Christianity Isn’t Just About Forgiveness

I remember one night eating dinner with a homeless gentleman at a church drop-in centre.  He was not someone I expected to find there. He was educated and articulate. We spoke of his former life as a lawyer, of his wife and children.  My first response was, “Is he telling the truth?”  But as we proceeded in the conversation and spoke of his mental illness, of his addictions, of his mistakes, I believed him.  Now he was on the streets. His homelessness was much more than a lack of physical shelter; it was a collection of inter-related alienations. His life had been a series of blows, some self-inflicted, which had resulted in increased levels of isolation. He was alienated from his wife, his children, his career, and from his dignity.  He had sought forgiveness from his family, but despite receiving it, this had not resulted in a restoration to the family home. Forgiveness is a necessary step to restoration, but one does not always lead to the other.  He would sleep that night on the streets.

The gospel addresses our situation of longing to go home.  Our mistake is to think of the homeless as people who are not “us.” Like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day we see it as their problem without recognising our own yearnings.  Yet the story of the Bible is clear.  Our original forebears were banished from their home, the Garden of Eden, and we all long to go home. As we come to the end of the story, we arrive at a garden in the midst of a city and we realise that we have returned to the home for which we were made.  That which was fallen has been redeemed and restored. There is no return without forgiveness, but for us, unlike that homeless gentleman, God’s grace abounds in restoration.

Sadly we sometimes reduce the gospel to being a message of forgiveness without also mentioning restoration.  We preach the cross but fail to mention the resurrection.  We revel in the grace of forgiveness, and rightly so, but we fail to remember that the resurrection of Jesus is the first-fruits of the restoration of home.  The Bible begins with the creation of our home, the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1) and ends with a new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21:1).

The Bible has many stories about going home, but the most famous is that of the prodigal son. It is set amidst two other stories – a lost sheep and a lost coin.  I often wonder whether these other two stories about a sheep and a coin help us to understand Jesus’s famous parable.  We all know of the prodigal’s sin, his longing for home, of the forgiveness and restoration offered by the loving father.  It is not hard to draw a parallel from him to the sheep that wandered off and was restored amidst rejoicing.  But we sometimes forget that Jesus’s parable is about two brothers.  The older brother is just as lost as the prodigal.  He is homeless at home. A parallel can be drawn from the lost coin to this older son.  We can feel the alienation of homelessness while still having a roof over our heads.  At the end of the story, the father entreats his older son to join in the festivities, but we are not told whether such restoration takes place.  This is the challenge of the parable.

In a world of guilt we need to remind people of the forgiveness of the cross; in a world of alienation we need to remind people of restoration through the resurrection. Christianity is a resurrection religion. That which has been affected by the fall will be redeemed and restored.  Jesus rose physically from the grave and ate physical food in a physical world.  His resurrection was to earth; we should not confuse the resurrection with the ascension.  And this resurrection is the first-fruits of what will follow.  Our raised physical bodies will need somewhere to live, and the answer from the Bible is that this will be in a new heavens and a new earth.  Our home will be restored, and this changes everything. No longer do we live on a planet that is heading for annihilation.  No longer do we believe that as far as God’s beautiful world is concerned, that Satan has won.  God will redeem and renew all that is fallen.  It is going home.

At the core of Christianity is forgiveness.  The cross is central.  But at the end of Christianity is restoration.  The resurrection takes us home.  As we meet homeless people sleeping in the parks of our cities, or homeless people in boardrooms of the corporate world, we recognise that we all long for a world from which we have been alienated.  We cry “Come Lord Jesus” as we anticipate the restoration of all things. In the light of that homecoming, our lives are filled with hope that leads to faith and to love.  

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