The Christian Life: Forgiveness – May 29, 2016

Sunday’s Reading:
2 Corinthians 2:1-10

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Last Sunday, we began our series on the Christian life by talking about consolation as one of the defining characteristics of individuals and communities of faith. In the midst of hardship and struggle, we trust that God has promised to grant us the gifts of comfort and encouragement, and we understand that we are called to respond to those gifts by extending them to one another in Christ’s name.

Today, we turn to one of the most widely discussed and grossly misunderstood aspects of our life together: forgiveness. Forgiveness is, of course, a central concern for us as Christians. We understand ourselves to be part of this community precisely because of the great love that has been given to us in Jesus Christ, and we know that our relationship with God is based on the forgiveness that we have received through Christ’s death and resurrection. It is nearly impossible to talk about the Christian life without talking about forgiveness.

What is misunderstood – or, perhaps, underemphasized – is the extent to which Scripture defines forgiveness as the ground of our relationships with one another within the community of the church. This is demonstrated clearly by the fact that Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians moves almost directly from the topic of consolation to the importance of forgiveness for the Christian living in community. We discussed last week that this letter was occasioned by a deep divide within the church at Corinth over the nature of Paul’s authority. We can only guess at what happened – since Paul’s letter represents just one side of the conversation – but it appears that in response to that division, Paul made a “painful visit” to Corinth in which he confronted an individual who was at the heart of the dispute. Following that visit, the “offender” was apparently shunned by the church, causing still greater pain within the community. In today’s passage, then, Paul – despite the great hurt that he has experienced at the hand of this brother in the faith, and while acknowledging how much pain has been experienced by the whole community – urges the Corinthians to extend forgiveness to the offender.

This idea – that as forgiven people we should also be forgiving people – is present throughout Scripture. We need look no further than the Lord’s Prayer – the model for prayer given to us by Jesus himself – to see this sentiment expressed with absolutely no ambiguity: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Matthew 6:12) That Paul expresses it so clearly here, in a situation in which he himself has been gravely wounded by the trespass of a fellow Christian, is really important, because it takes this concept out of the abstract and sets it into a real, flesh-and-blood context. Forgiveness is one of those things that sounds simple enough in theory, but can be incredibly difficult to actually carry out when we find ourselves in situations of deep pain and hurt. Once we move out of the realm of theory, we begin to wonder if forgiveness is naïve, if practicing it necessarily leads us to our being doormats who are just asking to be injured again. We often question the sincerity of those who ask for forgiveness, or wonder about the propriety of extending forgiveness to people who aren’t even asking for it. Indeed, we should be honest about the fact that forgiveness is always a somewhat risky proposition, because offering it requires us to acknowledge that we’ve been hurt, and if there’s anything we human beings hate, it’s being vulnerable to other people.

In the event that I haven’t made it abundantly clear already, forgiveness isn’t easy. If anything, acknowledging all the difficulty involved in the practice of forgiveness should disabuse us of the notion that it is something that makes us weak. Think about a time when you were wounded by a family member or a close friend. If you eventually spoke to that person about how they hurt you, think about the resolve that was necessary to stop ignoring or minimizing your pain. These acts – facing our vulnerability and accepting the risks that come along with it – are incredibly powerful, and our ability to perform them comes from a deep and abiding strength, a strength that is ours because we know the power of the forgiveness that we have received from God in Christ to transform our own lives.

We should also be honest about the fact that forgiveness is, in reality, a radical proposition. There’s almost nothing as radical, in fact, as the act of freeing ourselves from the need to see other people get what we think they deserve. Despite Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about “turning the other cheek”, the concept of “an eye for an eye” is still very tempting at times. At the heart of the gospel, however, is the recognition that “God’s love was shown for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) We can barely wrap our minds around that way of thinking, and yet we are called to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:5)

All right, it’s should be obvious that forgiveness is important – difficult and radical, but really important nonetheless. So what does forgiveness look like? How are we called to practice forgiveness in a way that doesn’t lead to permissiveness, that doesn’t “excuse” behavior which truly causes pain to us or our community? Fully answering those questions could take a lifetime, but here are three things that I think might define our practice of forgiveness as Christians. First of all, forgiveness should be wrapped in prayer. There’s too much at stake in this powerful act to do it flippantly or without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Next, forgiveness begins with acknowledging the fault, with a recognition of how the act (or acts) in question have damaged the relationship and caused hurt to us as individuals or as a community. Making the gravity of the offense known is important for both the one who has been hurt and the one who has caused that hurt. Finally, I think it’s crucial for us to understand that forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting. Though we practice forgiveness with the goal of repairing relationships that have been broken, it is a reality of life in our world that those relationships may never be what they once were. When the hurt is deep, or when it has the potential to be long-lasting, we don’t have to act as though nothing has happened; actions have consequences, after all, and those consequences may include the need to set boundaries for the sake of individuals or the community. Even so, forgiveness can still be an important part of healing divisions and helping to restore a community to wholeness.

Next week, our series continues with a look at another misunderstood quality of the Christian life: humility. In the meantime, I invite us all to reflect on our identity as people who are forgiven and our calling to be forgiving people. It’s a calling that will never be easy to live out. It’s a calling that will always be radical. It’s a calling that we can’t escape. May God grant us the courage and strength to take it seriously, and the will to do it for the sake of Christ and this beloved community that bears his name. Amen.

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