March 17, 2024

Jesus, Peter, and Forgiveness

Psalm 119:9-16; Matthew 18:15-22

You'll notice a sports memorabilia section if you have been to my office before and looked at the shelves. I have several signed items from my favorite baseball team, the Oakland (soon to be Las Vegas) Athletics. I've been a fan of the A's since they moved from Kansas City to Oakland in 1968. I have the cover of an A's program from 1973 with Reggie Jackson's autograph, which I got at a Little League Day many decades ago. I have two tickets to the 1975 playoff game against the Boston Red Sox that my dad took me to. The tickets were a whopping $3.00 apiece. I've been to two World Series games at the Oakland Coliseum. I have six baseballs with various signatures, two of which I caught as foul balls at games. I have a bat with the signatures of the 2003 team that won twenty games in a row. I have two bobblehead player figures and a garden gnome figure of another. I also have a newspaper article (Remember them?) highlighting the A's last playoff series victory in 2020.

I'm telling you about this collection so that you understand how long I have loved the A's. That love is ending, however. With their move to Las Vegas, I will no longer follow my once beloved A's. I cannot forgive the owner, John Fisher, for moving the team and turning his back on us A's fans. Some people call themselves fans of the A's who don't care where they play. They'll still follow them in Vegas. Not me. The move is unforgivable, just as it was for me when the Oakland Raiders moved…twice. My forgiveness appears to be limited when it comes to sports teams.

In today's passage, Peter wants to know how limited the act of forgiveness is to people. How often should we forgive someone when they have wronged or hurt us? Jesus begins this section on forgiveness with an outline for the early believers. He lays out a very detailed process of forgiveness and reconciliation. Why is this? Theologian Kimberly Wagner explains. "Matthew, probably more overtly than any other Gospel, has deep concerns about how we should exist as a Christian community. After all, many scholars believe that Matthew's community was a collection of largely Jewish Jesus-followers who had recently left, been kicked out of, or were alienated from their synagogue communities… the original audience was most likely a fragile, hurting, vulnerable collection of folks trying to navigate a new kind of community amid hurt and uncertainty."

Jesus addresses the hurt and uncertainty of Matthew's community with a process that encourages dialogue, strives to avoid shaming, and leads to restoration. Moving from two to more and eventually to a whole congregation, Jesus calls for his followers to reconcile with one another. Even if the person who has caused hurt to another refuses reconciliation, treating them like a Gentile or tax collector does not close the door to reconciliation. Jesus ate with tax collectors and made one a disciple- the likely author of this Gospel. He also ministered to the Gentiles. So, perhaps there is a distancing between the person refusing reconciliation and the person who has been hurt. Yet that person is never beyond the bounds of God's mercy or of a future restoration.

Forgiveness is one of the most essential concepts of the Christian faith. It is an ideal that, if the whole world lived out, would make the world peaceful. To forgive others and reconcile was foundational to Jesus, who forgave us and forgave those who crucified him, for they did not know what they were doing. Living a life aimed towards forgiveness is our call as people of faith, because we worship a God who lavishes grace upon us. We worship a God who does not count the times we need forgiveness. Since God behaves with us in such a way, we are called to live that way with those around us.

So, let's all be forgiving. Amen.

The concept of a forgiving world sounds so lovely. Yet we all know forgiveness is far from easy. Theologian C.S. Lewis wrote, "Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive."

Forgiveness is not easy, and Peter wants a little more information after hearing about Jesus's process of forgiveness and reconciliation. After all, he and Jesus had recently been in a difficult conversation that did not end well. Hopefully, they had time to speak and reconcile, but that discussion may have been difficult. Between that tough conversation and Jesus' teaching, Peter wants to know the limit of forgiveness.

So, Peter asks, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister if they sin against me? Up to 7 times?" It's a good question; if you think about it, forgiving someone seven times is not too shabby; plus, it is a holy number. That's good enough, isn't it, Jesus? But Jesus tells Peter and the others, "No - I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy times seven."

