Fourth in the series called Making Good Connections.
Delivered February 22, 2004 by Rev. John Schmidt.

Theme: Forgiveness

Sermon Text:
Colossians 3:12-14

Let’s pray. Lord we thank you for your Word. We thank you that we can assemble and worship, and we thank you for this time that we can think about issues that are important in our lives. We pray that you will open our eyes to things that we don’t see. For we ask theses things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

It was a number of years ago, in a, one of the TV dramas that center around the life of an emergency room. In this story, there was a woman in the emergency room that was dying, and it was only through the heroic efforts of the doctors and nurses that she was even able to finally come to a point where she could speak. And so, the first words that she says are “Please get my husband so that I can ask him to forgive me.” So the doctors and nurses leave and they look for the husband and they find him in the waiting area and he asks them a question first. He says, “Is my wife dying?” And they answer, “Yes, yes she is dying.” And so his next question was “Is she in pain?” And they said, “Yes, yes she is in pain.” And he says, “Good, that is what she deserves.” And so then they tell him that she is asking for him and that she would like to ask for forgiveness and he refuses to go in, and so this woman dies without ever having the chance to ask or receive forgiveness from her husband.

Now, I have been in a lot of sad situations in ministry and in hospitals, but thankfully I have never actually seen something that terrible worked out in real life. Because in a situation like that, all is lost, the relationship is broken, there is no hope for healing, everybody is isolated and everybody is defeated. Forgiveness is hard work. No sane person thinks that really forgiving other people is an easy thing to do, but it is an essential thing to do. We need to learn how to forgive because forgiveness affects us so personally. To not forgive somebody affects us in all kinds of direct ways. To not forgive causes stress in our lives. We are the people who are thinking about the same issue over and over again, getting ourselves upset about it. It’s our stomachs that are getting upset. It’s our blood pressure that’s rising. And this lack of forgiveness across time leads to a deep sort of bitterness; a bitterness that becomes poisonous. One paster put it this way one time. Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

We need to forgive because forgiveness affects us. It affects us even physically. We need to also learn how to forgive because whether we are followers of Jesus Christ or not, we know that part of maturity is the ability to be able to put things aside and to be able to reestablish a relationship with someone even if they have hurt us. And if we are Christians, we have the additional understanding that this is very important stuff to God and so if we are in a situation and we recognize that someone has done something wrong to us, and we are not forgiving them, we have that additional sense of guilt that we are not doing what’s right either, and so we carry this stress around and we also carry this guilt around if we don’t learn how to forgive. It is also important to learn how to forgive because if we don’t forgive this will inevitably affect other relationships we have with people. You can’t isolate this into just one relationship because inevitably whether it’s in a family or in a workplace or in the church, to not resolve these things means that people who relate to us, have to choose sides. You are either with me or you are with them. And so people who don’t want to get caught in this polarity find themselves having to keep you at arms distance because to draw close to you means that they have to declare themselves and join one of the teams. So it inevitably has a ripple effect and affects our other relationships. Now Paul talks about our obligation to forgive, and I would like to focus in on that in the 3rd chapter of the Book of Colossians. I am going to being on the 12th verse.

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

Just like last week, we can see in this passage that Paul assumes that we are going to have to forgive. That there is going to be this kind of problem in relationships, even within the church, that there are those moments that we don’t love as we should. And we do things that are wrong, and we do things that are hurtful, and then the injured party has this responsibility to bear with some things and to forgive some things. And this forgiveness is necessary because our love is imperfect. Henri Nowan puts it this way, “Forgiveness is love practiced among people who love poorly.” We don’t love each other well and things happen; ugly things, deliberate things sometimes and forgiveness then is love on our part exercising itself in forgiveness. We are broken people and so forgiveness is needed. But Paul’s commands here don’t come just in isolation. It comes in the context that he is writing to a particular kind of people, Christian people.

He begins this section by saying therefore as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. The people who are called to love like this and to forgive like this are people who have first experienced the forgiveness of God. This is where it all starts. There are things that have happened in our lives, things that we have done to people. Some of them have been deliberate and some of them haven’t. We have hurt people. We have been aggressive. We have been selfish. We’ve been neglectful and God takes all of this and all of the hostility or ambivalence we had towards him and He takes all of this and He forgives it in Jesus Christ. He cleans the slate and says that this will not be a barrier in our relationship anymore. We are wholly and dearly loved. Chosen people. Not just faces in a crowd, but people that God knows by name and its out of this personal experience, not just head knowledge, but a personal experience that comes in our commitment to God, that as we experience that love and forgiveness then we have the foundation, this sense of acceptance and the power of the Holy Spirit to then step out and love and forgive others.

