I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake. I will not remember your sins.
(Isaiah 43:25 NRSV)
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6 NRSV)
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18: 21-22 RSV)
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15 NRSV)
Lots of us have problems with forgiveness.
Some of us have problems forgiving others. Some of us have problems forgiving ourselves. (Or, to phrase it in a more theologically correct way, some of us have problems accepting God’s forgiveness.) Some of these issues are spiritual in nature; some are emotional or mental in nature; some of our issues with forgiveness are just plain old philosophical in nature. As I was walking through the congregation yesterday, leaving after “worship on the lawn,” I heard some quietly spoken mutterings about those problems with forgiveness. It was almost like old times: I can’t remember a single Sunday I preached a sermon on forgiveness when I didn’t have at least a few calls the week following from parishioners who had a struggle with forgiveness. Based on what I overheard yesterday, issues with forgiveness cross denominational lines with abandon.
There are those who fear that offering forgiveness is a form of perpetuating injustice, of pretending that something is OK when it really isn’t OK at all. Nothing could be further from the truth: offering forgiveness is a powerful indication that something has been done which requires forgiving - something wrong, something hurtful, something unjust. Forgiveness calls a sin, a sin.
There are those who fear that forgiveness will be interpreted as weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth: forgiving requires strength and is a sign of strength...as anyone who’s ever asked God for the strength to forgive can tell you.
And when we offer forgiveness, our position is strengthened: we’ve done what we can do to make the future possible. If the person who has harmed us refuses to acknowledge that anything requiring forgiveness has occurred, that’s on his/her account; we are still free to move forward
unencumbered by bitterness or resentment. If the one who has harmed us does acknowledge wrongdoing and expresses thanks for the forgiveness, then (God be praised) we are on the road toward reconciliation and -who knows? - maybe even restoration!
Then there are those of us who fear that if we forgive someone who has done something awful and hurt us badly, that person may do so again. Truth be told, that fear is not without foundation; sometimes trespassers become repeat offenders, which may be why Jesus felt the need to address that possibility in his answer to Peter’s question about numbers. Of course, different versions of the Bible offer different numerical formulations: some say we must forgive 77 times; some, 70 times 7. Even if we go with the latter, more generous calculation, something tells me Jesus wasn't indicating that Peter was off the hook when the 489th infraction ticked over to the 490th. At base, forgiveness isn’t a numbers game. It’s a gift. Whether we’re receiving it or extending it, forgiveness is a gift from God and of God.
Which is good news for all of us, since Jesus doesn’t offer any exceptions or exclusions in Matthew 6 (nor in Matthew 18). We are called, even commanded, to forgive all who trespass against us. No loopholes. It would seem that Jesus is as serious as serious can be about forgiveness; deadly serious about it, judging from the Cross. Because he is willing to die to make forgiveness possible, Jesus can afford to be plain spoken about our need to forgive and to be forgiven.
Because the two can never be separated. Until we’ve recognized ourselves as sinners, until we’ve acknowledged our own need for the divine forgiveness we can never deserve, we’ll always struggle to forgive. As long as we are praying, “I thank you, O Lord, that I am not like other folks - sinners in need of repentance and forgiveness” then we will never see that when it comes to the daily need for forgiveness, we are, in fact, just like other folks. Our sins may be less spectacular or less newsworthy of “film at 11” - but subtle sins and un-faced failures are not hidden from the eyes of a holy God who looks on the heart. All of us stand in need of the grace of God on a regular basis. No exemptions.
On the other hand, God can forgive just about anything. If you doubt me on this point, put that statement to the test by reading through the Bible. You won’t believe your eyes when you see the scope of what God can forgive...or what God can do with the forgiven. “Those who have been forgiven much, love much” as someone famous once said; they are filled with gratitude for such a miracle, and often become God’s greatest ambassadors of grace. Like Peter. Like Paul. Like the last person who wowed you with forgiveness freely given.
As for me, my reasons for forgiving are simple and practical. I trust that Jesus is giving it to us straight when he says that if we forgive, God will forgive us; and if we won’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven. Bible Study friends have often asked me whether Jesus meant this as a threat or a promise! My answer has always been the same: it is neither. It is merely a statement of the facts: forgiveness is a two way street; you can’t cut off the traffic of the heart in one direction only. The heart so tightly closed up that it can’t let God’s grace out to forgive someone else is also too tightly closed up to let God’s forgiveness in. For me, it all boils down to this one reality: I can’t afford to stop forgiving because I can’t afford for God to stop forgiving me...ever. Period. End of report.
“Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive” UM Hymnal,
#390, stanzas 1-3
"Forgive our sins as we forgive,"
you taught us, Lord, to pray;
but you alone can grant us grace
to live the words we say.
How can your pardon reach and bless
the unforgiving heart
that broods on wrongs and will not let
old bitterness depart?
In blazing light your cross reveals
the truth we dimly knew:
what trivial debts are owed to us,
how great our debt to you!
Pastor Susan Pate Greenwood