Forgiveness Part 3
Matthew 18:15-22, John 20:19-23, August 25, 2013
In June the Worship Committee passed on a request for a sermon about forgiveness. So we talked about forgiveness at Brown Bag Bible Exploration on a Tuesday afternoon, and at Evergreen Bible Exploration on a Wednesday morning. And right away I realized that there is a lot to think about when it comes to forgiveness. I preached on forgiveness—always speaking in favor of it!—on July 14 and July 21. But I found there is still more to say and also your comments and responses have helped me see forgiveness in new ways. More than any other topic, I am finding that sermons about forgiveness are parts of long-running dialogs. I cannot imagine ever completely exhausting the topic. So here are some more thoughts to help us all understand and grow in forgiving and in accepting forgiveness.
This morning I'm going to start with the reading from John's gospel. This passage takes place on the evening of day of the resurrection. At this point, Jesus had appeared only to Mary Magdalene, Peter and another disciple referred to as "the other disciple." The disciples were hiding, and this is a very troubling word choice, "for fear of the Jews." Well, that's weird, because the disciples are themselves Jews, and so is Jesus. They're afraid of the leaders of the Jews, the ones who are threatened by Jesus' message. Anyway, Jesus appears to them behind their locked door. Jesus shows them his wounds—he's no ghost or specter—he's there in the flesh. He breathes on them and gives them the Holy Spirit. Now in the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit enters the disciples during the Pentecost festival and they are able to speak foreign languages, languages they have never even heard before. The people who wrote the New Testament wrote to show that the Holy Spirit is powerful, amazing, awesome and unpredictable. You with me? Jesus breathed into his disciples and gave them power—specifically, he gave them the power to forgive sin.. I'll say that again, Jesus gave his disciples the power to forgive sin.
Let me remind you of another story, one that I preached in July. Some people want to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus so he can be healed. It's too crowded for them to get the man to Jesus, so they cut a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus was, and lowered the man on his bed in front of Jesus. Jesus says, "Friend, your sins are forgiven you." The Pharisees and teachers of the law were enraged! Jesus was presuming to forgive sins and only God can do that! Jesus was acting as God; there's a word for that "blasphemy." No one really noticed that the man got up and walked away. The thing that grabbed the headline was that Jesus presumed to do what they believed only God could do. Only God can forgive sin. And here's a story in John's gospel in which Jesus gives his followers the power to forgive sin. This was a shocking, offensive thing to do. And as we discussed this around the tables this summer, the part that troubled us most was that the disciples were also given the power to "retain" sins. That's how the New Revised Standard Version words it. Other versions say "not forgive." Who are the disciples, or who is anyone, to withhold forgiveness?
In talking about this, we realized that most of us define "sin" as a really serious wrong thing, that is against God, and hurts other people. So forgiving sin is about restoring one's relationship with God. It's between an individual and God, it might help to think of forgiving sins as "vertical." Presbyterians do not think of sin and forgiveness in quite this way. For example, we believe that everyone has access to God directly. We do not believe we need a mediator, someone who relays our prayers to God, nor do we need to have forgiveness, or pardon, or reconciliation conveyed through someone else. We have clergy who take the title "teaching elder;" other traditions have priests who stand between God and the people. Jesus' followers lived in a culture that had an understanding of how to communicate with God that is different from ours. The power to forgive sin and withhold forgiveness was huge. And to our 21st century minds it just felt wrong, excessive, and like the kind of power that tends to corrupt.
I think of the lesson from Matthew's gospel as being forgiveness on a horizontal level. Sin and forgiveness between people. The passage starts with a discussion of how churches, communities should respond to sin. We'd call it "progressive discipline" today. For the church to be healthy, people who sin need to have their sin pointed out to them, so they can stop it and be restored to the community. It might appear to be judgmental at first, but this kind of thing really can be done in a spirit of love and with a desire for reconciliation. Jesus instructs his closest followers to confront the sinner alone, then in a small group, and as a last resort to bring that person before the whole congregation, giving him a chance to repent and be restored, but if he refuses he is to be kicked out of the church. I've been a minister for nearly 25 years I cannot remember even hearing of a Presbyterian church that has taken this course of action. It's very unusual in this day and age. But as Jesus describes this the sinner gets only three chances to be restored to the community.
