"Forgive - Jesus Style"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
May 10, 2020
Daniel 9:15-19, Acts 6:8-10, 7:54-8:4
I struggled to get started on this one. The day was just too beautiful. “What is there possibly to forgive on a day like this?” I thought. And then I thought, “Oh, I guess I’ll have to confront what really needs forgiving.” Where is this ten-week sermon series leading – this mature discipleship exploration. The fifth of Ronald Rolheiser’s ten invitations to follow Jesus in the second half of our lives is to “Forgive – those who hurt you, your own sins, the unfairness of your life, and God for not rescuing you.” He concludes his elaboration on this invitation with these words: “The major task, psychological and spiritual, for the second half of our lives is to forgive: we need to forgive those who have hurt us, forgive ourselves for our own failings, forgive life for not being fully fair, and forgive God for seemingly being so indifferent to our wounds. We need to do that before we die because ultimately there is only one moral imperative: not to die an angry, bitter person, but to die with a warm heart.”
Elsewhere Rolheiser says that life consists of three phases: finding our life – which is essential discipleship; giving our life away – which is mature discipleship; and giving our death away – which is the goal and example of Jesus. If we follow Jesus all the way, we must be prepared to give our death away. But, I cannot give my death away if I continue to hold on to my wounds, my failures, my resentments, and especially to my bitterness that God has not stepped in to set things right for me. Peter came up and asked Jesus, “When a sibling wrongs me, how many times must I forgive? Seven times?” “No,” Jesus replied, “not seven times; I tell you seventy times seven.”
Love as you have been loved. Forgive as you have been forgiven. It’s at the core of our faith. Both of our sacraments – Baptism and Communion – rest on the foundation of forgiveness. In Baptism we are washed of our sin in a way that not just once, not just the beginning, but the continuous original blessing – before, between, and beyond the fractures and wounds of our human relationships. Communion is the rehearsal for receiving and extending forgiveness. And the core of the way of prayer that Jesus taught is this – forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. That’s a good phrase to remember as we enter the long future shadow of Covid-19. There will be mountains of debt of many kinds. We must consider how we will forgive it.
Before we go any farther, there is a caveat that must always be stated when talking about forgiveness.
You need never forgive your abuser.
You need never forgive your abuser.
There is something to be said for letting go of the anger, the hurt, the wound, the injustice, the resentment, and the evil of abuse. But abuse that inflicts both moral and mortal injury, that results in crippling trauma, need not – perhaps cannot – be forgiven by the one who has been subject to it. I say cannot because such abuse is injury against God – against God’s self. Only God can forgive such abuse. In the Hebrew bible, only God forgives sin. This suggests that sin is fundamentally injury against God. And, according to the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings – collectively called the Tanakh – divine forgiveness is always conditional.
In the Tanakh, there are two ways forgiveness can occur. One is perfect repentance and adherence to God’s commandments. For every sin in the Tanakh, there is a corresponding act of repentance. Some are rather brutal – probably meant as a deterrent. This invites a kind of moral accountancy in which the cost of repentance – the remittance – is weighed against the payoff of the sin. Is it worth losing a finger or an eye to gain God’s forgiveness? This is transactional, economic forgiveness. There is a price to be paid. This is akin to an understanding of atonement having been earned through an ultimate price being paid. Substitutionary atonement – the idea that Jesus was sacrificed on God’s altar of forgiveness to remit the price of our depravity – is exactly the transaction that I reject. The God I love and who I believe loves me does not renege on love.
The other conditional way to receive God’s forgiveness in the Tanakh is built on a judicial model. God is both the plaintiff and the judge. When God the victim has been wronged, God the judge can pardon. God is merciful and steadfast – a fair Plaintiff and a just Judge. Some might say that God cannot be injured, thus it is easy for God to extend pardon – to be merciful – because the sin never really hurt. That’s not the God I know or trust. God weeps and mourns and sits with us in our frustration and pain and wounds – like a mother. God has poured out power and love and being into creation – like a mother. God has empathy for us, and so of course God can be injured – like a mother. God’s injuries motivate God’s mercy.
