The Reverend Robin Sims-Williams
A couple of weeks ago I led an assembly at our school. The topic was - ‘people changed by Jesus.’ I decided to talk to them about how we change our minds about how something works or what we want to do. I talked a bit about the scientific method; about making an hypothesis and then looking for ways to test it. About how finding you were wrong was an opportunity to learn. I asked them what changed their minds when they had an idea of how something worked, or what they wanted to do. Of course one child suggested that if you are shown the benefits of doing something you might change your mind about doing it. Such as doing the dishes - the child explained - I didn’t want to do them - mom offered me a toy if I did them - so I changed my mind. Obviously the benefits of doing what you are asked to do can be a significant part of how we decide what we will do. Likewise the drawbacks if we don’t do what we are asked to do.
Then one of the children suggested that being forgiven could change their mind or behaviour.
I watched, for the first time, the King’s Speech last week. I’ve been told it was wonderful, so when it came up on my Amazon Prime I thought I’d give it a go… The great moment is when Bertie turns to Mr Lionel Logue, his speech therapist, after the death of his father and while his brother’s situation is becoming increasingly untenable. Bertie - soon to be King George VI - opens up to Lionel, about his feelings, about his childhood and about his relationships with his family. What Lionel wants to do, based on his own experience of helping World War I veterans, is to help release Bertie from his certainty of failure. He gives him hope of what he could become.
This aspect of Lionel’s approach, not unlike many speaking therapies, helping people to be reconciled to themselves. It involves a kind of unconditional love that we should have for each other. That a child should expect from their parents, and that God has for each of us.
When the student at the school suggested forgiveness could change somebodies mind, and while I was trying to think how to explore this particular suggestion, another student put their hand up and remembered the Gospel story of Zaccheus. You'll remember that Zaccheus was a disliked tax collector, who, when Jesus turned up, climbed a tree to see him. When Jesus saw him, he invited himself over for dinner.Jesus forgives Zaccheus and he is reformed. He is allowed to see himself differently by Jesus and then becomes the person who Jesus sees.
On Tuesday 10,000 prison officers in England and Wales stopped work over concerns about a ‘surge of violence’ in prisions. The prison officers were made to go back to work and the Justice secretary, Liz Truss, agreed to meet with unions. But, in the midst of this, there was lots of debate about the need for reform. For new prisons, which can take the numbers needed. For fewer prisoners, thinking again about what the thresholds are for locking people up, reviewing why prisoners are being held beyond their sentence, and how to reduce re-offending.
Obviously, knowing the impact of the decisions people make can help to reduce crime. Adverts teaching us about the potential implications of Drink-driving have massively changed the attitudes towards drink-driving compared to 30 years ago. It is important prisoners understand the impact of what they have done. But, if they have no hope of being anything but a criminal, how can they seek to live a different life after they have served their sentence.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is hanging on the cross, labelled as the ‘King of the Jews’, a misnomer - we are reminded today - Because Christ’s Kingship is over all of Creation. A Kingship not exercised in power, might and wealth, but in humility, servanthood and gracious, loving, forgiveness. He is mocked by one of the thieves from a neighbouring cross. But then, Jesus is asked by the other to be remembered by him in his Kingdom. Whatever the thief has actually done, whatever reason he is hanging from a cross, Jesus tells him, ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’
What our second, god-fearing, thief is looking for when he cries out to Jesus - I don’t know. But what he receives is a new kind of hope. No longer does he need to be afraid of death. In his case this is rather handy, but the message is the same for us all. We don’t need to be afraid of what we might fail to do, or that we might never be forgiven for the things we wish we hadn’t done. God will remember us for who we were made to be. Because God is like that patient father, the one all those of us who are parents wish we actually were, the ones that are never in a rush, always fascinated by whatever our children have made, and always willing to forgive us when we do the thing we were told not to do, and console us when doing that very thing has led to us bumping our knee and feeling really upset.
And it is this loving and caring God who knows what Isaac could become, who sees him not for the mistakes he will make growing up, or later on, but for the person who he truly is - a lovingly made creation - known and loved personally by God. It is also this same loving and gracious God who reaches out to us with the gift of baptism - not as a response to years of studying, understanding and ascent to Christ,
but as an initiation into the church,
in response to which we all ask Christ to remember us in his kingdom.