Forgiveness: the most radical concept ever introduced to humanity. The
most radical and the hardest too - hardest to understand and hardest to
practice. So few of us ever really understand what it means or what it
does for us. At a recent wedding, I met up with a group of friends I hadn't
seen in a long time and one of them was telling me about their local vicar,
who had been caught in a very public indiscretion and was now being moved
on. "But," she told me, "it was not all that straightforward
because there were some people in the congregation who were all, you know,
'forgive and forget'". To which my immediate neighbour asked "You
mean they were Christian?"
Well, we laugh at it, but the reality is that churches are not always
places where forgiveness is demonstrably lived out. And that is our greatest
weakness. But at least it is some sort of comfort to know that it has
always been so. In today's gospel reading we discover that, even as Jesus
was unveiling his manifesto of forgiveness to his embryo church, his newly
appointed leader, Peter, is trying to put limits on forgiveness. Peter,
as I've pointed out, is not the brightest of the apostles, but even he
spots that this forgiveness thing is potentially dangerous. Yes, it's
okay up to a point, but surely you have to put limits on it. After all,
surely it's naïve to forgive without limit. What about the unforgivable
sins? What about the person who just keeps on sinning and never seems
to repent? Right from the start, we have sought to hedge the forgiveness
commandant around with limits, objections and get-out clauses.
And so it seems to continue. Most of the conversations I have about forgiveness
are about the limits of forgiveness, exploring interesting hypothetical
cases where surely not even Jesus could expect us to forgive. But if we
are tempted to do the same, then allow me to bring you up short with Jesus'
answer. Because he is having none of it. Forgive the same person seven
times? No, of course not. Try seventy seven times (or seventy times seven
- Jesus' answer is mathematically ambiguous, a very clever way of making
sure that it is impossible for even the most anally retentive pedant to
calculate the limit of forgiveness).
And he then backs it up with this story - about the slave who owed his
master ten thousand talents (more than is possible for a slave to earn
in a lifetime). He promises to pay, but the promise is clearly ridiculous.
The master knows it is impossible for him to pay. But, out of compassion,
he not only forgives his debt, but also sets him free (something a slave
could only achieve by buying it). In other words, this is a double surprise
- not only is the debt forgiven, but his freedom is treated as having
been purchased. That, according to Jesus, is what God does for us.
And yet this slave, who has been given so much, immediately descends on
another slave who owes a mere hundred denarii (a few weeks' wages) and
shows him no mercy and has him thrown into prison for his offence.
It is so easy to see the justice in exacting revenge when we are sinned
against, but in this story we see immediately what we so rarely see -
the injustice of not forgiving. And also the folly - because we ourselves
stand in need of such an abundance of forgiveness, that we are in no position
to seek limits on it.
Forgiveness cannot be rationed or limited. It is like the air. We desperately
need to breathe it or we die. But we cannot breathe it ourselves and deny
it to others. Jesus is the hope for the world because he alone offers
us the chance the breathe the air of forgiveness. He alone pronounces
our ultimate forgiveness before the throne of God (who, as Paul reminds
us, is the one who judges us all). And in Jesus' kingdom, he is building
an atmosphere of forgiveness. And we either live in that atmosphere or
we do not. If we are going to live in that atmosphere, then forgiveness
must be what we exhale as much as we breathe it in. And if we are not
going to practise it, then neither will we receive it. "So my heavenly
Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother
or sister from your heart." We either live by forgiveness or we don't.
And that is why it is so important- why we bang on about it so much. It
is literally a matter of life and death. But it is also a profoundly beautiful
concept. One that does extraordinary things to the human souls who find
it within themselves to practise it. It enables us to face the truth about
ourselves; it liberates us; and it is the most powerful weapon for converting
So first to the truth about ourselves: and that truth is that we are deeply
sinful - owing God more than we can ever repay in our lifetimes - but
we are also deeply loved. So much so, that our debt is released and our
freedom purchased for us as a gift. It is a strange thing about forgiveness
than when are called upon to practise it, what we most want is for the
person who has wronged us to see their fault. And yet most of us human
beings seem decidedly unwilling to recognise the depth of our own sinfulness.
J.B. Priestley's great play, An Inspector Calls, illustrates this very
powerfully. A family is interrupted in the middle of a celebratory dinner
by an inspector investigating the death of a young girl. The family assume
he is a police inspector. And they also assume they are entirely innocent
- after all they don't even know the girl. So they answer the inspector's
questions, confident that it has nothing to do with them. But as they
answer the questions, they suddenly become aware, one by one, that each
of them has had a hand in her death. The daughter of the family caused
her to lose her job with a casual and unfair complaint, simply because
she was in a bad mood. The mood had past and she had forgotten all about
it - and the consequences to the girl. The son had seduced her, because
she was easy prey, and forgotten all about her, unaware even that she
had born his child. And the mother had refused her charity because she
was clearly a girl of undeserving morals. And so it went on.
And so it is for all of us. In real life, of course, we cannot make such
clear cut connections between our actions or (just as dangerously) our
omissions and the sins of the world. Nor can we see how our sins (however
apparently small) build upon the sins of others and lead others into greater
sin. That is why politicians consistently fail to be "tough on the
causes of crime" by mere social engineering. But the effect is real
enough, even if we cannot trace it through from cause to effect. I may
never have murdered anyone, but every one of my sins, however small it
may appear to me, has contributed immeasurably to a world that regularly
produces murderers, whether by driving them to it, or by failing to face
them with the consequences of their actions.
