Sermon: The Practice of Forgiveness

August 1st, 2011

Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35

I once heard a conversation in which two individuals, one who had been assaulted and raped and the other who had been wrongly accused and convicted of the crime, discussed the power of forgiveness in their lives. Both spoke of the horrible circumstances that brought them together and that had almost destroyed their lives. Both spoke of sleepless nights, anger, fear, depression, and shame; but each also spoke of the beauty and goodness they had found in being able to forgive. They talked about what it meant to not be defined by their pasts, to be set free from a burden they had not chosen, and how life-giving the practice of forgiveness had been.

Today’s text from Matthew moves us to consider one of the most difficult practices of Christian discipleship—forgiveness. Forgiveness is a hard road to walk, but it is the way to life and life abundant. Forgiveness is the way of Jesus, the way of the cross. While at first glance revenge may seem much easier and more desirable, in fact it leads to bondage and death. From the place of death, vengeance, and coercive violence—from the cross—Jesus spoke words of forgiveness, pointing to the way that leads to life. At the heart of discipleship lies the painful and challenging practice of forgiveness.

Matthew tells us that Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” (Matthew 18:21). Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy- seven times” (v. 22). I cherish this answer. Jesus gives clear instructions about the importance of forgiveness as a way of life in the kingdom.

Perhaps sensing that Peter hasn’t quite gotten the point, he tells a story. In the parable Jesus deftly describes our propensity to seek vengeance, to demand a righting of the scales of justice in a manner that we believe balances our accounts with others. A man experiences undeserved mercy and compassion from one to whom he owes a significant debt. Instead of shaping and defining his dealings with others by the mercy he has undeservedly received, he immediately turns to one who owes him a much smaller debt and demands the account to be paid and the debt settled.

Upon hearing what he has done, his master, who had extended him mercy, now calls him to account and hands him over for punishment. The man is in bondage to his own greed, his misguided sense of justice. He, who had been set free for life, chose the way that leads to bondage and torture. He chose not to forgive. Sadly, so many of us do the same.

In relating this story Jesus holds up a mirror for us to see our tendency to withhold the very mercy and forgiveness we have received. The only righteous judge, Jesus, says from the cross, “Forgive them.” We, from our positions of self-righteousness, cry out, “Pay me what you owe.” What a tragedy that we forfeit the gift of freedom because we are unable to allow the spirit of love to form us into a people who practice the abundant economy of forgiveness rather than the bankrupt market of vengeance, getting even, and settling the score. I know forgiveness is a hard road. It may take months, years, countless tears, and endless prayer to say, “I forgive you.” But Jesus was clear: grace is costly and forgiveness involves the way of the cross. True life is found only on the other side of Golgotha.

Let’s be very clear about what we are talking about. Forgiveness is a practice, a discipline made possible by the grace of God, not some heroic act of the will. It is something that we practice again and again, on a daily basis, until it becomes a part of who we are.

Forgiveness is not forgetting. One cannot forgive that which is forgotten. Forgiveness involves telling each other the painful truth, not to hold something over the other person but to find a way forward that breaks the cycle of eye-for-an-eye violence in which we so often find ourselves trapped. Forgiveness is not about becoming a doormat and relishing the role of victim. Forgiveness is about being victorious, freed from the horrible things others might have done to us. Likewise, forgiveness is not a strategy for turning our enemies into our friends; it is instead a grateful response to what God has done for us. We forgive others as a way of saying “thank you” to God, who in Christ has graciously forgiven us. 

Finally, practicing forgiveness does not deny the possibility or the necessity of justice. Rather, it redefines justice, and ensures that it is God’s peculiar brand of justice we are practicing and not the retribution and retaliation that often masquerade as justice. In calling us to forgive, Jesus offers us a different kind of justice that holds open the possibility of a new future, a way through the hurt and pain that can lead to resurrection and new life. Forgiveness is about having our lives defined by the justice of God’s kingdom rather than the justice of the kingdoms of this world.

Today is the anniversary of 9/11—a day when horrible atrocities were committed in the name of God. The events of that day led to a violent response from our own nation as it pursued “justice,” also in the name of God. Thousands of men, women, and children on all sides have lost their lives. Whatever we think or feel about the events of the past several years, it might be good for us to ask, “How does one follow Jesus and practice forgiveness in such a time?”

I have to be perfectly honest and say that I’m not entirely certain how to answer that question except to say that maybe Jesus knew there would be times such as these. One day on a hill by a lake, he gathered his disciples and told them to pray like this: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. . . .” Perhaps that is where we begin. With all the hurt, pain, shame, guilt, anger, and betrayal, perhaps that is where we should begin today. Let us pray. “Our Father . . .”

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