How God Forgives: Surrendering to Love
This Lenten blogseries on forgiveness draws to a close next week, the holiest week of the Christian calendar when we accompany Jesus from the jubilant shouts of Palm Sunday through the bittersweet last supper, the anguished death of Good Friday, all the way to the resurrection of Easter Sunday. This difficult week makes it clear: there’s no way to Easter except through Good Friday, because you cannot get to new life without wading through death. You cannot know transformation without a measure of suffering. With holy week ahead, perhaps there’s no better time to explore the innerworkings of divine forgiveness made known in Jesus’ final week.
The week opens with Palm Sunday’s remembrance of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey’s foal to celebrate Passover, a commemoration of the Exodus of the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. Jesus entered the city among throngs of Jews who crowded the corridors of the city. One scholar notes that the city’s population would swell from 50,000 to over 200,000 during this holy festival. And because the liberating story of the Exodus reminded the occupied Jews of their hunger for self-determination, the Roman state made a show of force during Passover—an imperial entry into the city with full Roman guard as the governor made his presence known. This march reminded the gathering pilgrims of the power of the Empire. While the Roman guard invaded Jerusalem mounted on powerful steeds, Jesus made his way on the other side of town, riding a humble colt in the company of poor pilgrims. There were two marches into the city that Passover. One was flashy and powerful, the antics of an oppressive regime. The other was humble and peaceful, an alternative pilgrimage in remembrance of God’s liberating acts and in defiance of Rome’s military might.
As Jesus passed by, the burgeoning crowds spread garments and palm branches on the road, shouting, “Hosanna!” The word Hosanna translates as: save us, and the sojourning Jews did not use it lightly. Even more treasonous, the crowd shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” The jubilant crowd used political language to describe Jesus’ movement. From Egyptian slavery to Roman occupation, God’s people were weary of political subjugation. And they imagined that Jesus—with his fearless critique of authority, his tender care for the suffering, his ability to draw crowds and inspire change—they imagined that this Jesus would be their new king. And so they made quite a spectacle as he rode into Jerusalem—so much so that his adversaries began to plot his demise.
This is where we find Jesus at the start of Holy Week—awakened to the terminal condition of his life, walking, eyes wide open, toward the cross. He must have known the powers that be would come for him. He must have known the religious authorities would rage against his law of love; the political powers would cry treason; the soldiers would turn imperial force against him. Imagine the bittersweet journey into the holy city—in the thick of the noise, the crush of the people, among dancing palms, in the shouts of Hosanna and the faces softened with devotion he knew the people’s love, even as he saw their betrayal. Did he imagine that soon he would drop to his knees in the garden, begging God to release him from the burdens of suffering and death? Did he foresee his arrest, the Judas-kiss of betrayal? Did he know they would all abandon him in his hour of need? Was his heart heavy with the grief of the denial he knew Peter would proclaim?
If we define sin as brokenness—a breach of right relationship with God, the earth, one another, and even ourselves—then we understand the distance that must be closed to repair the breach, to reconcile, to restore. Perhaps the most important thing that can be said about whatever happened on the cross and in the tomb is this: God does not forgive through anger, wrath, violence, and hellfire. The theological malpractice that suggests Jesus was the sacrifice required to make things right between humanity and God is irreconcilable with the biblical claim that God is love. And love, we are reminded in 1 Corinthians, does not delight in evil. Or rejoice in wrongdoing. Or make violence a prerequisite of salvation.
What God does do is this: incarnate. Take on human flesh. Move into the neighborhood. Pitch a tent with ours. In Jesus, God fully enters the human experience, touching the great joys and deep anguish of life. God covers the distance and comes directly to us, breaking into history. In Jesus, God flips the scripts of hatred, violence, and death by becoming love. God’s love, made clear by Jesus’ life, is not neutral. Rather, it walks among the outcasts, welcomes the exile, heals the diseased and despised, liberates the oppressed, and hangs in solidarity with the crucified peoples of the earth. Only in this way can God make it plain: this love that is for all first floods the lowest valleys, pooling in the shadowy corners where pain, oppression, and despair are lived out.
When God comes to us this way, we who are conditioned to adore power, consume excess, and suspect the migrant might just miss God’s liberating love altogether. Worse, we might betray it. Deny it. Desert it. Nail it to a tree. To the world’s reasoning, this radical, divine love looks weak, even as it threatens to overturn the social, religious, and political structures that benefit the privileged. It is a truth so naked, a love so raw, that we cannot bear to behold it. Divine love made low, grace for the undeserving. And yet, this is the love of God made known in Jesus, a love that bows in prayer, shivers in agony, cries out for there to be another way. A love that refuses to resist arrest with violence, that refuses to recant in interrogation. A love that bears the weight of the cross, withstands the torture, invokes forgiveness—for we know not what we do.
Perhaps the best definition of forgiveness, then, is surrendering to love—even when that love is costly. God forgives us by entering into our lives, our beings, our families, our communities, our world. God forgives us by experiencing the very brokenness we unleash on one another. God forgives us by absorbing the violence and refusing death the last word. God forgives us with new life. This divine forgiveness is hefty, we can make a home in it. It bears all things, beloves all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It never ends. We are on the cusp of celebrating this subversive, divine forgiveness amidst the velvet crush of spring’s bright petals beneath our feet. First, we must make this week’s pilgrimage. So stay awake, new life is on the way.