Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Is forgiveness optional?
Ten years ago today we watched in horror as iconic buildings fell and with them our sense of security. Those nearly 3,000 people became the innocent victims of a new war that shows little sign of abatement – a war against violence, terrorism, and hate masquerading as a religious faith. Now ten years later our lives have been forever changed. It has been a decade of fear, debate, more bloodshed by our soldiers than those who died that day, and it has become a defining issue for two American presidents. So what do we hear from the lessons appointed for this day on the tenth anniversary of that attack but the words of Jesus calling us to forgive as He has forgiven us and a warning against unforgiveness.
While I know that there are those who would insist that there can never be forgiveness for such atrocities, we need to remember that Jesus is not speaking to a nation whose responsibility it is to protect its people and must undertake just war in the pursuit of that responsibility. Rather, the words of Jesus speak to us as individual Christians. We live within a nation that vows never to forget and to be ever vigilant on our behalf and yet each of us as individual Christian people hears today a call from our Lord to forgive as well as to remember the hurt, to disarm our fears with the healing power of Christ’s forgiveness. Each of us needs to hear His words carefully.
As we approach His call to forgive, we need to hear Jesus’ words accurately. Our Lord insists that forgiveness does not ignore the wrong or shrug it off or declare it not so bad. Forgiveness begins by addressing the wrong for what it is – sin, worthy of death. Our Lord died for our sins. He did not become incarnate to wish them away or shrug them off or tell us they are really not so bad. He took on our flesh and blood so that our sins might be honestly addressed and they might be overcome. The only way to address sin and release us from their grip is for Him to die our death, to take our place upon the cross. God never declared us innocent. We were always guilty. But He placed the burden of our guilt on the innocent shoulders of Jesus.
In the same way when we forgive others we are never saying that their wrongs do not count or that they are not so bad. We are acting just as sacrificially as Jesus acted when He stepped up to the cross in our place. Forgiveness does not ignore the wrong but acknowledges the sin for what it is. Can we do any less to others than what Jesus has done for us? In order to address sin honestly, we admit sin for what it is, worthy of death, and the only answer to sin’s death is the blood of Christ.
Secondly, forgiveness is never earned or merited. God has not forgiven us because we were worth forgiving or because He saw a little something in us that offset the evil of our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. God has forgiven us only because our debt for sin was paid for us by Jesus Christ. As Luther says in the Catechism, "not with silver or gold but with His holy and precious body and blood." God did not forgive us because He thought we were worth it – we were worth death but instead of our death, He accepted Jesus' death.
None of us forgive others because they deserve it or have done something to make up for their wrongs. Forgiveness is never a judgement that the sinner has worked off his sin or proven himself worth the cost of forgiveness. We do not forgive others because we find that underneath all the bad, we have found a little good. Forgiveness is always a gift and is never earned. Don't lie to yourself thinking that God forgave you because He saw the good person you were underneath your sin. Do not lie to God that the reason you do not forgive others is that they are not worth forgiving. No one is. Don't buy into the lie that we are only to forgive those who earn it – even by their contrition and repentance.
Thirdly, forgiveness is always an act of pure grace. Only love forgives and this love is pure grace at work. Christ was not moved by anything in us but only what love within Him. Christ was moved only by grace to act graciously. Out of grace, acting in love, He came as one of us to suffer in our place, to die our death, and then to declare us forgiven and the debt paid. This love is not weakness but the greatest strength. On our own we are too weak to forgive and we too blinded by sin to ask forgiveness. But Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit that we might love with His love and be moved by His love – to forgive others and to ask for their forgiveness even as we ask for His.
When you forgive, it is always an act of pure grace. It is not you but Christ in you who is at work forgiving others as you have been forgiven in Him. The people of God seek not justice but mercy from God. Neither can they afford to deal with one another purely in terms of justice but act toward one another in mercy – the mercy we have received in Christ. The people of God forgive out of love, acting out of the pure grace of Christ, because Christ lives in them by baptism and faith.
In the Gospel lesson Peter was incredulous of such grace and love – "but how much? How often must I forgive? Seven times?" I sometimes wonder if Peter did not have a specific sin and a specific person in mind – perhaps he was looking at that person as he brought his question to Jesus. Seven times seems generous enough. Surely the sinner would wise up after six or seven times and after that Peter might be justified in withholding forgiveness. With Peter we plead to God asking that there be limits to the grace of forgiveness, hoping for comfortable boundaries to the sacrificial act of forgiving others. But Jesus insists there are none. Seventy times seven is like saying forever. As soon as hurdles or limits to forgiveness are placed, grace is killed and love lies cold and dead.
Jesus tells a story of an unforgiving servant not as a threat to force us to forgive but to teach us. You cannot take from God with one hand and push away your neighbor with the other. Your refusal to forgive will poison your heart and kill the grace and love that God has offered to you in Christ Jesus. This is no threat and God does not compel us to forgive as a demand placed upon us. But it would be a lie to suggest that we can take this grace from God and remain within the darkness and captivity of a vengeful and unloving heart, refusing to forgive others as we have been forgiven.
Ten years. To the day. Nearly to the hour. It is a long time and it is but a moment. Hardly anything has changed and everything has. I will be honest with you. I don't see signs of repentance to suggest our nation should forget or ignore the violence born of terrorism, hate, and misplaced religious fervor. But neither can we as individual Christians go on hating the faceless and nameless people whom we blame for our great and terrible loss. When hate and resentment occupy our hearts, they close them off to the power of the cross, to the grace of forgiveness, and to the mercy and love of God. Jesus does not demand that we forgive. Jesus makes it possible for us to forgive. Whether the person sitting next to you today or a stranger half a world away in the Middle East.
Forgiveness is a always a sacrificial act in which the one wronged takes the initiative. Forgiveness may not lead to reconciliation but it is the only way to cool the burning fire of hate that would consume and destroy us. It is the only way we can be free of the baggage of yesterday's hurt, and the only way to peace of heart. Peter asks Jesus how much and how often to forgive. Jesus might just as well have answered him with another question, "How often and of how much have you been forgiven." So we come today having seen what love and mercy has done for us sinners and so we pray today that we may forgive as we have been forgiven, that the love and mercy of Christ may transform our hearts that we may extend the grace He showed to us.