Monday, August 1, 2011

The Powers and Hazards of Forgiveness

Preached Sunday, July 31, 2011

Scripture readings: Matthew 6:5-15; 18:21-35

Q&A: If you forgive someone who hasn’t asked for forgiveness, does God forgive them?

One of those reader-board signs in front of a church gave this advice to passers-by. It said: “Forgive your enemies, it messes with their heads.”

I am sure this would be true; just as I am sure that the very thought of forgiving my enemies messes with my own head. The truth is we all need our heads messed with by God. How we receive and give forgiveness shows the mess in our heads that God needs to mess with.

The mess in our heads harks back to the Garden of Eden where we first judged the guilt of others and where we first needed and received forgiveness. The heart of the sin of Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden was that they wanted to be in charge of their own lives. And, obviously, they wanted to be in charge of other people’s lives, too.

The serpent in the garden offered them the forbidden fruit as a way to acquire knowledge, and (through knowledge) power. Adam and Eve wanted the knowledge that would let them chart out their own course as free agents. If they had the knowledge to set up as free agents, they would not have to depend on God, and they would not have to live by faith.

They ate the forbidden fruit because they wanted to know everything from good to evil so they could make their own choices. They wanted to be like God in their wisdom. (Genesis 3:5-6) They wanted to be their own little gods; and they acted on what they wanted.

Their actions changed the nature of the human race to its very heart and core. We became blamers and judgers of others in Adam and Eve. When they were caught, Adam judged Eve, and blamed her. Eve judged and blamed the serpent, the Devil. Whatever knowledge the forbidden fruit gave them did not include the knowledge of faithfulness, or mercy, or forgiveness. And that is why the world is the way it is today.

Jesus said it is important to forgive from our very heart; the very center and core of all our emotions, and our wants, and our impulses. This would show the reversal of the corruption of our human hearts and minds that began in Eden.

Forgiveness from the heart would show the rebirth of faith. It would show our rebirth as creatures who live in relationship with God. This forgiveness would show whether we were allowing the grace of God to transform us into the image of God’s own graciousness. It would show our willingness to let God mess with our heads.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons [and daughters] of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

When we forgive those who wrong us we act in faith. We act out our faith in the kind of God in whom we trust. When we forgive others, we act out our faith that God has forgiven us in Christ.

Paul says: “be kind and compassionate toward one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore as dearly beloved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 4:32-5:2)

The new life in Christ plants the cross in our hearts. We begin to live as the people of forgiveness. We are commanded to forgive from the heart, because nothing else will prove the living presence of Jesus in us, who forgave our sins.

Peter wanted rules from Jesus about forgiving. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21) Peter wanted to collect the information he needed to be in charge of his brother’s forgiveness or judgment. Peter wanted to be his own agent; his own little god on the judgment throne. It was the sin of the Garden of Eden at work, all over again.

His heart and his head were still messed up with the sin of Adam and Eve, and so Jesus messed with him in the matter of forgiveness. Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:22) It was Jesus’ way of saying, “I want you to forgive until you lose count. I want you to stop counting and stop sitting in judgment. Let me be in charge. Let me judge, and let me die for your brother’s sins, and for your sins, and for the sins of the world.”

One of the rules of the ancient rabbis says that you don’t have to forgive the wrongs that someone has done to you unless they are truly repentant, and attempt restitution for their sins. A brother, or a neighbor, or a stranger, or even a rival or enemy who has sinned against you seventy times seven times obviously is not truly sorry and is not making restitution.

Jesus was abolishing the rules about forgiveness, and taking the task of forgiveness upon himself. Forgiving another person seventy times seven times was an act of faith in the forgiveness of Jesus.

If Peter knew this, his heart would be changed. He would forgive till he was sick of it. Then he might act like a follower of Jesus and talk to Jesus about it. Then he would pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

Now there is one important point about what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness does not minimize sin. Forgiveness does not condone sin. Forgiveness does not explain away sin. Forgiveness does not find excuses for sin. Forgiveness requires that sin, hurt, injustice, injury, malice, and evil have to be confronted for what they are.

They have to be faced by the doer, as well as by the one on the receiving end. They have to be faced and dealt with.

Only God can truly deal with sin. And God did this in Christ. The followers of Jesus face the sinfulness of sin and the evilness of evil with the certain knowledge that God himself has died for the sin and evil of the world. It is God, the maker and ruler of the universe, who has faced, and received, and suffered the total weight of the sin, and the evil, and the death of the world on the cross. That is the work that messes with the real issue in our heads and hearts.

Real forgiveness deals with sin. The word forgiveness, in biblical thinking, has its roots in the idea of sending something away or setting something free. Forgiveness of sin is the sending away of sin. Forgiveness of a sinner is the setting of that person free. Only God’s recreation of us through the cross and the resurrection sends sin away and sets us free from its power.

Human forgiveness finds it hard to get wrongdoing out of a person and send it away. It can be done but it is hard, and long, and serious work. It is a parent’s work. How do you teach a child not to covet (not to be jealous or envious)? How do you teach a child not to lie?

My parents tried to teach me to tell the truth. If the truth be told, they worked at this very hard, but they also explained to me the mystery of the white lie.

