Wednesday 20 September 2023

Forgive us, as we forgive

Exodus 14.19-31 ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?

Romans 14.1-12 Alive or dead, we belong to the Lord

Matthew 18.21-35 To be forgiven, you must forgive


‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?’




The whole concept of forgiveness raises questions.


In the gospel Peter is asking for more details about what it might involve when he says ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?’


He accepts the premise that we should forgive, but is unclear about how that works.


Peter hasn’t yet grasped that forgiveness in the life of the Church is a reflection of the boundless capacity of God’s forgiveness: forgiveness that bubbles up from God’s love and is a reflection of his mercy, tempered by justice.


Yet in a godless arena such as much of contemporary culture, especially in the online environment, forgiveness appears to be a ludicrous or naïve and is not rooted in any notion of divine forgiveness. Just look at X, formerly known as Twitter, to see that.


To recast Peter’s question, it is more likely to be, ‘What do you mean I should forgive people who wrong me?’


The prevailing dogma of secular minds is that no one has the right to intrude on me, and if they do then I have no obligation to forgive them: in fact, I have the right and expectation that I will withhold any sense of forgiveness or healing of the situation.


Why should I forgive someone who has hurt me physically, upset me emotionally or damaged me psychologically?


When we frail mortals consider forgiveness, we tend to think of it as a transaction.


The transactional approach to forgiveness is to think it is about winning and losing: if I forgive you, you have won, the classic ‘Zero-Sum game’.


But forgiveness is not about winners and losers, but about finding the abundance of the life promised by Jesus Christ and the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Romans 8.21).


Of course, the word ‘give’ is at the heart of the word for-giveness: a gift is something that is not traded; a gift is not something to be measured and the gift of forgiveness is free but not cheap.


If nothing else, in forgiving we let go of, give over grievance, grudge and grumpiness by releasing ourselves, as much as anyone, from an injury.


No longer is my life held captive by what another has done to me.


It is humane, brave and imaginative to forgive.


So, Peter’s question actually is rather more enlightened than how we deal with forgiveness today, when forgiveness is thought to involve a loss of face, or loss of self-worth or identity and to be withheld.


But fundamentally this relates to the conviction that we ourselves, through the boundless, redemptive love of Christ, are forgiven.


When we are forgiven we are released from the inhibitions of people who carry the burden of guilt.


This is not just a therapeutic point but one of salvation of our souls and union with the divine life of God: unforgiven we cannot see the face of Christ; forgiven we reflect the face of Christ to the world.


Also, as last week’s gospel showed, what we do on earth has an impact in heaven: ‘So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’ (Matthew 18.35)


So the challenge of the gospel reading today is about the seeking of forgiveness and how we forgive.


A good starting point is to consider the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’.


Whether we asking the forgiveness of trespasses (whatever exactly they are), or sins, (which, I think, we all know what they are), or debts, which is the far better translation of the original Greek of the Lord’s Prayer, the petition to our loving heavenly Father is forgive us as we forgive others.


When we desire forgiveness, we believe absolution of our sins and offences are forthcoming.


We first turn in humility - like the wayward, prodigal son - back to the loving heart of the Father: ‘Father’ that son said ‘I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son’ Luke 15.21).


The father in the parable - an illustration of God our forgiving, heavenly Father - stretched open his arms of forgiveness and acceptance: you are worthy to be my child.


The value of a personal turn to the mercy and forgiveness of God is invaluable and the bedrock of serious, determined discipleship.


The Sacrament of Penance, Confession, is the channel of grace that enables us to confront our sin and need for forgiveness, and enables us to be free to forgive others.


Sometimes I allude to it too obliquely, today I want to say it directly: confession, personal confession, that is serious about being forgiven is one of the great healing treasures Christ entrusted to the Church through the apostle Peter who was taught by Christ the nature of forgiveness.


It is scary and demanding and specific, but grace bubbles up and flows as we are restored to a right relationship with God from which flows the possibility of right relationship with our neighbour.


The world thinks forgiveness is incomprehensible, bonkers.


Peter understands that the task of the Church is to forgive, and learnt that the Church’s forgiveness must mirror the boundless forgiveness of God.


We need to understand that when we seek the forgiveness of God we are forgiven in Christ and, from that place of reconciliation, we are to be people who in turn forgive without measure.


So let us open our hearts to the God of forgiveness, life and love to whom be all glory and praise through the ages of ages. Amen.

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