Forgiving Others

A sermon in our continuing series on the Apostles’ Creed. The story about Father Chacour is taken from Jones’ book Embodying Forgiveness. I have followed Jones in some of what follows. Also, I have built upon insights taken from Paul Wadell’ book on friendship – one chapter of which is dedicated to the question of forgiveness.

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I believe in the forgiveness of sins. 

You might have thought the forgiveness of sins would be included in the first section of the creed – after all, it is God who forgives our sin.

Or you might have thought the forgiveness of sins would be included in the second section of the creed – after all, it is through Jesus that our sins are forgiven.

But no – we only arrive at the forgiveness of sins in the third section of the creed. We confess our belief in the forgiveness of sins with the same breath that we confess our faith in the Holy Spirit – the one who forms us the church, who binds us together in one Body.

The fact that the forgiveness of sins is found in the third section reminds us that forgiveness is bound up with our identity as the church. Because God forgives, we as the church know forgiveness – we bear witness to God’s forgiving love. Even more, however, the church is a community in which we extend forgiveness to each other.  

Father Elias Chacour was a Palestinian priest who served a congregation in the village of Ibillin, Israel, in the 1960s. The people of his congregation had suffered greatly in the midst of that intractable, Middle East conflict. But in addition to this, those who lived in the village of Ibillin, and who were part of his congregation, were bitterly divided – family against family, neighbour against neighbour.

On Palm Sunday 1966, in the midst of the overflowing congregation, Father Chacour decided to do something about the division and anger and conflict in the congregation and village.

After the church service, Chacour walked down the center aisle to the back of the church – and when he got there he locked the only two doors to the church and took the key. He marched back up the aisle, turned around, and told his people that he loved them. But he also told them he was saddened that they were so full of hatred and bitterness for one another. He said to the people:

            This morning while I celebrated the liturgy, I found someone who is able to help you. In fact, he is the only one who can work the miracle of reconciliation in this village. This person who can reconcile you is Jesus Christ, and he is here with us. We are gathered in his name this Palm Sunday, this man who rode in triumph into Jerusalem with hosannas ringing in his hears.

Chacour went on: So on Christ’s behalf, I say this to you: The doors of the church are locked. Either you kill each other right here in your hatred and then I will celebrate your funerals free of charge, or you use this opportunity to be reconciled together before I open the doors of the church. If that reconciliation happens, Christ will truly become your Lord, and I will know I am becoming your pastor and your priest. The decision is now yours.

Ten minutes passed and no one said anything. The people sat in silence, locked in the church. After a while, a man named Abu Muhib stood up, a villager who was serving as an Israeli policeman. He stretched out his arms and said: “I ask forgiveness of everybody here and I forgive everybody. And I ask God to forgive my sins.” He and the priest embraced, with tears streaming down Muhib’s face. Chacour called for everyone to embrace one another. Chacour writes about that moment: “tears and laughter mingled as people who had said ugly words to each other or who had not spoken to each other in many years were now sharing Christ’s love and peace.”

That day, Chacour removed the locks from the church doors and threw them away, along with the key – the open doors a sign of their reconciliation.

I believe in the forgiveness of sins.

We confess the forgiveness of sins with the same breath that we confess our belief in the church, formed by the Spirit. Doing so we are reminded – not only has God displayed an astounding graciousness – but we are invited to forgiveness and reconciliation in our relationships.

For some time now here at KCKF, it has been our practice to share the peace of Christ with each other as we begin worship. We may think of this as simply a moment to say good morning – to be neighbourly and say hi to one another. But that’s not what it is.

When we say those words – The peace of Christ be with you – we are giving expression to the truth of our reconciliation. Because of what God has done in Christ, we belong to each other. Christ has brought peace to our world and lives and has drawn us together in love. And so we extend the peace of Christ to each other. It is a sign that says that we belong to each other in one Body.

To make this clear, think about the possibility that during the passing of the peace you would encounter someone with whom you’ve had a falling out. As you are shaking hands with people, you suddenly, surprisingly come face to face with someone who has offended you or hurt you. And in that moment of encounter you have a choice – will you extend the peace of Christ? Will you acknowledge that the other is beloved of God? Will you move toward reconciliation with the other by wishing him or her the peace of Christ?

When we exchange the peace of Christ we are reminded that we belong together and that forgiveness defines us.

It goes without saying that forgiveness is a massive and complicated subject. So this morning we narrow the subject a bit. Specifically, we spend a few minutes reflecting on the need to forgive those who have hurt or wronged us. As Jesus says to Peter – forgiveness extended how many times – not just seven but seventy times seven.

This is what we might refer to as love gone mad – it is love gone mad because in so many respects it goes against the grain of who we are. When someone hurts us or wrongs us, it seems almost mad, ridiculous, to think about forgiving them. But the love of Christ is precisely a love that reaches toward reconciliation, a love that reaches out in forgiveness to those who have harmed us or caused us pain.

Now it’s pretty easy to say in a sermon that we are supposed to forgive those who have done us a wrong turn. It’s pretty easy to say in a sermon that because God has forgiven us, forgiveness should shape our relationships with others. Elizabeth O’Connor puts it pretty well and simply: “Forgiveness is a whole lot harder than any sermon makes it out to be.” That’s true today.

When someone has insulted you – forgiveness is not an easy option.

