A SermonThe Bible is full of people needy for forgiveness.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us
A man and a woman. Rapturously in love. They share some fruit. Disaster.
A king and another man's wife. A moment of passion. A child conceived, a husband despatched. The prophet speaks - a lie exposed.
Two friends. Three years of shared life - of learning, of laughter, of wonder. Denied. Denied. Denied again. A rooster crows - deceit uncovered.
Adam and Eve. King David. The Apostle Peter.
The Bible is full of people needy for forgiveness and, my guess is, so are our churches.
Sometimes we have acted with such deliberateness and calculation and even anticipation that we know we need to be forgiven even before we have sinned. Sometimes we know it as a word slips from our mouth or a thought rises in our heart and we regret it instantly. Sometimes we are completely oblivious of the wrong we have done and it is not until the photograph of our car arrives in the mail that we are aware of our need for forgiveness! Sometimes we are reminded on an annual basis that there is much that remains unforgiven. In many families, everyone knows that there can be no happy anniversaries until someone says 'sorry' and someone else says 'I forgive you'.
When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, 'Our Father in heaven…forgive us our sins...', he is reminding them that we are people who need forgiveness and God is the God who grants forgiveness.
Psalm 51 is the classic prayer of confession in the Bible. David is King in Israel - he has abused his authority, he has exploited a subject, he has committed adultery, he has conspired to murder. His victims - a loyal solider, a faithful wife, a child, a nation.
He cries out to God knowing that he deserves death but relying on God's own character: 'Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love, according to your great compassion, blot out my transgression.'
David relies on what God is like - he is the God who is merciful to the undeserving. David doesn't say, 'God give me what I deserve'. He doesn't rely on his position and say, 'God forgive me, I'm the King of Israel'. He doesn't rely on his past record, 'God forgive me, because I haven't blotted my copybook until now'.
But we often come to God seeking forgiveness on the basis of our previous good record. 'Please forgive me - most of the time I do the right thing'. 'Please forgive me - after all I've come to church three times this month'. 'Please forgive me - actually I can't even think of anything I need to be forgiven for - I'm just saying this to encourage the sinners sitting around me!'.
But David doesn't pray like that. He says to God, 'Against you , you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight'. He's not avoiding his guilt in relation to the woman he has exploited and the man he has murdered. He is acknowledging that sin is a human habit, not a one off, not a fluke, not a one in a million chance. The story of every human being.
Who reads the story of David and Bathsheba and is surprised? It was just the combination of the opportunity for sin and the presence of a sinner – 'surely I was sinful at birth, from the time my mother conceived me'.
Human beings are creatures who need forgiveness and amazingly and wonderfully, the God we have offended is a God of mercy.
King David knows that to those who deserve his condemnation, God extends his mercy, his forgiveness. And the whole Bible teaches that forgiveness comes as God absorbs into himself the cost of forgiving us; the death of the sinless Son of God, Jesus Christ so that God's rebellious children may be forgiven.
God meets our great need of his mercy with the great gift of his Son.
When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray 'forgive us our sins' he is reminding them that we need forgiveness and God will forgive.
But that's not all. The prayer doesn't stop with 'forgive us our sins'. That's only half the prayer. The prayer says 'Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us'.
Just so that's it's clear what this means, Jesus puts it another way at the end of the prayer: 'For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.' (Mt 6:14-15)
Augustine called this prayer 'a terrible petition' because he knew his own struggle to forgive as he had been forgiven. Yet, the Lord requires no less of us. It is not that we earn forgiveness by forgiving others but we cannot claim to be forgiven if we will not forgive.
Why should we forgive others?
The sociologists and the psychologists will tell you that forgiveness is good for you. That it is therapeutic; that it reduces the urge to violence and revenge; that it has a liberating power regardless of whether the person who has offended against you has repented or not. All that is true and good. There is no surprise in learning that what God commands is good for us. But that is not the primary reason we are to forgive.
First, we forgive others because forgiveness is of the essence of God. Forgiveness is God-like.
When God passes before Moses and discloses for the first recorded time what his Name is, he reveals that he is, 'The Lord, the Lord, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.' (Ex 34:6-7)
As the name of God discloses God's heart of forgiveness, so Jesus puts forgiveness at the centre of his ministry. As Jesus gathers his friends for a final meal he teaches them about the cross, and he teaches them about forgiveness.
As he passes the cup of wine he says to them, 'This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins'. The writer to the Hebrews echoes the Lord Jesus when he says, 'without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness'.
Second, we must forgive others in order to be the children of our Father.
On the night of July 25 1993, a group of terrorists burst in on St James' Church in Capetown, South Africa and opened fire. Fifty five people were wounded and eleven were killed. One of the deceased was a woman named Marita Ackerman.
Three of the men arrested for the attack applied to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission for amnesty, which was provided to anyone, black or white, who committed political or race-based crimes during the apartheid years and made a full public confession of their crime to the Commission.
Marita's husband attended their evidence, faced them and forgave them. He said this: 'I forgive them unconditionally because they have asked for it. God has forgiven us, all we have to do is ask for it. They have asked for forgiveness and so I have given it to them'.