But what does this forgiveness mean? What does Paul mean when he says forgive one another? Let me begin by pointing out a few things that it doesn’t mean. The first thing it doesn’t mean is that we act as if nothing happened. Paul is not asking us to say, “Oh, no problem. It’s fine.” No, evil things do happen. And God has the capacity to forgive us without acting like what we did wasn’t really wrong. We don’t have to pretend that these things didn’t happen and it was all our fault. Martin Luther King described forgiveness this way.

“Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means rather that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship.”

We choose to no longer let this evil act be a barrier to our relationship. But we recognize that it was evil. So we don’t have to play games there. Another thing that forgiveness doesn’t mean is forgetting. It’s not like you say, “Oh okay, I will forgive you and I will forget about it.” Boom, what were we talking about? It doesn’t work that way. Memory has to do with brain chemistry. I can’t directly affect my brain chemistry. And that’s what makes forgiveness so difficult, is because we can’t forget and so we forgive and then something stirs our remembrance and we have to forgive again. But, if we take the position that we are going to not let this evil stand in the way of our relationship, we stop rehearsing the hurts and we probably will forget these things much more quickly than we would have had we not forgiven, but it doesn’t mean that miraculously and on the spot we forget.

Another thing it doesn’t mean, since we can’t forget that quickly, forgiveness is not something that we do just once. I know a lot of people that are carrying around a load of guilt because at some point there has been an apology, some kind of reconciliation, they have forgiven at that point, but later something triggers a memory, and the feelings come up again and not only do they have to forgive again, but now they are feeling like they are a failure, like they didn’t really forgive in the first place. Forgiveness is like grief. There are waves of it that come again and again in our lives and we need to deal with it again and again, even though we have made that resolution to forgive, there will be times that we have to forgive for the same thing again. And that is part of what makes it so hard.

Another thing that we have to remember that it isn’t. Forgiveness isn’t something that we do just when someone has admitted when they are wrong. Now the vast majority of times that we are called to forgive, there is that opportunity for reconciliation where people talk things through and recognize what has been wrong and apologize and resolve to do better and its in that context that we forgive them, but there are times when that can’t happen. For example, if the person we need to forgive has already died or maybe we are in some sort of social context where we can’t fully discuss this with the other person, maybe the distance is too great and so there are these things that have interrupted our relationship and we can’t hash it all out, but we are still called to forgive. There are other times when we might have to forgive because we have talked it out with someone, but they don’t see it our way and yet because we are in the same family or the same business place or the same church or the same school, we have to continue our relationship with them and so we are called to forgive. Now, even though we are called to forgive, that doesn’t mean that we agree with what they did. It’s not that we say, okay you don’t see it’s wrong so that means that I have to admit I am wrong and so, I’m sorry I am so touchy. And it doesn’t mean that you would necessarily trust that person. If they violated your trust, you don’t owe them back that immediately. Trust is something that is earned in our relationships, but what it does mean is that we don’t condemn, and that we resolve to treat a person kindly, and that we give up our right to immediate vindication. And so that we can forgive and love even in that situation.

So there are a lot of things that forgiveness doesn’t mean. Let’s talk about what it does mean. Forgiveness means to cancel a debt, to release something and let it go. In forgiving, we decide that something, that someone did will no longer have to stand in the way of our relationship. At the same time we take that person, and we release that person from any obligation to have to do something else to please us to keep this relationship intact. And then it’s a commitment at the same time for us to deal with the feelings, the emotions that have come up because of the hurt. So, forgiveness deals with the person, it deals with the act and it deals with our response, our emotional response and its our emotional response that makes it so difficult because we have this wave of responses of hurts, of anger, of all of these things that well up inside of us because of what has happened.

