Forgiveness Given and Received

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Easter II – 15 April 2012

Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, I John 1:1 – 2:2, John 20:19 – 31

From St. John’s First Letter:
The apostle wrote, If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

From the Gospel According to St. John:
On the evening of the Day of Resurrection, the risen Christ appeared to his disciples and said, Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you…Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

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,
Amen. †

One of the most popular of all of Jesus’ teachings is this one, and I paraphrase – I have come that you may have life in abundance – I have come for the fullness of life. That’s what we all want to hear – that somehow and in some way, our faith in Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Savior will mean a good life for us – a good life measured in terms of health, wealth and happiness in this world and eternal bliss in the next.

Huge and prosperous tele-evangelistic ministries like that of Robert Schuler and Joel Osteen proclaim a message of blessing for the true believers – that faith, combined with positive thinking make for a successful life, a happy marriage and a lucrative career. Although life is most certainly better with faith in Christ, it isn’t necessarily easier or more successful in worldly terms.

As you know, Schuler’s Crystal Cathedral ministries have gone bankrupt. Although it’s most certainly a good thing to have a positive outlook on life rather than living as a gloomy Gus, always down at the mouth and pessimistic – we also know that other forces still move powerfully in this world and often target the one’s who are the most faithful.

The fact is that many other of Jesus’ teachings also apply to the faithful life – like when He said, Take up your cross and follow me. That one we’d rather not hear. This teaching acknowledges that the faithful may be – in fact, will be – tested by the bad guy – sometimes harshly. Each of us has a cross to bear. It’s just part of life in this world.

A consistent theme in my preaching over these past 40 years has been that we cannot cherry pick the scriptures – choosing to believe in the passages that suit us and ignoring or discrediting those that we do not like. People do this all the time. But it’s wrong. We have to take the entirety of God’s revelation and deal with all of it. Faithfulness demands it.

Now some of the passages that get cherry picked frequently – when it applies to us – are those regarding forgiveness. Our Lord told Peter that we must forgive over and over again – even eternally. How many times? Seventy times seven! – That’s a lot! And seven and seventy being holy numbers mean eternal. When we’re the recipient, that’s great. But when we’re the victim of someone else’s offense, well that another story entirely. Do we have it in us to forgive on that dimension of mercy? Or are we much more tempted towards revenge calling it justice than mercy? Please do not misunderstand. Justice remains an attribute of God Himself. But often we seek vengeance and call it justice s that we can feel better about ourselves.

Forgiveness – given and received – is a key to a better life. A quality of essential happiness does indeed come into one’s life when we forgive – however difficult that might be.

Forgiveness of another’s offense sets you free from the hurt and pain of that offense. The failure to forgive means carrying the hurt and pain forever – and the offense, now an artifact of one’s personal history lives on damaging any prospect for happiness. Sins not forgiven are, as Jesus instructed, retained.

I know people – and you do as well – to whom something hurtful happened years and years ago – and having failed to forgive the offense, relive the hurt on a daily basis. Their bitterness stains their lives – the anger blocks the reception of goodness and their souls slowly diminish.

Forgiveness is an essential part of the Way, the Truth and the Life who was – and is – and will be forever, Jesus Christ. The cross proclaims God’s mercy. Our Lord’s blood, shed on that cross, in His own words is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins. It is God’s will that we live free from sin.

Let me re-emphasize – the offender’s repentance has nothing to do with your forgiveness. His repentance – and the mercy that comes with that – is all God’s business – not yours or mine. Simple as that.

So if you’re looking for some kind of dramatic television style statement of I’m sorry with crocodile tears and every other dramatic contrivance, then you’re not there yet – not by a long shot. True repentance has to be from the heart – not forced – not done because it’s expected – and not done because it gets you off the hook or gives a sympathetic advantage.

When the public figure – most likely a politician -indulges such as dramatic repentance it’s so that he or she can get the trouble over with and continue in office to continue in corruption. Pardon my cynicism but you know all too many cases where this is precisely the situation. True repentance some in an entirely different phenomenon.

Now forgiveness also applies to another kind of situation – those that we often call acts of God? Actually, they may very well be simple acts of nature – not sent by God – just part of the fallen condition of nature itself; tornadoes, floods, wild fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, draught, famine – that kind of thing. In these situations, the message for those who believe is to turn to God for help. We should turn to Him in all conditions of life but especially when we’re overwhelmed. To claim that He sent them as a punishment for sin might be a bit overstated. I’m not saying that He can’t do that. He most certainly can. But I am saying that He doesn’t generally operate in this fashion. He created this world – and set it free; and in the freedom, bad things happen.

All of this begs the question, How do we forgive the events such as the ones just mentioned when we have no one in particular to blame – where there’s enough blame to go around several times and when the hurt and heartbreak overwhelm the soul? These things happen all the time.

