Finding A Way to Forgive

Delivered November 4, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Theme: Opening our hearts to the possibility of forgiveness

Sermon Text:
Philemon 1-20 and
Genesis 50:15-21

“I can’t believe he did it! After all that our family has done for him! How could he just up and run away? If I ever get my hands on him…I will never forgive him!”

Philemon might have said such a thing. He’s the man in this short letter that I am about to read to you, most of it anyway, who the letter is addressed to . He’d been ripped off. Now he holds a letter from a dear friend in his hands and he’s being asked to forgive. Does he? We don’t know. We would like to think that he does. Where do you stand on the forgiving spectrum today? Let me suggest a few spots. Do you need this morning to forgive someone? Maybe you have already extended forgiveness to someone, but you’re still struggling emotionally and spiritually in relating to that person. Perhaps you need forgiveness from someone, but they are not ready yet. Here’s another. Somewhat like Joseph’s brothers, you’ve been forgiven, but you have a hard time accepting that fact. And maybe you’re like Joseph today, you have forgiven and you’re trying to reassure someone that there is no other shoe ready to drop. The New Testament passage of Philemon, which is found right after Titus. There are three main characters. Paul is the author. He’s appealing to his friend to forgive Onesimus who is a runaway slave who Paul has met in prison and in meeting him in prison has led him to understanding the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And then there is Philemon, Onesimus’ Christian master, who has every right to legally punish a man who has ripped him off, humiliated him. The man who holds all the trump in this forgiving. It’s a Christian drama this letter, really. And the message is this very simply. That those who claim to be Christ’s people are to be a forgiving people. Look with me at Philemon 1 through 20.

“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia, our sister, to Archippus, our fellow soldier, and to the church that meets in your home. Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then as Paul an old man, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus, I appeal to you for my son, Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him who is my very heart back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good, no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me, but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back, not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you and the Lord, refresh my heart in Christ.”

There are so many powerful thoughts in this passage, but I simply want to suggest three that will help us all in the process of forgiving. It’s been almost now two months since 9/11. I think we all understand why I underlined that word process. Because it’s not easy to forgive those who have harmed us, corporately or individually. Now, I hope the understatement of this first point doesn’t throw you, but here it is. It’s not easy to forgive those who have hurt us. Do you know what part of this text supports that? All of it. The Apostle Paul has created a painstaking masterpiece in order to persuade his friend to forgive. And we can see from this letter that Philemon is a very mature Christian. So the combination of Paul’s tact and sensitivity and persuasion and Philemon’s proven dedication to Christ underscore the fact that it is very difficult to forgive those who have hurt us. A forgiveness that keeps past offenses in the past requires a great deal of God’s grace and love. We all know this. We get hurt. We say, “I know” on an intellectual level, “I should forgive”. It’s very hard to do so. Or we chastise ourselves; we say, “Why can’t I do this?” Let me suggest to you a definition of forgiveness among others that might help. That forgiving someone simply means withdrawing the right to penalize that person. You have the right. You have been offended. You have been harmed. Philemon had legally the right to beat in to submission a runaway slave. And Paul says to him, “Refuse to exercise that right.” And it’s important that we acknowledge the difficulty of forgiving, because if we don’t we can get down on ourselves because it doesn’t happen sooner. I would like to just simply say forgiving takes time. Spirituality does not equal instant forgiving. Spirituality equals a commitment to do the work that forgiving requires. Prayer, study, communication, identification.

I listened with a chilling combination of regret and understanding to a sound byte on the radio a few weeks ago. Maybe you remember the group of prisoners that escaped in Texas and rampaged across the countryside and killed a police officer in the process. Well one of them, it was this person’s trial and they were apprehended and the police officer’s wife was able to stand at the end of the trial process and confront her husband’s murderer. And this is what she said almost verbatim, “I don’t forgive you. I will never forgive you. And I will be there when you die, just like you were there when my husband died. I will never forgive you.” It was just chilling and powerful. And I wondered what the impact was on the condemned man. One part of us hopes she will change her mind because we know how that spirit can embitter and poison, but Paul’s exacting appeal to Philemon underscores how hard it is to truly forgive; and so another part of us understands.

