As is often the case, I enjoy imagining the back story to this morning’s Gospel reading. As I picture it, one of the disciples has been irritating Peter. A LOT. And Peter knows he is supposed to forgive his fellow disciple, and Peter has tried. On multiple occasions, Peter has let it go.
But surely, thinks Peter, there must be a limit to how much he has to take. So, Peter approaches Jesus to find out what the limit is. How many times, Peter asks, does he have to forgive his irritating fellow disciple? Seven seems like plenty!
Peter must have been disappointed in Jesus’ answer. There is effectively no limit to the number of times we have to forgive. We, who have been forgiven so much by God, are supposed to forgive, and keep forgiving.
But whatever Peter may have thought of this morning’s lesson, I know that many people, including me, often find it a great challenge to forgive.
More on that in a moment. But first we need to pair our reading from this morning with the Gospel reading from last Sunday.
As you may recall, last week Jesus gave instructions about how to hold each other accountable. If someone sins against us, we are first supposed to approach that person alone, then with a witness or two, then more publicly still. Finally, if the person still refuses to listen, that person is to be treated as an outsider (Matthew 18:15-17).
I don’t think Jesus means to insist that we follow that exact procedure every time someone sins against us. But this much is clear, we as Christian people shouldn’t simply let people abuse us. Jesus allows, indeed commands, us to confront people who act badly. And when harm has been committed, the person doing the harm should repent.
It's only after speaking about mutual accountability that Jesus commands us to forgive and to keep forgiving. Holding others accountable with no hope of forgiveness can be abusive. Forgiving others who have done wrong without also holding them accountable is enabling behavior. Forgiveness and accountability must go together.
Still, the challenge remains: we are to forgive people who sin against us. And that can be really hard.
I think back to the most dramatic public expression of forgiveness I can remember in recent times. Many of you will remember when a white supremacist killed the pastor and several members of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Almost immediately, several Church members publicly expressed their forgiveness of the shooter.
I haven’t followed the story of that Church and its members since that time eight years ago. But I wonder what forgiveness felt like for those people, who had been so brutally attacked in what should have been a safe space.
It may be that some of them really had fully forgiven the shooter. But I suspect that most of the people who said they forgave the shooter weren’t there, not so quickly and completely.
When they announced that they forgave him, my guess is, they meant that they wanted to forgive him, that they were working on forgiving him. Because, at least as I have experienced forgiving, forgiveness is a process, often a long process.
I have been fortunate. I haven’t had many really significant things to forgive in my life. But I have had a few. I think of one in particular, from twenty years ago.
A man did me wrong. For the next couple of years, I had no interest in forgiving him. Thinking about him just made me mad all over again.
One lesson I learned from that experience is that we can’t rush the process of forgiveness. I needed time for wounds to begin to heal, time for me to gather spiritual strength, time for me to get ready to begin the forgiveness journey. There was no sense in me even pretending to forgive until then.
Now, looking back, I can say that, even in those first years, I was making progress. I was moving in the right direction. But the progress was slow and the movement almost invisible. At the time, I couldn’t see anything happening inside on the forgiveness front. Only God knew what God was doing to heal my soul.
When the time came for me to begin the conscious work of forgiveness, when at last I was ready to start, I realized I was ready in a kind of revelation. I have described before how it happened. One day I felt God commanding me to pray for the man who had harmed me. I didn’t hear a voice from heaven, but I was pretty sure that this was God, and that prayi9ng for him wasn’t just a suggestion.
Unwillingly, I prayed for the man, and to my shock, it felt good. It turns out, I was able to pray for him and mean it at least a little. And as I prayed for him, a burden was lifted. Over the next few weeks, I prayed for him every day, and every day I felt better. In my prayers for this man, God was healing my soul.
That was a second lesson for me. Often we hold onto our anger because an injustice has been done. The other person, so we think, doesn’t deserve our forgiveness. And that is often true. But when we work at forgiveness, we benefit, usually more than the person we are trying to forgive. We are letting go of our anger, opening ourselves up to God’s healing power, experiencing God’s generous and forgiving love.
After a few weeks, I forgave the man enough that I decided I could quit focusing my prayers on him. I was, so I thought, healed of my anger and my hurt.
How naïve I was! I had experienced real healing. But the scars were still there. And sometimes, especially at night, I would think again about that man, and I would burn with new anger.
And there was a third lesson for me. Forgiveness is often a lifelong process.
Some day I hope to meet the man who did me wrong. I hope we can be fully and totally reconciled. I hope we can truly love each other. But that’s not likely to happen this side of God’s kingdom. And so, I forgive as best I can, knowing that perfect forgiveness depends on God’s grace, happens only in God’s time, and may well wait for God’s kingdom.
But even in this life, real progress is possible. I may still burn with anger sometimes. But pretty quickly, I let it go. And over time, my surges of anger have happened less and less often. Forgiveness is happening. I presume that’s true for the people of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, too.
If you are struggling with forgiveness—and who among us isn’t, at least to some degree?—I invite you to spend some time reflecting on where you are in the process. Are the wounds still too fresh? Or has the work of forgiveness begun? If so, can you look back and see the healing that has already happened, even if the healing is not complete?
As you ponder these things in your heart, be gentle with yourself. As Jesus says in his parable, we forgive others because God first forgives us. Our forgiveness necessarily begins with ourselves, with knowing that we are forgiven and loved, that we should forgive and love ourselves. It’s from that place of forgiveness and love that we can begin to forgive others.
My prayer for us is that we can know the power of God’s forgiveness, and that we can continue to work at forgiving others. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan