Out of the mouth of very babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength…
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.
1 Peter 2:24-25
Theological Wisdom from Brats
I remember about 2 or 3 years back when I was a relief teacher at a methodist school (no prizes guessing which!), I had to give a geography CA test to my classes. So during the test as I was walking around the class, I noticed that one boy had his textbook opened on the floor, as if I wouldn’t be able to see it! Of course this lead me to think, even if you want to cheat, for goodness’s sake! Please do it more intelligently. So anyway, I took his paper and I tore it up and threw it into the wastepaper basket and resumed my course. But this boy suddenly stood up and said, “Cher, what would Jesus say man.”
To be honest, I was a little stumped by this question. On the one hand, I was furious that he was invoking God as a tool to get out of his trouble, on the other hand, I thought that he had a point. Do we all not pray in the Lord’s prayer, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us? What was I to do? In the end I gave some inadequately lame answer like, “Only God can forgive sins”, which technically was true, and since I’m not a priest anyway so I can’t absolve sins. But I promised him that if his behaviour was to exemplary, I might consider giving him a retest, which eventually I did.
Not long after this little incident, a couple of my students one day sought me out to ask me to give them extra remedial after school. I was not a fool and I immediately knew that something was up, as if those brats would ever want to stay back to do extra work after school! So the first thing I asked was, “Okay, what do you want to get out of?” They hummed and hawed and remained silent. I inwardly sighed and knew that it was impossible for me to force the answer out of them, so, as my Christian conscience demanded, I had to give them the benefit of the doubt and I agreed to give them the remedial. (I discovered later that they wanted to use my extra remedial to get out of some water polo practice. I KNEW that they had an ulterior motive! But still, ah well, the deed was done, and not to get them into more trouble, I agreed to say that I had made them have the remedial because of their dismal geography performance or something to that effect)
During the remedial they tried their darnest to distract me from doing any actual teaching by engaging me in irrelevant conversation and discussion on the widest range of topics. That was when one of them suddenly asked me why does the school keep giving detention? Must forgive ma! Then I gave some vague reply that we can’t spare the rod, etc, to which they complained, that’s so contradictory! During chapel talk about forgiveness and mercy, then afterwards punish so cruelly with detentions. I was stumped again, so I merely laughed and said that they might want to consider seminary, hahaha… (I guess I could attribute my “covering up” for them to this little exchange)
Forgiveness and Punishment
I’m afraid that when I was teaching at the school, my Evangelical beliefs were already in the intermediate stage of collapse. One of the cornerstone of Evangelical doctrine, the idea that Christ was punished on the Cross by God so that we can escape God’s punishment, was becoming more and more incomprehensible to me. What does it mean to say, that God forgives us our sins, when God does not as a matter of fact forgive but instead punishes a completely innocent man, His very own Son, for our sins instead?
In what sense of the word, would I be practicing forgiveness, if I simply gave my students detentions for their misdeeds? I was not sure then, but I am certain now. In absolutely no sense of the word. My students have forced me to question my own beliefs about the nature of forgiveness and ultimately, the meaning of the Gospel, where forgiveness of sins is central. (So central it is that even the Apostle’s Creed has every baptised Christians confessing, “I believe in… the forgiveness of sins.”)
Although I was certain by then, that forgiveness of sins was inconsistent with exacting punishment, but it took me a lot longer to make sense of the Cross and the atonement. Why did Jesus had to die then? What was the meaning of the Cross? But yet somehow I knew that the answer would be found in making sense of the statement, “By his wounds you have been healed”, that somehow in the pain, suffering, wound and ultimately death of our Lord, we are healed. But how?
The Redemption of Sorrow and the Hope of a Future
I remember reading Rowan Williams’s paper “Redeeming Sorrows” where he brought up a quote from Shakespeare’s King Lear, where after King Lear goes through much suffering and horrors, madness, the lost of his Kingdom, and finally the death of his loyal and faithful daughter, Cordelia. As he carries his beloved Cordelia in his arms dead he imagines for a moment she is alive and cries out,
This feather stirs. She lives. If it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.
Williams would go on to say that for King Lear, the survival of his daughter would be an event which would “redeem all sorrows/ That ever I have felt”, an event which can heal the memories of tragedy of his life, to give hope to move forward and live. Each and everyone of us experiences suffering and evil differently, its has a particular meaning and significance in each of our lives. The same tragic event which might crush some will cause others to rise to the occasion. How that person can move forward and be reconciled to the tragedy in his life would depend on that person’s life story, what would count as a “redemption of sorrows” will be particular to each of us.
The question which Christians need to ask themselves is, is there a redemption of sorrows for all? Remember, for King Lear, his daughter remains dead, and he himself died tragically at the end. Of all the horrors, sufferings, torments, and evils in the world which all mankind partakes in to some degree, is there a redemption of sorros for all of them? A hope for all mankind?
It was here that I could finally make sense of the Gospel, of the words that in Christ’s wounds we are healed. The Gospel tells us that at the world’s most darkest hour, at the gravest crime of all history, when mankind itself revolted against God, and put His only Son to death, God in Christ continue to plead to the Father to forgive us for we know not what we do. In God’s death, even when the source of all life, goodness, beauty and truth has been put to death, God stills remains, God is still there, a continued presence promising a future hope, and who continues to promise forgiveness and love, even at our most sinful, and even at the world’s most darkest moment, the death of God himself.
Thus, by his wounds, we are healed, God deep in the flesh, deep in tragedy and suffering, but in the midst of it, still promising love, still promising forgiveness, and still promising a future hope of healing and forgiveness. We who are baptised into Christ’s death, who share in his wounds, also share in his resurrection, and share in his promised healing. In our darkest hour, whether of sin or tragedy or loss, when all meaning or sense are out of reach, Christ is still there, with us, in the darkness of the Cross, at the eclipse of the Sun… wounded, in pain and at the point of death, He continues, to promise forgiveness, a resurrection, and a future healing.
This is the meaning of the Gospel, and the meaning of forgiveness, healing, forgivenes and reconciliation to God, not matter the world’s darkness.