There’s another thing they did that shows how it is long, hard, difficult work for human beings to send sin away from other people’s lives and set them free. When I was a kid we would go as a family to see movies at the drive-in theater. When I was twelve I was instructed to pretend that I was ten, and my sisters hid under a blanket, so our family could drive in for cheap. This was an interesting twist in my training in honesty. Teaching honesty is hard work. A totally honest and life-changing forgiveness is hard work.

Forgiveness has a great power to change people. I am thankful for the chances that I have been given through others forgiving me. I am always amazed at being forgiven. It always strikes me as being a kind of miracle, because I know it doesn’t come easy.

We are wounded by the wrongdoing of others, and these wounds sometimes accumulate over life. Forgiving others is like an act of heroism or like an award-winning athletic achievement. Such great work is hard to do when you are wounded. And I think our need for forgiveness, in our heart, is like a self-inflicted wound.

When we grant forgiveness, from our heart, in the hopes of sending the wrong-doing away and out of the life of the person who has done us wrong, it is hard. It has no guarantees. Granting them forgiveness from the heart in order to free them from the wrong they did to you (and may yet do again to you and to others) is hard because you may not want to set them free. And you can never be sure how much the difficulty owes to the fact that each one of us is (in some sense) just as much in need of forgiveness as those who wrong us.

But Jesus sets the priorities like this. “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15)

The Lord’s Prayer helps us to understand our mission as forgivers. The Lord’s Prayer is not a set of miniature prayers for us to learn by heart and repeat from memory. This prayer is to be the portrait of our heart in the presence of God, and it is to be the portrait of God to us when we pray. It is not a bunch of separate bits and pieces. The phrases of this prayer belong together to make up the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth of a face. It is a portrait.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” is a part of the same portrait “Hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The hallowing, the lifting up and glorifying of the name of the Lord, is wrapped up in being forgiven as we have forgiven others. They cannot be separated.

Forgiveness is God’s work. Forgiveness is his name. Forgiveness is his kingdom. It is his power and glory forever. It is God in Christ, crucified for us. It is his nature as “the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)

When we forgive, we are agents of the kingdom of God. We are agents of Jesus, and we have been sent by Jesus to do his work and speak his words. We have to learn the meaning of forgiveness from our heart. We have to drown the desire of our heart to be in charge of the judgment and forgiveness of others by forgiving until we lose count.

But this is also the truth: we forgive others with the very will of God for their forgiveness. Paul says as much, when he writes: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:19)

Now this sermon is meant to answer a question that was given to me. The question is: “If you forgive someone who hasn’t asked forgiveness, does God forgive them?

The simple answer is “yes”. Yes, God forgives them. But there is the question of how a person receives a gift they haven’t asked for and that they do not want.

How do you handle being given a gift you do not want? Do you say, “No, thank you,” and hand it back to the giver? Do you throw the gift away when the giver is out of sight? Do you turn around and give it to someone else who may not want it any more than you do?

To be reconciled to God, and to be a new creation in Christ through his work of making us creatures of peace through the cross, is a wonderful thing. Who wouldn’t want it? Who wouldn’t want peace with God? Who wouldn’t want peace with their family or with a member of their family? Who wouldn’t want peace in their church? Who wouldn’t want to forgive their enemies? Who wouldn’t want to be an agent of God's peace in the world? Everyone wants peace and does everything in their power to make the peace of Christ a living reality around them; or do they?

God’s gift of forgiveness is God’s way of saying “yes” to us. What if we say “no” to God’s “yes”?

I said “yes” to Jesus when I was a child. As time when by, and I became a teenager, I devised my own way of relating to him; wanting to love him, and wanting to go my own way at the same time. And I wanted to protect myself from Jesus’ wants and desires for my life. I tried to hold onto him and to hold him off at the same time.

And someone said some things about Jesus’ love for me and his dying for me that were so touching and beautiful that it seemed like a crime to keep wanting to have things my own way. Jesus said “yes” to my forgiveness. He said “yes” to my identity as his child. It seemed like a crime to not say “yes” to his “yes”. I felt that I could hardly face myself again if I said “no” to his “yes”; so I said “yes” to his “yes”, and a new life began for me; a new life that I had interrupted. And Jesus began it all over again, as if I had nothing to be ashamed of.

But I have to confess it was hard to say “yes” to his “yes”. I had resisted it for what seemed like forever.

You and I are called to forgive others, whatever they may say or do. You and I are called to be agents of the beauty of the love of God in Christ that shows its greatest beauty and power in forgiveness.

We are not the gods we want to be. Only God is God and we are his agents, and we speak and live out our obedience by faith. We are called to know, from our heart, how strong, how powerful, the “yes” of God is. We are not called to be afraid of others saying “no”.

People do say “no” but we are not to listen to them when they say it. We are not to doubt the power of God.

We are to drown our fears in a forgiveness that is so big that we lose count of how many times forgiveness has been required of us. We are to drown our fears for others in a forgiveness that is so big that we cannot imagine anyone being capable of escaping it.

Some people may keep saying “no” to the very end, but we are called to faith, and not to doubt. We are called to hope and not give up.

The children of God do not lose confidence. We are called to have faith and hope in the power of the forgiveness of God so that we can pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

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