Walking the World as the Pardon of God

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Walking the World as the Pardon of God
Brian Zahnd

My father died in 2009. He was one of the wisest and kindest men I’ve ever known. L. Glen Zahnd was a judge and at his funeral a man he had once sent to prison for armed robbery came up to me and said, “I’m here today to honor your father. In his capacity as judge he sent me to prison, but he always treated me with respect and kindness. He was as merciful as he could be and he strove to preserve my dignity.” My father was like that — he was a man full of grace. He spent his last few months in a Franciscan nursing home called La Verna. It’s named after the place where St. Francis of Assisi received the wounds of Christ. In his final years my father suffered from dementia and could barely communicate. But whenever he was asked if he would like to receive Communion, he always managed to say yes. Even as his mind and body were failing him, this man known throughout the community for his kindness wanted to maintain his connection to grace.

G.K. Chesterton suggested that Saint Francis walked the world like the pardon of God. It’s an apt summary of the saint’s life. 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 themselves were drawn to Francis. How else do we explain why, in his 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 at which Francis excelled and to which the church is called.

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, the 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.

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 to embody.

Water To Wine pp. 122–126

  • Matthew

    I´m wondering why the evangelical world typically never talks about systemic sin? The focus is almost entirely on individual sin.

    Also thanks for illustrating via this post the very depth of sin. Indeed … forgive them for they know not what they
    do.

  • Jory Micah

    Powerful and smart post! Thanks Brian…I am enjoying your prophetic voice!

  • JK

    Brian, since I first learned about you during your 2014 Lent series I have learned and grown so much from your preaching and writing. I really appreciate your prophetic eye, your value for aesthetics, your ability to communicate hard, controversial ideas, and especially your focus on Jesus & the implications of the cross and resurrection.

    I read this post of yours and enjoyed it, like always. Your kicker, though: the great enemy of God and his people is…”unfettered capitalism”?

    I’m a PhD economist & academic researcher, I’d love to dialogue with you about these issues somewhere/sometime.

  • charlesburchfield

    Yes!

  • I sent you an email, JK.

  • Wasn’t it the “rank and file” sinners who cried “Give us Barabbas,” exchanging a murderer for the author of all life?

  • No. It was the crowd of priests.

  • “But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death….” (Matthew 27:20, Amplified Bible)?

  • Think of it as fifty people or so. The hangers on with the Sanhedrin and Temple police. The whole reason Jesus had to be arrested in secret (with the assistance of Judas) was that the Sanhedrin feared a riot, “for all the people regarded him as a prophet.” It’s all in the text.

  • doug sayers

    Thank you, Brian, great words on grace here. Speaking with myself in mind here, there is systematic sin in institutions because there is systematic sin in individuals. I would have to quibble with the simple attack on capitalism; the tin badge of success gets flaunted in every economic system. Again, this is because the systemic sin is in everyone. The larger (and greater in power) any community gets… the more its systemic sin is apparent and magnified. Jesus showed grace to those in power… when they were contrite.

    Thanks again, you make me think.

  • Doug,

    To clarify, I’m not opposed to capitalism. The market is infinitely superior at price-setting than any “central committee” could ever be. I am a capitalist — I own stock. But I have no illusion about the engine of greed that drives capitalism. “Unfettered capitalism” is the Gordon Gekko “greed is good” ethic. As a Christian I believe capitalism must at least be “fettered” by love, compassion, and a deep commitment to the common good.

    Capitalism has brought multitudes out of poverty, but there will always be those who are in danger of being crushed under its merciless wheels. I’m not opposed to capitalism per se, but I detest Ayn Rand’s perversion of it, for the simple reason that I am rather fond of the Sermon on the Mount.

    I hope this clarifies my position.

    Blessings,

    BZ

  • Matthew

    What would a truly redeemed capitalism look like practically speaking?

  • doug sayers

    I hear you, and had a hunch that might have been the case. Sorry for not giving you the benefit of the doubt.

    I like that sermon of Jesus, as well. Also, Paul had some good advice to Timothy on how to keep capitalism fettered. Come to think of it, so did James and John and…

    Here’s to seeking first the kingdom of God.

    DS

  • Ross Warnell

    Several years ago I was doing a fire investigation in Pennsylvania. The house belonged to a family of Plain Sect Mennonites. They own their own farms and property, but also join together for the common good. In this case the fire was caused by faulty electrical wiring and the propane gas company had no liability, and the entire community shared the costs of the catastrophic loss to the family.

    Now I realize this is not how life works in a large, highly complex society, but there is a lot to ponder.