To Be a People of Forgiveness

When I think of forgiveness I often wind my way back to that moment in this text (Luke 23: 33-43) when Jesus is on the cross and says in his moment of most intense agony, “forgive them Lord for they know not what they do.”

You might ask why I chose this passage for this morning since Easter and the resurrection story is more than half a year away. It’s because it is perhaps the most striking example of forgiveness, and without forgiveness, no long-term human relationships are possible. As we learned yesterday, it’s the reset button. Everyone screws up. Everyone fails. Big or small, at some point we are going to have to ask for forgiveness from someone, and someone is going to have to give it to us.

This passage is complicated. It’s a scene we’re all familiar with. Jesus is on the cross, and in all the gospels Jesus is ridiculed by the Jewish leaders and the guards. “He saved others;” they say in Luke, “let him save himself if he is the Messiah.”

There is one who is not ridiculing Jesus, and that’s one of the criminals who is also being crucified. In the fourth century, a text assigns the name Dismas to the penitent thief. Dismas affirms that although he has been condemned justly and getting what he deserved, Jesus remained blameless. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he says, to which Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

There are differences in the way traditions approach the theology of forgiveness that Jesus extends to Dismas, but I think we can all agree it is remarkable. There, in his own suffering Dismas offers Jesus words of confession, remorse, and sympathy. And Jesus, in his agony, offers grace, freely given.

Forgiveness isn’t the end of the path, though. Just because we forgive doesn’t mean that reconciliation is automatic. It might not even be possible. Forgiveness is the beginning of the journey toward wholeness and healing, not the end. So that is one reason I can say, “yes, forgive freely.” But don’t forget what has been done and the role that the other person has in bringing true reconciliation. Forgiveness is the reset button, but that means that sometimes the trust in a relationship is getting reset too. Forgiveness is the first step, not the last, in a healing process.

What a great message for a marriage retreat. I’m convinced that a class on forgiveness before marriage should be like driver’s ed for teenagers. You can get away with not bringing a lot to a marriage, but if you can’t forgive, you’re going to crash.

This doesn’t mean we just forget what someone else has done, or that we don’t learn from it—or that it doesn’t take time to renew broken trust. It’s just the acknowledgement that at some point, in some way that is uniquely yours, some trust will be broken.

Philosopher Pierro Ferrucci writes in The Power of Kindness that forgiveness is precious and important, but it should not be caricatured into being mistaken for condoning. “Forgiveness means only that I do not want to continue feeding anger for an age-old wrong, hence ruin my life. I forgive, yes, but I keep well in mind the harm done to me, and I will be mindful that it does not happen again,” he writes. “Someone who has forgiven can still live in a world where injustice is not tolerated. he just does not keep his alarm systems switched on, his guns always aimed at the enemy.”

Forgiveness is a decision we make to create peace and to close the circle of violence that we do to ourselves, and to others, when we choose to hold onto anger from the past. This is a tough decision and counter intuitive to an evolutionary process that would have us destroy all that threatens our safety. Forgiveness exposes us to feelings of vulnerability. Ferrucci writes that we feel vulnerable “because our identity, like ivy that grows over an old column and clings to it, is attached to the wrong we have received.” We feel that to forgive will invite danger, and that to retain our sense of outrage and indignation will give us strength.

But forgiveness allows us to transcend the part of human nature that would have us retreat to our caves and resentments. “Forgiveness is a positive quality,” Ferrucci writes. “It contains joy and faith in others, generosity of spirit. Illogical and surprising, sometimes sublime, it frees us from the ancient chains of resentment. Whoever forgives, feels uplifted.

I wish, also, that we could do all of our forgiving in advance. I wish I could forgive everyone for whatever it is they’ll do to me in the future, but I can’t. I wish everyone I know could forgive me in advance for my lapses, oversights, hubris, misguided leaps of the spirit, and blind spots. But they can’t. Each forgiveness will be met in that unexpected moment of transgression, and each time we forgive in that moment, or in moments after, we grow better and better in it.

In this we return to that moment on the cross when Jesus forgave even those who were killing him—and he told us right there why: because they didn’t know what they were doing. He says, forgive them father for they know not what they do. And that moment humanizes, not demonizes, the transgressors, for we’re all human, all susceptible to ignorance and failure, all capable of hurting someone else.

All the qualities to which we aspire, to be of good character, to be resilient, to be steadfast, to be loving — they all rest their weight upon our practice of forgiveness. They all rest upon the many transgressions we will be asked to forgive as our lives, hopes, and aspirations intersect.

Can you imagine a marriage built on forgiveness?

Start small… go big.

May we all aspire to such forgiveness, for through it the world, and our marriages, might just be saved.

Let us pray

Where do start forgiving the world?

For the terrible losses?

Wars we cannot stop?

The deaths of loved ones we were not ready to lose?

The never-ending changes we cannot reconcile?

We know deep in our hearts that all is how

God’s world is reconciled—

but we don’t have to like it.

Help us with the task, dear God,

Of forgiveness.

Let us start small,

With the unkindness, the oversight, the lapse, the hurt feeling,

And let that practice of living into the small forgivenesses

Develop in us the ability to forgive the large ones.

And in that, deepen our faith in your love. Amen.

Delivered at Moon Beach, Okinawa, Japan

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