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Reflecting on the cross, we find a truth that is often too easy to forget

There comes a day when a man has to pin his colours to the mast and tell the truth. This he must do, no matter how much he might upset his superiors, chums, or loved ones. These (web)pages are stocked with heroic individuals who are unafraid to “all it as they see it”. Well, the hour has come. Bridge, burn thyself. It’s time for my deeply damning indictment on the state of the modern C. of E. 

Despite our endless efforts to get with the times, to become cool and trendy, to update our lingo, to capture the zeitgeist, the pen of P. G. Wodehouse still manages to express a multitude of sentiments from the pews. On this occasion I’m thinking specifically of a line from The Man Upstairs: “It is a good rule of life never to apologise. The right sort of people don’t want apologies, and the wrong sort of people want to take a mean advantage of them.” In his narration, Wodehouse has summed up how many Anglicans, perhaps even many English Christians, think about God, sin, confession and forgiveness.

 First, there is the Stiff-upper-lip School. “It is a good rule of life never to apologise.” This crowd occupy old rectories and old mill houses all over the land. They are superb hosts, and generally wish that everyone could have the benefit of an AGA. Their dictum is “Best not to mention it”. This school believes that it’s best to just carry on as if nothing happened. Keep schtum, and it will go away. God’s a decent chap, and he’d rather we just didn’t talk about all that ghastly stuff.

 Secondly, there is the Soppy School. “The right sort of people don’t want apologies.” These are they, living as they do in chic metropolitan flats, who believe that God doesn’t want apologies. “God knows my heart, he understands,” they say. “He’s too kind and compassionate a Father/Mother/non-gender-specific Deity to expect all that weeping and gnashing of teeth from his children. He Loves us unconditionally, so it’s all fine.”

None of these fit the reality of the vision of God, or indeed the code of morality, we come to see on Good Friday

Thirdly, there is the Scared Stiff School. “The wrong sort of people want to take a mean advantage of them.” Found throughout the land, this bunch believe that God is quite the opposite of the Soppy School. Instead they are threatened with a harsh, capricious God, rather like a classical deity, or sadistic schoolmaster, who is waiting to catch them out, wrack them with guilt, and possibly trick them into doing something embarrassing – certainly to make them do penance of some kind.

None of these fit the reality of the vision of God, or indeed the code of morality, we come to see on Good Friday. Instead we are confronted by this God-Man who allows himself to be vulnerable, who confidently demands contrition, and whose property is always to have mercy. For century after century this Gospel has been drummed into the heads of the inhabitants of this Scepter’d Isle and yet it remains radically unacceptable to our psyche. 

Many of us still believe and act on the conviction that contrition and forgiveness is really rather complicated and perhaps should be avoided. Or that it can only be extended when the one wronged has returned to a position of power and the enfeebled supplicant comes begging. Examples are superfluous here — you will know when your hackles are raised by injustice or snobbery or idiocy. 

The quality of mercy is so alien to the wounded creature that it simply must be a miracle. Today that quality is one which we see in the most maligned of persons, the Man of Nazareth, hanging on the cross. “A man of sorrows”, Isaiah called him, “acquainted with grief — despised and rejected.” When soldiers struck and mocked him he returned “Father, forgive them.” When the thief next to him asked for clemency, he granted it.

Even when we assent to a conceptual understanding of Christian forgiveness we qualify it. As Cosimo de Medici wryly put it, “We read that we ought to forgive our enemies; but we do not read that we ought to forgive our friends.” However, Jesus’ business on earth was not finished until he had assured his friend Peter, the one who denied him, of his consistency.  

 Today we remember that Jesus of Nazareth decided that forgiveness was worth dying for. And his life and death stands as an example and challenge to us still. As that truculent pursuer of truth G. K. Chesterton put it, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.”

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