Feb. 5, 2023 Rev. David Collins Listen
Forgiveness is a beautiful thing, isn’t it?
How many have had a relationship saved by it? You may have been the one who was forgiven. And all of your fear and worry over the wrong you did costing you the one you loved just melted away when they spoke those three longed for words, “I forgive you.”
Or maybe you were the one who forgave. Your bitterness and anger was like a balloon inside of you, just filling and filling, tightening your chest and your mind, but when you forgave, that vast presence sprung a leak, and all of that resentment began to drain away.
Forgiveness is the center of our faith as Christians. We are here because we believe God has forgiven us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God loves us so much, that he let nothing separate us from him, not our sin, or God’s own holiness. We are forgiven. Every time we come to this table and eat the bread, and drink the cup, that’s what we remember.
But sometimes we mis-remember. Sometimes we misconstrue what forgiveness entails.
Sometimes we act like forgiveness is just between us and God. So long as I’m forgiven, that’s all that matters.
There’s a passage in 1 Corinthians 11 that always confused me, because it seemed to support that idea. On the first few readings, it made it sound to me like communion was all about the user experience, about my feeling the perfect combination of guilt and gratitude. Sorrow and serenity. And if I don’t do it right, it doesn’t work. If you haven’t read it before, here it is. "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves."
-1 Corinthians 11:27-29
It kind of sounds like we’re being told to pray HARD. How do you pray hard? Close your eyes extra tight? It kind of sounds like the most important thing is your feeling of certainty.
This is a scripture that kept me up at night once upon a time. Maybe it did it to you too. I thought that verse 29 meant that if I didn’t believe properly about the nature of the sacrament, that I would choke on it, maybe not physically, but spiritually. That properly taking the sacrament was an intensely personal act of faith. And if my heart wasn’t right, and my faith, and my actions, and me me me me me me me. But that’s not the only way to interpret this, and I don’t think it’s the best, either.
What does the Apostle Paul really mean when he says “discerning the body”? Maybe he doesn’t mean the body in the bread. Maybe what he really means is discerning the body of Christ sitting right next to you. Discerning the body of Christ who is passing you the element, and who you pass it to. That you’re not the only one who is forgiven, but how that grace created a community…a people where there was no people. That’s one way that we mis-remember. When we make it all about us. But even when we get the whole community thing, we still don’t get forgiveness.
Sometimes we think that forgiveness means live and let live. Like if you forgive someone, you don’t really need to talk to them about whatever they did that needed forgiving. Forgive and forget just becomes “forget”. If that’s you, hear what Jesus says in Luke 17:3-4:
Be on your guard! If a brother or sister sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4 And if the same person sins against you seven times a day and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
We often focus on that must forgive part, especially the part about having to forgive seven times a day. But I think a lot of us need to hear how Jesus says we MUST REBUKE.
I’m more of a “let him figure it out on his own” guy, so this one is for me as much as anyone. You must rebuke. I must rebuke. Now we’re all pretty good at rebuking one particular group of people: Strangers we don’t like. We could rebuke them all day! But Jesus is telling us to rebuke who? Our brothers and sisters. Again, you probably also like rebuking your siblings. But the way Jesus is using the word, he means the brothers and sisters you choose, and who God chooses for you. The people in your church, or in your small group, or your Bible study. Your friends and fellow believers. You know, people you like. We’re not so good at rebuking them, are we? Seems like a quick way to have no friends. I don’t think Jesus is telling us to be angry when we rebuke, or to be scolds. He is showing that forgiveness isn’t a one way action. It isn’t just the job of the forgiver. It’s also involves and includes the forgiven. Forgiveness isn’t cheap. You can only forgive those who have sinned against you. But Jesus also says that you must. This verse seems more aimed at the one who needs to forgive.
How are we meant to seek forgiveness?
Jesus says tells us that in Matthew 5:23-24: "So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift."
If you’ve been doing the daily Bible readings with us this year, you’ve read all about these offerings. They are prescribed in Exodus and Leviticus for each person on all kinds of occasions, both for forgiveness for sin, and for healing and purification. Going to offer ones gift at the altar is shorthand for going to be reconciled with God. Jesus says that restoring a relationship with another person is more urgent than any religious duty. There’s no amount of spirituality that can make up for hurting someone.
