Scriptures: Ephesians 4:31-32; Matthew 18:21-35

Now we continue our sermon series called “On Being the Church.” Last week we had a tough subject as we dealt with accountability and admonishment, and read the verses that came just before this passage that we read today.

Jesus gave them detailed instructions on how to deal with a person who does you wrong, in that passage. And he said in verse 18 that heaven itself would back the person up who follows these instructions.

(That’s when I told you that note, that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am also” does not refer to prayer so much, although it encourages you to pray, but it refers to authority, the authority of heaven.)

This brought a question to the disciples’ minds, and as usually was the case, Peter was the spokesman for them. He asked Jesus just how many times a person had to be forgiven, before you mark them off your list. Peter asked, “Am I supposed to forgive him seven times?”

I suspect that sounded like an unreasonable amount to Peter. After all, if you read the Jewish law, they only had to forgive a family member three times. They would forgive them three times, then they could take whatever actions they wanted against that person. For Gentiles, there was no forgiveness required. You just took whatever action you wanted.

So Peter here is trying to be generous, when he says “seven times.” And yet, Jesus tells him “seventy times seven” (or “seventy-seven,” depending on the translation that you have). This was essentially an impossible amount, as we’ll discuss a little later.

Forgiveness is typically defined as a process for getting rid of resentment, indignation, or anger as a result of a personal offense, difference, or mistake, and ceasing to demand punishment or restitution.

The Oxford dictionary defines forgiveness as “a grant of free pardon.” Forgiveness is a pardon.

I’d like to give you some concepts about forgiveness itself, so that we can understand what it is that we’re doing and why we’re doing it. First of all, forgiveness is Christ-like. When Jesus was on the cross, He looked down at the crowd that was humiliating and tormenting him, and he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The Bible teaching is that Jesus took your sins and mine upon himself, that we might be cleansed of the guilt of sin. According to 2 Corinthians 5:21, he actually became sin for us, and therefore was put to death.

If we look at what Jesus did and we compare it to the passage that was read today, we can see that this passage teaches that whatever wrongs you might ever forgive anybody of doing, it is a very small thing in comparison to all the wrongs for which Christ has forgiven you.

If you are not convinced that this is true, then you could just take a piece of paper and draw a vertical line down the center, making two columns. On the left side, list all the bad things that the person you are angry at has ever done against you. On the right side, in the other column, list everything you can think of that you have ever done against God.

You can’t even think of a fraction of them (what you have done against God), but I bet you will see very quickly that you have been forgiven much more than you would ever be required to forgive somebody else, even if you forgave them seventy times seven. God just keeps forgiving you over and over, doesn’t He? And it is all because of Christ and his work on the cross.

The second thing about forgiveness is that it is not just Christ-like but it is commanded. The Bible is full of passages telling us to forgive: The Disciple’s Prayer (or the Lord’s Prayer, as it’s called), that Jesus gave his disciples to pray: “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” in the Sermon on the mount. The Prodigal Son was all about forgiveness. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy,” it says elsewhere.

Jesus’ point in telling this story was not to say that forgiveness is an option you might want to consider, He was saying that forgiveness is a command that God is going to hold you responsible to obey.

And it’s important, particularly within the church and its community. Because hurting people hurt people. “I will never forgive him/her”. “You don’t know what they did to me.”

As Christians, God expects us to handle it differently. Being Christian has never been about being better than others. Being Christian has always been about being different. Because Christians should understand the great cost of our forgiveness, and it gives us a foundation to work on.

There are two important questions about forgiveness that are answered in this text in Matthew. First, who are we supposed to forgive? From what we can glean, the answer is everybody, but this specifically speaks of a fellow Christian. There was a servant (not) forgiving a fellow servant, after the king had forgiven him.

Secondly, this answers the question of how often we are to forgive an offender. And as I noted, the answer is: continually.

Now this doesn’t mean you are a doormat. Suppose somebody comes and robs you, and then they are caught by the police. Does this mean that you are not supposed to press charges against them? No, it doesn’t mean that, because they’ll just go and do harm to somebody else. But it means that you don’t hold animosity in your heart against them. It means that you have to keep your heart clear of un-forgiveness. It’s a process.

Let me note that forgiveness is not overlooking the wrong. That’s important. And forgiveness is not forgetting. That is another thing. God can forgive and forget – He’s perfect in wisdom. He doesn’t need to learn anything. He already knows it all.

He requires us to forgive, but not necessarily to forget. In the story in Genesis of Joseph and his brothers, Joseph did not forget what his brothers did in throwing him into a pit. But he did allow God to use it.

Secondly, there is a difference between forgiving and excusing. Sometimes we get them mixed up. We think if we forget, we have to forget the wrongful act. We think if we forgive, we are saying they are not responsible. But that’s not true. You don’t forgive to forget. You forgive so that the hurt and pain can be healed.

Excusing is a totally different animal. Such as when you step on someone’s foot, causing pain. They don’t forgive you. They excuse you. They excuse you because they know it was an accident. (Well, maybe except between brothers and sisters and things like that.) It was not on purpose. And after the toe stops aching, they will presumably not harbor un-forgiveness.

