“How to Forgive” Matthew 18:21-25
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, September 6, 2020
Are you sleeping well? If not, it may be because you drink too much caffeine late in the day. Or, you may be staring at your phone or computer screen too long before going to bed. But your lack of sleep may have something to do with forgiveness. A recent study found that not forgiving someone or not being forgiven causes people “to linger on unpleasant thoughts and feelings, such as anger, blame, and regret,” and that “this can involve painful rumination—repetitive thoughts about distress. That resentment or bitterness could be detracting from sleep quality and well-being.” (Sophie McMullen, “Having trouble sleeping? Try forgiving someone,” The Washington Post (10-21-19) In other words, a lack of forgiveness binds us up and makes life miserable.
Our Gospel reading this morning reports what Jesus said about forgiveness, how it is to work for those who need to give it, and for those who need to receive it. Matthew shares what Jesus said to his disciples about how they were to deal with each other when conflict occurred. It’s helpful, by the way, to recognize that Jesus understood the inevitability of conflict among his followers. Matthew’s use of the word “church,” which Jesus likely wouldn’t have used, also gives an indication that the churches receiving his gospel account were dealing with internal conflicts and needed to hear how Jesus would want them to handle them. First, the person who has been offended or injured is to go to the person directly and point out the fault. The desire here is for the offender to listen to the offended and for reconciliation to happen. Or, as Jesus states it, “you have regained that one.” If the offender doesn’t listen and admit fault, then the offended is to involve others to go with her to be witnesses as she points out the fault again. If that doesn’t work, then the offended is to get the entire church involved in the matter as an effort to bring peace or discipline. The whole process is intended to restore the relationship between the offended and offender through being responsible for each other’s actions of forgiveness and repentance, based on grace provided by Jesus. Consequences for the offender are to come only as all else has been tried. This is the Jesus ethic of forgiveness applicable to relationships among his followers.
This ethic of Jesus is a more specific revelation and application of what God wants forgiveness to be than what we’ve heard in our Ezekiel reading this morning. As Ezekiel proclaims to Israel, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.” Ezekiel goes on to tell of God’s desire to forgive evildoers, but requiring repentance and threatening consequences of evil first and foremost. Jesus provides an upgrade on their view of God by emphasizing the restoration of forgiveness as God’s primary desire.
Like Matthew’s church, we need to understand that and how to practice forgiveness with each other. We are to be a church where members understand their responsibility to one another when it comes to the inevitable conflicts that occur when people congregate and work together. I’m grateful that there have been few conflicts between members in our ten years together as a church but I’m not so naive to think that everyone always gets along or that we sometimes don’t hurt one another with words, actions, or inactions. What we hear from our text this morning is that not only are conflicts inevitable and normal but that there is a healthy way of dealing with them that comes from Jesus. I noticed this morning that Richard Rohr was focusing on forgiveness in his daily email devotional, noting its importance, “We all need to apologize, and we all need to forgive, for humanity to have a sustainable future.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote Isnt that true?
Sometimes we are the offended and sometimes we are the offender. When we are not one of those, we may be involved in helping bring them together. Whatever our role, we are to be aware of the foundation of grace for practicing forgiveness with one another. As followers of Jesus, how can we not relate to one another apart from the grace and forgiveness he has provided for us at the Cross? How can we shame and condemn one another when we know that Jesus has borne all of that so we don’t have to operate that way? When we get that reality, pointing out the hurt someone has caused us or being the person confronted for hurting someone becomes a normal and healthy way of existing in community as a church. It is the way we use the keys of the kingdom to loose ourselves and one another from the captivity of hurt and the way it injures our fellowship. The churches who constantly fight and splinter show that they don’t truly understand what Jesus has done for them and, as a result, perpetuate the world’s way of disharmony and unhealthy conflict. The church Jesus founded, as his body in the world, is to operate just as he did while he was in the world.
While the text was written for the church, it’s truth applies to us as we live in our relationships at home and at work. What a difference we will make in the world around us when we apply these principles within our marriages, with our children or parents, with people we work with every day, and to our complicated connections in the virtual world of social media. During this pandemic and prolonged days of stay at home/work from home, practicing forgiveness and reconciliation in these places may be the most important and challenging work we do. It may also be the best way we can bear witness for Jesus at this time.
As we partake in Communion, we are to remember how Jesus has provided us with the way of forgiveness, becoming the object of injury and offense that we might be recipients–and givers–of forgiveness in our relationships and world.