Walk the World Like the Pardon of God


Walking the World Like the Pardon of God
Brian Zahnd

G.K. Chesterton suggested that Saint Francis of Assisi “walked the world like the pardon of God.” It’s an apt summary of the saint’s life. In his wonderful and unique way Saint Francis embodied the grace of God as he walked the hills of Umbria barefoot in his patched brown habit and simple rope belt preaching to birds and bishops. His life was a kind of performance art protest against the pervasive sins of thirteenth century Italy — pride, avarice, corruption, and violence.

Yet sinners were drawn to Francis. How else do we explain that within Francis’ lifetime forty thousand people joined his rigorous order of radical Christianity emphasizing poverty, simplicity and humility? Like Jesus, Francis could uncompromisingly denounce systemic sin, while extending genuine compassion to the people caught in its pernicious web. To be a prophetic witness against systems of sin and a preacher of God’s pardon for sinners at the same time is the peculiar grace Francis excelled at and the church is called to.

Two years before his death Francis retreated to the secluded hermitage at La Verna in the mountains of Tuscany for a protracted season of prayer. While there he experienced a mystical vision that resulted in his stigmata — the reproduction of the wounds of Christ in his own body. Francis bore these painful wounds until his death in 1226. Admittedly, this is a mysterious phenomenon, but I am willing to view it as Francis’ final dramatic testament to how the church is to be present in the world. Along with being a prophetic witness against the principalities and powers, and bearing joyful witness to the pardon of God, the church is called to participate in the sufferings of Christ.

The only Christian theodicy which I find credible is the confession that God does not exempt himself from the horror of human suffering, but is fully baptized into it. God in Christ joins us in a solidarity of suffering, and somehow by his wounds we are healed. Christ saves us from sin and death only by hurling himself into the abyss. The ultimate imitation of Christ is to patiently absorb sin and offer pardon in the name of love. This is grace.

If I were to pick a single moment that most clearly demonstrates who Jesus is and how he reveals the nature of God to us, it would be the moment of crucifixion when Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) This is grace demonstrated as a love supreme. It’s an unprecedented act — a plea for the pardon of his murderers. But, perhaps even more significantly, pardon is offered with a contemplative recognition that his persecutors are themselves enslaved in systems of sin that prevent them from having any real understanding of their crime or how to find their way out of it. This is the amazing grace of God that came to full expression in the life of Jesus.

When grace is pierced, it bleeds pardon. When grace is crucified, it doesn’t condemn. Crucified grace is even cognizant of how nearly impossible it is for sinful persecutors to act otherwise. Those who seek to imitate this kind of grace will eventually be wounded themselves — they will endure a stigmata upon their soul. They will help complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ. (see Colossians 1:24) This is what it means to be Christlike in the fullest sense. Before we are the church triumphant, we are the church stigmatized, and we are to bear our stigma with grace.

“As it is written:
‘For your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’
Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
-Romans 8:36, 37

We are “more than conquerors,” not by winning the petty games of the rat race and wearing the tin badge of “success,” but by imitating the slaughtered Lamb who sits at the right hand of God. We lessen the sin of the world by joining the Lamb of God in bearing sin and pardoning sinners.

But as the church has become a powerful institution, a consort with kings and queens, a confidante of presidents and prime ministers, our dispensing of grace has become distorted. We show grace to the institutions of systemic sin while condemning the individual sinner. It should be the other way around.

It was never the rank and file sinners who gnashed their teeth at Jesus, but those for whom the present arrangement of systemic sin was advantageous. Jesus condemned the systemic sin that preserved the status quo for the Herodians and Sadducees, but showed compassion to publicans and prostitutes. This is grace.

But the church, courting the favor of the powerful, has forgotten this kind of grace. We coddle the mighty whose ire we fear and condemn the sin of the weak who pose no threat. We enthusiastically endorse the systems of greed that run Wall Street while condemning personal greed in the life of the individual working for the minimum wage. We will gladly preach a sermon against the sin of personal greed, but we dare not offer a prophetic critique of the golden calf of unfettered capitalism. Jesus and Saint Francis and Dorothy Day did the opposite. They shamed the principalities and powers, but offered pardon to the people. This is the grace of God the church is called to embody.

May we seek to walk the world like the pardon of God.


(The artwork is Saint Francis by Cimabue c. 1288)

  • Great article.

    Just as there’s a monetary incentive gradient from living in the earthly system to being enthralled by it, there’s also an incentive gradient from repentant “Publican” to self-exalting “Pharisee” — one of psychological validation, riding a high, white horse through a crowd of The Other, the more of them the better.

