Last week I wrote that one of the things the church is supposed to be is a forgiving community. Jesus talks a lot about forgiveness.
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.”22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,* you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult* a brother or sister,* you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell* of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister* has something against you,24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,* and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court* with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
(Matt5:21-26, 38-42-48 NRSV, Anglicized edition)
When Peter asks, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? ” Jesus answers, “ Not seven times but seventy-seven times.” (Matt 18:21-22)
Just before this, as part of a larger discourse on forgiveness, humility and caring for each other, Jesus tells the disciples “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 18:18)*
“Binding and loosing” are rabbinic terms that had to do with the teaching and interpreting scripture. The disciples, and this includes us, must discern what the scriptures have to say about living in God’s kingdom. When you look at what Jesus says in Matthew 18, I think Jesus’ statement about binding and loosing isn’t as much about church authority and power but rather about the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation in the life of the church. The work of forgiveness and reconciliation are of immense importance.
Last week Miroslav Volf spoke at my church and he said forgiveness is the central doctrine of the Christian faith and that in forgiveness all other doctrines find their proper expression. I believe he is correct.
He also spoke about the way our misdeeds and wrong doing “stick” to us. If this is so, then confession and repentance are the ways we get them unstuck. When we confess and repent we admit our wrongdoing. If we confess and repent we are then able to receive forgiveness.
When we forgive someone we let go of our anger and our right to retribution. Forgiveness doesn’t mean the sin never happened. Forgiveness does mean that the sin doesn’t taint our future. If we forgive someone we set them and ourselves free to begin anew. If we don’t forgive, the perpetrator and we are bound by the sinful act and we are bound to each other in unhealthy ways.
We need to take Jesus’ words seriously about the imperative to forgive and the serious consequences if we do not. Do we really want to bind sin to others and to ourselves?
When we are little, our sins are small and can be forgiven with a “sorry” and a handshake. When we are little we can begin the game again, share the toy, give the turn on the swing and repair our relationship. When we become older, things become more complex. Our sins are bigger, the wounds deeper, our pride larger. I know more about forgiveness after spending Lent focused on it. I realize that forgiveness is a spiritual discipline, a spiritual practice. Forgiveness is the work of a lifetime. Forgiveness takes discipline and courage. Most importantly forgiveness is not something I can accomplish on my own. Forgiveness is a work of the Holy Spirit. I must do my part, of course. But my part is inadequate and insufficient by itself. True forgiveness is a work of the Spirit and a gift from God.
The possibilities for forgiveness between individuals and between communities and between nations have different dynamics. What you or I can do as individuals is different than what can be done by cities, or corporations or nations. Nevertheless you would have to be a fairly unreflective person if this week’s news of the death of Osama bin Laden by the US didn’t cause some reflection about evil, forgiveness, and justice. There has been a significant amount of discussion in the media and blogging world about this, much more than I remember happening after 9/11. I hope the willingness of people to tackle these issues signifies some growth and progress. I don’t feel any need to add to that particular conversation, my recent posts during Lent on forgiveness and justice can speak for me.
* This often is interpreted that Jesus is granting a particular authority to the disciples. Depending on your church affiliation you may think Jesus’ comments apply to church leaders or you may think Jesus means this for every Christian. See also Matt 16:19.