Daniel’s appeal to God illustrates the tension between these two paradigms of divine forgiveness, as well as depicting the complexity and morass of domestic abuse. The book of Daniel has a complex history. It is set in the Babylonian exile – though it was composed centuries later when the people were exiles in their own land under the remnants of Persian colonial occupancy. The people have been hemmed in and isolated from their previously normative lives, having fallen out of touch with YHWH. They are torn between the sorrow of having been abandoned by God and the outrage that their piety has either been inadequate or overlooked by the divine accountant. They are afraid, perhaps, that God has either fallen out of love with them, or that YHWH really was tied down to an arid strip of land hemmed in by empires with bigger, more powerful Gods.
Their lament is “How can we sing YHWH’s song in a foreign land?”
Their appeal is, “What must we do to regain YHWH’s favor? We have done nothing wrong.”
Their incidental discovery is that God who is God is not bound by territories or temples.
Their case before the Judge is, “YHWH, your Honor, your reputation is at stake. Are you God, or are you not? We will know by your mercy.”
Or as Daniel puts it, “Listen, my God, to the prayers and petitions of your faithful one, and look kindly upon your sanctuary which lies in ruin! Turn to us and hear our call; open your eyes and see how we pare in ruins, along with the city that bears your Name. Not because of our own virtue, but because we know of your great mercy, we lay our pleas before you. My God hear us! My God forgive us! My God listen and act! For the sake of your name, act swiftly and vindicate the people and city that bear your name.”
It was understood that it is only God who is merciful and just, and only God can forgive. But then things take a significant turn. Jesus comes along, and suddenly it our business to forgive as well as God’s. In fact, it seems that part of our assignment as followers of Jesus is to forgive. In the Gospel Luke, a parent’s forgiveness for a child squandering what he felt he had been owed is lauded as an attribute at the meeting of human and divine. In contrast, it is his inability to forgive that keeps the older sibling standing out in the cold. The occasion of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness in the Gospel Matthew that I mentioned earlier was to illustrate how much power has been given over to God’s beloved. Just before Jesus’ admonition to forgive a seemingly excessive number of times, he tells the disciples, “The truth is, whatever you declare bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.” It is in the context of power and debt, and how they should be used. The question is, “What do we owe each other, and what do we do when we are not paid what we are owed?” This was serious business for the early church – anxious times not unlike our own. In the Gospel John, the shell-shocked disciples, locked in isolation, were given the power to forgive along with receiving the divine spirit breath. “Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” The Holy Spirit empowers us to forgive.
Oh, but must we? I think we must. As followers of Jesus, true to our calling, we must. But there is an undeniable tension between forgiveness and justice. The two must somehow meet and inform each other. The psalmist and the prophets call on mercy and justice to embrace. To forgive – Jesus style is complex and nuanced. Stephen forgave the lynch mob that stoned him. Ahmaud Arbery, who was gunned down in February while out for a jog, had no opportunity to forgive the father and the son – the parent and the child – who shot him in the back. Must we forgive them? Somehow, as followers of Jesus, we must. But our forgiveness must be tempered with justice, just as our justice must be tempered with mercy. There is no price that can be paid for Ahmaud Arbery’s life.
The transactional, economic paradigm collapses under the weight of racism and the presumption of guilt based on skin color. Some small part of the judicial paradigm might apply. Pardon does not negate the crime – it merely tempers the punishment. Yes, as followers of Jesus, we must forgive – Jesus style. Our justice must also be executed – Jesus style. We must consider the whole system as well as the whole person. We must see the person and the web of influences and experiences that shaped them. We must see the system and indict it as well. And since we are caught up in the same system – we are beneficiaries of it even if we are not its authors – we must indict ourselves. We are in no position to withhold forgiveness when we ourselves are desperately in need of it.
Beloved, to be mature disciples of Jesus, we must forgive those who have wounded us, while doing everything we can to prevent another wound – to ourselves or to any other beloved creation – and to participate in whatever healing we can. We must forgive ourselves for the privilege we enjoy, while doing everything we can to dismantle systems of subjugation of any part of God’s beloved creation. We must forgive life for being unfair, while releasing our debtors from debt they cannot repay. We must forgive God for being God, who as we know “has no favorites and cannot be bribed,” for not rescuing us from the dilemmas we have been empowered by the Spirit to transform. And we must also cry out, “How long, O Lord, must this go on? Can you not see the plight of your creation?”
We must forgive, forgive, forgive – seventy times seven.
And side by side with justice, we must forgive – Jesus style.