Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
March 4, 2012
JESUS AND FORGIVENESS: “LOOSING” AND LETTING GO
Text: Mark 2:1-12
Forgiveness is ever the issue: the forgiveness we need to receive and the forgiveness we need to give. There is no day we do not need to forgive and no day we do not need to be forgiven. There are fresh hurts, and there are old hurts which feel permanently lodged somewhere deep inside. No one comes to a sermon on forgiveness without some hurt, some questioning, some resistance, some need, including the sermon’s writer.
The word “to forgive” in the New Testament means literally to “loose,” to set free – to “loose” someone from their sins, or to be “loosed” ourselves. It is a kind of deliverance. But it is also a kind of healing. A member here and therapist friend, Barbara Birge, told me that the famous psycho-analyst, James Hillman, used this root meaning of forgiveness “to loose”. And she talked about the inner work of forgiveness as a “loosening” inside. We can work with it now; we can decide what to keep and what to let go. A stone is dissolving, or turning into some-thing malleable like wet clay. When we are deeply hurt an inner value has been violated. Can we keep the value and forgive its violator? Can we forgive and protect ourselves from ongoing violation? Forgiveness is careful inner work. Full-of-care, first for you.
Forgiveness not quick or easy work; it is the hardest and best work we do. Jesus says it is God’s work within us. How hard it is to ask for forgiveness and how hard to give it. It may be especially hard to forgive ourselves, the closest neighbor we are called to love. Why is it that we are more compassionate to others than to ourselves? Maybe we should begin with a “good cry,” to use a Southern expression.
Forgiveness was at the heart of the gospel Jesus proclaimed and embodied. He lived with forgiveness on his lips. He died with forgiveness on his lips: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He dared pronounce God’s forgiveness to others and to say that his words were the power of God to forgive. He did not leave us with a creed but with a prayer, and at the center of the prayer was the petition: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
On Easter evening, the day of his resurrection, Jesus appeared in resurrection body to his frightened disciples. His first words,”Peace be with you,” the shalom delivering forgiveness. Then he said it a second time because our hearts can never hear it enough. Then he said, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” First the forgiveness, then the commissioning. Then he breathed on them the Holy Spirit, for we cannot do what we are called to do without God’s Spirit. And what did he then say we were to do as those sent by God as he was sent by God? “Go loose people from their sins,” he said (John 20:19-23).
Forgiveness seems central to the kingdom of God Jesus preached and brought near in his life.
In the Lord’s Prayer he linked our two great daily needs, bread and forgiveness. I love the way our hymn paraphrased it today:
Give us daily bread, day by day
And forgive our sins day by day
As we too forgive day by day
O Lord, hear our prayer.
One scholar notes that the prayer for forgiveness is the structural center of the prayer.1 Another notes that it is the only petition which explicitly links God’s gift to our action toward others: “As we too forgive.”2
There is spiritual and psychological truth here. I picture it this way. We receive the forgiveness of God through the double-hinged swinging door of our heart. If we shut the door after receiving God’s forgiveness and refuse to let it flow on to others we shut the door also to God’s everyday forgiveness flowing to us. The prayer helps us keep the flow going.
In the second chapter of Mark we see a drama of healing and forgiveness acted out. Jesus healed a paralytic, but first pronounced God’s forgiveness upon him: “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The man may have thought: “Well that’s very nice, but not why I’m here. What about my legs?”
Jesus’ opponents immediately charged him with blasphemy: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?!” (Mark 2:7)
New Testament scholar Andreas Schuele comments that in the Hebrew scripture there were only two verbs used exclusively with God as the subject, the actor: bora, to create, and salah, to forgive.3 So it was no idle charge. But there may have been a tiny bit of institutional self-interest involved. A religious institution likes to control the flow of God’s grace, set the conditions for forgiveness, decide who can take communion, and who can get into heaven. But here is Jesus pronouncing divine forgiveness, giving it away as free as the air, the sun, the water. This man is a danger.
Then to prove his power to forgive, Jesus healed the paralytic too. And the man got right up, picked up the mat on which he was carried in, and danced a jig – or as much a jig as he could jig after being paralyzed for so long. We will later sing Charles Wesley’s hymn, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” I love the lines:
He breaks the power of canceled sin,
he sets the prisoner free.
That makes me want to dance a jig. Did you catch the phrase “canceled sin”? Sin already forgiven, can still paralyze us if we do not let the forgiveness in. Jesus comes to break the chains and set the prisoner free. Feel them crumble and fall to the ground. Stand straight and free.
