The Struggle of Forgiveness
This is a rough transcript of a sermon given on September 13, 2020, at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Peoria, Illinois. This sermon, like most I deliver, is given extemporaneously–that is, prepared in advance, but delivered without notes or text. For me, this allows more room for the Holy Spirit’s influence during the delivery and helps the message to be more conversational and contemplative, though at the expense of the readability of a transcript.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Forgiveness. One of the most significant tenants of our Christian faith, and probably one of the most difficult aspects of it to embrace and follow. Jesus tells us today that we are not to forgive in a manner where we’re keeping track of how often we do it. Peter asked Jesus, “If a member of the church sins against me, how many times should I be willing to forgive that person? Should I be willing to forgive them the first time they do something against me? Or maybe two times? Or maybe even up to seven times?” Jesus answers him, “No. Seventy times seven times you should forgive.”
In the Jewish faith, the phrase “seventy times seven” would have been understood in the way that we understand “infinity,” or we could understand it as “continuously.” Jesus says to Peter, “You’re not to forgive them just a certain number of times–you are to forgive one another continuously and infinitely!” The reason Jesus tells Peter that is because God forgives us continuously and infinitely!
Now, this idea of forgiving one another continuously, freely, and infinitely goes beyond just a theological concept. Think about a marriage–a good marriage, or a family that is close and cares for one another, or a community that loves and cares for one another. Forgiveness is an integral part of that: continuous and never-ending forgiveness. I know this for a fact. My wife isn’t here but she would tell you that, yes, forgiveness is a constant thing in making a marriage work. Forgiveness is a constant thing when making a family stick together. Forgiveness is a constant thing in keeping a community together.
My friends, our world is so fractured in part because of a lack of forgiveness. When it’s little things–somebody speaks or says something that comes across to you in the wrong way, somebody discards a gift that you had given them–those things sting, but those things are also small and they’re easy to forgive. It’s really tempting to want to stop thinking about how we’re commanded to forgive one another at that level. But the forgiveness that God gives to us and the forgiveness that God calls us to share with one another goes way beyond that–to the things that are really challenging, to the things that we think are impossible.
We just commemorated the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack. For me, that was half a lifetime ago, but I remember where I was. I remember how I felt. And I remember how I wanted to react to that. I will tell you it was not with forgiveness–it was with anger! It was with aggression! It was with fury! But my friends, it’s those things where God still calls us to forgive!
Now, I expect that for a lot of you (and for me, too) hearing me say “God calls us to forgive those who do evil against us,” and that this extends to the people who perpetrated that atrocity probably does not sit well with you–and it shouldn’t. Forgiveness, my friends, is not easy. It’s not easy. It is easy to say, “Those people–how could we forgive them!?” But God calls us to do that anyway.
Forgiveness, in its most perfect form, is what stops the never-ending cycle of human violence and revenge. When humanity seeks revenge and seeks to get even, all it does is continue to cause pain, and hatred, and death. Those things are the opposite of what God wants for us.
In our personal lives–not just these big societal things–there are times when people abused or treated very, very poorly. The question there is, “How does someone forgive somebody who has treated them atrociously?” We also have to think about forgiveness as not being equivalent to being a “doormat.” If someone mistreats us, we have the capability to forgive but to also do what’s necessary to prevent that from happening again.
When we forgive, we are letting something go from inside ourselves. We’re getting rid of resentment and hatred and saying, “that has happened and I am going to make sure that it doesn’t impact my future in a way that it’s in my heart and mind every day.” It’s good for us to forgive–not just for the person we are forgiving, but for ourselves.
In that last part of the passage from the Gospel, Jesus says something that is kind of grating. He says, “Unless you can forgive one another, your God will not forgive you.” He talks about how that slave was handed over to be tortured until he can pay his debt and used that as a threat that this is what God would do to those who do not forgive their brothers and sisters from their hearts. Now that’s a really scary concept, but hear me out on this. When we hold grudges, when we refuse to forgive, when we grab ahold of that anger and rage we squeeze it and we live in it, is that not the torture Jesus is talking about? When we live in that, we torture ourselves. Jesus is saying that by forgiving, we are able to let that go. We’re able to find the peace that we can’t find when we hang on to that anger.
I know this is challenging. But we have a model for this. We have a model in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who while on the cross, looked down on those people who had abused him, who had mocked him, who had called him every terrible name in the book, and who were now murdering him–and begged God the Father to forgive them. That is the model for forgiveness that our God is calling us to. My friends, I know it is not something that is easy. It is something that leaves us conflicted because we know that this is what we’re being called to do as God’s people, but as human beings, we also know how much we want to have wrongs done against us righted.
I’ll leave you with this thought. God forgives us infinitely and calls us to do the same. As children of God, when we forgive others, not only do we release them from their binding, but we release ourselves from the anger and resentment that binds us–it’s good for us as people when we forgive. Knowing that we are made in the image of God, what does that tell us about God’s motivation for forgiveness? God forgives us because it’s part of the goodness of God’s nature. God calls us to do that same difficult work for ourselves, for our families, and for our neighbors.
We have a lot of forgiving to do. I look at our world around us, and I look at the infighting between various groups of people, and to me, I see a world that is calling out, begging for people to forgive one another. Will we ever truly be able to do that? Maybe not until God’s reign fully comes. In any case, forgiving is how we can do our part to experience God’s kingdom in the here and now.
Go in peace. And if you are carrying resentment or anger against your sister or your brother or your neighbor, make peace with them. Remove yourselves from the torture that we do to ourselves by refusing to forgive. Do so “seventy times seven times;” do so continuously and infinitely as God does for each and every one of you and for me. God grant it for His sake.
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