Forgiveness isn’t just about what we can get out of it. It restores relationships and makes people whole. When we’ve done someone wrong, it’s not entirely selfish to ask for forgiveness. The one hurt needs to forgive as much as we need to be forgiven.
One of my favorite stories about forgiveness is a comment from Reddit from 8 years ago. A man whom I only know as Downed_Wicket_Keeper shared his experience meeting the man who killed his father outside of the courthouse. I’d like to share it with you, I’ve edited it for church a bit. He writes,
“My father was killed on his motorcycle by a reckless, speeding redneck who was half-stoned on vicoden. I bumped into him walking into the courthouse during some civil testimony lawyer nonsense. He just looked at me and said, “You probably want to kill me, huh? Wish I was dead?” Now, this is the first time I ever saw his face in real life. On the news, I’d only ever seen this picture of him from a few years before the accident. Young hillbilly in military fatigues standing in front of some barracks in Iraq or whatever. But at that moment… He was only in his early 30’s, but the guy looked like a strung out 65. His eyes were so swollen and so bloodshot… They looked beyond exhausted. This guy I had felt nothing but contempt for, who had caused so much sadness and pain in my life. I had imagined a thousand different scenarios involving my hands and this worthless mongrel’s face. This guy took my father from me. I was only 6 months from being able to sit in a bar with the guy. We were just about to hit that point where I was ready to learn from him, where he could teach me how to be a proper man. Months of this grief and hate and inconsolable rage.
But then. In that moment, seeing him so broken, after all the things my brother and I talked about doing to him, after all the hate and fury we conjured in our deepest moments of suffering and grief… And I looked at this man who was barely hanging onto life, and I knew. I could see it so clearly. The mental anguish from PTSD. The physical pain from the shrapnel or bullets or whatever buried in his shoulder. The soul crushing loneliness of having no one left willing to love him…and he says to the son of the man he killed, “You probably want to kill me, huh? Wish I was dead?”
I said the only thing I could think to say, “Looks like you’re wishing it hard enough for both of us.” He grunt-laughed, and smirked. And then, noticing that the rest of my family was watching our interaction, immediately ashamed and aware of himself, he stammered to try and apologize. I could hear my aunt, sister, and brother start to rise up in fury. I could see him start to pull in, to let the hate and anger just tear him open. And I started to cry. I hugged him. I pulled him so close to me. He smelled so awful. I pulled him in and I said some things I don’t remember and he cried and I pushed brother away and we just held each other and wept.
He wrote to me every so often from the hospital he spent the following few years in. He told me about everything he lost. About how he wasted his entire life. About how he wanted to kill himself the day he hit my father. About how the only thing keeping him from ending his life now was his obligation to my dad and me to live as long as he could. No matter what. To either make himself better or suffer until the universe decided to take him.
He drowned in 2010 while ice fishing. A stranger’s dog fell through the ice, and he jumped in to save it. Neither of them made it out. There were 6 people at his funeral including the pastor, myself, and my girlfriend at the time. My family and I aren’t as close as we once were. I am kind of estranged and ostracized, not for staying in contact with the man who killed my father, but for seeing him and thinking of him as more than just that. I tried to get them to see through that hate, to see what really matters. But they can’t let it go. And so I’m stuck missing my father, my family, and the man who took all of it away from me. But it isn’t all bad. Not once I realized that missing them is just another way of loving them - And it’s the only way I have left.”
Forgiveness has consequences, doesn’t it? It sure did for him. And for the man who changed his life twice. In one moment, he couldn’t help but discern the body before him. He couldn’t help but see the image of God in the one who took so much away from him. He left his gift there at the temple and embraced this man who needed no rebuke, who was rebuking himself enough. At this table, we live out forgiveness. At this table, we remember that the words of 1 John 2:1-2,
"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."
Everyone lives under grace…at least, they could. Jesus died for you. And for the one you need to forgive, who you must forgive…who you get to forgive.