"Then Peter came up and asked Him, 'Lord when my brother
wrongs me, how often must I forgive Him? Seven times?' 'No,' Jesus replied,
'Not seven times, I say, seventy times seven times.'"
My friends, if there is any activity that you and I as Christians probably
find very difficult, it is to forgive someone who has wronged us. It is
so difficult because the hurt very often runs deep, lasting for years.
We know that we are supposed to be people who forgive. It is a part of
our Christian vocation to be forgiving people. And yet, if we have been
hurt time after time, it becomes more and more difficult to forgive. It's
not easy, to say the least.
Jesus gave us a parable about forgiveness in this morning's Gospel.
To translate it into modern language, the servant owed his king ten million
dollars. He had no way of paying back that kind of money, so his king forgave
him. Then he went out and grabbed a fellow servant by the throat who owed
him twenty dollars. He would not forgive that person his debt but had him
thrown into prison. When the unforgiving servant is punished by the king,
Jesus draws some very startling conclusions, saying that's the kind of
measure that we could be measured with. These are hard words indeed.
We might say that we have an academic understanding of the Gospel mandate
to forgive one another. In fact, in a few minutes, in our Eucharistic Service,
we will pray the words that Jesus taught us, "Forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us." Academically, it's right
there. Even the example of forgiveness is before us. When Jesus our Lord
was nailed to the bloody tree, He would pray, "Father, forgive them." So
we know that forgiveness is a part of our vocation as Christians. And yet
we find it so hard in practice. I would suggest to you this morning that
the difficulty of forgiving others is a difficulty that runs throughout
Look at Jewish tradition. We can see just from the evening news how
many Jews understand the Old Testament. They cannot forgive the PLO until
the PLO admits its wrongdoing and changes its way - no longer bombs women
and children. Then they can have forgiveness. But until then, never! The
Jewish writer, Elie Weisel, is a survivor of the Holocaust. Should we forgive
and forget the Holocaust? He says that the people who would do that become
accomplices to the crime! Forgiveness gets even more problematic as we
look around this strange world of ours. Ethnic Albanians and Serbs at each
other's throats as they have been for centuries. Armenians and Turks. Northern
Irish Protestants and Roman Catholics. Hatfields and McCoys. Montagues
and Capulets. The list goes on and on. No matter where we turn in this
world of ours, it seems as though there have been age-old grudges that
cry out for forgiveness that isn't forthcoming. In fact, for many of these
individuals, to forgive would be tantamount to treason. And so it goes
on and on, generation after generation. Forgive? Forget? No wonder you
and I have difficulty forgiving the slights and hurts that we experience.
Think of some of these broader and deeper hurts.
We find it difficult to forgive and yet here is the mandate from Jesus.
We are supposed to be forgiving people. How do you do that? In order for
us to understand how to forgive, we have to start with God, not with ourselves.
How does God deal with us? Throughout the Old Testament we see a loving
God who continually forgives the infidelity of His people, Israel. Over
and over again, they were unfaithful to the covenant and had to come back
and renew the covenant and once again pledge their love for God. Through
all of their infidelities, He remained faithful to them because God is
always faithful. In the New Testament, we have the witness of Jesus our
Lord. For this He came into the world, born of the Virgin Mary. He preached
a Gospel of salvation that meant reconciliation between mankind and God.
He suffered and died on the cross; defeated sin and death by His resurrection,
and ascended to His Father's right hand in order that He might constantly
intercede for us in His glorified humanity.
This is Jesus Christ our Lord. He has given to us an ideal: how we might
practice forgiveness. I prefer not to give you a lecture about the philosophical
and theological aspects of forgiveness. Rather, because this is a sermon,
I would have you reflect on the Word of God and deal with it in your own
hearts. Let the Lord speak to you individually and he'll deal with you
individually about this matter of forgiveness.
Now one of the things that we do want to reject is a notion that is
not a part of our Anglican Catholic heritage. It is this: a wrathful God
and sinful man with Jesus Christ standing between, so that as God looks
upon man He doesn't see sinful man but sees His Son. We reject that notion
of justification because what God has done for us in the person of Jesus
Christ is to change us radically by grace. When we are reconciled to God,
when we receive the forgiveness of God, He changes us and transforms us
to the point that St. Paul would say, "We are a new creation!" We are cleansed
by God; we are one with Him in grace. We are radically and wonderfully
transformed. When He forgives us, He changes us; He transforms us. That
transformation is the key to our understanding of forgiveness. Now here's
the point. In order for us to be a forgiving people, we should become "sacraments"
as it were; "sacraments" of forgiveness.
See what God can do when He takes ordinary things and uses them in an
extraordinary way. He can take ordinary water, ordinary bread and wine,
and do some wonderful things. With the water, a child can be baptized and
filled with grace. Ordinary bread and wine can be taken and given to us
as the Body and Blood of the Lord. God can do that. He can take ordinary
things and use them as instruments of grace.
That's what I mean when I say that we can be "sacraments" of forgiveness.
In other words, I have to be open to the idea that I can be a forgiving
person, and set about doing it. Now when I do that, I can be an instrument
of change for the other person. The other person is transformed by the
grace of God. He can actually use me to change the person that needs changing.
He uses me as He uses water or bread or wine. He uses me as a "sacrament"
to change the heart of the other person. Does it matter whether or not
in our act of reaching out to the person to forgive him that it actually
brings about a reconciliation? No, it doesn't, because that's in God's
hands. All we need do is to be the willing instruments that God can use
in order to effect the change, the transformation, in that other person.
That should make a little more sense to us as we wrestle with this very
difficult question of forgiveness.
Society can't just say to all of the criminals running around, "It's
all right; we forgive you." No, justice is involved. Some penalties for
hurting others should be forthcoming. It gets very complicated, but that
shouldn't stop us from becoming instruments of change. We can be instruments
of peace and reconciliation. That is what I mean by being people who forgive.
How often must we do that? Seven times? No. Seventy times seven times.
There is no limit to the number of times in which we can be open to having
God use us as His instruments. It is up to the other individual then to
take the grace that is offered, cooperate with God, and make changes. Those
changes, fortunately, is not up to us.
There is another place in the Gospels where Jesus talks about forgiveness.
Remember when He said, "If you bring your gift to the altar and there recall
that your brother has anything against you, leave that gift at the altar,
go first to be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your
gift" (Matt.5:23-24). Those are really hard words. And I confess that in
63 years I've never done that. Have you?
Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation.
If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please
credit St. Dunstanís Church and Fr. Sisterman.