Forgiveness as Letting Go

In the first half of this sermon I have closely followed Anthony Bash’s discussion of forgiveness as letting go in Just Forgiveness.

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Just let it go.

How many times have you heard those words in your life? How many times have you perhaps spoken those words to someone you know.

Just let it go.

We tend to use that phrase in situations where we think something minor has happened. Some little thing has happened and we think it’s not worth getting worked up about it. We might say:

She didn’t really mean what she said – just let it go…

He could have done something much worse – just let it go…

She didn’t cause any real damage – just let it go…

In general we offer these words in relation to something minor. We all know that if we were to get angry or upset about every little thing in life, then we would probably spend our whole lives angry and upset. We all know that if we don’t display a little bit of grace in everyday life then we will spend our whole lives in very tense relationships with other people. So those words make sense to us because they make life manageable: Just let it go…

But, a question: Would we say that it is a kind of forgiveness represented in those words. When we say: “just let it go” are we speaking o a kind of forgiveness? Is it a kind of forgiveness when we decide to move on rather than letting some little thing get stuck in our heart or mind? Is it a kind of forgiveness when we decide to get on with a relationships, rather than letting some small thing do damage to it?

It’s interesting that within the New Testament one of the words most commonly used for forgiveness – or rather, one of the words most often translated as forgiveness – is the Greek word aphiemi (a fee ay em. It’s a word that has a range of meanings, but one of the sets of meanings for this word aphiemi is as follows: to let go, to give up a debt, to forgive, to remit (or release). So for example, in our first passage from Mark’s gospel, when Jesus says to the paralyzed man, your sins are forgiven you – it is the word aphiemi that is used. Your sins are let go of – your sins are released – your sins are not held against you – your sins are forgiven.

Aphiemi – the most common word for forgiveness in the New Testament. It means, to let go.

The close relationship between letting go and forgiveness suggests that our use of that phrase “Just let it go” could very well illuminate forgiveness. Forgiveness is in many respects about not hanging on to something – it’s about not clinging to something – it’s about releasing something from our hearts and our minds and our lives. Instead, of holding on to it we let it go.

In the first part of this sermon today I am in many ways following Antony Bash’s exploration of letting go that is offered in his little book entitled Just Forgiveness. And in his exploration Bash gives the example of Eric Lomax. Lomax was one of thousands of British soldiers who surrendered to Japan in Singapore during World War II. They were relocated to Thailand as prisoners of war and were forced to build the Burma railway. While Lomax was held in the camp he was found to possess parts of a radio and a map – for which he was interrogated and then tortured – it was a horrific experience. After the war ended, two of his torturers were captured and executed. But the man who had acted as interpreter during the interrogations and torture escaped punishment. In his autobiography, Lomax wrote about this man named Takashi Nagase:

I thought often about the young interpreter… Because of his command of my language, the interpreter was the link; he was centre-stage in my memories; he was my private obsession.

When Lomax discovered that the interpreter was still alive this was his thought:

The more I thought about it, and thought about it, the more I wished to do damage to the military police who had tortured me, if I could ever find them. Physical revenge seemed the only adequate recompense for the anger I carried.

Over the next number of years following the war, Lomax’s desire for revenge began to slowly dissipate, particularly when he discovered in the early 80s that Nagase had expressed deep regret about his actions and had spent years trying to make up for them. Nagase was active in pacifist causes and had organized meetings to promote reconciliation. So slowly over the years Lomax’s anger and desire for revenge began to dissipate, and he even began to consider what it would mean for him to forgive Takashi Nagase for his part in the torture of that prison camp. In 1995, more than 50 years after his initial capture and imprisonment, Eric Lomax went to Japan and met Nagase there. In that first meeting Nagase expressed his deep regret – his first words to Lomax were these, spoken through tears: “I am very, very sorry.”

Lomax and Nagase experienced a kind of friendship in those moments together, and Eric Lomax decided to write a letter to Nagase – a letter in which he formally declared his forgiveness of Nagase. Lomax wrote the letter, read it aloud to Nagase, and then gave it to him as a treasured expression of forgiveness.

Anthony Bash’s describes what was happening in the giving of that letter:

Erik Lomax wanted Nagase to know the…“loosening force” of his decision. What he meant by this was that, by forgiving Nagase, he was [committing] himself to let go of anger and hate. He also meant that his forgiveness would enable Nagase to loose himself from the shame and guilt that he felt… The last words of the book are these words he says to his wife: “Sometimes, the hating has to stop.”

Forgiveness as letting go.

Forgiveness as letting go of the bitterness we hold in our own hearts.

Forgiveness as letting go of the anger we direct at the one who hurt us.

Forgiveness as releasing the other from their shame and guilt.

Forgiveness as letting go of the pain and bitterness that has defined us.

We are going to change gears now, and extend our exploration of these themes by looking at one particular verse from the Gospel of Mark – a verse that we read this morning. Mark 11:25.

Jesus says: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you.” 

Whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive, aphiemi, let go, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you, aphiemi, let go of your sins.

Last week we talked about the unconditional love and forgiveness of God that came to expression on Mount Sinai after God’s people turned their backs on God and worshipped an idol. Out of a long and difficult conversation between Moses and God, the character of God was defined there in these terms:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. Words that are echoed throughout the Old Testament – and words that find full expression for us in Jesus, who is the embodiment of God’s forgiveness.

We saw that there is something decisive and unconditional about the forgiveness of God. God let’s go of his anger against our sinfulness. God let’s go of that intention to abandon us. God releases us from our shame. In Christ, God releases us from our guilt. Even in the midst of our wandering and our brokenness and our sinfulness, God extends mercy and forgives.

In the course of their life in covenant with God, the Hebrew people discovered this to be the character of God.

But here in this verse from Mark’s gospel, it feels like a condition has been added back in, doesn’t it? In these words of Jesus, it sounds like he is saying that God will let go of our sins – that God will forgive our wrongheaded living – only if we are willing to forgive others. God will forgive our sins, only if we forgive the wrongs others have done to us. So much for unconditional forgiveness, perhaps?

“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you.”

Of course these words of Jesus wouldn’t represent a problem if the only things we had to forgive in life were those little things – those little things we talked about at the beginning of this sermon. So a car cut you off while you were riding your bike downtown – just let it go – it’s not worth it. So your colleague at work said something that undermined you a little bit – just let it go –it’s not a big deal. If those were the only kinds of things we were talking about, if those were the only kinds of things we had to let go of – it would be pretty easy to accept these words of Jesus. Forgive others – let go of those little things – and God will forgive you. Ok, we can manage that.

But of course it’s not just those little everyday things we have to deal with in life. In many cases others have hurt us in profound ways – they have humiliated us, or done violence to us, or betrayed our trust. And so we have to ask: Is this verse saying that when we come to speak with God – when we gather for worship – when we gather at Jesus’ table or reconciliation, we are expected to forgive these things so simply and easily? Can Jesus really be saying that the work of forgiveness could ever be that easy for us? Is Jesus really saying that unless forgiveness is just that easy for us, then God will not forgive us? Just let it go, and God will let your sins go.

“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you.”

What can this passage mean?

Perhaps we can get at the meaning of the passage in this way.

When we refuse to forgive and let go…

Or when we refuse to at least begin that process of letting go…

Or when we refuse to at least imagine that we might some day be able to begin the process of letting go…

then we are in a sense refusing to live in the love and forgiveness of God. 

When we refuse to live in the love of God, we distance ourselves from the love of God that defines us. When we refuse to forgive, we distance ourselves from the forgiveness of God that defines us.

So it’s not as much a moral issue as it is a spiritual issue. It’s not about obeying a simplistic command to forgive, so that we can be forgiven. Rather, it is about understanding the character of God, and understanding our identity as those who dwell in the love of Christ. 

Jesus tells at least one parable that expresses this. There was a man who owed his master a huge sum of money, but the man couldn’t repay it. And so the master decided to sell the man and his whole family in order to get the money that was owed to him. But the man begged and pleaded with his master to show mercy – not to sell him or his family. The master relented – in fact the master decided to forgive the entire debt – he let the man go free.

And that freed man went out and the very next day he saw another man who happened to owe him a small amount of money – but that second man couldn’t pay. But the man who had been shown mercy, showed no mercy. He threw the second man into debtor’s prison until he could find a way to pay.

As Jesus tells the story – the master hears about what has happened – how the man whose debt was forgiven refused to forgive a lesser debt owed by someone else. And so the master comes back to the servant whose debt he forgave – and he throws him into prison. The master says to him: “Shouldn’t you have shown mercy to your fellow servant, in the same way that I showed mercy to you?”

When we are unwilling to dwell in the love of God, we in a sense distance ourselves from God’s love. When we are unwilling to live in the forgiveness of God, we in a sense absent ourselves from the God who is defined by forgiveness.

We already alluded to the fact that letting go of the harm done to us may take time. In a particular moment of drawing near to God, we may not be able to forgive or reach out to someone who has hurt us. We remember that it took 50 years for forgiveness to come to full expression in the life of Eric Lomax and in his relationship to Takashi Nagase.

As we come to God in prayer, as we gather before God in worship, as we share at the table of reconciliation Jesus provides – perhaps we cannot yet reach out in forgiveness to someone who has hurt us. But perhaps we can at least begin to imagine what it might mean to one day begin taking small steps toward forgiveness.

And perhaps that is more than enough for one day – tomorrow will be another day.

To dwell with God – to walk in the way of Jesus his son – is to dwell deeply in the love and forgiveness of God. If we are unwilling to love and to forgive – if we are unwilling to take the smallest of imaginative steps in that direction – then we are in a sense distanced from our own deepest identity as those who live in the love and forgiveness of God.

In this day and each day, may we discover grace to live in the love of God – may we find grace to begin letting go – even if ever so slowly. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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