September 4, 2011


“The Way of Forgiveness”

Romans 13:8; Matthew 18:18



“See how these Christians love one another,”’ was the pagan observation of the new quality of life among the members of this new sect, alive and growing in second-century Rome. It is tempting to look at the early church and fondly call it the ‘good old days.’  But like most recolections of this kind, it fails to recognize all of the less beautiful aspects of this period.  Still, for this one characteristic, I wonder if this comment can still be made about the church.


If we were somehow able to clothe ourselves in this one quality, love, I am quite sure that the church would see a remarkable change in its popularity and its place in the world.


What is Paul talking about here?  He is talking about the Torah, the Law.  This covenant is often described as having two parts.  The first part refers to the vertical dimension or our relationship with God.   Sometime in chapter eleven, Paul has shifted his focus to the second part…our relationship with others.  In Paul’s summary of the second table of the law, those commandments having to do with our horizontal obligations, he emphasizes that “love” fulfills the law. As he summarizes Leviticus 19, he reminds us of the final word: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is not sentimental, hormonal and romantic “love.” This love is an act of the will. As N. T. Wright says, this “love will grit its teeth and act as if the emotions were in place, trusting they will follow in good time.” This love is not modeled on any emotion or behavior naturally available to us human beings.  It is modeled on the love of Christ. What Paul is suggesting here is that this quality, when lived out, is an essential element of the community, and it is a power that overcomes the world.


I must say that, for the most part, Christianity (if not individual Christians) have forgotten this central tenet of the faith.  I suppose it is easy to forget, even easier to deny, because if most of us really knew that we were signing on to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves’ we may have been more circumspect in our joining this crazy community.


And, if we make even the most casual review of what it is like to be part of a Christian Community, or any community for that matter, we would realize that we are required to forgive each other over and over again so that we might be able to “love one another, as I have loved you.”


The gospel shows us just such a problem: “Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” The forgiven community must forgive since we are forgiven first by God. Our temptation can be to exclude, but Jesus set the example for us in the Upper Room. Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him, but he did not break table fellowship. The invitation remained for Judas to rejoin the community of forgiveness.  This is the “…as I have loved you” part.




Forgiveness, if it is the way to truly love each other, can be a huge barrier to us becoming this kind of community.  I say this because I have witnessed firsthand how difficult this is: to forgive.  I have even had people tell me, people of faith, “I cannot forgive.”  I suspect that they say this because they do not really know what forgiveness looks like, in real life, and not the forgiveness of dreams.


Forgiveness is letting go of the need for revenge and releasing negative thoughts of bitterness and resentment.  We all have certain ‘tapes’ that we play in our mind.  One of the most destructive is this one, “so-and-so did this-or-that to me and whenever I see them I get angry.”  This tape, when played repeatedly, does no harm to the transgressor.  It harms us.  In the movie “Avalon,” a story about an immigrant family struggling to become ‘Americans,’ the uncle stopped talking to his family members for the rest of his life because they started Thanksgiving dinner without him after he was excessively late for the zillionth time. What a waste of energy it is to stay angry for decades.


Forgiveness is not forgetting or pretending it didn’t happen. It did happen, and we need to retain the lesson learned without holding onto the pain.


Forgiveness is not excusing. We excuse a person who is not to blame. We forgive because a wrong was committed.


Forgiveness is not giving permission to continue hurtful behaviors; nor is it condoning the behavior in the past or in the future.


Forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation. We have to make a separate decision about whether to reconcile with the person we are forgiving or whether to maintain our distance.


Forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge.  Literally, it is a ‘setting aside’ of those feelings so that you may go on with life.   It is a setting aside of the impulse to get revenge, to get even, so that the community can be maintained.  This is what both Matthew and Paul are concerned about.  This is what defines the Christian community and makes it so strange compared to the rest of the world.


Many observers have come to say that the Christian church is in decline, at least in the West.  And, there is no want of reasons to account for its galloping demise. For Robert Wuthnow, Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, it is ‘declining birth rates”; for Tony Campolo, “affluenza”; for Martin Marty, “weekend trips”; for John Buchanan, lack of “mission” (defined as outreach ministries); and for Will Willimon, it’s because “Rotary meets at a more convenient time.”


It is, I believe, the lack of forgiveness that belongs at the top of the list. More than anything else, the unwillingness to perform the difficult task of forgiveness in the love and spirit of Christ is what robs the church of that quality of life that first attracted outsiders. It was that quality of the church’s life that set it uniquely apart from all other attempts at creating community.   


There are some of you who actually read your bible and will say to me, “but Jon, didn’t Jesus himself say, ‘If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’?  And you would say this verse, meaning, that these are people you do not associate with right?  Matthew’s good and faithful Jewish community would not associate with these types under any circumstances, right?  My question to you is this:  who did Jesus associate with?  We know from the Gospel of Matthew how Jesus treated the Gentiles and tax collectors.  He invited them to sit at table with him, just as we should invite everyone, anyone, to sit at this table of sacrifice and blessing with us. 

Jesus uses hyperbole: He exaggerates by telling Peter he must forgive seventy times seven.  He mentions unmentionable people, who in fact he has included in his circle of friends.  He tells them that they have the power to ‘bind the present’ in eternal ways.  If this exaggeration is heard for what it is, the real point is made:  When we refuse to forgive one another, for whatever reason, we will perpetuate violence against one another and justify such harm in God’s name. In this, we will limit God. That’s not an exaggeration.  When we forgive, we free ourselves, as well as the forgiven.  Just remember with me what they did down in Lancaster County at Nickel Mines.


The early church was a community that stood out against the rest of the world because they were able to love one another, since they continually forgave one another…By the grace of God, it still can.