Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19, Year A), 2017.
We have in our Lessons today a coordinated presentation of the scriptural basis for the Church’s doctrine of Forgiveness. There are other biblical passages that could also be looked at if one were to want to fashion a comprehensive and detailed list of all verses that relate to forgiveness. But certainly for purposes of our understanding of the Faith and our prayer life, these passages more than suffice.
Almost. All I would want to remind us is just how central forgiveness is to the Incarnation of Christ, indeed the whole mission of Jesus of Nazareth. It is central because He said it is, when after supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. To see the relationship between the Church’s doctrine of forgiveness and the Eucharist is not intuitive, but must be seen as a strong, even profound relationship, because of the actions and words of Jesus on the night before He died and the authority that moment receives in the liturgy of the Church.
In our Lesson from Saint Matthew, we have an elaboration upon the teaching Jesus gives in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Notice that even here, this comes right after “Give us this day our daily bread,” again demonstrating in the words of Jesus the close relationship between the Eucharist and forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer we are directly to the Father, the creator of all things, seen and unseen, we are entering into a contract, and doing so entirely of our own free will. The contract we agree to is that we accept that God’s forgiveness is conditional on our forgiving of the sins of others. We know that God, like the Lord in our Gospel lesson, wants to forgive our sins, we know it is part of His nature to do so, out of His abundant grace and love for us, His creatures. Yet we agree to the proposition that we must be godly to others, demonstrate in our words and actions—in other words, live-out—the Gospel before we will be truly free in the eyes of Our Lord.
We hear this expressed succinctly in Ecclesiasticus: “Forgive your neighbor and the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.” What excitement and awe the Apostles and other disciples must have felt when, in the months and years after the Resurrection, they came upon this passage and realized the presence of Christ, through whom all things are made. Indeed how the voice of Christ was coming to be, and verily heard, before He was took His mother Mary’s flesh.
Brothers and sisters, forgiveness is not a simple transaction. It is never a simple act of will like paying for groceries at the store. It is a process, it happens over time, and it requires prayer, as we heard in Ecclesiasticus. Without God we are not able to please God, so without asking God’s help to forgive a person, we are not able to do it ourselves on our own. We must, Jesus teaches, forgive from our heart. This means our deepest and most secret place of awareness, because in the Bible, the “heart” is where we encounter God.
And this is why forgiveness is the opposite of a transaction—it is the recognition of God’s presence in our own being, and the recognition of God’s presence in the person we are striving to forgive. To forgive to is be able to recognize and affirm that Jesus is as present in the person who wronged us as He is in us, as He is in the greatest Saints. We are often unwilling to do this while the wound is still bleeding, and so the process of forgiveness is a process of healing first and foremost, the byproduct of which is forgiveness, because we are healed by God’s grace. All forgiveness starts in humility before God, the meekness of asking Him to heal us, a request that cuts through our pride, acknowledges we cannot do it ourselves, and so again the wisdom of our church’s Collects: “Mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.” Amen.