August 21, 2011 – 10 Pentecost, Proper 16A
Isaiah 51:1-6; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
On any given night, there is a perceptible level of tension in our house. Exactly what that level of tension is depends upon a number of factors. Did either or both of our children take an afternoon nap? Has Elizabeth had to work all night at the hospital in the previous day or two? Have I gone out to have a drink with friends rather than coming straight home from work? These and a myriad of other things can shift the mood in our house quite considerably, sending it from pleasant to ferocious with surprising ease.
I’m not exactly sure what caused it, but, about a week ago, we had one of those nights that belongs on reality television. For whatever reason, it didn’t take much to set me off, and my family suffered because of my irascibility. While I was making dinner, Elizabeth did something that triggered a series of provocations, which resulted in a fair amount of yelling and self-righteous indignation on my part. And, because I was more interested in being angry than I was in moving on, I held on to that resentment throughout dinner and beyond. But hanging on to that anger was a choice, and I actually had to work pretty hard to keep it up.
I’m just not the kind of guy who is very good at holding grudges. Sometimes, I wish I were better at it, but inevitably I give in—often before I even realize that I’m ready to move on. That same night, only a little while after supper, I walked into the den and saw Elizabeth picking up toys. “I really like your new haircut,” I said without thinking about it. “You look very cute.” I paused. “Dang-it!” I said out loud. “I didn’t mean to say that. I’m still angry at you, and I didn’t intend to pay you that compliment.” She laughed disarmingly. From that moment on, it was useless for me to pretend to be angry anymore.
Some people are better at hold grudges than others. Maybe you know someone like that—someone who always seems to enjoy being angry a little longer than everybody else. Like it or not, there’s real power in holding a grudge—in withholding forgiveness from someone who has asked for it. Have you ever apologized to someone only to have them refuse to accept your apology? It’s a terrible feeling to want reconciliation yet have it withheld by someone you care about. It’s the classic case of the overbearing parent, the unrelenting spouse, or the hypercritical boss.
Whatever the circumstance, when someone refuses to forgive another, he or she retains power over the other and over the relationship. And, to the extent that the apologetic party still values that relationship, the withheld forgiveness cripples him or her, locking that person in a state of unreconciled angst. In other words, as long as the person saying, “I’m sorry,” still hopes for healing, the person who refuses to forgive maintains a position of power by refusing to give in. And sometimes that oppressive power can haunt us to our grave—just ask Norman Bates.
The issue of forgiveness is an issue of power. To forgive is to release one’s claim of power over another. When we hear those three little words—“I forgive you”—we experience a yielding or ceding of authority that can have cosmic implications. No longer will the offended person insist on maintaining a position of control in the relationship; instead, he or she relinquishes it to the offender, choosing reconciliation over resentment.
Today’s gospel lesson is about the power of forgiveness. As he and his disciples were travelling together, Jesus stopped and asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” After listening to their wide-ranging replies, Jesus asked them directly, “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And, in response to that confession, Jesus declared, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Those keys were a symbol of heavenly authority, and they were God’s alone to give. When God sent his Son into the world, God invested that authority in the person of Jesus Christ. But God sent his Son to earth not so that his authority might be preserved but so that that authority—that power—might be given to others. When Peter recognized that Jesus was the Son of God and thus acknowledged that he had come to reveal God’s true nature to the world, Jesus passed those keys on to Peter. And, to the extent that we, too, recognize that the work Jesus accomplished is the very heart of God’s will for humanity, then those keys are passed on to us as well.
Those keys are a symbol of God’s power, and God yields that power to us fully through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. There can be no greater demonstration of mercy. Thus, the cross and empty tomb declare that there can be no limit to God’s forgiveness. And if God is the one who always says, “I forgive you,” then God holds no grudges. By eternally declaring his willingness to forgive us in the death and resurrection of his Son, God has completely given up any claim of vindictive power over us. Instead, God has yielded that power to us in Jesus’ ultimate gesture of limitless grace. As we are forgiven, we are given the keys to the kingdom. God has ceded to us the power of a reconciled relationship. What we now do with that power is up to us.
Jesus said, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” I take that at face value, and I take it pretty seriously. If God’s nature is always to forgive, then the only thing that can stand in the way of that forgiveness is us. God has given over to us that power which is forgiveness. It’s ours. We can pass it along, or we keep it for ourselves.
Sure, it’s costly to give it up. Just as God makes himself vulnerable by saying to the world, “I will love you and forgive you no matter what,” so too do we expose ourselves when we release that power we have over someone who has wounded us. Forgiveness is costly. It’s the renunciation of a power that we are entitled to. But, if God’s forgiveness is going to be real to us, doesn’t it depend upon our willingness to relinquish the power that comes with it? Amen.