19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
In the New Testament, when the Resurrected Jesus appeared to Thomas and the other disciples, Jesus said something very interesting to the disciples about forgiveness. Jesus showed them his hands and side and said, "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." (John 20:23)
What an awesome responsibility Jesus has given to us.
Forgiveness comes to us through the death and resurrection of Christ, and now we must go out and forgive others the sins they commit against us.
It is a theme that is also found in the Lord's Prayer, when Jesus says, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors."
In the Lord's Prayer, there is the realization that forgiveness is something we need on two distinct levels.
First, we need to be forgiven by God.
In the book A FORGIVING GOD IN AN UNFORGIVING WORLD, Ron Lee Davis retells the true story of a priest in the Philippines. He was a much-loved man of God, but he carried the burden of a secret sin he had committed many years before. He had repented, but still had no peace, no sense of God's forgiveness.
In his parish was a woman who deeply loved God and who claimed to have visions in which she spoke with Christ and he with her. The priest, however, was skeptical. To test her he said, "The next time you speak with Christ, I want you to ask him what sin your priest committed while he was in seminary." The woman agreed.
A few days later, the priest asked, "Well, did Christ visit you in your dreams?"
"Yes, he did," she said.
"And did you ask him what sin I committed in seminary?"
"Well, what did he say?"
The woman smiled and said, "That's the most interesting thing I've heard him say yet. When I asked him what you did that was so sinful, he looked at me and said, 'I can't remember'."
God's forgiveness for us is complete.
And that brings us to the second aspect of forgiveness. We need to be able to give that forgiveness to others.
The Lord’s prayer says, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." And then in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus is teaching that prayer, Jesus goes on to give the only exposition of any of the phrases of this prayer, by saying "For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."
That is echoed here in our reading from John’s Gospel this morning. Jesus greets his disciples for the first time after the resurrection, and says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
There is, in the Bible, a continual relationship between our ability to receive forgiveness FROM God and our ability to give forgiveness to those around us.
And forgiving others is a difficult thing to do.
Several years ago, two senators were watching their careers crumble because of past relationships they had with women. In both cases, the relationships were prime examples of harassment and abuse of power. Barbara Reynolds, a former columnist for the USA TODAY newspaper, wrote about the courage of the women who spoke up and held these men accountable, but then she went on to advise them to do one other thing.
She said, "It takes courage for women to confront the men who have the power to hire, fire or seek retribution. I admire them. But whether you're going to fight back or not, forgive. And the sooner the better."
Reynolds went on to write about her own experience with abuse, in which an adult relative abused her sexually when she was a child. She described how one day, as an adult, she faced that man and confronted him with the facts of the incest. She recounted every bit of pain he'd caused. Her tears flowed freely. She wrote this:
"When I confronted the relative involved, amazingly, he didn't identify with my pain. He did not break down and beg for my forgiveness. He simply looked at me with vacant, bored eyes and said, 'It's the way I am.'
"So what could I do? Shoot him? Sue him? Shun him? He didn't understand then. He probably never would. So I did the only two things I could do. First, I left him, never to speak to him again. And secondly, I forgave him."
She went onto say that after years of analysts and psychiatrists and group counseling sessions, forgiveness was the best therapy of all!
Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. We forgive others not so much for the soul of the one who has done us wrong. We do it for our own good. We do it for our own salvation.
And forgiving others is hard to do.
Corrie ten Boom describes forgiveness like letting go of a bell rope. If you have ever seen a country church with a bell in the steeple, you will remember that to get the bell ringing you have to tug for a while. Once it has begun to ring, you merely maintain the momentum. As long as you keep pulling, the bell keeps ringing.
Miss ten Boom says forgiveness is letting go of the rope. It is just that simple. But when you do so, the bell keeps ringing. Momentum is still at work. However, if you keep you hands off the rope, the bell will begin to slow and eventually stop.
It is like that with forgiveness. When you decide to forgive, the old feelings of unforgiveness may continue to assert themselves. After all, they have lots of momentum. But if you affirm your decision to forgive, that unforgiving spirit will begin to slow and will eventually be still. Forgiveness is not something you feel, it is something you do. It is letting go of the rope of retribution.
Copyright 2014, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.