Here’s a second point. That forgiving comes “easier”, and I would like to put that word easier in quotes, to those who have felt Gods transforming power in their own lives. Paul reminds Philemon all through this text of Christ’s transforming power. In verse 19, as Paul says that he will pay back Philemon for anything that Onesimus has taken, he throws in a great phrase there. He says, “By the way, I am not going to even mention it, but you really owe me your very self. I led you to Jesus, Philemon. Just as I have led Onesimus to Christ. So you know how Jesus can change a man, don’t you?” verses 10 and 11. He says, “I appeal to you for my son, Onesimus.” You see he called him his son because he begat him spiritually. Rabbis say that if a man teaches his neighbor son the law, it’s like he’s his own son too. So he is saying, you know how Jesus can take a person who was once useless and make him useful. That’s what Onesimus means. It means useful. It’s a play on words. Paul says, “Philemon, Jesus can make brothers out of people who once had a master-slave relationship. Philemon, Jesus can take prison chains and turn them into bonds of love, the way he’s done here in this prison cell for me.” Think about it. Paul so mature, so mature in ChristBarnabas and here is this new convert and the way how he describes how Onesimus has blessed him so much. He is trying to get across to Philemon. He says, “listen, remember what God can do with a life.” It’s like he is saying we have all experienced the kindred grace, we are all on the same team. Think of it in that way.

I think about Alex Rodriquez who signed a $25 million contract a year ago with the Texas Rangers. $25 million a year for ten years. He used to wear a Seattle Mariners hat that had an “S” on it. And when he would come to Texas stadium I am sure there are people who would stand up. He’s in the batter box. “Rodriquez, you’re a bum.” Winter takes place, the free agency takes place, and now he’s got a “T” on his hat. Same batters box, same stadium, same fan. “You’re the greatest, Alex. Hit a homer.” What happened? A shift in perspective. He’s on our side now. To treat another Christian as constantly being on the opposing team, is to fall short of God’s measure of love. Paul had been in Onesimus’ shoes, hadn’t he? He knew what Onesimus was going through. He knew what it was like to have the Christian community suspicious of his conversion. But a man named Barnabas came along and took Paul by the arm, formerly Saul, and he brought him in to the Christian community and he said, “Look, here’s a new brother. I know he had done wrong things. I know he has hurt a lot of us.” And he became the bridge to two parties by focusing on Christ’s transforming power in the present rather than conflict in the past. And I am sure that in that Christian community there was probably a woman who maybe lost her husband because of Paul and because of his murderous threats, his murderous behavior before he was knocked off his horse. Paul was a debtor to Christ and to others’ forgiveness as well and he is trying to drive that home for Philemon. And so God’s spirit says to us today, “Don’t see another Christian as useless. Christ can make useless people useful.” And I want you to know too that Paul just wasn’t in to an easy kind of forgiving. Even though it was ripping his heart apart, he said, “Onesimus, you have to go back and you have to make right what you have done. You have to face your behavior.” It’s not forgiving and acting in the spirit that we are talking about here to keep getting beat up and keep getting hurt and just keep saying, “I forgive, I forgive, I forgive.” Real healing comes when people own up and are responsible for their behavior. But if we have voiced forgiveness to another but our actions continue to punish an offender then we treat them as master-slave. We have them in the one-down position and we are never going to let them up. But when in Christ we are touched, we raise people to equality and elevate them as Christ elevated us. So Paul says, “withdraw the right to penalize my brother.”

And then thirdly, forgiving others increases what I call our own Christian energy. It’s an energy that we experience inside of ourselves and it’s an energy that we experience in the fellowship of the church. If we look at the verse that is highlighted in the bulletin at the top of the front end of the bulletin, we see verse 6. This is a hard verse to interpret. The first part of this verse says, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing that we have in Christ.” Now if you look at that at first glance, from this translation you would think it’s got to do with evangelism, but I don’t think this is what it is talking about. It has more to do with Christian generosity in every way. Whether it be financially, emotionally, relationally, it’s a giving and sharing of oneself. Something like Jesus was talking about in the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In their impoverishment, they give themselves in the name of Christ. It’s like Paul is saying as you generously give yourself away, you will be led in to a deeper energy and knowledge of Christ and every good thing that we share. We empty ourselves, we’re filled with Christ. The poorer we become in our giving, the richer we become in the gifts of God. Open hands, generous hearts lead to wealth in Christ.

You’ve felt this energizing, haven’t you? You know how you feel from the other side. We’ve all been in a room where we know that two people are in major conflict. It feels like there is a Paul all over the place. It feels like energy drain, like I wish somebody would just say something. And we have all seen the other side when people are reconciled. How the energy just lifts you up. You know you’re in the presence of Christ when people walk in the forgiving spirit that he displayed on the cross. “Philemon, don’t douse the flame, the energy of love, Take him back as a brother. You will be blessed, I will be blessed, the whole church will be blessed.”