  • Jeff Y

    Great. Thanks. This is also reflected in Revelation – where the triumphant “Lion of Judah” is actually, when John sees him, a “slaughtered lamb”; and the victors in the great war are not powerful; but are slaughtered with the slaughtered Lamb. Victory comes through suffering and death at the hands of the persecutors. And, when this is understood in terms of being followers in the steps of Jesus, it is suffering on behalf of the persecutors to draw them to God. So that when the world sees a disciple of Jesus – it sees the love of the crucified God. A great challenge for us all. May he increase our faith.

  • Well said Brian. I especially find, “When grace is pierced, it bleeds pardon. When grace is crucified, it doesn’t condemn.” a strong statement that we should all aspire to live.

  • Rick Smith

    This is a message we don’t hear often enough, yet it needs to be written and preached. Pastor Brian I appreciate your fearless candor. If we all spent just a little more time walking in this way, what a different world we would live in.

  • Rick Smith

    Stan, I like your use of the word “gradient” in this context, it adds images and texture to your words.

  • DavidS

    Great article and I love this paragraph:
    “But as the church has become a powerful institution, a consort with kings and queens, a confidante of presidents and prime ministers, our dispensing of grace has become distorted. We show grace to the institutions of systemic sin while condemning the individual sinner. It should be the other way around.”


    Please define what you mean by “unfettered capitalism”
    The definition of capitalism (Google it) is an amoral concept.
    Does the adjective “unfettered” refer to ?
    a) …capitalism without love? If so, then I wholeheartedly agree.
    b) …capitalism without the control and direction of the powerful and politically connected? If so, then this is a good thing to denounce
    c) …capitalism without a limit or cap on how much an individual can own? If this is what you mean, the road to solve this “problem” is a cure worse than greed. In fact, the cure is often motivated by envy or greed. Perhaps calling all people to contentment, love and Jesus without trying to decide how to cap an individual’s success is the right path.

  • Capitalism has a “quirk” where the market only solves problems that are tangibly “felt” by the traders, to the degree that they’re “felt,” and in proportion to the trading power behind those suffering traders.

    A little less abstract:

    1) If a problem is extremely high-order, obfuscated, or exceedingly “long view,” then it won’t be tangibly “felt” very much. Many of us will recognize these problems, but that recognition is through statistics and studies and retrospectives, not day-to-day experience. The free market satisfies mostly lower-order consumer demands in aggregate. (Low-order demands in aggregate do not graduate to high-order demands — there’s just a lot of ’em!)

    2) If a trading entity is very powerful — e.g., a trader with vast assets, or a large group of traders — and their interests are zero-sum-antagonistic to a weak trader, the former will smash the latter in the free market.

    What solution exists? The most workable solution we’ve discovered is: Empower people, with their assetless voices alone, to mandate their higher-order interests by consensus. The result is public roads, public funding of education, environmental regulation, workplace safety regulation, food and drug regulation, anti-discrimination laws, ‘Glass-Steagall’-style banking separation, public police, public firefighters, etc., i.e., things we could not depend on the free market to provide without the “weak traders” being left in the dust (at best) or exploited (at worst).

    Of course, there are many ways to go “too far.” There are just fetters and unjust fetters.

  • Herm

    Our MESSIAH rules today from the bottom up, inside out. Our Lord speaks the grace of forgiveness, too often rejected, tempered with grief in woe for those who are hardened to rule mankind from the top down, outside in. There is no facade to hide behind from He who begins from our naked hearts and minds, each bonded to Him in love.

    Thank you Pastor Zahnd for highlighting the stigma of my cross as a source for peace and joy! Love you!

  • Herm

    What is “an individual’s success” worth if measured against the poverty of the majority of mankind? It was the plurality of human kind, as one familial body, that was created in the image of the the plurality of God, a divine Family Body, male and female, united through love as one in heart and mind. Is the Father more successful because Jesus died? Did not the whole body of God suffer His death by the absence of Jesus’ heart and mind, which knew nothing, for three days? Why is it that we value individual success over the whole of mankind’s success? Carnally all individual members know they will cease to be able to contribute to the body of mankind but the body of mankind, sustained by healthy propagation of its cell relationships, need never cease to contribute to the life of its supporting individual members, but by the will of God. By that scenario what and how can success be measured?

    My right leg may be the strongest and most successful member but the health and life of my whole body is dependent upon an equal distribution of oxygenated blood to survive. If all blood begins to flow only one way into my right leg then I must cap to redistribute the flow or my entire body will die, including the leg. So it is with the body of mankind in the image of God.