None of us can stand before God innocent. We are all, jointly, guilty
of every sin under the sun. And that is why we all need to be forgiven
more than we can ever repay. And it is also why we cannot deny forgiveness
to a single person - because we share the guilt of even the worst offender.
Forgiveness, therefore makes us face, honestly, the consequences of our
actions. But it also makes us value the gift of God. You know, when you
read the lives of the saints, one of the strange ironies is that, the
closer they get to God, the more they become aware of their sins. But
it is not a discovery that weighs them down, because with their recognition
of the magnitude of their sin, comes the discover of the magnitude of
God's love for them and the surpassing value of the gift of forgiveness.
And that gift is liberating. To cling to our right for revenge simply
gets us stuck in the past and traps us in a cycle of revenge and anger
and bitterness. And it is a trap because, to maintain the fight against
those who hurt, to fling accusations and make them stick, requires us
to be perfect. And none of us is. That's why only God can take revenge,
that's why the Old Testament repeatedly reminds us "vengeance is
mine, says the Lord. I will repay". To forgo our right to revenge
is to trust to God's justice and that he alone has the right to judge
and to administer justice.
We can only ever commit injustice by trying to take revenge. The moment
we fling accusations or seek revenge, we commit the very injustice of
which we complain and we are trapped in a battle we can never win nor
escape. It simply traps us in the hurts of the past and if you do that,
(if I might be excused a quote from my national rugby song in this Rugby
World Cup season) you will live in the past and in the past you must remain.
Live in the past and you're history!
But to forgive is to release the past and to destroy your enemy's hold
over you. Oscar Wilde once famously said "Always forgive your enemies.
Nothing annoys them so much." So long as you seek revenge, your enemy's
sin will rule your life. As soon as it is forgiven, that hold is gone
and you are free to live for the future. Of course, that means foregoing
your right to revenge. As the Dutch Botanist Paul Boese said "forgiveness
does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future." And that's
why forgiveness is absolutely fundamental to God's future. Heaven is what
you get when you forgive and are forgiven.
And finally, forgiveness is a powerful weapon for converting sinners.
Forgiveness is actually an act of strength. Mahatma Ghandi said "the
weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."
And how right he was. Now this runs contrary to the usual objection to
forgiveness, which is that to roll over and submit to someone else's sin
without confronting them and seeking revenge is just weakness. But that
misunderstands what forgiveness is. There is nothing wrong with confronting
your enemy with the wrong they have committed. Nor is there anything wrong
with making them face the consequences of their actions. After all, the
reason why have crosses as the focal point in all our churches is to remind
us of exactly those things - the consequences of our actions and the cost
to God of our sin.
When I was at theological college I was told the real life story of a
girl in prison who had been brought up by Christian parents who practised
continual forgiveness all through her life. And she blamed them for sending
her off the rails. She said she realised pretty quickly that it didn't
matter what she did - how often she stole from them, hurt them, destroyed
their possessions, wrecked their home - because she knew they would always
forgive. And they did. How very familiar that attitude is - I know I have
too often adopted the same careless attitude to God's forgiveness.
But do not confuse forgiveness with what Dietrich Bonhöffer calls
'cheap grace'. True forgiveness is costly - for the person who forgives
and the person who receives it. It requires us to change. One of the many
unexpected topsy-turvy principles in the gospel is that forgiveness leads
to repentance (not the other way around). The message of the bible is
"you have been forgiven, therefore repent." To be forgiven requires
us to repent because it confronts us with our sin.
And that means that for us to forgive, we have to care enough to help
our enemy to receive our forgiveness. Simply to shrug our shoulders and
say "it doesn't matter" isn't forgiveness. It's mere negligence.
True forgiveness confronts our enemy with their sin, but does so not from
the perspective of the moral highground, but as one who shares their sin
and their need of forgiveness and points to a way out of the cycle of
recrimination and revenge.
It is a difficult balance - confronting people with their sin, yet not
standing in judgement over them or doing so in such a way as to take revenge
(enjoying making them squirm). And yet it is that very thing we are called
to do as Christians. It is something we see repeatedly in the way Jesus
confronts sinners. When faced with Zacchaeus the tax collector and miser,
he makes a claim on his generosity. When faced with the Samaritan woman
at the well, he exposes her history. When faced with the rich young ruler,
he challenges him to abandon the possessions that inhibit him from wholehearted
commitment to the God he professes to love.
And I can only say that, in my experience, the more we truly live like
Jesus, the more we find we strike that balance. As a curate, I was always
envious of those wise old church leaders who, instead of shouting and
arguing with their congregations as I did, seemed able to correct their
flock with a kindly smile and a perceptive question. What, I wondered,
was their secret? And the answer was: years of living the Christian faith
with integrity. They inhabited the gospel completely. And so they spoke
with an authority that came from deep and authentic experience of God's
grace, his love and forgiveness deep in their lives.
And I believe that Jesus was able to confront sin and offer forgiveness,
to hate the sin and love the sinner, because he thoroughly and authentically
lived out the life of forgiveness and love, sharing it so deeply with
his father, that it became completely natural to share it with us, confronting
our sin effectively because he himself had integrity and because he had
such a manifest passion for recovering the lost sheep, that the lost were
able to come to him and confess their sins and receive forgiveness. And
I believe the same can be true of us. If we really live this life that
is set before us in the gospels, taking it utterly to heart and practising
it at every opportunity, developing a passion to recover the lost sheep,
hating the sin, but loving the sinner, it will not only liberate us, but
will convert many others too, so that we can be truly victorious over
our enemy, by releasing our poor brothers and sisters from its grip as
we ourselves also are freed. Amen.
Preached: Thrimby (joint service) 11 September 2011.