On the 5th of August 2002, the Murree Christian School for the children of Christian workers in Pakistan was attacked by gunmen, during school hours. They killed six workers in the school while students and teachers hid in classrooms under tables and hallways with the sound of gunshot ringing around them. Helen Baron, one of the students, recorded events in her classroom:
'People were praying all around; a constant hum in the classroom. Now and then people would pray out loud, for God's protection, for his angels around us, for Jenny's Mum who'd been shot and was lying on the floor in the hall, and for everyone else in the school. Someone prayed for the attackers.' (my emphasis)
Forgiveness is a family trait.
Third, we must forgive others, because we have been forgiven.
The church must be a community of forgiveness or it is not the church. In Colossians we read, 'therefore as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, humility, kindness, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you'.
In the community of the church, we are continually, knowingly and unknowingly, offending one another and being offended. We must be a community of continual forgiveness. Someone didn't listen, didn't remember, didn't care. An insensitive remark, an unwarranted criticism, a careless response, a broken undertaking. The church that does not practice forgiveness among its members is separated from its Head.
It is utterly incongruous to be forgiven and to refuse to forgive others, as Jesus taught in a famous parable. The reality of my forgiveness must show itself in my forgiveness of others. But it's not just incongruous - it's impossible. If I will not forgive others I will not see God. If I allow a spirit of bitterness and unforgiveness to live in me, I disqualify myself from God's mercy in Jesus Christ. If I bear a grudge to my grave - it will keep me from heaven: 'if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins'.
Mercy received must be manifest in mercy extended to others.
We know enough members of our extended family, friends and workmates locked in relationships where the bitterness accrues daily; people with ever diminishing address books, their Christmas card list getting shorter and shorter. Relationships where the debt collection strategies have been legion and futile; where the hurt and disappointment fester into a boil that sometimes survives the death of one of the parties. Perhaps you have found yourself caught in this kind of pattern; the same interest bearing accounts in your heart. Too much left unforgiven.
We risk heaven if we will not change. How many times have you prayed the Lord's prayer? Have you ever brought to mind and put to death a grudge, a wound, a hurt as you prayed?
Are you storing up bitterness and unforgiveness against parents, family members, people in church, people outside church?
We must learn forgiveness and practise forgiveness.
How will we do that? How can we forgive?
First, it is not the case that you cannot forgive until the other person repents. If the other person repents, then with your forgiveness there is the possibility of reconciliation. If they acknowledge their wrong, seek to redress the loss you have suffered, and you extend to them forgiveness, then there is the possibility of peace between you.
If there is no repentance, then there will not be reconciliation between you but that does not mean that you cannot forgive them.
Second, though God forgives our sins and remembers them no more, that is not typical of us. Over time, sins we have forgiven may fade from our memories, and hundreds of minor hurts and disappointments caused to us by our spouses or family members do get forgiven and forgotten. But just because you remember some sin against you does not mean that you have not forgiven it. Sometimes, things we have forgiven will remain in our memory for longer than we wish. But the test of whether we are maintaining any unforgiving grudge will be whether the remembrance of the hurt causes in us hostility and vengeful thoughts against the person who wronged us.
Third, we need to understand that the Bible permits some punishment for wrongdoing without forgiveness. The State exists to punish wrongdoing. The criminal justice system is not to forgive crime, it is to punish crime. The victims of crime, if they are believers, must seek God's help to finally come to forgiveness of those who have wronged them.
We do not need to think that we failed to forgive because the wrongdoer has been punished by the state, or because we have not yet forgotten or because we have not yet been reconciled. None of those things mean we have not forgiven.
Finally, we must ask God to help us to forgive. It is hard to forgive when people do the wrong thing; and especially when people do the wrong thing to someone you love. The Lord's Prayer teaches us to pray for deliverance from evil. The grudge that takes us to hell is an evil we need to be delivered from. We must ask God to help us put off grudge bearing and the desire for retaliation; ask God to help us put on a good will and a forgiving attitude to the person who has done us wrong.
It's hard to forgive - if you've been hurt physically, emotionally, spiritually; it's hard and slow. God is able, he can do it; God is patient; he won't rush you; God is gracious, you may go two steps forward and one step back. Ask him, find a mature Christian to pray with you, ask God.
Corrie Ten Boom survived the Ravensbrook POW camp where her beloved sister Betsy had died. She came back to Germany after the war and spoke on the reconciliation and forgiveness that can only be found in Christ. One day a man came toward her and she recognised that he was one of the soldiers in charge of the POW camp where her sister died. She recognised him in an instant and he came to her with an arm extended. She prayed, 'Lord I cannot forgive this man, please help me'. He extended his hand towards her and said, 'My sister Corrie, would you please forgive me?' She put out her hand and prayed, 'God help me'.
And God provided a word, 'I forgive you, brother, with my whole heart', she said.
Kanishka Raffel was the Bible study leader for the 2008 EFAC National Conference. He has been rector of St Matthew's Shenton Park in the Diocese of Perth since 1999.