Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Forgiveness as Incense

“Through our forgiveness, which is a sort of daily incense of spirit offered to God on the altar of the heart – the heart we are bidden to lift up – we are enabled, even if we do not live here without sin, to die without sin, when time and again God’s forgiveness erases those sins which time and again, through ignorance or weakness, we commit.” (Augustine, On Nature and Grace, 52)

I love several parts of this: First, Augustine points out that our forgiving of others is an act of worship. Just as prayers and praise directly to God can be acts of worship, so too, our acts of faithful obedience like releasing others from their debts, forgiving their trespasses, those acts are worship, they are like incense that rises as a pleasing aroma to God. Secondly, I love the reference to the Sursum Corda, the "Lift up your hearts!" that the minister declares as we gather for worship. This is an ancient call to worship that has been used literally since the early church. The response from the congregation is: "We lift them up to the Lord!" It is itself a call and a recognition that in Christian worship, God's people are invited into his presence, into his heavenly presence, and thus the Sursum Corda is a call to ascend into the heavenly places. Again, Augustine is pointing out that the same heart that we lift up to the Lord on Lord's Day is the same heart that is called to release, to forgive, to let go and give mercy and grace. And this leads to the third thing: Augustine takes the words of the gospel seriously. Christ says that if we do not forgive others their trespasses against us, neither will our heavenly father forgive us our trespasses. This is a horrific warning that I suspect many glibly pass over and try not to think to deeply about. But Augustine says that we cannot lift up hearts to the Lord for blessing and grace that refuse to extend that same grace and blessing to those around us. Or the other way around: If we lift our hearts up to the Lord, crying out for mercy, how can we not forgive those who lift their hearts up to us for forgiveness, for mercy. And while some may worry that Augustine is teetering on some sort of works-righteousness scheme suggesting that God forgives us (in some sense) literally when we are faithful to forgive those around us, the problem is not in what Augustine says or even encourages us to do. The problem comes when people make it into an math problem, a formula for manipulating God. But of course that will never do, and they've got another thing coming to them. Lift up your hearts, people. Forgiveness is a pleasing aroma to God.

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