“WHAT IF IT’S ALL ABOUT FORGIVENESS?”
CHILMARK COMMUNITY CHURCH
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
September 20, 2015
JOHN 20:19 – 31
What if it’s all about forgiveness? We can’t escape the theme of forgiveness in the JESUS story. As he was dying, Jesus forgave his tormentors on the cross. In his second post resurrection appearance, he greeted his friends behind locked doors and commissioned them to exercise forgiveness in the world. At the end of John’s gospel Jesus forgave Peter for his denial and commissioned Peter to “feed my sheep.”
Forgiveness has been a central place of spiritual challenge and struggle for all who have followed since then. What if it’s all about forgiveness?
Forgiveness made the front page headlines of the Globe several weeks ago when members of a Charleston, South Carolina Church appeared in court at the arraignment of the man who had opened fire in their congregation and killed their pastor and several members. Within just a few days of the event, they offered him forgiveness. A few years ago members of an Amish community in Pennsylvania immediately forgave the man who had killed five young school girls in their community. A little farther back than that, a five-year-old Boston girl, paralyzed by a stray bullet at the age of three made the headlines when she offered the perpetrator forgiveness. In her victim impact statement, she was quoted as saying “What you done to me was wrong” and then she said “But I still forgive him.” Stories like these put forgiveness on the front page and they are met with mixed response. Finding our way in the radical world of forgiveness is not always easy.
Psychologist Stephanie Dowrick has written: Forgiveness deeply offends the rational mind. When someone has hurt us, wounded us, abused us; when someone has stolen peace of mind or safety from us; when someone has harmed or taken the life of someone we love; or when someone has simply misunderstood us or offended us, there is no reason why we should let the offense go. No reason why we should understand it. No reason why we should hope for enlightenment for that person. No reason why, from our own pain and darkness we should summon compassion and insight for that person as well as for ourselves.1
As familiar as the gospel story is to us, it still confounds us – – it confounds rationality. Forgiveness is not a reasonable, rational process. There was no rational reason for Jesus to forgive the Roman soldiers even as they crucified him. There was no reason for Jesus to forgive the friend who denied him. But this is what Jesus did – – And the first thing he commissioned his followers to do was to forgive the sins of others.
Perhaps forgiveness is difficult for us at times because we do not fully understand what forgiveness is and is not. Actually, it is probably the things that forgiveness is NOT that cause us the most difficulty in knowing when and what we can forgive. Forgiveness is NOT condoning the wrong that was done. Forgiveness does NOT justify the actions that caused harm. Forgiveness does NOT always happen in an instant. It takes time – often years – for forgiveness to happen. Forgiveness does NOT mean forgetting what has happened. Forgiveness does NOT necessarily lead to forced reunions between the wounded person and the one who has done the wounding.2 Forgiveness may never lead to the comfort of real and authentic reconciliation.
If forgiveness is none of these things, then what are we left with? William Countryman in his book FORGIVEN AND FORGIVING points out that the Greek word that we translate as forgive (aphiemi) means, basically, “to let go.” “When we pray ‘forgive us our debts or trespasses’ the words means “let our debts go; turn them loose.” Forgiveness involves a letting go – a letting go of our investment in the past so that we can turn toward the future; it means letting go of our need to control the other; it even means letting go of our own self righteousness so that something new can happen in the world.”3 In addition to all the other things that forgiveness is not – – it is NOT about the past, but about the future. There is no way of erasing the past, and we always carry our past with us into the future – which gives the lie to the conventional wisdom of “forgive and forget.” Countryman suggests it is not whether we carry the past into the future, but how we carry it. Do we drag the past with us like a dead weight, something that holds us back? Do we carry it as a weapon to use against ourselves or someone else?4 When we are able to reach a point where we no longer need the past to be any different than it was, we are well on the way to knowing how to forgive.
The command to forgive is central to what Jesus envisioned for the world. He breathed the power of the Holy Spirit into his followers. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” By His Spirit, He breathes in us today and the challenge of his words remains – we are empowered with both the ability to forgive and the ability to refuse to forgive.
