Ps 31, Acts 7: 55-60 and Jn 14: 1-14
People who have the ability to forgive are among the happiest people I know. Maybe not able to be reconciled to a person they once loved, they are nevertheless freed from their burden of anger, hostility, maybe even a little senseless self-righteousness, so that they’re able to move on with the rest of their lives living now through eternity in a simple space called peace.
Think about some of the people you’ve encountered: What about the host of a dinner party you just weren’t up to attending. Conjuring up some excuse you knew was thin, you blew it off at the very last minute. The host beamed over the phone, “Oh, well! Next time!” And you knew she meant it. Or how about the guy in the parking lot who gave you a “These things happen!” shrug as he watched you carelessly throw open your door and ding his shiny car. Whether they let things roll off their backs, or don’t let much bother them in the first place, there’s a whole lot of people out there who exude happiness in spite of it all. Now, you might feel compelled to say that they’re just plain clueless, but let me suggest that these are the ones who have a sincere ability to forgive. I’ll go one step farther as to say that I don’t think that there are many of ‘em out there.
Too many people can’t quite let go of it when someone’s done them wrong. There’s a story about a guy who was delivering a talk on happiness. He thought that things were going pretty well. But at about 9 minutes in to his 16-minute speech, people in the audience began squirming in their seats. Proud of his insight, he thought his message must be hitting close to home. But then he noticed that a good percentage of the audience was beginning to crane their necks to see around the person was in front of them and look at him almost worriedly. Others began to nudge whoever was beside them and point. Some started to whisper comments with puzzled looks on their faces. He paused for a moment. “Oh! I get it,” he said, breaking from his speech. Turning his body to the left, he made a tug on the rope that was tied around his waist and connected to a large, lanky mannequin lying on the floor beside him. “Let me introduce you to my friend, Ed.” You could’ve heard a pin drop. “You see, Ed and I had a falling out a few years ago. We never spoke much after that. But gosh, he’s been hanging around with me ever since.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to admit to having a few old friends like Ed.
And I’ll take a guess that I’m not the only one who’s also been dragging around a burden over something we believe someone has done us wrong. A word hurled, a fist thrown, a poor choice, bad timing, a real estate deal turned sour, a job done poorly, a broken heart, a smashed dream, an extra glass of wine… Maybe it’s a trust that was broken, or maybe it’s your personal space that was violated, maybe it’s about your safety, or maybe it’s something that only you will ever understand, but at a certain point, we believe that a contract we’ve had with someone has been broken. And somewhere along the line, we began to harbor negative feelings toward that person and our relationship became completely changed. A new kind of relationship takes its place: a relationship with anger, a relationship with shame, a relationship with guilt. We end up like our speaker friend who’s dragging around his resentment with Ed. And that as much as anything that we say or do that drives a wedge between ourselves and others not only makes us dreadfully unhappy, it is simply put, a sin.
The model we follow tells us that somehow we need to redress the wrong satisfy a lesson in the transactional life of our relationship and we’re not sure how to get that done. This language of contractual relationships-gone-awry riddles its way through the bible from the Old Testament to the New, sending us what could feel like confusing messages. We recall God’s contracts with Adam and Eve and even Abraham, Hagar and Sarah. A contract that was bound is broken, or at the very least an understanding between two people begins to be scrutinized. The language of forgiveness factors in when one side suddenly – or finally – recognizes that something has gone terribly wrong and either requires of himself or the other the stuff of pleading prayers or animal offerings or sacrifices of first-born sons.
Then the transaction of forgiveness is interrupted as we’re offered a fresh perspective through the saving life of Jesus Christ. Most easily remembered through Jesus’ words, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” the onus comes back to the ones offended to offer their forgiveness without a second thought. This is a testimony Jesus continued to the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do;” and that Stephen echoed as he was being stoned to death for sharing his vision of Christ. This is the philosophy God tells us to use even through to today. Using the language of sin and forgiveness alongside debts and debtors, a Christian psychologist named Henry Cloud
tells us to think about how we can turn a looming debt into a gift. He says that when we think of forgiveness as a gift, the question stops being about how or when someone might repay you for what you’ve done or not done. Instead, the question becomes how readily might someone accept what you are offering as a free and perfect gift without a hint of shame or guilt.
Think about your friend who needs a loan. It might be at most a 50/50 chance that you’ll ever see that money again. Using Henry Cloud’s model of debt management, in order to come to a decision about the money you have to reframe the request. Are you giving him a loan that you would ultimately need to shrug off? If you decided to give him the loan anyway, there would always be tension in the air each time you see him. If you decide to give him a loan, you are also deciding in advance to be frustrated, anxious, maybe even a little angry – all sorts of emotions that become tangled together when we think about the contract that will possibly be broken when the loan is dodged and ultimately not repaid. On the other hand, if you decide to give him a gift, you would be done with the question all together. You would be deciding to walk away from the money entirely with the hope it will get your friend where he needs to go, leaving you with the gift of joy from giving. (By the way, for this to work – for the gift to truly be a gift – we need to remember to tell our friend that we’d decided to give him the money as a gift lest we create a lopsided system of indebtedness that we were hoping to avoid from the start.)
There is a quiet wholeness to people who exercise their ability to forgive. They have a special understanding of the complex web of life that leads us all to do and say things that make other people hurt. And they have a special understanding for how we need to invert systems of anger and injustice so that we maintain our connection with God and others that would otherwise be unimpeded by the messiness of life.
We pay a steep price when we live a divided life, one from another. How can we really trust that God’s forgiveness is for us if we aren’t able to offer it to someone else? You and I are certainly not Jesus, and not too many of us are saints like Stephen but each one of us has the ability to not to give in to anger, bitterness and death – those forces of evil that can weigh us down. Each of us has the ability to stop systems of indebtedness that lend tension to relationships and turn friends into enemies. Each one of us has the ability to upend systems of injustice as we give over to the power of love and be transformed for life through the cleansing waters of forgiveness. This is what Jesus had in mind when he said that no one comes to God except through him. Because it is through our forgiveness of others that we acknowledge to ourselves that we too, are forgiven in God’s eyes – justified by the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, “just as if” we hadn’t sinned. It is through his perpetual forgiveness – his always-opened gift to the world that we are freed from our sins and enabled to live in peace with him just as we can live in peace with each other through life into eternity.
Every day, we need to ask ourselves if we want to be a people who are carrying around debts or a people who want to be giving away gifts. Every day, we need to experience the gift of forgiveness for ourselves and for others.
May we be a forever gift-giving people in grateful response for the gift that has been given to us in Jesus Christ and may we be agents of joy and happiness and peace in this world well into the next. Thanks be to God. Amen.