But let’s be honest...most of what we mean by forgiveness should maybe just be called forbearance. When you have human beings going through life we are going to bump into each other, and that needs a little forbearance...putting up with each other’s idiosyncrasies.
True forgiveness happens when one person causes us to suffer in such a way that our previous way of relating is impossible now. The suffering creates separation in our relationship because the actions have been damaging. We can’t do that any more, because it hurts too much.
I believe most every person, at least conceptually, understands the power of forgiveness. We understand its need. We understand that not forgiving hurts us more than it hurts them. We know all of this, and yet there always seems to be that one time, that one act, by that person where forgiveness is so much harder. Their action sticks with us. It even seems to have this mystical power over our lives, and we simply can’t break free.
We talk about it constantly.
Our minds wander to it when we are quiet.
We try to get away, but just can’t seem to break its hold.
Lori and I were hanging out with a friend and his wife a long time ago...we had worked for the same hard driving boss, and every time we got together the stories and the time spent together seemed to dwell on what had happened way back then...It was like our relationship was defined by our shared suffering.
One time after a whole evening of this, Lori and I were driving home, and I said, “I don’t want that time in my life to define me. I don’t want to be sitting around with my friend years from now still telling the story of that person over and over again.”
What I really needed was to learn how to forgive.
This morning we looking at a scene from Jesus’ crucifixion. I know it is Palm Sunday, and people traditionally talk about the Triumphal Entry, but we are going to look at a scene from Jesus on the cross and how he continues, even at his deepest and darkest moment to offer forgiveness to those around Him.
Let’s read Luke 23:32-39
32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed.
33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.
39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Forgiveness can be difficult as it is, but now Jesus raises the bar, so to speak, by forgiving the people who are in the act of crucifying Him. I can’t imagine what it must have been like. I can’t imagine how He was able to accomplish such a thing.
And here we see Jesus offering forgiveness right in the middle of the worst moment of His life. Jesus is able to forgive because
1. Jesus prayed for their forgiveness.
His entire ministry Jesus forgave the sins of others, taught His disciples to forgive, and actively prayed for his people to receive forgiveness. It was to be the hallmark of the Messiah’s ministry.
One of the most powerful teaching passage of Jesus is the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. In Matthew 5:39-48 Jesus teaches about turning the other cheek, and in a passage that speaks directly to this, Jesus talks about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.
Long before he actually dealt with a crucifixion, Jesus made the decision to pray for those who were crucifying Him, and that is where it must begin for us...praying for those who hurt, offend, and want to do actual harm to us.
I don’t know about you, but praying for the people who are in the process of killing me does not sound like an easy thing to do. In fact, we live in a culture that says, “I will kill you before you can hurt me!” Our American way of doing things make this seem like the stupidest of responses! How dare he just take it! And then to wimp out and pray for those who are hurting Him? There are all kinds of psychological terms for the damage being done, and yet Jesus does exactly that...he prays for them...he forgives them.
In one church where I youth pastored, there was a lady who seemed determine to undermine my leadership and make me look bad. She went so far as to lie about me to my pastor. Luckily, I had called her to explain the situation from his phone with him standing next to me; so he had witnessed it all. He, however, saw what the strain was doing to me personal, and practically mandated that I begin praying for her...and not just praying she drop over dead or something. He challenged me to pray for God’s blessing on her life...and that act alone transformed my heart toward her, and my ability to respond to her even while it never changed the situation.
What seems like a moment of weakness is actually a moment of strength for Jesus. Jesus is doing this for them. His prayer, here on the cross, is just a verbal expression of what his crucifixion was all about...the forgiveness of those who most need it.
Jesus made a decision to love His enemies and to pray for those who persecuted Him in the same way he calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
2. Jesus sets the example for us to follow.
Luke is the author of our passage today and also the author of the book of Acts. In Acts he records the beginning of the church, and some of the persecution the people faced. In one place he tells the story of Stephen. A young man given leadership in the church who soon faces persecution because of his belief in Jesus.
The people are so angry they beat Stephen; many calling for his death. As the people begin to beat him to death with rocks, Stephen prays, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." (Acts 7:59,60).
Jesus life is meant to be our example, and Stephen understood this. It is our call as well. We are called to love our enemy and to pray for those who persecute us.
We often make excuses for why Jesus’ way simply will not work. Our world is too violent to respond with this kind of approach. If we do it this way, people will walk all over us. We can come up with a million excuses as to why Jesus’ way will not work in our modern world, and yet His call does not waver...there is no exception to the rule.
Bt is as Elizabeth O'Connor said, "Forgiveness is a whole lot harder than any sermon makes it out to be."
