We claim it is one of the core tenets of our beliefs as Christians when we recite the Apostles Creed: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” We proclaim it is one of the unifying principles in the United Church of Christ when we join our voices in our Statement of Faith: “He promises to all who trust him forgiveness of sins and the fulness of grace.” We seek God’s strength to receive it and share it with others every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, regardless of what words we use. Yet, the practice of forgiveness is difficult.
In the lectionary Gospel reading for this past Sunday, Matthew 18: 21-35, we read an interesting interchange between Jesus and Peter, one of the disciples. After teaching about the principles of dealing with conflict in the community of faith, Peter says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
I don’t know about you, but I hear a tinge of disbelief, cynicism, and maybe even sarcasm in Peter’s voice, sort of like, “Ok, that’s all fine and good, Jesus. But what if another member of the church sins against me??? How often should I forgive them? I mean, there must be a limit. Because it sounds like you are suggesting that I should keep forgiving the person who is offending me, like what, seven times??” Depending on the translation you are reading from, Jesus’ response is either “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” or “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” The number is not important; either way, it is a “mic drop” moment, because what Jesus suggests is radical grace.
In asking how many times he would be expected to forgive another, Peter throws out what would be a ridiculous number in the Jewish law of pardon, which requires only three times. We can relate to Peter because we know forgiving isn't easy. When we say we believe in forgiving sins, let’s be honest; we mean God should forgive OUR sins. God forgive our debts.
God forgive our sins. But, when we experience the failings, disappointments, mistakes, and mess-ups of others, we struggle to move toward forgiveness. It is easier to stew, hold on, and become resentful, bitter, or even vengeful.
It is easier to walk away. It is easier to cut the people out of our lives. It is easier to disengage with those who disagree with us or those who we feel have wronged us. It is easier to convince ourselves it is more important to be right than loving. We rehearse, rehash, and nurse all the ways we feel we have been wronged. Yet, all this does is imprison us in anger.
As author Anne Lamott eloquently said, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”
As those who claim to be committed to the life and teachings of Jesus, we are called to forgive as Jesus forgave. C.S. Lewis put it this way,
“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
This week, I encourage you to think about a situation in which you have been struggling with letting go. What hurt have you been harboring and holding on to? What is something that needs to be released in your life? Who do you need to forgive?
Consider God’s mercy. How often have you experienced God’s mercy, forgiveness, and grace? Did you earn it? You might feel like the person who hurt you doesn’t deserve forgiveness. But that doesn’t matter. Grace is a gift that we have not earned or deserved. We are called to offer the same grace God offers us. May we forgive as Jesus forgives us.
Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, ISC Conference Minister