The audacity of Jesus’ mission was that he was an instrument of what God alone can do: bara, create, and salah, forgive. And with a double audacity he called his disciples to do the same: to be co-creators with God and to be vessels of God’s forgiveness. That’s what Luther meant by “the priesthood of believers” and what Marney underlined for us as he reminded us that we are “priests to one another.”
This pulpit is a carved wooden chalice. By God’s grace the preacher pours out grace to the congregation. And you each have your own chalice, are your own chalice, to pour out God’s grace to others.
I do not wish to convey that this is easy. Forgiveness is a complicated matter and sometimes long process. All the more difficult if we have been grievously, horribly hurt. Simon Peter, the ever flawed and ever eager follower of Jesus asked:
Lord, how often shall my brother [or sister] sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times? [The prevailing teaching said three times.] Jesus said to him, I do not say seven times but seventy times seven. [Some translations say seventy seven times.]
We cannot literalize. The point is, at least to me, that we never stop trying to forgive. It may take 77 or 490 times to complete the process.
It may help to remember how much we have been forgiven. Jesus told a parable to that effect. The kingdom of heaven is like a king, he said, who was going over his financial books and discovered that a servant entrusted with a massive part of his estate was in arrears by the astronomical sum of ten thousand talents. Here was a mess-up of Biblical proportions, or Wall Street proportions!
The man could never pay back this size debt. It could not be repaid, only forgiven. The king in breath-taking mercy forgave the debt.
But what happened? This same man was met by a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii, a pittance compared to what had just been forgiven by the king. The man begged for mercy, for time to repay the debt. But the king’s servant said no and had him thrown into prison (Matthew 18:23-35).
The story is about the immensity of God’s mercy and how we are all forgiven forgivers. As W. H. Auden put it:
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.4
Stanley Hauerwas says that Christians have to learn to be forgiven. Perhaps that’s what the church is, a school of forgiveness.
So how do we forgive? It is no doubt God’s work and our work done together, again, the hardest and best work we ever do. Famous Christian convert and spiritual writer C. S. Lewis wrote in a journal:
Last week while at prayers, I suddenly discovered – or felt as if I did – that I had really forgiven someone I had been trying to forgive for over 30 years. Trying and praying that I might.5
Some days we pray, “Lord help me forgive.” Other days the best we can pray is Lord, help me want to forgive.” And on other days, “Help me want to want to forgive.”
What if we are to one who needs to be forgiven? Fran Morrison was a great help to me this week. She told the staff as we talked about the text that she had found the right words to use when asking for forgiveness. Not “I’m sorry,” words cheapened by their usage today, but “I need to ask you to forgive me.” I need to ask you to forgive me. Risky, humble, vulnerable words. They express the sorrow, the remorse, the devastation we feel when we have hurt another – what the phrase “I’m sorry” used to mean. Fran has helped us in our school of forgiveness.
Sometimes our unwillingness to forgive is our attempt to control what cannot be controlled, to change what cannot be changed. I pass along what I’ve been given – I cannot recover the source. Forgiveness is giving up, once and for all, our attempt to change the past. It cannot be changed; it can only be forgiven.
What God wants for you is to be set free from the hurts of the past. And for you to help others be set free.
When forgiveness happens – the forgiveness you finally receive or finally are able to give – there is relief and joy. A stone has been moved away from the door of your heart, or dissolved as into water. It is surely a grace when this happens. Do not give up on it happening.
Someone recently asked me how I would define “grace”. I began with a theological definition, as from a textbook, but it felt abstract, life-less, dead. What then came was a poem by Jane Kenyon. She was one of America’s finest poets, and she suffered great bouts of depression – which makes this poem all the more powerful. I sent the poem to the friend and now offer it to you. It is called “Happiness” – which is one of the evidences of grace.
by Jane Kenyon
There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.
And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.
No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.
It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.6
Maybe Jesus was saying: Grace is everywhere, and forgiveness as close as breath. Breathe it in; breathe it out. When so, the kingdom of God is near.
And maybe he was saying, this command to forgive is not just a command, it is an invitation. And if you keep the invitation alive, it will be a promise: You shall forgive as you have been forgiven.
1 Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7 (Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress, 2007), p. 173.
2 Andreas Schuele, “‘On earth as it is in heaven’: Eschatology and The Ethics of Forgiveness,” in Who Is Jesus Christ For Us Today? eds. Andreas Schuele, and Günter Thomas (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
3 Ibid., p. 188.
4 W. H. Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening” Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 1976), p. 114-15.
5 C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm” Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964), p. 106.
6 Jane Kenyon, “Happiness.” Otherwise, Graywolf Press, 1996.