Season 9 - Week 2
“The power of forgiveness”
Have you ever experienced how unforgiveness destroys relationships? It happens in families, and maybe you’ve seen it. But it also happens in communities and even whole nations.
Working in Northern Ireland in Community Relations I see first-hand the damage that an unforgiving spirit can have. Bitterness and hatred leave people curtailing their own lives so as not to bump into certain people or staying away from activities that might mean meeting people from outside of their own safe community bubble. I work with young people who won’t go down ‘that road’ because people from another community live there. A friend of mine who is a school principal received complaints from parents when he arranged a Gaelic sports event, people who believed that certain sports were only for ‘the other sort’ and their children should not be playing them.
But working in this context has also given me the chance to see the power of forgiveness first-hand. I have seen people saying sorry for things that in the past they saw as completely justifiable. I have seen people share stories of pain with one another. I have listened to people as they come to realise the hurt that communities have laid upon each other. I have seen the healing that forgiveness can bring. I have seen the powerful transformation that forgiveness can bring.
Forgiveness is a topic that Jesus returns to time and again, as the pathway to reconciliation with God and one another. Remember his words on the cross - “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
I have always loved reading in the Bible about how I am forgiven. I love the stories that tell me that no matter what I have done I can be reconciled to God: I am loved and accepted! Throughout the gospels Jesus forgives people that others think are unforgivable - the tax collectors who steal from the poor, the thief on the cross, the prodigal son who breaks his father’s heart and runs off with his inheritance money. Jesus forgives them all and its beautiful, powerful and reassuring.
I love to think about forgiveness, grace and mercy when I’m applying them to me and the people I love. Just listen to all those beautiful promises:
"Come to me all of you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28) or "Peace I give to you, peace is my gift to you" (John 14:27). Jesus tells us not to worry because God looks after the little birds and the flowers in the field and God will look after us too.
But then Jesus starts to talk about forgiving others who offend us and it’s not so comfortable and reassuring; it's difficult and challenging and I’m not sure I really want to do it. When Jesus is talking about forgiveness, why does he have to keep talking about other people so much? Why does he have to bring people who have annoyed me and hurt me into it? Why can’t forgiveness just be between God and I?
Its not so great.
Think about how Jesus taught us to pray: "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" (Matthew 6:12). Many of us in churches and Christian communities pray this prayer regularly, it’s the audience participation bit of the church service, it rolls off the tongue without too much thought. But have you ever stopped to think about how dangerous the words are? In essence we are saying ‘God I want you to forgive me in the same way that I am forgiving to others’. Are we really happy with the thought of God applying the same criteria for forgiveness as we do with others? In the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) Jesus gives us a frankly terrifying image of someone who is not prepared to forgive. He reminds us that God is prepared to forgive, but that really does come at a very high price – our own willingness to do the same.
In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus says “if you are about to place your gift on the altar and remember that someone is angry with you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. Make peace with that person, then come back and offer your gift to God.” If you think about it Jesus is basically telling us that coming to church is meaningless if we are not reconciled with others. Maybe we’re furious with a friend, resentful of our boss, feeling hard done by - and probably feeling entirely justified in our unforgiveness. But we have no right to hold it against people when God does not hold things against us.
Why is Jesus so adamant on the subject of forgiveness? I am convinced, from what I have seen where I live and work, that it is because he knows the extraordinary power of forgiveness to transform situations for good. Situations that plenty of other people have given up on, and are sure will never change. Jesus fully understands how hate and violence fester and eat away at our souls. Anger is debilitating and stops us from functioning as God intended as fully alive and living in partnership with others and with him.
However widespread unforgiveness may be it always boils down to what we as individuals hold in our hearts. The only way that things begin to change is when we choose forgiveness instead, and transformation and reconciliation begin to grow. So the question we all have to ask ourselves today is this: Is there someone that we need to forgive? Is there someone who we need to be reconciled with? It's not easy, it's not quick, sometimes it is a long and painful process. But forgiveness transforms people, situations, communities and hearts. It is beautiful and powerful and reassuring and that’s why Jesus commands us to do it.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accountswith his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
We don't tend to think of ourselves as having enemies; but perhaps resentments are more familiar? Harbouring anger against others, nursing our sense of injustice, silently punishing others - these are all ways in which we hold onto unforgiveness. God never harbours unforgiveness towards us, and we need to learn from Him how to release these wrongs done to us. What do you need to bring to Him today?
Father, your heart is always to forgive and to release us from the suffering and isolation we bring upon ourselves and upon others when we do wrong. I confess that I am not so ready to forgive when I am hurt. Help me, Holy Spirit, to desire your ways above mine. Forgive my desire to punish others when I have been released from punishment myself. Help me to choose forgiveness and make it possible for others' to receive your peace. Amen.