But as Christians, we need to remember that this is not something we have to deal with alone. It’s not something that you gut out in the corner to do for God. Prayer is one of the amazing things that God has given us to cope with this issue of forgiveness. We can wrestle with our feelings in prayer. We can wrestle with God in prayer, because God’s not going to throw you out because you are admitting that this is difficult for you. God knows that forgiveness is hard. Look what it cost God to forgive us. God had to send his only son into the world to be rejected and to die in our place in order for him to say that what we’ve done doesn’t have to stand in the way of our relationship any longer. God knows its hard and so in prayer we can drag these feelings and we can drag them to the cross where we are reminded that Jesus knows what it meant to be betrayed. He knows what it is like to have a good friend turn on you and ruin things. He knows what it is like to be unjustly accused of something and to suffer for something he didn’t do. And so we can gather all of our feelings like that and bring them to God and at the same time we recognize that part of the reason that Jesus had to suffer was because of our sin as well. So we can deal with these things in the presence of God because forgiveness is divine stuff. God knows how to forgive and God can help us learn.

There is a family that I know and one of the parents in the family, the father was very perfectionistic and this perfectionism affected all of the kids. All of the kids had a sense of not really being accepted or acceptable, and have carried around the wounds of that in their lives, but they responded to these differently and I would like to talk about two of them. The first child carries the wounds around all of the time. Every time the family would get together, the issues are right up front and there is this constant sense to the parents that you owe me for what you’ve done and there is this guilt on the part of the parents of trying to make up some how for things that are years passed, but it just never does seem to work. There is another child in the family and this child worked for years at trying to accept her father despite the clear lack, the clear problems that he had. And across a period of years she came to the point that she understood that in part he was doing the best he could because he was wounded as well. Didn’t mean what he did was right, but she understood a bit and she could accept him. And she started to also understand that she would never get the kind of affirmation from him that she desired. It was never going to happen and she had to deal with the grief of that, but at the same time she started to understand that she was God’s chosen person, wholly and dearly loved. And on the basis of that acceptance from God our Father, she had a foundation where she could accept herself and begin to do the hard work of accepting her family. In addition, she was able to realize that God had put other people into her life to affirm her and to strengthen her and to accept her and to encourage her.

The first child I mentioned is at war all the time. The hurts are always there and because there is no healing because it is constantly being dealt with over and over and rehearsed again and again and remembered again and again because of that, this person gets hurt more readily now. And because of these hurts, there is a division that is caused when they are around and people have to choose sides and because of that people hold them at arms length and so they are isolated. The first child is at war. The second child though is at peace.

Across the years, she has been able to have a respectful relationship, a relationship of mutual respect with the family and not only does that build a sense of acceptance, but it means that the current hurts don’t hurt as much. Which person are you more like? Which kind of person would you like to be? Forgiveness is serious stuff. God takes forgiveness very seriously. The skit we saw earlier today comes out of a parable in Matthew 18 where Jesus makes it absolutely clear that we have been forgiven so much by God that we have an obligation to forgive others. But it’s hard work and it is not something that is going to happen in our lives unless we first have an experience of the forgiveness of God in our own lives. This sort of work happens because God has forgiven us.

And so I would like to begin with those who are Christians here. Perhaps some of the struggle you have in forgiving others is because you really haven’t experienced in the deepest levels of your life that God has really accepted you and really loves you. And so then part of your work and part of your prayer needs to be that God really makes it clear to you that you are dearly loved, that he isn’t holding something over your head, that the next minute he is going to slap down on you. But for others here, you haven’t even taken the first step, and so that’s what I would like to encourage you to do. In order to be able to forgive, we have to first be forgiven. And so I would like to invite you in a few moments I am going to pray and I would like to invite you if you have never taken that first step, that you consider doing that because what God is looking for from you is that you recognize that this old way of life without him, hurtful to you and hurtful to others that this was wrong and he asks you to turn around and face in the other direction and grab his hand and walk in a new direction of life and what God offers is that in Jesus Christ he gives you a free gift, something you can’t buy, something you can’t earn, forgiveness, love, unconditional acceptance, because of what Jesus has done for you. That’s the way it starts, you just have to accept it.

Let’s pray. Gracious God, we come before you right now and Lord I pray now on behalf of those people who are struggling with whether they are going to walk with you, whether they are going to turn their lives over to you and begin to follow Jesus. I pray now that they will be able to recognize the emptiness of the life they have been living, and be able to turn to face a new direction of life with you and that you will give them the faith to understand that you can accept them and hold them blameless and wholly before you, because of what Jesus has done for them. So I pray that you would touch us and move in our hearts, for we ask this in the mighty name of Jesus. Amen.