When someone has betrayed your trust – forgiveness is not an easy option.

When someone has caused you great pain – forgiveness is not an easy option.

There is much in us that says: Forget him. I’m done with her. Or even, I’ll get you back for what you’ve done.

Nevertheless, we think back to the parable we read last week – the massive embezzlement and fraud of the governor was forgiven. His massive debt was cancelled. It is a reminder of the amazing forbearance and love of God toward us. We turned our back on God in a decisive way – thumbing our noses at God. But God will not let the relationship go – will not let the relationship die. God will not be God without us.

Indeed, in Christ God has mended our broken relationship to him – and God invites us also to seek a mending of broken human relationships.  

Is it ‘love gone mad’ when we are asked to forgive those who have hurt us or injured us? Is it ‘love gone mad’ when we are asked to seek reconciliation, a mended relationship, with one who has caused us pain? Perhaps it is. Nevertheless, we are called to express precisely this seemingly unreasonable love toward others.

As we think further about this today, there are a couple of important things that we should clarify. The first thing to say is this:

Forgiveness does not require that we quickly and easily ‘forgive and forget’.

Forgiveness does not mean glossing over the painful word that was spoken or glossing over the hurtful action that was done.

Forgiveness also does not mean remaining in a relationship or situation that might cause us serious harm or distress.

When we forgive another we say to him or to her:  “I am letting go of the bitterness and the pain that you have brought into my life”. We say to him or to her: “I will not see you only in terms of what you have done to me.” We say to him or to her: “I want you to experience freedom from the guilt or shame you feel over what you have done. I wish you the peace of Christ.” That’s forgiveness.

But to extend forgiveness in this way is only one step (admittedly, sometimes a huge step) – but it is only one step on the way to reconciliation with the other – to the mending of the relationship. And we must be clear that there can be no mending of relationships without acknowledgment of the wrong that was done – the hurt that was inflicted. We can reach out in forgiveness, but reconciliation with the one who has caused us pain will requires acknowledgment of wrong and a commitment from him or her to unlearn hurtful and harmful habits. 

Last week we said that in forgiveness God’s justice and God’s mercy meet. God’s mercy is not cut off from God’s justice. They go hand in hand. Though God extends mercy, he does not do so without shining the light of grace onto our wrongheaded lives.  

So in our relationships, forgiving another cannot mean glossing over, or being silent, about what has been done. Forgiveness cannot mean that we just quickly and easily forgive and forget. Think of the prodigal son who came back to his father with these words: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am not worthy to be your son.” We can reach out in forgiveness, wishing the other the peace of Christ. But if there is to be reconciliation, that will require an acknowledgment of the wrong that was done – and a clear commitment to unlearning hurtful and harmful habits.

There is a second clarification we might add this morning. Simply this – that forgiveness often takes time – and reconciliation often takes longer. The Christian scholar and writer C.S. Lewis, in his Letters to Malcolm, offers this interesting word: “Last week in prayer I discovered, or at least I think I discovered, that I was suddenly able to forgive someone I had been trying to forgive for thirty years.”

When a friend has hurt us, it often takes time to time to let go of bitterness and to be released from the pain.

When a loved one has insulted us or been hostile toward us, it often takes time for us to be able to imagine a new and hopeful relationship with them.

When we have been injured by someone, it may take time before we can release the injury and entrust the other to God’s love.

Now the truth is that some of us are very good at holding on to our hurts. As the theologian Paul Wadell says: “We may not like that we suffered, but we can, oddly enough, like returning to the hurt and nurturing it. If nothing else, keeping the hurt alive gives us a little power over those who hurt us. We may have our wounds, but if we keep those wounds visible and fresh, they are a constant reminder to the one who hurt us, that the hurt is still there.

But we believe in love gone mad – we believe the forgiveness of sins. And reaching toward forgiveness sometimes means letting go of the old friend of bitterness. Forgiving one who has hurt us sometimes means being set free from the prison of bitterness and anger in which we have confined ourselves.

The truth is also, however, that some of us have been very seriously hurt by others, and as much as we try, forgiveness is a long time in coming. We want to forgive, but forgiveness is so hard. Even more, reconciliation seems absolutely impossible – and indeed, in some situations reconciliation may indeed be impossible within time, so hurt were we by another – so fractured is the relationship.

But even here we believe in love gone mad – we believe in the forgiveness of sins. We are a community that knows and celebrates the forgiveness of God. And even if we know that forgiveness takes time, we reach out toward it. And even if we know that reconciliation may be impossible, we nevertheless reach out to God asking for the gift of forgiveness.

And here we go back to where we began, to the recognition that the church is a community of forgiveness. Which is also to say that we are given the task of supporting one another in extending forgiveness. We given the opportunity to support one another in extending forgiveness. To forgive is not something we can finally do on our own – it requires the prayer and support of others. It is often very hard work – but very real work.

In conclusion this morning, let me repeat two quotations, which I think help to set this sermon in its appropriate context.

First Elizabeth O’Connor’s words: “Forgiveness is a whole lot harder than any sermon makes it out to be.”

Then C.S. Lewis’ words: “Last week in prayer I discovered, or at least I think I discovered, that I was suddenly able to forgive someone I had been trying to forgive for thirty years.”

I believe in the forgiveness of sins.

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