Sunday of Forgiveness, March 13, 2016
Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
We continue our eight-part series today where we ask the question, “Who is God?” We are asking this question because we are keeping in mind the words of the Lord Jesus in John 17:3, where He defined eternal life as knowing God. So we ask, and we explore multiple answers, because we desire eternal life, because being a Christian means pursuing this knowledge.
Today, the day before the beginning of Great Lent, is called the Sunday of Forgiveness, a name given primarily by the rite that we will celebrate together this evening at the end of Forgiveness Vespers, where we each approach one another and ask for forgiveness, saying, “Forgive me, a sinner.”
So we ask our question today, “Who is God?” And today, we answer, “God is our Forgiver.”
Forgiveness is at the heart of our encounter with God, and it is so often in forgiveness that we come to know Him and ourselves better. Why is this so? What is it about forgiveness that reveals the personality of God? What is it about forgiveness that shows us who we are?
We should first say something about what forgiveness is, because I think there are misconceptions about it. Some people talk about forgiveness as though it means forgetting about what happened. “Forgive and forget,” right? Where is that in the Bible, again? It’s actually not in the Bible. And forgiveness is not forgetting.
A related version of this is “pretending like nothing ever happened,” usually expressed negatively: “I can’t just pretend like nothing ever happened!” But that’s not what forgiveness is, either.
Forgiveness is really about freedom. It is about the freedom of the person forgiving. And when God forgives us, it is because of His own freedom.
It might seem kind of strange to say that God is “free.” What could constrain God? What could limit Him? Well, nothing, of course. But freedom isn’t just freedom from constraint. Freedom is also freedom from need or desire. God has no needs. He has desires, but His desires are not like ours in the sense of being compelled by them. All that He does is in total freedom.
So when God forgives us, it is an act of freedom on His part. Indeed, forgiveness from God is actually our coming into contact with God’s freedom. When He forgives sins, He is not holding them against us, not holding us to account. He has no need for revenge, for getting even. His forgiveness is His extending Himself to us in His total freedom.
And when He does that, what happens is that we are given freedom, too. We are given the freedom to be what we are. Forgiveness is making space within yourself for another person’s presence, even if it is not what you want it to be. And of course God knows who we really are and what we ought to be—as we said last week, God is our Judge, the perfect Judge. But when He forgives our sins, He is opening up the possibility for our presence with Him, even in our imperfection.
Our own forgiving is more complicated. Why? Because we are complicated. We are imperfect. So when we try to forgive, we have to deal with all kinds of feelings that complicate the process. If I forgive, I feel that I am letting someone get away with something. If I forgive, I am not feeding my desire for satisfaction, for revenge, for my own sense of justice. If I forgive, then I am becoming vulnerable, and I don’t want to be vulnerable. That person is still a threat to me, to my emotions, to my sense of right and wrong, to my perfect world that I am trying to control and keep just exactly how I want it.
All those things come into play when I try to forgive. It’s tough for me to get over myself.
But I have to forgive. Why? The key is in today’s Gospel. The Lord said, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
So, if I want God to forgive me, then I have to forgive. And we pray that all the time, don’t we? “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Why, though? Why can’t I just get God’s forgiveness without giving it myself? I’ve got so many other sins He’s forgiving—why won’t He just forgive my unforgiving?
The key is in how we understand what forgiveness really means. There are two components—the act of the one forgiving and the act of the one being forgiven. When God forgives us, He opens Himself up for us to be with Him even in our imperfection. He’s okay with us, even though we’re not all we could be. But if we don’t receive that forgiveness by going into His presence and being changed by it, then the forgiveness doesn’t really do anything for us. It’s like receiving an invitation to a wedding but not actually going. The invitation is lovely and gets us in the door, but the wedding is the actual event.
And we cannot receive God’s forgiveness, attending that cosmically beautiful wedding of the Bridegroom Christ with the Church His Bride, if we do not forgive. We have to make space in our own hearts for the people who hurt us, for the people whose imperfections bug us and offend us, for the people whose behavior threatens us because it is not what we like.
Husbands have to make space in their hearts for wives who are not what they expected them to be. Wives have to make space in their hearts for husbands who are disappointments. Parents have to make space in their hearts for children who are wandering, who are heart-breaking, who are failing, who are frustrating. Children have to make space in their hearts for parents who aren’t superheroes. Friends have to make space in their hearts for people who get caught up in their own worlds of worry and addiction. Christians have to make space in their hearts for their fellow-Christians who are judgmental, who are difficult, who are obstinate, who are unappreciative. Parishioners have to make space in their hearts for clergy and other church leaders who are in so many ways imperfect.
We’re all messed up. We’re all broken. We’re all in need of someone to make a little space for us. God has done that for us. He is making a space for us. He has made this space for us, this space where we can see who we are and be who we are. We don’t have to walk on eggshells with God. He knows us. He’s seen us in all our glory, in all our embarrassment, in all our quirks. And He’s still here, still inviting, still forgiving. And in that space, we can finally see ourselves. And with His grace, we can be changed. We don’t have to remain broken.
We’re beginning Lent. It’s time to make some space for each other. It’s time to forgive. It’s time to use our freedom to give someone else freedom. It’s time to become okay with someone else in our hearts’ space, even with all their problems, all the things they still have to work on, all their sins. Why? Because God did that for us. And so if we want to take advantage of that, we have to do it, too. So we forgive. We open up that space and say, “Come on in. It’s okay.”
Some may remember that self-help book from the 1960s entitled I’m OK, You’re OK. I was once told that, in Christianity, it’s really more “I’m not okay. You’re not okay. But that’s okay.” That’s one way to understand how we forgive.
God forgives us. It is part of Who He is, because it is an expression of His character—He is free, and He gives freedom. And when we come into contact with His freedom, then we become free like Him. It’s part of what we might call His personality.
Today, we ask: “Who is God?” And today, we answer: “God is our Forgiver.”
To our God Who forgives therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.