One of the most dramatic of such events occurred at 2:20 this morning, one hundred years ago today. The world’s largest and most luxurious ocean liner, the RMS Titanic, sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, about 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Of the 2,223 passengers on board, 1,514 died. It was one of the most serious losses of life in maritime history – and to this day ranks as the 7th greatest loss of life on a passenger vessel.

I suspect that of all the ships that have ever sailed the seas, the Titanic is the best known. The compelling story of the world’s largest man-made moving object – state of the art in technology, luxury, prestige and glamour, is just that – compelling. Titanic had been hailed as unsinkable. Yet this magnificent creation of near human perfection sank – dramatically, horribly and shockingly.

Dr. Page was Pastor of this church at that time. He preached on the sinking – as did so many other clergymen on the following Sunday. The ship sank on a Monday. Preachers talked about it all over the world six days later. He identified the hubris – the arrogance of believing that anything that man can create could be infallible. To claim that any ship would be unsinkable represented a foolishness that can come only with the arrogant belief in man rather than in the humble belief in God.

When we read about the events of that night, we’re always heartsick. The lifeboats – enough to save only half the passengers – went in to the water half empty. Hubris again – We don’t need lifeboats – the ship is unsinkable! So some thought. People on board did not believe that the ship would go down and were reluctant to get into a lifeboat. Precious time was taken to convince people that they were in fact going down.

And then perhaps the ugliest part – that after the ship went under, the hundreds who were still alive in the water – well the lifeboats did not go back to retrieve them. One survivor said that the most horrible sound was that of the screams for help – only one thing was more horrible – the silence when those screams stopped.

Well, this is just one example of the kind of thing that happens all the time in this world – who to blame? Is blame the issue? Is blame the answer? Does blame solve the problem of the shattered human heart?? In this case, was it the captain’s fault for attempting to set a record for speed in crossing? Were the designers to blame? Or the builders?

Many people blame God for all of these things. They forget that fallen nature combined with human error can have devastating consequences. Faith in either nature or human intelligence, ingenuity or ability always leads to disaster. Nature cannot be controlled. Human beings always disappoint if you believe in them as one should only believe in God. Yet secular humanism – the popular de facto religion that believes in human ability as if it were divine – remains the prevailing religion today – a religion that is destroying our civilization. Even casual Christians are really secular humanists. A deadly mistake.

Although many hold a grudge against God – How can I believe that God is good when He allows these things to happen? They fail to see God the Father on the cross as God the Son. In the freedom accorded to this world, evil happens. That’s why God came into the world – to save it from that evil. If you do not look to the cross, you will only see despair. The bad guy still rules in this world as the Prince of the Air.

What does that mean? It means that all of the lies and deceptions of this world’s false prophets and power brokers fill the air. The bad guy is in charge of everything false – hence he’s called the Father of Lies. Only God the Holy Spirit – for the Holy Spirit is first of all, the Spirit of Truth – can defeat the power of the Father of Lies. When the Holy Spirit fills the air, the Spirit of Truth prevails.

So we might entertain the notion that an individual might forgive God. Now, that’s as arrogant a statement as one can make. Who are we to forgive God? But to the arrogant mind – to the arrogant individual who judges God and finds Him guilty – well, this might make some kind of perverse sense.

If we blame God for everything and hold a grudge against Him – then we fall outside of the mantle of salvation. Forgiveness may be the answer.

Now, this is most important – to forgive God can only happen if you receive His forgiveness first. The arrogant person will not receive God’s mercy because he – or she – is convinced that he has no sin. St. John knew better. He said, If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Furthermore, the arrogant cannot receive God’s mercy because reception requires humility. Get the picture?

The fact is, we cannot forgive Him because He has made no offence. We’re just blaming Him for something the bad guy does. But if we receive God’s mercy, then the portal of salvation opens wide and we can enter into the eternal courts of the Lord. Simple as that.

And one last thought. Although God always gives us to opportunity to obey or disobey, nonetheless, some things are commanded. Love God above all else. That’s one. Another is Love thy neighbor as thyself. All of this comes within the commandment – the mandate that we celebrated on Maundy Thursday – Jesus said on the night of His betrayal, Love one another as I have loved you.

The as I have loved you is the hard part – His love went to the cross. Yet He commands it.

We have this commission – reflective of the Great Commission – its own kind of command. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven and it you retain the sins of any they are retained.

He sends us – all of us – on a mission of mercy – that is, a mission of proclamation and of mercy. None of us has the power to do it on his own. But by and in the power of the Holy Spirit, well, we just might make some real progress.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father bless us with humble hearts always open to the power of your Holy Spirit. Grant to us the grace to give and receive forgiveness and live as you would have us live. And deliver us from the powers of evil in this world, that your goodness and grace may always prevail. We ask this in the name of and for the sake of you Son,
our only Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen. †

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