(This is Neil.) The current “Faith Matters” column in the Christian Century is written by L. Gregory Jones of the Duke Divinity School. He suggests that we can only give or receive forgiveness within the space opened up by the Spirit through the friendships and practices in faithful Christian communities, forcing us to ask ourselves whether our communities instead “reflect, and even intensify, the isolation and estrangement and destructiveness of the wider world.”
Here is an excerpt from his column:
Hardness of heart. Scripture uses this image to describe those who are impenetrably stubborn, those who are unwilling or unable to see God’s glory or to reorient their lives to God’s call and claims. But what causes hardness of heart? Is it always human sin, those things which we have done which ossify our hearts and rigidify our minds? Do tragic accidents sometimes harden us in ways that make it difficult, if not impossible, to remain open to transformation, to sustain a mental, emotional and moral agility? Do the effects of systemic sin, as well as the effects of personal sin done to us rather than by us, cultivate wounds that may harden us and erupt into further destructiveness?
Is such hardening inevitable and irreversible? At the heart of the Christian faith is the proclamation of God’s forgiveness in Christ. But this proclamation cannot be heard, much less learned and lived, in isolation. We all need the gift of others who will patiently and lovingly bear with us through time and nurture in us patterns that help to thaw our hearts, heal our memories and repattern our thoughts, feelings and actions in Christ.
We are not likely to be able to offer or receive such gifts without robust communities that are committed to patience and the centrality of faith, hope and love in bearing witness to the life-giving and transforming power of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. Too often churches proclaim God’s forgiveness rhetorically without offering social contexts in which that forgiveness can be learned and lived through friendships and practices. Hard shells of bitterness, anger and despair do not disappear magically. It’s even more difficult when congregations and pastors reflect, and even intensify, the isolation and estrangement and destructiveness of the wider world.
By contrast, faithful Christian communities provide powerful holding environments for us to learn and embody Christ’s forgiveness. Such communities are lights unto the nations, shining into the darkness of our personal and collective lives. The hymn “Spirit of the Living God” invokes the Spirit to “fall afresh”—to melt us, mold us, fill us, use us. The Spirit creates space in our thoughts, feelings and actions for Christ’s forgiving love, and works through the friendships and practices that shape the body of Christ.