We sing a song at my church with the words ‘Everyone needs forgiveness, the kindness of a saviour’.
Most people today acknowledge the importance of kindness. Even atheists often respect the church for running food banks and night shelters. Being kind is generally appreciated.
But the idea of needing a saviour is more controversial.
Many may well think – what do I need saving from? Are you saying there is something wrong with me?
The Christian response to this question needs to be a confident ‘Yes, there is something wrong with you. But its not just you – its all of us’.
Never failed me yet
This week I went to the annual service of commemoration for people who have died homeless in the past year, organised by Housing Justice and St Martins-in-the-Fields. This year, 170 names were read out. As ever, it was a very moving and powerful service.
But it was this year’s theme of the service ‘Never failed me yet’ which really got me thinking. The theme was drawn from a recording of an elderly homeless man singing which was captured in filming for a documentary on homelessness in 1971:
‘Jesus’ blood never failed me yet,
This one thing I know
For He loves me so’
Composer Gavin Bryars had the inspiration to put the man’s singing onto a continuous loop and gradually evolve a musical accompaniment around his words. The resulting musical piece is haunting and incredibly powerful. (click here to listen)
Need of forgiveness
The words of this simple song goes to the heart of Christian belief. Through Jesus the world is offered a love which never fails. Its not just personal, its universal.
I believe wholeheartedly in the church’s commitment to social action – the commitment to make a difference practically and politically. But alongside this we must never lose the most fundamental message on which everything else is built.
The human condition means we will always have a deep need for forgiveness. We all mess up, through negligence, weakness and our own deliberate fault. We all are complicit with the injustices of the world. Humanity has an enduring need for atonement and the wholeness which flows from it.
This is the deepest and most powerful form of inclusivity: Everyone does wrong. Everyone can be forgiven.
Truth and grace. Grace and truth.
And this wholeness cannot be generated through just self-help or our own efforts. We need it to come from beyond ourselves. As the 12 Step recovery movement have long-acknowledged, we need a higher power to save us from our predicament.
At St Martin’s-in-the-Fields, the main window is a disarmingly simple cross. There is nothing surprising about a cross in church, but this cross is different. It is formed by the presence of a womb-shape which distorts the lines of the window.
It is a cross which speaks of the new life and hope unleashed by the birth of a saviour into the world. The shape could also be the empty tomb from which Jesus was resurrected.
The cross was a cruel instrument of death. But the victory of God was to transform it into a symbol of hope and new life.
Showing kindness and doing justice are vital to being a Christian. We need to do all we can to prevent the scandalous tragedy of homeless people dying on our streets.
But all of our actions are a response to God’s action. Kindness and justice authenticate what we say we believe.
But they are not the total message and never can be. Because it is not about us. Hope does not lie in what we can do.
Christian hope lies in what God has done. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus that offers the real saving hope for humanity. It is a hope which needs no human mediation – anyone can access it freely and directly.
In age of anxiety and guilt, we need to be confident about the gospel message: through Jesus everyone can find forgiveness, hope and wholeness. We can find rest for our weary souls. His grace is the ultimate truth.