When we have to put rubber to the road, responding as Jesus would have us respond is not easy. Often what is harder than the act of forgiving is convincing ourselves we should even forgive in the first place.
3. Jesus knows the power of forgiveness.
There are several powerful spiritual principles at work when it comes to forgiveness...even when, maybe especially when, we are forgiving some of the most horrific things in our world.
A. Forgiveness frees us.
This isn’t just about the other person. In fact, the people around Jesus that day, for the most part, wanted nothing to do with His forgiveness. The people stoning Stephen wanted nothing to do with forgiveness. In many ways forgiveness isn’t isn’t about the other person...it is a way of freeing the forgiver from to the damaging effects of the sin done to them.
Philip Yancey says, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.”
I think I like the vividness of Anne Lammott’s statement even more, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”
So often we refuse to forgive because it “will let them off the hook.” But really, we have to let ourselves off the hook. We have to stop nursing that pain. Like the bruise on our arm that we keep touch even though it hurts...we do that with out pain.
Facebook gives us insight into the minds of many people. One of the things I have noticed over and over is how it allows people to wallow and never get past the sharpness of their pain and anger. Not that people will ever get over certain events in their life, but certainly the human spirit is resilient and the pain softens over time...unless we keep nurturing the pain, caring for it, reminding ourselves of the painfulness of the pain...
When we refuse to forgive we remind ourselves over and over again how much we have been hurt and how painful it is and so it continues to cause us pain.
In reality what we need is to forgive because the pain is actually killing us. We have drunk the rat poison and we are waiting around for the rat to die.
B. Forgiveness enables us to receive forgiveness.
In the prayer we call The Lord’s Prayer, we say this line “Forgive us our transgressions as we forgive those who transgress against us.” What we often miss is that this means, “Forgive us in the same way we forgive others.” Our forgiveness is bound to our ability to forgive. We cannot receive the forgiveness God or others offer to us if we are harboring unforgiveness.
C. Forgiveness enables us to release the past and move into the future.
I wrestle with forgiving. My father left before I was born, and I saw him about 5 or 6 times my entire life. A couple of years ago I learned he had terminal cancer and had only a month or so to live. I struggled with whether to even go see him or not, but I so much wanted an apology from him before I could forgive.
So I finally went up, and after some time there we went out on the back porch to talk. He started off with what I thought was going to be an apology for not being part of my life, but instead turned into an apology for it not working out with my mom. It was probably his way of apologizing, but it wasn’t what I wanted...but somewhere in there I realized what I really wanted was a life with a father in it, and it was already too late for that...and no apology was ever going to do anything about it.
Anne Lammott has another great quote on forgiveness, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.” And that is what we have to do. Our past hurts will kill our future. They will squeeze the life out of it.
Our ability to forgive enables us to move on...to move forward.
In 1977 “Reaksa” Himm was just 14 years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded his Cambodian village and slaughtered his friends and family. Reaksa, along with his father and brothers were dragged to the edge of a mass grave and slashed with machetes, beaten with clubs, and then tossed into the grave.
Miraculously Reaksa survived. He came to in the pit, and managed to crawl out unseen. As he hid in the nearby jungle, he watched as they dragged his mother and sisters and family members to the pit and murdered them.
Reaksa says, “As the soldiers threw dirt on the people who were my entire life, I swore revenge. I was alone, hungry and scared and in the coming weeks I made my way across the jungle, avoiding soldiers by day and sleeping in trees by night to escape roaming tigers.”
He spent several years living in the squalor of refugee camps before immigrating to Canada. There he was introduced to Jesus Christ. He says, “Through years of Bible study and communion with God, I started a new life in the west but could not release myself from the prison of hatred, anger and vengeance. I discovered that forgiveness truly is divine and that as the years passed, my blood oath and all consuming ire were in direct conflict with my new nature.
“The anger against the killers was as great as the grief for my family and it burned inside me like a great ball of fire. For years I cultivated elaborate fantasies in which I tortured and murdered the killers again and again, projecting all my rage and pain I bottled inside myself in my plans for what I would do to the men when I found then. I realized that I would never know true peace until I had dealt with this as well. I had to find a way of forgiving them, before the bitterness inside destroyed me.
If you’ve been deeply hurt, it isn’t easy to forgive but we can learn a lesson from Jesus, who forgave those who crucified him.”
So often we turn forgiveness into something about the other person, when it is has a significant impact on us, our healing, our freedom, our ability to receive forgiveness from others and especially from God! We want them to pay, but we have place ourselves in the prison thinking that will teach them.