Season of Lent: Forgiveness
March 18, 2018 Forgiving others as God forgives us
Luke 23:32-34, NCV
32 There were also two criminals led out with Jesus to be put to death. 33 When they came to a place called the Skull, the soldiers crucified Jesus and the criminals—one on his right and the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.”
Acts 7:51-60, CEB
51 “You stubborn people! In your thoughts and hearing, you are like those who have had no part in God’s covenant! You continuously set yourself against the Holy Spirit, just like your ancestors did. 52 Was there a single prophet your ancestors didn’t harass? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the righteous one, and you’ve betrayed and murdered him! 53 You received the Law given by angels, but you haven’t kept it.”
54 Once the council members heard these words, they were enraged and began to grind their teeth at Stephen. 55 But Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heaven and saw God’s majesty and Jesus standing at God’s right side. 56 He exclaimed, “Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One standing at God’s right side!” 57 At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, 58 threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. 59 As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” 60 Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” Then he died.
Ephesians 4:30-32, NET
30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 You must put away all bitterness, anger, wrath, quarreling, and slanderous talk—indeed all malice. 32 Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
Forgiving Our Enemy, Forgiving God & The Problem of Unforgiveness
We have been talking for several weeks now about forgiveness. We know we need to forgive family and friends for relationships to be stable. We know God calls us to forgive others, because God in Christ has forgiven us. We know there are those it is hard to forgive, because they have hurt us so deeply. Today we add one more challenge, to forgive our enemies.
Listen to this teaching from the Gospel of Luke (6:27-28,36)
27 “But I say to you who are listening, love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who are cruel to you.... 36 Show mercy, just as your Father shows mercy.
Our scriptures today gave us two examples of forgiving one's enemies:
From the cross, Jesus asked God to forgive those who crucified him. That included people who hated him and those who were cruel to him. I suspect Jesus intended in his plea the "enemies" who put Jesus on the cross, not only the Roman soldiers who were following orders. Yes, they stripped and whipped him. They drove in the nails and gambled for his clothes. But they were not the only ones causing him grief that day. The crowd was filled with those mocking him and taunting him, laughing at him and even spitting on him. Among them were probably some who earlier had been shouting "Crucify him!" But behind this scene others were responsible. Pilate couldn't find anything Jesus had done wrong, yet went along with the execution. Herod found it all amusing. Caiphas needed to get rid of Jesus, so he orchestrated this scenario along with Annas and the Temple guards. Most of the Sanhedrin voted to go along with it. Of course, there was Judas who sold Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver, then realizing what he had done could no longer live with himself. We see him as a criminal, but what about the rest? Peter denied him and they all deserted him. John was the only disciple brave enough or defiant enough to stand with Jesus' mother and the other women at the foot of the cross. We could see many of these people as Jesus' enemies on that Friday he was crucified, and yet Jesus saw them as sinners to be forgiven who didn't really know what they were doing. A book I read back in High School made the point that many of us might even see ourselves in that crowd, jeering at Jesus. Honestly, we are the ones who put him on the cross. It was for our sins that he willingly went there. It was to forgive us that Jesus died. If Jesus could forgive his enemies, those officials who opposed him, others who were manipulated to have him killed, even close friends who deeply hurt him, if Jesus could forgive them and forgive us too, can't we also forgive those who are out to get us? Those who hurt us? With Jesus' help, yes. It is difficult, but yes, we can forgive our enemies.
Stephen was one of the original seven deacons of the early church. Stephen did more than distribute goods and serve at tables. He spoke boldly to tell others about Jesus. It made the Jewish leaders nervous. They thought this Jesus movement would die down when they got rid of Jesus. It didn't; it grew! Like prophets of the Old Testament, Stephen called them out for the stubborn people they were. Jesus had once called them a brood of vipers! When Stephen reminds them they had killed God's prophets, he was also chastizing them for killing Jesus. Their anger aroused they stoned Stephen to death, but even as he was dying, following the example of Jesus, Stephen asked God to forgive his enemies, those who are in the midst of stoning him to death. We might have said, "of course Jesus had the courage to forgive his enemies. Jesus was superhuman, both human and divine. It's too hard for us, we're just human!" Ah, but so was Stephen, and he forgave them, too.
Who is our enemy? You might name someone who has hurt you or someone who has been a thorn in your side for a long time. There might be someone you always think is out to get you, or someone who makes your life miserable. You might think of someone who has committed a crime against you or a loved one. We think of enemies of society as those who have committed such serious offense, who have broken the law, who have killed or hurt others. We see terrorists as our enemies, and those who threaten our world with violence. Yes, we are called to forgive even these.
But sometimes we see as our enemy those who are different from us, those whose lifestyle or values or social standing or worldview are different from ours. Sometimes we go too far in naming our enemies by throwing labels at them, rather than looking to see the actual human beings. In doing so we make ourselves their enemy, and receive the same treatment in return. Sometimes we are too quick to make enemies rather than friends. At those times perhaps we are the ones who need to be forgiven.
David Augsburger writes about a kind of paranoia, whereby we take the worst parts of ourselves, the things we dislike about ourselves or that we are ashamed to admit even to ourselves, and we project these onto others to create enemies. (Helping People Forgive, pp. 62ff) It's much easier to hate these traits in someone else, than in ourselves. But there is also a communal aspect to this, as he puts it, "the social system of selecting a common enemy and projecting our group shadow (the dark side of a whole nation) on a chosen race or people is a major theme in human history. The group constructs a common social reality of fear and hatred from sophisticated political, economic, moral, philosophical, educational, and profoundly relighious beliefs." (p. 63) My reaction to that statement was this, "And thus the enemy is created to relieve our own guilt." We don't have to deal with sin in ourselves if we can blame it on someone else. In my mind Jesus' words echo not only for our chosen "enemies" but also for us, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing."
