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It’s not as easy at it looks. When I was a kid, we lived in a neighborhood where there were a lot of older kids. Mostly boys. Who were bigger and stronger than I was. And mostly they were pretty nice – but I was younger – and smaller – and a girl, so there were times when I just got left behind. And one of those times was on our bikes. Those boys would take off on their two wheels – while I still kind of scooted along on 4. So after a while – I really wanted to take the training wheels off so that I could keep up with the boys. And my dad – patient as he was – tried to tell me – it’s not as easy as it looks. And it wasn’t.
I needed help – a lot of dad’s help to learn. And it was scary. Actually – some of the home video still confirms that I was pretty terrified. There’s no video of me falling down – dad was good at catching me. But I know that I did. And it hurt. And I had to choose to get back up and try again. And this was true about a lot of things growing up – it’s not as easy as it looks. And still – if we try, with some help – and some willpower, we can learn.
Forgiveness is a lot like that. It’s not as easy as it looks. And it’s not as easy as some folks would have us believe it is. Especially after we’ve grown up. And while we’re practicing forgiveness – there are many times when we need God’s help – when we fall down – and just totally get it wrong. Times when we have to choose to try again.
Forgiveness is not as easy as it looks. There’s a lot that is ambiguous about forgiveness, too. In many conversations about forgiveness – I’ve heard questions like – how do I know if I’ve forgiven someone? What does it feel like? And what does it mean? Does it mean that the person who hurt me is just allowed to keep on acting like that?
No. It doesn’t. If we think about our Gospel text from last week – and our Gospel text from this week – we can begin to see clearly that forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. Last week – our Gospel text was about conflict – specifically in church. And we talked about the process Jesus lays out – first you go and confront someone privately, then with two other members, then in front of the whole church. This is Jesus’ fool-proof never-avoid-conflict method.
Instead it’s clear he expects us to face it – and to lovingly – respectfully – call each other back to accountability. Invite each other back into relationship. To change whatever behavior is problematic – and to welcome them back into the community when the behavior has stopped. This is reconciliation. And we are reconciliation people – Jesus made it so. All of scripture calls us to mend fences – repair the breach – and love each other. There’s no question about that.
But in the early church – if there was a behavior that ended someone up outside the bounds of the community – that behavior had to change before they were welcomed back in. So for example – if someone in the community found out that you had lied about them to someone else – you would have to repent – to turn – to fix what you’d done and stop doing it. Reconciliation, we see in this model – is a two way street. It’s mutual – and reciprocal. It requires the active consent and participation of the person we believe has wronged us. Forgiveness though – is not a license for the person who hurt us – or the offender – to continue to behave badly.
We have to be careful with that nuance. When reconciliation is not possible – forgiveness – and a safe distance – however imperfect – will have to suffice for this life. We have to make this distinction because too often in history the church has encouraged people to forgive – only to be hurt again. Wives who return to husbands who abuse them – for example. Yes – in a perfect world, Jesus would always want us to reconcile – and to heal those relationships. But I don’t believe – and neither does the church anymore – that forgiveness requires trust that puts someone back in a position where they might get hurt again.
Forgiveness is intended to strengthen and free us – not to make us vulnerable. Within the context of church, though – the context in which both these texts are set – barring some kind of abusive situation - Jesus is really clear that we have to go looking for that reconciliation. Even if it seems like a small thing. Because our relationships – here – as the Body of Christ – are too important to just…let go.
But this morning’s text – that’s about something else. Forgiveness doesn’t require the participation of the other person. Or their consent. Forgiveness is something that we do on our own. Take a look at the character in Jesus’ parables. He says the kingdom of heaven is like a king – who forgives the debts of many. And simply put – because they have been forgiven – he expects them to forgive each other. The punishment – if you will – is a tough one for the servant who does not forgive – who does not show the mercy that he was shown.
The hook of this story, though – the problem – is of course that Jesus is talking about us. And how often we are forgiven. By God. More times than we can count – more often than we’re aware of. And because God loves us – no matter who we are – or what we’ve done – because God’s grace and forgiveness is infinite – and because we are forgiven constantly – We, too are expected to forgive, constantly. We are expected to forgive as often as God. A God who forgives us even when we haven’t repented – even when we haven’t changed – even when we don’t deserve it.
But that’s not as easy as it looks.
To learn to forgive like that – is a process. A scary one. A painful one. And a process that requires a lot of help from the people around us. Karl Rahner was a German theologian – who died in 1984. He wrote what we call a systematic theology – meaning he basically wrote through the entire Christian faith and explained as best he could (with God’s help) how things work - Who God is – and how the Christian life takes shape in us.
One of Rahner’s core themes was about the “Self-communication” of God. Or – in other words – the way that God talks to us – touches us – and shares who God is with us. Rahner believed that as Christians – our ability to hear God – to be shaped by God – and to submit to being formed by God – is what makes us human. It makes us who we are.
And at the center of this – is God’s grace. God’s forgiveness. So – when God communicates with us – one of the most intimate – important things God does – is offer us forgiveness. So that we can understand better who God is. Grace – and forgiveness – are in some ways the key to our relationship with God. Not because we’re so bad – or because God created a race of human beings who just need to be forgiven all the time. But because God is full of grace – and forgiveness. Because this is who God is.
So like today’s Gospel – the corollary to that – is that as we learn more about who God is – and if we believe that as Christians it is our job to share God with the world –To go forth in witness to Jesus Christ – Then the best way to do that – the most intimate image we can share with the world – Is of God’s forgiveness living in us.
So by practicing – by learning – by trying to forgive each other – and the world – as often and as gracefully as God forgives us. Which is…just about every second – no strings attached. God shares who God is with us – by forgiving us – so that we might forgive others. Makes it sound so easy, I think… But it’s not as easy as it looks.
Especially when someone has really hurt us. Physically – emotionally – spiritually.
Sometimes forgiving someone something is a process in itself.
And that’s okay. We aren’t somehow failing if it takes us a while – or if we have to work at it – or even if we need to ask for help. But God does expect us to keep trying.
Because forgiveness frees us – and it communicates to the world who God is. And because forgiveness keeps us together. It ensures – that as a people – we work at staying together – even when we have disagreed – even when we have had our feelings hurt. I hope that in both of these texts you’ve noticed that we don’t just get to let ourselves off the hook. We don’t just get to throw up our hands and walk away.
Instead – we have to do the much harder work – of loving each other – and loving ourselves enough to forgive. And to reconcile. And to come back together – because Jesus asks us too – actually because he demands it. And because when we do – we are showing the world the kingdom of heaven.
We are showing the world something it seems to me the world is very much in need of - An image of a loving God – and place filled with grace. Amen.