Forgiveness not guilt

Epiphany 7

Mark 2:1-12

Marian Free

 In the name of God who sets us free from all our doubts and fears so that we may truly live. Amen.

 Just recently Michael and I watched an amazing movie – “Get Low”. Even though the movie centred on one character and there was little violence, no crime and only a modicum of sexual tension, the suspense was agonising. The story is set in Tennessee in the 1930’s and centres on Felix, a hermit who aggressively protects his privacy and about whom very little is known. Mystery surrounds him and as a result a number of legends have grown up – most notably that he murdered at least one person and that he was just as likely to do so again.

The story begins when a priest arrives at Felix’s hide-away to announce the death of one of Felix’s mates. For reasons unknown to the audience, this causes Felix to plan his own funeral which he intends to hold while he is still alive. He knows that rumours are being spread about him and he invites people to come and tell their stories in order for the truth to come out. Needless to say, his plans are met with disbelief, surprise and not a little anxiety – who would dare tell their stories to a man who was such an unknown quantity?

Felix manages to persuade a funeral director that he is serious about the plan and he even devises some sort of lottery to encourage people to attend – the prize being his three hundred acres of land. Flyers and invitations are sent out and plans are made for the event – stage, band, catering and so on.  Then, apparently not convinced that his true story will be told, Felix visits an old friend – the Rev’d Charlie Jackson.  The tension builds – Charlie will not come to the funeral unless Felix asks for forgiveness, something that Felix refuses to do.

By now, the audience is convinced that whatever Felix has done, it must have been absolutely terrible, unforgiveable even. Felix shouts at the priest that he won’t ask for forgiveness: “They keep talking about forgiveness. “Ask Jesus for forgiveness.” I never did nothing to him.” Continuing, he says: “I built myself a jail and lived in it for 40 years. I’ve had no wife, no family, no companionship, isn’t that enough!” When the priest remains resolute, and will not come, Felix storms off and cancels the funeral.

After considerable persuasion from the funeral director who stands to lose a lot of money, the event goes ahead with Charlie Jackson who tells those present that most people think that good and evil are poles apart, but that more often they are side by side. He tells the crowd that this tormented man, Felix, built the most beautiful church he had ever seen and then imprisoned himself on these three hundred acres for the past forty years.

The suspense is unbearable as Felix himself gets up to speak. As no one else will tell his story, he must tell it himself. His story is sad, but his crime, while serious, does not match our expectations. His crime was this: He fell in love with a married woman, the result of which was that she died at the hands of her husband. He has never forgiven himself for his part in her death.

For forty years Felix has carried the burden of guilt. For forty years he has locked himself away from the world as a form of self-imprisonment. For forty years he has kept his secret from everyone – including Mattie his one-time girlfriend and the sister of the woman he loved. For forty years Felix was unable to forgive himself and therefore unable to seek forgiveness. As a result his life was seriously curtailed.  He was, if you like, paralysed unable to move forward, unable to build relationships locked in the prison of his past which clung to him like an albatross – holding him back and preventing him from being truly alive. For forty years guilt and grief stood between him and happiness and fulfilment. Only when his friend died and Felix recognised his own mortality, did he finally come to recognise that he needed to find peace.

In today’s gospel, a group of people bring to Jesus a man who is paralysed. Instead of touching the man and uttering words of healing, Jesus tells him that his sins are forgiven. The reaction of the scribes is one of shock – only God can forgive sins! Jesus is unperturbed. “Which is easier to say: “Your sins are forgiven” or to say: “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? The gospel canvasses the significant issue as to Jesus’ ability to forgive sins, but an underlying theme is Jesus’ recognition of the paralytic’s real need – to be forgiven.

Jesus doesn’t associate disease with sin, but he does seem to recognise that physical healing alone is not the answer for the paralytic, something else is holding him back, something else is preventing him from living life to the full. Only if the paralytic hears the words of forgiveness will he truly be healed.

Forgiveness is powerfully liberating. It sets us free from guilt and regret and allows us to leave the past, whatever it is, behind us. If we accept that we are forgiven and if we have the grace to forgive ourselves we can move on from anxiety, doubt and fear, live in the present and look forward to the future.

It is a mistake to think that guilt is meant to be part of the Christian experience. Living with guilt, nursing our regrets and holding on to past sin demonstrate not faith or humility, but their complete opposite – arrogance and faithlessness.  If, like Felix, we close ourselves away and punish ourselves day after day believing that we do not deserve forgiveness we place ourselves in competition with God who alone is judge. Worse than that, we show a complete failure to trust in God’s love and in the saving grace of the cross and we deny the presence of the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit which continually transforms and renews us.

Felix’ story reminds us that it can be so much harder to ask for and accept forgiveness than it is to hold on to regret. But it is only by accepting our imperfections and by trusting in God’s unconditional love that we are able to be fully alive and it is only by being fully alive that we can show our gratitude for God’s gift of life to us.

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