freed from the stigma and curse of blindness, chose to follow Jesus on the way (Mark 10.46-52). By far the majority were like the nine lepers who, restored to health and to the communities from which they had been excluded, felt no need to acknowledge the one who returned them to the land of the living (Luke 17.11-19). Although such ambivalence and outright rejection must have grieved Jesus, it did not cause him to change track but only to intensify his impetus to liberate in God’s name – an impetus that ultimately led him to make the ultimate sacrifice on a cross at Golgotha.
In brief, this is the art of forgiveness entrusted to us – so much bigger than its liturgical context within our worship (although forgiveness must be no less transforming here), so much more revolutionary than what is offered in response to repentance. Like baptism, forgiveness can only come to us as pure gift. For in this radical quality of giftedness resides both release from those cycles of behaviour and distortions of perception that diminish us and momentum to grow into the full stature of our God-given humanity embodied in the life of Jesus himself.
Ultimately, the Christian Way begins with the recognition that life is a gift and one that is continually offered to us through each act of kindness, of for-giveness, extended our way. How we respond to such offerings determines the course our lives will follow, for destinations emerge from the journeys we undertake.