Forgiveness Goes Both Ways

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Trinity Church

Waltham. Massachusetts

Pentecost XIII – 11 September 2011 – Remembering 9 / 11

Exodus 14:19-31, Psalm 114, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

From St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
The apostle writes,
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God…so each of us shall give account of himself to God.

From the Gospel According to St. Matthew:
Then Peter came up and said to him, Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, I do not say seven times, but seventy times seven.

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our strength and our Salvation,

This morning, in churches all over America, the faithful are remembering – before God – all those who died in the Muslim terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Nearly three thousand people died in the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center as well as those who perished in the crash of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and in the Pentagon as well. Like the attack on Pearl Harbor, 9 / 11 has taken its -place in history as a[nother] day of infamy.

As we remember those who perished, we do so from the Christian perspective of our faith in Jesus Christ as the only Saviour of all mankind. This is important. No matter how much some of the powers that be want us to believe that the attacks and the conflict that has followed is not a religious war, the stark reality is that it most certainly is a religious war. We have to be clear about this. The truth is the truth; even when we, for any reason, wish it were not the truth.

Although we would be wrong to say that all Muslims are united in their hatred for non- Muslims, nonetheless, a large number of Muslims are not only united in that hatred, but they also see their salvation linked to the destruction on the infidels – infidels being all non-Muslims, especially Christians and Jews.

For them, the Jews and the nation of Israel represent the Little Satan while Christians and the United States of America represent the Great Satan. The militant Muslim believes that he has to prove his faith and his worthiness to receive mercy. And one of the most powerful ways to offer such proof is to wage war on the infidels. Such proof brings the bestowal of mercy and eternal.

And from the perspective of the most militant, if one dies as he seeks to kill either Christians or Jews, then he becomes an instant martyr, by-passes all judgment and is blessed with great rewards in paradise.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all teach about the divine judgment. But we teach it from radically different perspectives. As St. Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans, all of us will stand before the judgment seat of God to give an account of ourselves. Judaism teaches the same. But in the judgment, the killing of non-Jews or non-Christians violates the will of God. For Christians – commanded, as we are to love our enemies – which most certainly means that we do our best not to kill them unless in self-defense – well, the divine judgment comes for precisely the same behavior that Islam teaches is rewarded by God. In other words, these two religions each opposite roads to salvation -one through love the other through death.

We need to know this, have it written on our hearts and minds and deeply inscribed in our souls. Salvation comes only in and through Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. Salvation comes because Jesus Christ died for our sins, because of our sins and to set us free from our sins. He was and is and will be forever the only pure, full, all-sufficient and perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. The shed blood of non-believers cannot win salvation. In fact, it can bring condemnation. Only the shed blood of Jesus Christ can save. Simple as that.

Hence, true Christians will never fly planes into anyone else’s buildings, will never become suicide or homicide bombers and will never take another’s life under any circumstances – except of course, in self-defense. Otherwise, what some religious call righteousness is in fact sin.

Islam teaches the opposite. And the conflict that we are experiencing now is just the continuation of the war begun in the 7th century that will continue until the end of time.

Now, at the very center of our Christian faith and religion lives the power of the Divine mercy. I say lives the power of the Divine mercy because God’s mercy is alive – a living force that gives eternal life to those who will simply receive it. God’s mercy comes, not through any kind of proof of one’s faith, but simply by faith. Our faith opens up the doors and windows of our souls to the full light of His mercy.

We talk so much especially today about God’s love; that’s good – and we should always talk about His grace; that’s powerful – but it’s His mercy that opens us up to both His love and His grace by removing the barrier of sin. In order for God’s love and grace and mercy to function for the sake of our salvation, sin must be removed – His mercy breaks through that barrier.

God, in His incarnation in Jesus Christ, removes the barrier of sin through His self-sacrifice on the cross. Nothing that we can do can destroy sin. Only God has that power. And He accomplishes that on the cross. Hence, St. Paul can proclaim that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord; nothing except, of course, our rejection of His free gift of salvation.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Peter asks Jesus about the nature and practice of forgiveness. At this point in their relationship, Peter knew Jesus as his rabbi or teacher, as a beloved friend, as a miraculous healer, and also as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Peter had made that essential confession of faith before he asked Jesus this question. Jesus had spoken about forgiveness and practiced it. But forgiveness had yet to be fully manifested.

Peter did not yet know just what it meant to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. Although Jesus had told him that the Christ must suffer, be killed at the hands of sinners and then rise from the dead, that reality had yet to register with Peter. In fact, this dreadful reality did not hit Peter until the night of our Lord’s betrayal. Then he knew that his master’s crucifixion would in fact happen. And when the resurrected Christ manifested Himself to Peter and to the other disciples, then Peter knew the full nature of the Divine Mercy.

For the Christian, forgiveness is not just a part of life; it’s a way of life as well. The value of forgiving someone who has wronged you – has sinned against you – lies in the blessed release from the burden of anger, hatred and malice that comes with such an offense. Forgiveness sets us free from those destructive emotions and attitudes.

Furthermore, it releases us from the full impact of the injury. A failure to forgive allows the impact, damage and pain of the offense to happen over and over again literally fro the rest of one’s life. Sometimes, the older we get and the more we relive the injury, the more it hurts. It diminishes our lives. It cripples our ability to experience joy and happiness – it reduces our capacity to both give and receive love. Forgiveness cleanses our souls and sets us free for joyful and fulfilling living. That’s the self-interest part of forgiveness. There’s more.

We are set free when we forgive. But what if the offender has not repented? Repentance, when it comes to God’s mercy, is the condition upon which we are able to receive it. Yet regardless of whether or not those who offend us repent, we still must forgive. Many an offender sees the error of his or her ways and repents. But many do not. That does not matter. God still calls us to forgive.

Furthermore, as Jesus taught us how to pray, giving us the prayer that we know as The Lord’s Prayer, He said, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Trespass, of course, references the original trespass in the garden when Eve crossed the line set by God regarding the knowledge of good and evil and ate the fruit of that tree. She, with her husband following, trespassed. Sin is always a trespass onto God’s territory.

But the important point here is that Jesus indicates that forgiveness is reciprocal – that we are forgiven when we forgive. Our forgiveness comes from God as we forgive those who trespass against us. God’s mercy fills us as we empty ourselves of bitterness, anger, hatred and the failure to forgive. When God’s mercy fills the spaces once occupied by anger, hurt, hatred and malice, He fills us to overflowing with the joy of our salvation.

Hence, we can say that there’s a kind of reciprocity between God and ourselves when it comes to mercy. As we give it, so we receive it.

And finally, from another angle, forgiveness operates best when both parties forgive each other – when forgiveness goes both ways. Sometimes there is just one offender. But frequently, there are two offenders. This happens when one is offended and then he or she returns an offence in an attempt at retribution. A vicious cycle of hurt and pain results. If one party forgives and the other party follows, then the cycle of viciousness is broken and goodness will flourish.

Let me conclude with this simple, unique and eternal Truth. God the Father has shed His mercy on the whole world through His own shed blood – the shed blood of God the Son. In and through His self-sacrifice, He paid the price and set us free. Free from sin, we can live and love in the fullness of life, forgiving others as we have been forgiven with the great blessing of joy, both in this life and in the life yet to come.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, grant to us the grace to receive and to give the forgiveness necessary for the salvation of the world. Make of us instruments of your peace, courageous agents of your mercy and strong practitioners of our faith. Help, save, guide, guard and defend us from our enemies and grant us the victory won
in and through Jesus Christ,
the only Saviour of the whole world,

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