Forgiveness is kind of a thing, isn’t it? We bandy the word around a lot in churches and we make kind of a thing about it don’t we? That whole confession and forgiveness of sins, experiencing forgiveness in the real presence of Christ in communion, being cleansed of sin in baptism and entering life as a forgiven person. Forgiveness is everywhere you look, isn’t it?
Or is it?[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/33052/248186-forgiveness-is-hard.mp3]
(The remainder of the written sermon, which the audio more or less follows, continues below)
Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness is a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness. In my nearly 9 years of full-time ministry one thing I can say without reservation is that we struggle with the idea and the act of forgiveness.
Don’t get me wrong, we like the idea of forgiveness for the most part. Forgiveness seems like the right thing but when it comes to the act of forgiveness we run into some challenges. We want to forgive others and we want to be forgiven but… but…
We get stuck. And we hold on to what someone has done to us. Or we hold on to what we have done and can’t forgive ourselves. There are many metaphors for forgiveness. Withholding forgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. That’s kind of on point and while I hesitated to use that one it very closely lines up with what happens when we forgive and when we don’t forgive. Not forgiving is like a poison that works and works on us until we die.
Before we get to far into this I want to put a very strong disclaimer in here for anyone who has been or currently is in an abusive relationship. The idea and act of forgiveness applies but does not mean you forget about the abuse and it does not mean you stay in an abusive relationship. Ever. If you are currently in an abusive relationship please come talk to me about it. There is help available and it can get better.
And that highlights a common misconception about forgiveness and forgetting. How many times have we heard ‘forgive and forget’. That misses the mark entirely. There are just some things that can never be forgotten and in some cases they shouldn’t be. But they can be forgiven. Don’t mistake the idea that you haven’t forgotten something for having not forgiven something. The fact you remember something doesn’t mean you haven’t let go of it because forgiveness means you let go the hold it has on you.
This goes back a couple of weeks ago when we were talking about that part of the Lord’s Prayer where we pray to have OUR sins forgiven as WE have forgiven those who sin against us. Since snow kept many at home that day let me just reiterate what that means and what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that God rates our forgiveness of others and forgives us accordingly. It kind of sounds like that but forgiveness is never conditional. Or rated.
What it does mean is that our withholding forgiveness gets in the way of our experiencing forgiveness. Let me say that again. Our withholding forgiveness gets in the way of our experiencing forgiveness.
That’s a kicker, isn’t it?
How to forgive? Can I just say I don’t know? As far as I can tell there is no formula, no set pattern, no magic bullet for forgiving. The starting point is always prayer. If forgiveness were easy and up to us we’d just do it and all would be well. But it frequently isn’t easy and sometimes we’re just not able to forgive ourselves or others and we need God’s help.
There are a lot of examples of people who have forgiven the most horrendous acts. I don’t want to get too graphic about it but most of us can think of some pretty horrific acts that people have committed against others and the victims were able to forgive the perpetrators. Things that are beyond the pale and yet forgiveness was given. I hear about those events and I wonder if I could forgive and I sometimes think that I couldn’t, God forgive me. And God help me because when it gets right down to it, that is the only way I could forgive. With God’s help.
The other part is to take seriously the words we use in confession and forgiveness. They’re not just a thing we do and say every week. We lift up our confessions, we admit to our wrongdoings and then we hear the absolution, the words of forgiveness. When I announce you are forgiven it is not Lance that is announcing that but it is Christ’s forgiveness that is coming to you through the office of pastor. When you hear the words ‘I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ that is Christ speaking with my voice.
And let’s be clear about the real presence of Christ in communion. Communion isn’t just a weekly reminder that Christ gave his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. That is certainly true but communion is the real presence of Christ in our lives. And when we come to the table, when we take the wafer and the wine or grape juice or we have a blessing, that real presence is Christ’s forgiveness right here and right now.
Maybe that’s the path to forgiving others and forgiving ourselves. Take a moment now and think about what needs forgiven in our life. What others have done and what we have done. Pray for God’s help first and foremost. Then with that specific prayer in mind, lift it up again in confession and listen to the words of absolution. Not my words but the words of Christ that come to you through my voice as a pastor. Hear the forgiveness that comes from Christ.
And then in communion, do it all over again. Come to the table expecting forgiveness because forgiveness is there in the real presence of Christ. Take the wafer and the wine or the blessing and be assured that Christ is truly present and in Christ’s presence, feel the forgiveness that is upon you.
Carry that prayer, that absolution and that real presence with you the rest of the week. Carry that forgiveness with you the rest of the week. Then come back and do it again. And again. And again.
Forgiveness is hard. But in the real presence of Christ you’re not alone.