Contrast that with the last two verses of this passage, Peter asks how many times should one forgive? Seven? Here Peter is being extravagant, is 7 enough? And Jesus responded either "77 times" or "70 times 7." Jesus did not mean one should forgive up to 77 times, but one should withhold forgiveness at #78, or at #491 if you go with 70 times 7. Jesus is saying that forgiveness should be without calculation, or as I like to say without keeping score. And forgiveness makes everyone healthier and better.
I've been thinking a lot about forgiveness, talking a lot about forgiveness and one of the things I've noticed is the language we use for not forgiving. We hold a grudge, we retain someone's wrong against us. We say we can't let go of this bad thing someone did to harm us. If you think of a grudge as a physical thing, it's a weight that one carries. It takes energy and strength to hold a grudge. Grudges need to be maintained. As someone who has carried grudges I found that thinking about them as things that need maintenance is very helpful. How does one keep a grudge going? Well, you can tell your friends why you're not going to forgive this person or that company that did you wrong. You can turn the offense over and over in your head. You can rehearse it. Like picking scab off a wound just as it's starting to heal, you can –well, I can—stoke and feed a grudge for a long time. And it is a burden, carrying a grudge.
Sometimes I think of friendships as needing maintenance. You stay in touch with people, spend time with them, read their Facebook postings...and once in a while I realize either that I'm not willing to put much effort into maintaining this friendship, or I am. But I really do choose whether to maintain my part of the friend relationship.
OK, think about your house or car. They need maintenance, and if you don't maintain them, they fall apart. What if you thought of the time and energy you spend nurturing a grudge as maintenance that you didn't feel like doing anymore?
In his poem "A Poison Tree" William Blake wrote this
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
The poet who "told it not" held onto the anger. Telling the anger to the friend meant it could be resolved and left behind, dropped, forgiven, not carted around, as a burden, forever.
At our Session meeting Tuesday night your ruling elders talked about forgiveness. They described a feeling of lightness when receiving forgiveness, like a burden had been lifted. Like a heavy weight had been removed. One even said that carrying a grudge is like "continuing to drink poison, expecting the other person to get sick." That phrase described my experience with holding grudges so perfectly, I wrote it down verbatim. That's a part of forgiveness that it's easy to overlook, how withholding it harms the one who refuses to extend forgiveness. How I suffer for not forgiving you.
Sometimes we think of forgiveness too grandly. I as the person who has been wronged, as the one who can decide to forgive or withhold forgiveness, have a kind of power over the other person. That power can be something continuing to punish the other person for the wrong they did to me, or continuing to let that wrong wound me. I can hope for the other person to repent, that is turn from their wrong and I can also hope for the person to atone for the wrong they've done to me—that is compensate me for it. I can plot revenge, that is punish or harm that other person for what he did to me. As the one who has been wronged, I have a lot of options.
As one who has plotted revenge—and even gotten it, I have learned that revege is never as satisfying as I imagine it. I always have felt worse when I've paid someone back, or to put it in Biblical terms, "returned evil for evil." If it were satisfying I might plot revenge, but it just doesn't work for me—and believe me, I've tried it.
When I'm tempted to imagine forgiveness as something that I can deign to offer from on high to the one who harmed me, I am jolted back to reality by this quote from author Anne Lamott:
Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You're done. It doesn't necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare.
The Greek verb that is most often used for "forgive" is one that points to freedom and to dropping a grievance. When it's applied to a debt it means "cancel,' but it also means "untie" like a shoe lace, or "leave behind" or "neglect." Forgiveness can be seen as the opposite of maintenance.
I sat at my computer Thursday afternoon with notes from seven different conversations about forgiveness. I imagined looking at forgiveness from the top down, starting with the power that Jesus gave his disciples to forgive sin, then looking at the horizontal dimension forgiveness between people, then concluding with what might be the most important and powerful aspect of forgiveness, the ability to forgive oneself or perhaps that ability to accept forgiveness. But I find that I have spoken long enough already, so I will stop now, but, as always I am eager to hear your reactions to what I've just said, and your thoughts about what it means to forgive oneself. There is still more forgiveness to come!