At times it appears that we live in a world motivated more by revenge than by forgiveness. Jesus’ vision of a kingdom where forgiveness and compassion and justice reigns is pretty tarnished. Street gangs kill each other off and wound innocent people because of their need for revenge against one another. Family units dissolve when marriage partners cannot forgive each other or themselves. Nations carry out genocide against one another because historical grievances have been dragged into the present to stoke the fires of revenge. Children carry childhood wounds into their own adulthood because they cannot forgive their parents.
We know what forgiveness is not. But what then does real forgiveness look like? Linda Barker Revell writes: “Forgiveness is a state of grace. It cannot be applied as a concept. It must not be muddled up with who is right and who is not right. That muddling separates us off from the healing power of love and I think that forgiveness is the greatest of the healing powers of love.” 5
Real forgiveness often comes to life not so much through our ability to see the failings in others and to judge them, but through our willingness to own up to our own failings, to know what we have done, and to acknowledge without self pity what we are capable of doing. Forgiveness demands that we take responsibility for ourselves, with all the discomfort that may imply. Forgiveness asks us to think about what kind of society we are creating through our actions – through our ability to forgive….or through our propensity to withhold forgiveness. Forgiveness demands that we ask of ourselves “What kind of a future do I want to create in this situation, in this relationship?” The mother of the young Boston girl expressed it very succinctly: “We live in a world today that seems to want people to be bitter, angry. But I don’t want bitterness and anger in my life and I don’t want it for my daughter.” Imagine the kind of radical process of forgiveness that might activate reconciliation instead of enmity if we asked the question “What kind of future do we want to create?
One sermon will not address the vast possibilities of a future based on forgiveness. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is to open the door to more thinking about it forgiveness – about what it is and is not. We know all too well what a world built on revenge and retribution looks like. Perhaps the best and clearest way to welcome the power of Jesus’ teachings into our lives is to wrestle with the responsibility that has been entrusted to us –“ If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Bill Countryman reminds us that “in the power of God’s Spirit, no good thing is impossible. As people who trust in the good news, we live by hope in what we, with God, can build in the future. The failure or unwillingness of others will not prevent us from living richly and faithfully as we grow toward the vision of the kingdom. We can forgive others without their asking (us for) forgiveness – if we have to. We can repent and build anew without the forgiveness we seek from others – if we have to.”
Real forgiveness begins with admitting the truth of the wounding. 5 year old Kai Lee said it very clearly: “What you done to me was wrong.” Real forgiveness begins by recognizing and naming the wrong doing and bringing it to a halt. Where there is ongoing wrongdoing, the only truly loving and forgiving thing to do is to demand change. This is true of situations involving abuse, racism, genocide, poverty, discrimination, war- – of any situation where the wrongdoing is pervasive and ongoing. The first step toward any real forgiveness is to name the wrong-doing and demand that it stop.
“Real forgiveness is what opens the possibility of reconciliation between wrongdoer and victim. Real forgiveness will say “If there is to be a future relationship between us, it has to be a non-abusive one; a non-racist one; a non-class-ist one, a non-warring one. No other kind of relationship is appropriate for those who are citizens of the age to come. No other relationship can endure in that age where harm ceases to be a possibility.”6
Through Jesus, we have been authorized to forgive one another. That’s where it all begins. At any moment we can embark on the life long process. We simply start where we are and we begin to forgive what we can forgive. With practice we begin to let go of the self-righteousness that slows us down. We realize that we have been forgiven – and that, all by itself, is what authorizes us to be about the work of forgiving others. Forgiveness is not for sissies. Jesus shows us that. But forgiveness is also not exclusively reserved for saints. We might very well be the ones hiding out of fear in a locked room – feeling the breath of the Spirit, hearing the commission Jesus speaks, feeling ourselves propelled into a future that God envisions for all God’s people. May it be so. Amen.
1 FORGIVENESS AND OTHER ACTS OF LOVE by Stephanie Dowrick W.W. Norton & Co. New York, 1997. p. 291
2 Dowrick p. 290
3 FORGIVEN AND FORGIVING by L. William Countryman, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, PA 1998 p.57
4 Countryman Page 57
5 Dowrick page 300
6 Countryman p.84