Philippians 1:3-11; Matthew 18:21-35
5th Sunday of Lent
St Barbara’s; 03.04.2022
As we continue on our journey through the Lord’s Prayer, we’ve reached the part where we pray ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. This apparently simple prayer cuts to the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. It’s interesting to note that ‘forgiveness of sins’ is repeatedly used as the summary of Jesus’ mission – and of the good news itself – throughout the New Testament. By Zechariah, Peter, Paul – and by Jesus himself at the Last Supper. Forgiveness isn’t meant to be something we just bring out on special occasions but integral to the way we put our faith into practice every day.
But what are we actually talking about when we use the word ‘forgiveness’? Finding an adequate definition is complex. One of the problems with forgiveness can be that we imagine it’s a feeling. To forgive, we need to have nice feelings towards people who have hurt us. And, of course, telling ourselves to feel differently – clenching our fists and steeling ourselves – rarely works. But if Jesus commands us to forgive it must be because there are choices we can make which enable us to put his words into practice.
So rather than just feelings, I would like to suggest that forgiveness is something much deeper and more transformative. It has something to do with release from the hurt of the past, and enabling a relationship to look forwards, to the future. Forgiveness chooses not to seek revenge for the hurt of the past and instead chooses new life. It involves an end to a cycle of hurt and the beginning of a new relationship in which we all can flourish. What this looks like will depend entirely on the situation. I think it’s important to say from the outset that forgiveness is very much not about remaining in situations of abuse in which neither the abused nor the abuser are flourishing. Forgiveness is a process of healing, restoration and new life.
Why is this process apparently so central to Jesus’ mission and teaching? Well, this talk is going to focus on two aspects of why forgiveness matters to our everyday life and how we can live it out day to day.
The call to be vulnerable
Firstly, forgiveness matters because it involves choosing vulnerability, opening ourselves up to the work of God in our lives. Last week we looked at the prayer for our daily bread, which acknowledges our need of God’s provision, our ‘empty-handedness’. And it isn’t a coincidence that this is followed by the prayer for God’s help in living forgiving lives.
Rowan Williams, meditating on forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer, writes:
‘Praying for our daily bread is asking to be reacquainted with our vulnerability, to learn how to approach not only God but each other, with our hands open. So to pray this prayer with integrity, we need to be thinking about the various ways in which we defend ourselves against the need to open our hands.’
When we seek to forgive others or we acknowledge our need of forgiveness, we are opening our hands. I wonder if you noticed the evocative body language in the parable of the unmerciful servant which we have just heard read. There is a stark contrast between the image of the servants falling to their knees and that of the first servant seizing his colleague ‘by the throat’. It is very difficult to receive anything when we are grasping something else tightly, whether that is our pride or our need to be right.
Forgiving others and receiving God’s forgiveness naturally, intrinsically, go hand in hand. We can only receive the freedom God wants to offer us when we come to Him with open hands which have released their grip on the hurt and bitterness which prevents us looking forward, and upward.
Becoming like the Father
Secondly, forgiveness is so central to the practice of our faith because it is a key way we grow to become like the Father. Jesus teaches us (in Luke 6:36): ‘Be merciful as your Father is merciful’. As we explored a few weeks ago, one of the revolutionary aspects of the Lord’s Prayer is that it begins ‘Our Father’ – the whole prayer is set in the context of our relationship as children to our heavenly
dad. We read at the very beginning of John’s gospel that Jesus came into the world so that all who received him might become children of God. It is an identity that is gifted to us, but it is also an identity we are called to grow into.
And forgiveness is utterly central to who the Father is. In the parables Jesus tells about forgiveness, the Father never shuts the door on those seeking to turn things round. He is the king immediately forgiving the debt when the servant asks him to; he is the dad looking out for the son who’s rejected him and running to meet him when he finally comes home. As we begin to journey to the cross with
Jesus afresh, we are preparing to be reminded of how far and wide and deep the mercy and compassion of God to us stretches. It is this overflowing compassion of God which means we can approach him in empty-handed vulnerability.
And when we live out forgiveness in our lives, we are allowing God to be at work and make us more like Him. The theologian Henri Nouwen, reflecting on what this looks like, writes:
‘As the Father, I have to dare to carry the responsibility of a spiritually adult person and dare to trust that the real joy and real fulfilment can only come from welcoming home those who have been hurt and wounded on their life’s journey, and loving them with a love that neither asks nor expects
anything in return.’
So if this is the why, what about the how?
None of these make forgiveness easy! But they might help us along the way.
Firstly spend time in God’s presence, really reflecting on the overflowing, abundant mercy of God
– How often is my own reaction and my own unwillingness to forgive born of insecurity? I find it very hard to trust that God truly loves and accepts me – that I am held and loved unconditionally by my Father. So I need the validation of others, I need to defend myself or my ego.
– Allow the depth of God’s love and generosity to sink in
– There might be an image that helps you do this, or a piece of music, a Bible passage or a text.
Secondly, seek forgiveness as part of our daily bread
– choose to unclench our fists and open our hands regularly. Notice times where it feels uncomfortable to say sorry – to God and to others – and try to do it anyway.
– It can be a healthy reminder that we can be as annoying and frustrating as the people we find annoying and frustrating!
– But it’s not about feeling miserable about ourselves. It’s about celebrating the freedom and mercy we find in God and choosing to start afresh, to begin anew.
– The examen prayer can be a great place to start with this. Choosing a time in your day to review the last 24 hours in all their light and shade, offering them to God and asking for what you need for the next 24 hours.
And thirdly, pray.
– Acknowledge honestly before God where forgiveness feels too hard
– Pray for blessing on those we are struggling to forgive
– Pray to want to forgive – or even to want to want to forgive
May we try to live lives with our hands and hearts open to God’s love and may He release us to release others.