There are some people in this country, and probably all over the world who want to take the Book of Revelation literally. They want us to understand that a great apocalypse is coming and coming soon. That the skies will open and God’s army, led by Jesus will descend and kill all of those who are not born again. Mostly these are very conservative evangelical Christians who believe all of this. It is disturbing to me because they leave the essentials of the Christian faith behind them when they preach these things. There are a lot of examples of violence in the scriptures. God frequently helps the Hebrews destroy the Philistines. The destruction of Pharaoh’s army as the separated Red Sea closed around them as the Hebrew’s fled from Egypt is another example. But things changed when Jesus came among us. The issue no longer was violence, but forgiveness. That is what Jesus taught all of his life.
I spent twenty-two years working as a part time chaplain at Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh. I saw a lot of men who had done some very bad things. Some of them seemed to be almost lost because of their crimes. We talked constantly about forgiveness. This was a welcome subject, but very few of them believed that forgiveness for them was even a remote possibility. One old man, who had come to prison in his mid-seventies would always tug my sleeve at the end of a group session that talked about forgiveness and would say to me, “listen preacher, there are two people in the graveyard because of what I did. God is never going to forgive that!” One day a year or so later, I saw his eyes light up when we were again talking about forgiveness. He, all of a sudden understood that we were talking about him. His life changed drastically after that. He was living in the hospital and would be wheeled out and across the yard when we had group. When he got to the yard, he would be swamped by other inmates who wanted to be near him because there was a light around him that was undeniable.
Forgiveness is the theme of the passage from the 14th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans and the 18th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Paul talks about the constant problem that we have with judgement. He asks why we judge one another when we are all accountable to God. He says that in the end, God will judge all of us. In Matthew’s gospel, Peter asks Jesus how many time he is supposed to forgive, could it be as many as seven times? Jesus answers him that it should not be just seven times, but seventy times seven. Jesus is saying essentially that forgiveness needs to be endless in our lives with each other. The most revealing story of forgiveness is when Jesus met Peter and the other disciples on the shore of the sea of Galilee after his resurrection. He was cooking fish over a fire. He asked Peter, “do you love me?” Peter answered, “yes Lord, you know that I love you”. Jesus asked Peter this question three times, the number of times that Peter had denied Jesus at the time of his arrest before the crucifixion. The effect of this encounter was to forgive Peter for his denials. If Jesus could do this for Peter, how wonderful it would be if we could do this for each other. This is God’s desire for all of humanity, to be willing to forgive those who have hurt and sinned against us. Peace would be the result of this.
None of this sits very well with the Revelation preachers. They want us to stay away from those who are not born again and remember the great apocalypse that is about to descend on humanity. With the threat of North Korea and its nuclear capacity, this is sometimes easy to imagine. I believe, however in a God who loves humanity and will do everything necessary to keep us alive, despite even our worst desires. The proof of God’s love is that he gave his only begotten son, Jesus, to come to us, to die for us and to be raised from the dead as a gift to us all to show us that forgiveness is the one constant that we can count on from our God.