You know I have seen this as many of you know in my own life. I have had an incredible front row seat of a family drama and for those of you who have heard, please forgive me for sharing it again. But for those of you who haven’t, it just speaks to my heart every time I share it. My parents were married in 1949. They were divorced in 1958. I didn’t know it at the time but part of the reason for the divorce was because of an affair. And I am not assigning blame to anybody, everybody has their own measure of blame in these things, but as it turned out it ended my parents’ relationship, marriage relationship anyway. And I didn’t even know for years that my dad was remarried. Finally, we learned about it and we met our stepmom, Betty. My mom’s name is Mary. Stepmom is Betty. And things went along through the 60’s, kind of you know just trying to manage. In 1976, I remember because it was the bicentennial year, we were visiting up at my dad’s home with Betty and she was sharing with me and sharing with Ellen how she had recurring nightmares and how they just haunted her. And God allowed us to share with her the good news of Jesus and we led her to Jesus. I mean it was unbelievable. I never thought we would have that opportunity. And she came to know Jesus Christ as a result of all her own struggles, like we all do. It was only a year or two later, maybe three. She was right here in this sanctuary. One Sunday night we were showing a film, something that had to do with the end days, last times. She came up to me, this was after it was all over and most everybody was gone, right in the back of the sanctuary. She said, “George, I need to say something to you.” I said, “What is it?” She said, “I want you to forgive me?” I said, “For what?” She said, “You know.” And I said, “Well I have, but I do. And I think it’s powerful that you are aware that this is something that you are trying to make right.” And she immediately said, “But I need to tell your brother, I need to tell your sister, but I need to do one other thing.” I said, “What’s that?” “I need to tell your mom. I need to ask your mom to forgive me.” I said, “When do you want to do that?” She goes, “I would like to do that tonight.” Well my heart started beating so fast because I knew that somehow I was in the middle of all of this and so I said, “Okay, we’ll just go home and I will call mom and we will see what happens.” She was sitting at home and she came across. She was reading the scriptures and, you know we talk about great Christian people, people who are so great and known and everything. These are two of the greatest Christian people that I know, because of the depth of humility that went on here. But she’s reading the scriptures and she comes across that verse in the Bible that says, “Jesus will give you the words when you need them.” And so I called my mom and I said, “Guess what’s going on over here?” And I told her and I said, “Would you be willing to have Betty come and talk to you?”. You know, you need to realize that for 20 years there was really no civil words spoken. I mean they just didn’t. And there’s this deep silence on the other end of the line and she said, “Yes, I will speak with her. Yeah, I will. Bring her over.” We only lived a mile away, just like we do now and so we got in the car, Betty and I and drove to my mom’s house and I walked up the steps and she was lagging behind me about six paces, and I said, “C’mon, let’s go. Let’s get this over with.” And I put her in front of me, open the screen door. I kind of stuck her in front of me. And the main door opened up and my mom’s head poked out the door and she just kept opening the door. And Betty walked through and they fell in to each other’s arms and she goes, “Mary, I’m so sorry, please forgive me.” And Mary said “I forgive you” and I was looking at my watch. It was 10:15 on a Sunday night in December in 1978 or 79 I think it was; and I said, “I’m watching a miracle.” I am watching something that can only be explained by the grace of Jesus. Later on my mom said to me, “You know Jesus visited me that night.” I understood her to mean that Jesus was coming in the form of someone who she had power over and she withdrew the rights to keep penalizing. And also to know if she was worthy to bear the name Christian. The amazing thing about all of this is it was awkward. It’s not like it was easy. Then over the years, I mean we are still talking about 20 years ago still from the moment that I just shared with you; but as it has gone on there has been more and more healing, more and more openness. Even now Betty works at a restaurant. She comes down from New Jersey and works for her sister a couple nights a week. We go to the restaurant, my mom brings her Greek cookies, we sit in the same booth, we’re talking together. You see what happens in the Christian energy thing? If she had gone another way, where would we be? But now I am blessed. They are blessed and you’re blessed because of that witness. It wasn’t easy. It takes all of Christ’s power, but we all get blessed when we do the hard work of forgiving.

Let us pray. Gracious Lord, we love you on this Communion Sunday. And really Lord we are coming in a few days to All Saints Day, and there may be people in our past who are no longer, we’re no longer able to talk with, who need our forgiveness and our forgiving. Help us to let go. Help us to see the Holy Spirit at work as you spoke from the cross. We admit it is hard Lord and we know that we need your help. So now Lord as we give our offerings and offer ourselves to you again and we hear the choir sing about forgiveness, your great forgiveness of us. Continue to work your power in our lives even as we come to your table, in Jesus’ name. Amen.