Peter probably felt quite generous and holy when he offered to forgive seven times. But Jesus goes way beyond Peter's limited idea of forgiveness. We should be willing to forgive seven times seventy, or 490, or really, into infinity, and that is just with ONE person. Jesus commands us to forgive every person we meet.

That MAY be possible with silly things like sports teams (or maybe not), but what about the real hurts out there? What about a cheating spouse? The breakup of a marriage? The abuse by a parent or trusted adult? How do we forgive those things that cause such pain and destruction in our lives just ONE time, let alone 490?

In a recent article from Sojourner's Online, theologian and clinical psychologist Chanequa Walker-Barnes was interviewed on forgiveness. She talks about forgiveness being something inside of us, a process directed towards someone, which, in time, includes letting go of hostility directed towards the person who wronged us. This process can be a one-time thing or a perpetual, ongoing process. She says, "It depends on the circumstances. Really, it depends on our personalities and experiences — the harm and the nature of it, how important it was to us, whether the harm [damaged] our sense of self, and the degree of harm — those all impact our capacity to forgive and the process of forgiveness. Some things take a longer time to forgive."

For example, my mother, who was a shining example of faith for me, did struggle in one area in her life - forgiving my uncle for having an affair, which was devastating to the sister she loved. She could not forgive him, even after her sister could finally do so. For decades, when his name came up, she would let us know in no uncertain terms she would never forgive him. There was so much energy, so much anger she held onto for so long. It wasn't until her 85th birthday that she told me she had finally forgiven him and how freeing that felt.

Sadly, we can practice forgiveness often due to our human nature of repeatedly hurting others or them hurting us. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer(1788-1860) compared the human race to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter's night. He said, "The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth, but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt one another with our sharp quills. And in the lonely night of earth's winter, we eventually begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze to death in our loneliness."

Jesus calls us to another complicated way- living a life aimed at forgiveness and reconciliation. Rather than freeze out there alone, rather than making enemies of others for the pokes we receive, forgiveness allows us to stay together and keep warm. Friends and family's spiritual and relational well-being is worth working for.

Yet that ideal of forgiving and reconciling is so difficult to consider, especially now, especially in our fractured nation. Again, theologian Kimberly Wanger writes, "In a time when political and social divisions seem to be driving us to opposite corners or, perhaps, separate Bible or book studies; when social media allows us to "unfriend" or "unfollow" those with whom we disagree; when we are invited into echo chambers where we are told those who are different are an adversary or even an enemy that threatens our capacity for success, this text invites us to remember our call as a community."

 So, friends, this is our call- to live from a place of forgiveness, seek reconciliation in a world looking for retribution, and bring people together in a nation looking to divide. I leave you with what, in my mind, is one of the more incredible stories of forgiveness from Christian Corrie Ten Boom, who survived life in a concentration camp after being arrested for hiding Jewish people from the Nazis in Holland during WW II. Her sister was killed in the camp. Yet after the war, she felt compelled to speak on forgiveness, to bury the enmity that caused so much death and destruction during the war. In time, she became a regular speaker to the German people, sharing the nature and need to be forgiving. Many years ago, I read this account of one incredible act of Corrie being challenged to extend forgiveness and practice what she was preaching.

"It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear.

It was 1947, and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. "When we confess our sins," I said, "God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever."

And that's when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.

It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister's frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were! This man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp, where we were sent.

Now he was in front of me; hand thrust out: "A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!" And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. Of course, he would not remember me–how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face-to-face with one of my captors, and my blood seemed to freeze.

"You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk," he was saying. "I was a guard in there." No, he did not remember me. "But since then," he continued, "I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would also like to hear it from your lips. Fräulein"–again the hand came out–"will you forgive me?"

And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not. Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow, terrible death simply for the asking? And still, I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that, too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the heart's temperature.

"Jesus, help me!" I prayed silently. "I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling."

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, and sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. "I forgive you, brother!" I cried. "With all my heart!"

May Jesus give us the strength to be led by Corrie’s amazing example and live as a forgiven and forgiving people. Amen.