[Jesus said:] 27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
I don’t often tell personal stories, beyond funny antics of my family or friends. But these lessons of forgiveness reminded me of a story. Some of you may know that I was married once before. My ex-husband and I were both young, and in many ways our marriage looked great from the outside, but there were any number of ways we both contributed to breaking our relationship and our vows. We decided to divorce.
I was in my very first call, my first parish, and my ex had been pretty active, and so I had to say something to the congregation. By virtue of my position, I had to take something very private and make it public. I made an announcement at worship of what would be happening and that we asked for their prayers, as our marriage was sadly ending. Since that congregation’s tradition was having the announcements right before the service started, the very next thing I had to do was lead the congregation in confession and forgiveness, and then pronounce God’s forgiveness to the whole congregation.
As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the ☩ Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
My soon to be ex husband was sitting in the second row back. And I had to declare before God that he was forgiven. Not knowing what was going through his head, I had to pronounce God’s mercy. I was obligated to give grace. Because that’s what I was called to do, no matter the cost to my own pride.
To be sure, I pronounced God’s forgiveness, and I attempted to give forgiveness myself, however poorly I could in the moment. You usually don’t feel any better in the moment of forgiveness. In my experience it hurts quite a bit, and it still feels like there is a great divide between you and the person who has wronged you. But forgiveness means that you say, I will not make this chasm any deeper. If I have the bridge building energy I will do so – but if I don’t have any boards left, at least I have stopped digging the hole that divides us.
Because forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. Forgiveness does not mean that I forget that I have been harmed or deny any wrongdoing. Forgiveness does not mean that I allow someone to continue to harm me, or pretend that it’s all ok. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we all go back to being friends – it means that I will not allow this pain to consume my life and will instead look forward with grace and mercy. Forgiveness is to reframe the situation, to view from a different perspective.
“When Joseph forgives his brothers, he reframes the horrible events of his life to include the redemptive artistry of God: “God sent me before you to preserve life.” To be clear: this doesn’t mean that God willed Joseph’s brothers to abuse and abandon him. I don’t believe that abuse is ever God’s will. Rather, what Joseph is saying is that God is always and everywhere in the business of taking the worst things that happen to us, and going to work on them for the purposes of multiplying wholeness and blessing. Because God is in the story, we can hope for the resurrection of all things.” (Debie Thomas, Journey With Jesus)
The work of reconciliation and the work of healing is what happens after forgiveness. The work of justice when harm has been done can be a long road. Maybe relationships will never be what they once were, and there is grief involved there too. But to stop digging the chasm, to look with grace across that divide and wish the other person well, is a start. We don’t just move on and say, everything is fine now. We move forward with the help of the Holy Spirit, acknowledging our wounds, but knowing that our wounds do not limit the work of the Spirit.
We are made in the image of a God who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, saved by the God who was wounded for our transgressions, forgiven by the God whose unmerited grace flows freely. When we know that it is our identity – when we understand that truth about ourselves and creation – we can see mercy, grace, and generosity everywhere.
But it’s hard to see this when you are hurting. It’s hard to see this truth, when you are in pain, and tending only to your wounds.
Love is not a feeling, but an action – when we give to those whom we will not get something from. When we offer grace, knowing that we might be taken advantage of. We can respond rather than react. It is the ultimate life-giving way of combating evil and the ways of death and the ways of the world. Perhaps another way of stating this is that we will not let the other person determine our actions. When our natural tendency is to fight or flee or freeze – these are not responses that show love to others, or put value on community and relationships in the way Jesus does. We can choose a different way, based on the teachings of Jesus.
Healthy communities and healthy churches are places where people feel safe, where conflict is normal and talked about in productive ways, where people learn how to share deeply and respect one another’s story. Where the first question is not, what’s their problem? but what’s their story? When conflict occurs, when hostility interrupts our community, get to the root of the issue, rather than just address the behaviors. If a family member whom you know well snaps at you out of nowhere – you might realize it’s because they had a particularly frustrating day at work, or they are in physical pain, or there’s something gnawing at them and their worry is coming out sideways. We realize these things for those whom we know well – we can also look for them in those we only know casually – because that’s how deep we are called to go in Christ centered community.
To look for a deeper story, instead of reacting – to not let that person’s hostility make you hostile too. Lutheran Public Theologian Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber speaks to the power of forgiveness.
“Maybe retaliation or holding onto anger about the harm done to me doesn’t actually combat evil. Maybe it feeds it. Because in the end, if we’re not careful, we can actually absorb the worst of our enemy, and at some level, start to become them. So what if forgiveness, rather than being a pansy way to say, ‘It’s okay,’ is actually a way of wielding bolt-cutters, and snapping the chains that link us? What if it’s saying, ‘What you did was so not okay, I refuse to be connected to it anymore.’? Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter. And free people are dangerous people. Free people aren’t controlled by the past. Free people laugh more than others. Free people see beauty where others do not. Free people are not easily offended. Free people are unafraid to speak truth to stupid. Free people are not chained to resentments. And that’s worth fighting for.”