The story goes that a Hebrew School teacher was discussing the Ten Commandments with a class of five and six-year-olds. After explaining the commandment to “honour your father and mother”, they asked the class if there was a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters. Without missing a beat, a girl in the front row shot up her hand and answered, “thou shalt not kill?”
Sibling rivalry. Human rivalry. We know we can love big, we can hurt big too.
The saying goes that “hurt people hurt people”, and though we might like to reserve a label like “hurt” for those really damaged people, you know, the people other than us, the little nicks and cuts we each carry all add up. Everyone has been hurt, and everyone has done some hurting. Forgiveness, then, both our need to receive it and our need to offer it, applies to everyone.
“Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.” (Ephesians 5.2)
Learning to Forgive
According to Paul learning to forgive begins with following the example of Christ. This week is Holy Week – a week that depicts for us in startling clarity who God really is. God is the humble king, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. God is the foot-washing servant, even cleaning the mucky feet of his betrayer. God is the silent defendant, presenting no argument, spat on, and falsely accused. God is even the gracious crucifixion victim, letting his torturers off the hook while he hangs on nails. “Forgive them”, says Jesus, through bloodied lips and clenched teeth, “they don’t know what they’re doing.”
That story about the little girl in class might remind us that Jesus’ life is an example which points us far beyond not simply killing each other. Jesus’ teaches us to forgive one another. That is Jesus’ legacy. So for a follower of Christ the way of forgiveness is the way our faith goes. At times it may feel like a kind of death. But there is no other road to new life.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. What about the survivors of neglect or abuse? What about the deep wounds we carry from childhood or adolescence? What about the pain our parents or spouses or pastors or friends have caused us? The hurt we’ve experienced, the wounds we carry are real, and we have to acknowledge them. But on the other side of that coin, is the question of what happens to us if we don’t learn to forgive, if we don’t allow these wounds the chance to heal? Nelson Mandela said that “resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to die.” The path of forgiveness might feel painful, but forgiveness is a gift, not only to the receiver, but to the giver also. When we don’t forgive, we’re eaten alive by evil.
That doesn’t mean we should neglect putting up healthy boundaries with people who will routinely hurt us. It just means that God’s given us the gift of doing something with the pain we cause one another, and the gift is forgiveness. There’s no vaccine against pain and suffering, but we could say that forgiveness is the antidote to evil. Fred Rogers said, “The only thing evil can’t stand is forgiveness.”
So the path of forgiveness is the path for all of us if we want to overcome evil. But we must talk about “learning to forgive”, rather than speaking about forgiveness as something we do all in one shot. Steps will look different for each of us, and I doubt any of us will ever master forgiveness. But learning to forgive one another is God’s gift to us, even if it’s tough, perhaps especially when it’s tough. And learning to forgive is deeply rooted in the second truth emerging from Paul’s words.
Our Need of Forgiveness
Paul says, “Christ died for us…”. In other words, we all need forgiveness. Jesus tells a story in Luke’s gospel of two men who went to church. One prayed, “Thank you God that I’m not like other people, that I’ve got my life together, and that I give money to the poor and even fast during Lent”. The other, says Jesus, came in and prayed “God, I’m backward. Sometimes I don’t even know why I do the things I do. Please give me a break. I need some grace.” Then Jesus said, “People who think they’re better than other people are sadly mistaken.” Well, the story went something like that.
If we don’t think we need forgiveness ourselves, Jesus says we’re delusional! Sure, we could grade one another, asking who needs more forgiveness and who needs less. But comparison is a killer, and Jesus never points us to what divides us as human beings, but to what unites us. And we’re united by the reality that we all need forgiveness; and that God gives grace to everyone in abundance.
We don’t have to absorb the sin of other people, Jesus did that on the cross. We just have to cling onto that splintery cross for dear life, soaking up the grace God give us every day, and offering that same grace to one another. As the saying goes, “Christianity is just one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread.” We’re all hungry, we all need a hearty meal of grace. When we forgive, we’re simply inviting one another to the table to dine with us.
Is it true?
So those are two thoughts to take away from our reading today: We’ve been given the gift, the invitation, of learning how to forgive based on Jesus’ example. And we do this by remembering our own need of forgiveness and receiving it.
As we sit together in this very unique Holy Week, thinking of the cross ahead, thinking of the resurrection following, is the story still true? Is grace and selflessness and humility still at work in the world? Still at work in your life? In my life?
This month a priest in Italy fell sick with the virus. His parishioners bought him a respirator so he could make a recovery. But he refused to use the equipment, giving it to a younger patient instead. The priest died because of his sacrifice, and there was no funeral. But reportedly the residents in the town applauded from their windows and balconies as the coffin made its way to the burial plot in the graveyard.
We know grace and humility when we see it. May we see it in the life and death and life again of Jesus this week. And may we see it in one another’s lives in the coming weeks.