There is one more sense of enemy I want us to admit. Sometimes humans think of God as the enemy, or we make God into our enemy by the way we treat God. There are times we get angry with God when things don't go well. For some people this happens when there has been a loss, a death, a tragedy or long term suffering and illness. Why, we lament? Why did this happen? Why me? Why my friend? Why my family member? We get angry that God allowed something to happen or that God doesn't step in to fix a bad situation, an injustice, violence, or disaster. I've often taught that it's ok to get angry with God. That honesty is necessary for you and God to mend your relationship, isn't it? But did you ever consider that you might need to forgive God, since you are blaming God for what happened?
I am asked sometimes, what is the unforgiveable sin that the Bible mentions? If it is unforgiveable, we don't want to be guilty of it, right? Perhaps I never read it in context until this study, because R.T. Kendall makes it so obvious as he discusses our Ephesians passage in his book Total Forgiveness. The unforgiveable sin is our unforgiveness. Listen to what Paul says again,
"Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 You must put away all bitterness, anger, wrath, quarreling, and slanderous talk—indeed all malice. 32 Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you." (Ephesians 4:30-32)
Last week we talked about the problem of unforgiveness in the parable of the man who was forgiven a huge debt, but would not forgive the much smaller debt of his own servant. Before as we talked about the Lord's Prayer, Jesus makes it clear that our own forgiveness depends on our willingness to forgive. As we read earlier in the gospels, Jesus sets the example from the cross forgiving those who caused his suffering there.
Our lack of forgiveness shows up as resentment or holding a grudge, an inner bitterness. A growing hatred for the other and pity for oneself magnify the problem. Dwelling on the wrong committed against you does not bring you relief; it increases your distress. To be honest, our refusal to forgive someone else is like a slap in the face to the God who forgives us. But if we let go of our self righteous attitude and admit that none of us are truly righteous before God, then perhaps we can see just how much we have been forgiven and find the compassion to forgive others as well.
Our unforgiving spirit has consequences. When the Holy Spirit is thus grieved we are left to fend for ourselves without the Spirit's assistance. As Kendall puts it, "God stands back and lets you cope with your problems in your own strength." (p. 101) Then the voice of evil has the opportunity to whisper in our ear with just enough truth mixed in with the lies until we start to compromise and feel quite justified in doing so. The further we slide down that slippery slope the more dangerously we flirt with more and more sin. Kendall goes on to suggest we then become enemies with God. It's as if we have moved God out of the way to take on God's role of justice for ourselves. But isn't that idolatry, making ourselves into gods? The Bible states that we are not meant to judge one another. Only God has the wisdom and compassion to grant justice.
We do not always understand justice in the same way God views it. For most western culture, justice is used in a retributive sense. We considered this last Fall when we studied John Dominic Crossan's views on the Lord's Prayer. We expect the offender to repent and make restitution before forgiveness can be considered. We set up a penal code with punishments we believe suited to each offense. Tribal cultures including a biblical perspective are more communal as we have said before. The goal is restoration to fellowship. Forgiveness may come before any sign of regret or remorse, before repentance. In fact the impact of forgiveness may be what leads someone to repent, to turn their life around away from evil and toward what is right and good. Think again about Jesus on the cross. Only the one thief recognized and confessed his own sin, yet Jesus' words, "Father, forgive them" extended to many who had no notion of their sin in some cases and no remorse for it in others. Repentence was not prerequisite. That goes against our western sense of justice.
In Romans 2:4, Paul asks, "Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentence?" Marjorie Thompson writes, "as we absorb the magnitude of God's undeserved gift of forgiveness, we can respond only with heartfult repentance and gratitude." (Forgiveness: a Lenten Study, p. 63)
Thompson goes on to talk about restorative justice, that values the community and seeks to restore the offender to that fellowship. This is also a vision of how God works with us. God reproves not to condemn but to correct, and seeks to reclaim us.
I want to conclude our challenging lessons on forgiveness with thoughts from Richard Rohr in a book Presbyterian Pastors are studying this year entitled, Everything Belongs. If you trust God and accept that God loves and forgives you, then you can learn that God uses even your sin to transform you. What we hate and deny within ourselves, if surrendered to God can be used to change us. Within the mystery that is God, we find love expressed as forgiveness. In Rohr's teaching, "God forgives all things for being imperfect, broken and poor." (p. 130) You are fore-given, before you earn it or even ask for it. He refers to a teaching of some Early Church Fathers that God's intention is for universal restoration, claiming that Christ's victory over sin and death is so complete, so perfect that "it would finally win out in every single person's life." (p. 131) He goes on to suggest that we are all trapped by evil, both suffering from it and participating in it. But Rohr is convinced that "Transformation happens through tears much more than through threats and punishment." (p. 134)
In the timeless image of Jesus on the cross, we find a God who suffers for us rather than choosing to punish us. But as we consider that amazing unconditional love and mercy of God, perhaps we will indeed be moved to confess our sin and ask for help to change our lives toward what is right and good. Perhaps as we receive that generous forgiveness and love we can even be moved to forgive those who hurt us, for we are all struggling against temptation, sin and evil. None of us are clean on our own. By God's grace then, let us celebrate the forgiveness God extends to us, and with God's help continue to extend that forgiveness to others. In Christ's name. Amen.
(Many of today's ideas come from Total Forgiveness by R. T. Kendall.
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