Suppose you’re in a restaurant and a waiter drops a Coke in your lap. You will be upset, and you’re inconvenienced, but you will not suffer lasting trauma that requires a therapist. If you invited a blind person into your house, and they knocked over your favorite lamp, you excuse it, because you know it was not intentional.

Excusing allows you to move on immediately because there’s been no lasting harm. With forgiveness, you need God’s help. The pain is heavy, it is real, and let’s face it, as humans, without God’s help we cannot do it.

And let me tell you that un-forgiveness blocks our communication with God. Forgiveness is one of the toughest things that Christ commands us to do, but we are commanded to do it. Because, in part, with un-forgiveness, we separate ourselves from God and His power and His healing

Forgiveness, without a doubt, is consequential. That is, it has consequences, both for us, when we do it, and against when we don’t. Psychologists define forgiveness as a deliberate decision to release negative feelings toward a person who has offended you, regardless of whether or not they deserve forgiveness.

The forgiver makes a conscious effort to forgive. Experts make clear that forgiving is not about minimizing the seriousness of an offense, nor does it mean excusing offenses. Rather, it’s a healing experience to improve your well-being. It does not require you to reconcile with the person you are forgiving (although it may make reconciliation possible). And as Christians, between fellow Christians, we are surely to attempt it.

On the good side of forgiving, the consequences of your forgiving someone who does wrong against you, is that it sets your heart free. As long as you hold un-forgiveness in your heart, your emotional well-being is in bondage. You will be free to worship, free to pray, and free to ask God to forgive you, if you have forgiven someone else.

On the bad side, the consequences of not forgiving is that you are demonstrating that you really don’t have a changed heart. There’s no gratitude. Your heart is still selfish and sinful. That’s the ultimate point of this story that Jesus told.

It’s not that God saves you, then you fail to forgive someone, and He takes your salvation away from you. Rather, it’s that if you can’t find it in you to realize how much God has forgiven you, and you can’t in turn forgive somebody else of what they’ve done against you, then you have demonstrated that God’s forgiveness is not really working in your heart.

Let me repeat that. It’s a hard concept, not necessarily to understand, but to follow through on. The point of that story was that if you can’t find it in you to realize how much God has forgiven you, and you can’t in turn forgive somebody else of what they’ve done against you, you have demonstrated for everyone that God’s forgiveness is not really working in your heart.

We have been forgiven so much, and we have so much to be grateful for.

A Christian may carry un-forgiveness in his heart for a while, but when he is confronted with the word of God on the subject, he has no option but to forgive. If the Holy Spirit is in the heart of an individual, He will not let him dismiss the word of God, and just keep going like he never heard it.

If we have to do all this forgiving, what are the steps that we can take, after we have taken the steps to meet with those who have wronged us and show them how they have wronged us? First of all, forgiving others takes time and practice. I am going to list here some research-based strategies for tapping into your capacity to forgive, using both your heart and your head.

(A lot of this comes from an article called “What is Forgiveness?” in the Call to Health which is part of the PC(USA) medical benefits program.)

  1. Allow yourself to fully see how you’ve been offended: Don’t minimize it. When ready, set the intention to forgive. Note, you have to make an intentional decision.
  2. Understand that your sense of grievance is distinct from the original offense, and that it’s your choice to continue to hold onto or let it go.
  3. Choose compassion. Remembering your common humanity makes it easier to let go of resentment.
  4. Look for the love, beauty, and kindness around you. Notice and appreciate what you have, rather than what you don’t.
  5. (I added this.) Pray, pray, pray. Before, during, and after using this process, pray. We have already said that you need God’s help, so ask for it.

If we do this with each other, then we show the world what it means to truly love one another with God’s love. When we can do this with each other, then the general tenor of the entire community is raised, and it can become a place of joy and thanksgiving that will be so winsome and attractive to others.

There’s a good chance that, today, you either need to grant forgiveness, or you need to receive forgiveness. You may need both. This moment is a good starting place.

So I’m going to do something I don’t usually do. I’m going to ask you to bow your heads, and I’m going to pray, and then we’re going to spend a moment in silent prayer.

Lord, you’ve called us to a hard path. We have to face those things that hurt us, and those people that have hurt us, and that’s hard enough. But then we also have to forgive, and that’s even harder. We can’t do it without you.

Lord, help us in this moment to be both repentant and sorry about those that we have harmed ourselves, even if it was in our hurt. May we have the strength and courage to go to them and apologize, to try and reconcile, and see what amends can be made.

And Lord, even more so we ask for those that have hurt us, that we would be given the strength to forgive them, to let go of the pain, to let go of the negative energy and thoughts. Lord, your blood has washed us clean of the guilt of sin.

Wash us clean now, so that we can remember what it means to be loved by you, so that we can understand in the fulness of our heart what it means that you have loved us enough to die for us, what it means that when you were raised, that we became new creatures, able to do what we could not do before, because you are with us.

Lord, may we know that gratitude in our hearts, and that wellspring of joy that comes from your presence with us, that we might reflect it to others. Amen.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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