Joe was dying. The news from his physician was grim. For years he’d been at odds with Bill, formerly one of his best friends. Wanting to straighten things out and reconcile, he sent word for Bill to come and see him.
When Bill arrived, Joe told him that he did not want to enter eternity with such bad feelings between them. Then, very reluctantly and with great effort, Joe apologized for things he had said and done. He also assured Bill that he forgave him for his offenses.
Everything seemed fine until Bill turned to go. As he walked out of the room, Joe called out after him, “Now, just remember, if I get better and don’t die, this doesn’t count!”
What a drop-the-mic moment! And yet, it demonstrates how difficult it is for us to practice and even experience true forgiveness. Often times what we say with our lips does not convey what is really in our hearts.
In the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, the Apostle Peter comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus bluntly answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times . . .”
This is a very astute teaching if you think about it. Some versions of the Bible translate this as seventy-seven times, others seventy times seven. But regardless of which translation is most accurate, Jesus seems to be saying that we should practice forgiveness with no strings attached. Doesn’t Jesus realize how difficult that is? I think he does. Imagine how difficult it was for him as he hung on the cross to forgive those who were taunting him. Imagine how difficult it was for him to forgive everyone who has ever betrayed him.
The moving devotional writer Henri J. M. Nouwen, in his book Gracias!, shares the story of a young man named Rodolfo. Life was difficult for Rodolfo and his family. His parents were good, hard‑working people. But one day when Rodolfo was eight years old, the seventeen‑year‑old son of their landlord walked into their house with a pistol and killed Rodolfo’s ten‑year‑old brother.
Rodolfo’s parents were understandably distraught with anger and grief. He remembers hearing his father walking around the house at night with a gun, talking to himself and threatening revenge. But then something happened to change his father’s attitude. Rodolfo’s father took an inventory of his life. And he realized that he had a loving wife and three boys who still needed him. He knew he had to let go of his bitterness if he was going to be able to go on living.
Rodolfo’s father did not believe in God and wanted nothing to do with the church. But slowly his life began to change in this area too. In his grief he turned to God. And before long, he committed his life to prayer, charity, and the spiritual well‑being of his family. Both he and his wife began attending church and their sons were eventually baptized. Their house became a place of faith and hope, because his parents discovered that Jesus is Lord over all situations in life. Their home became a place of peace rather than a place consumed with thoughts of vengeance.
Rodolfo’s father no longer walked around the house at night with a gun in his hand. He became a peacemaker in his own home, his own neighborhood, his own world, because he turned to Christ. Forgiveness is possible. Why let your resentment smolder any longer? You can let it go!
I raise this issue because many people who struggle with the issue of forgiveness walk away from a life of faith and a meaningful relationship with God because they just can’t bring themselves to forgive. In addition, some struggle with forgiving themselves for something that they have done or left undone and feel estranged from God because of it.
Let’s just say the obvious: Forgiveness is hard. But scripture teaches us that it can be the key that unlocks the door to a whole new way of living. This is one of the reasons that I continue to believe that the message of Christianity offers hope to you and me. This coming Sunday as I continue my current sermon series “The Reasons I Believe: A Sober Defense of the Christian Faith”, I will share with you a message of how you can experience the freedom of forgiveness and begin to move forward in God.
I hope you will take a few minutes this week and read through the St. Matthew chapter eighteen in preparation for worship this Sunday. For as we share in Holy Communion, we will all pray together the Confession and Pardon offering one another the forgiveness that is ours in Christ. These words are for you and I take them very seriously each time we proclaim them together.
I look forward to seeing you Sunday! Bring a friend and I will see you there!
P.S. When I began this current series, I mentioned a book that was required reading in my sophomore philosophy class: “Honest to God” by Bishop Jon A. T. Robinson. As you may recall, I did not like this book when I first read it. I was a cradle Methodist and I was taught to embrace my faith and this book challenged everything I believed. But I am grateful for the professor who encouraged me to read it because we must think through what we say about God, Jesus, and the church. We must understand what we believe and be able to wrestle with the things of God. “Honest to God” is one of the most widely read philosophy books in our time and I have chosen it as my Book of the Month for February. You will find it available to preview at the Welcome Center outside the new sanctuary this Sunday and you can order the book on smile.amazon.com, a charitable organization that gives a portion of its proceeds to a charity of your choice. Shop smile.amazon.com every time you use Amazon and Asbury UMC will benefit.