What Is the Most Important Teaching of Christianity? The Hardest One.
So often I think we lose something fundamentally important to what Christianity is: a Way to follow. Jesus teaches us how to live, how to be in the world, how to follow God's Way. It seems to me that this is eclipsed in contemporary Christianity by the pomp and circumstance of Church and denominationalism, by theological arguments stemming out of the Reformation, especially in Protestant circles, and by the way pop-Christianity is presented to the culture at large. But fundamentally Christianity is about a teacher, Jesus, and his students, us, who are learning from him.
What is it that we are learning? Are we only learning how to be justified by grace by no action of our own? We are learning how to follow the Way: the Way of Jesus, the Way of Love.
The most central teaching of Christianity, and the hardest, is forgiveness. Forgiveness seems to me to be the heart of Jesus' teaching. The Lord's Prayer is so familiar that it is easy to miss this life-changing prayer right in the middle of it:
"Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those that sin against us."
Jesus insists that if we are to live God's way, we must forgive those that wrong us, we must forgive our enemies, and even love those that oppress and persecute us. That is radical and world-changing if practiced! It is the tremendously difficult daily sacrifice of waking up each day to commit to the way of forgiveness, grace, and peace. What would your life look like if you lived by that orientation?
I noticed something striking today that led me to write this blog post. When we pray the Lord's Prayer we do so corporately, and we do so plurally, not singularly. We do not pray "My Father who art in Heaven...give me this day my daily bread...forgive me my sins as I forgive those who sin against me...." We pray "give us" and "forgive us." Why is this so important? Because the prayer is from the community. Not only does this orient each of us individually for how to live, it defines how we are meant to live in community together in the world as followers of Jesus.
How can someone sin against the community or wrong the community? Think about the way our culture treats people who have made mistakes, done great wrongs, committed acts of crime or sin. Living the Way as Jesus teaches would mean building a community, maybe even a society, that instead of using retributive punishment on those who have committed crimes, or casting out those who have done wrong, we would be oriented toward grace, rehabilitation, and reconciliation.
How would that change the way you heard talking heads on Fox News or MSNBC at night? How would that change how you think about the 2.12 million people incarcerated in the United States? How would it change the way you talk about former President Donald Trump, Joe Biden, the radical liberal left, the alt-right, anti-vaxxers, covid deniers, pro-vaxxers, or whoever it is you find yourself thinking badly about or making comments about when behind closed doors or in small circles?
Recently the great Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed from this life into the next. Desmond Tutu famously led his country South Africa to create the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the fall of apartheid. Can you imagine a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in contemporary American society, that gives everyone, even those who committed racist acts of violence, a chance to speak and tell their story, and that focused on reconciliation and forgiveness rather than retribution and punishment?
This does not mean that we ought not to have consequences for actions or justice, especially for those that have been wronged. God is Justice just as God is Grace and Love. But all of these characteristics in God are One. They are not separate aspects of God that sometimes manifest. God is always Justice, and God is always Love. To follow him means to clothe ourselves in these things and learn how to live them, learn how to also be them, in our daily lives.
So how do we change community, society, and culture to follow Jesus' Way of love? How do we transform the world into His image? How could any of us do such a daunting and impossible task? Well, that answer is simple.
We wake up each day and commit ourselves to forgiveness. Every day, all day, throughout the day, we commit ourselves to forgive those that wrong us, to forgive those that did us great wrongs in the past, forgive those that make small indiscretions upon us now, forgive ourselves for what we are ashamed or guilty of, and forgive those who have wronged all of us in society and culture.
If we commit ourselves to forgive every day, we clothe ourselves in grace, and embrace the Way of Love that Jesus calls us to follow. Perhaps we can even learn to be as He was, when he hung on the Cross and cried out to his Father to forgive even those who were killing him. His forgiveness changed the world. So can ours.