Monday, April 19, 2021

Forgiveness Matters


April 18, 2021 – Easter 3B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon, which is significantly different from the text below, is available here. Video of the service can be seen here.

Several years after I was ordained, I had lunch with a colleague who had recently moved to the Diocese of Alabama. We were both in “Fresh Start,” a program for clergy who are starting in a new position. We had met together with a handful of other participants once a month for the better part of a year, and it was time for the program to end. To celebrate, the bishop took all of us across the street from the diocesan office to have lunch at a fancy restaurant. In the middle of our meal, that friend looked across the table at me and said, “Evan, I need to say something to you.” His tone was surprisingly serious, and I gave him my full attention. “I need to apologize. I repent of something I did to you years ago, and I beg your forgiveness.”

I was stunned. As I stared back silently, he continued, recalling for me that, back when both of us were in seminary, the flag football teams at our respective schools had faced off in a gritty, spirited match. He remembered acting inappropriately toward me—playing too rough, too viciously for a match against fellow seminarians—and he hoped I would forgive him. In that instant, I tried my best to remember what he was talking about. I did recall someone getting very angry and very physical in one of the games we had played that year, but I hadn’t thought about it in so long that I could hardly recall what had happened. I thought about telling him that I barely remembered it and that it was nothing he should worry about, but the intensity of his gaze let me know that he needed more than a passing, “Oh, it was nothing.” So I stared back at him. “Thank you, Joe,” I said. “I forgive you.”

Far more powerful for me than the episode on the gridiron was that moment of contrition and forgiveness we shared in that restaurant. I still think about it all the time. I’m sure that, in the middle of that football game, I was furious at him, but I quickly forgot all about it. He didn’t. When we met and started that class together, I didn’t recognize him from years back, but now it was clear that all he could think about was that moment from the past. Seven years later, he still needed to set things right. Why? Why would anyone care enough about how he acted in a flag football game to bring it up seven years later and ask for forgiveness from someone who had long since moved on?

After opening their minds to understand the scriptures, Jesus said to the disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” We are witnesses of these things. Literally, we are martyrs of these things. We are the ones who bear witness not only to the resurrection of Jesus Christ but also, as a more accurate translation would put it, to the “repentance unto forgiveness” that is the fruit of his death and resurrection. 

We are martyrs for this truth. With our whole lives, we are witnesses of these things. Even though we did not see his hands and his feet, even though we did not have a chance to touch him, even though we did not hear his voice or see him eat that fish, we are witnesses to the life-giving, life-changing truth of forgiveness that is accomplished through his death and resurrection. And, if that truth means anything to us, we must bear witness to it in ways that the whole world can see.

I think we forget that, as Christians, Jesus has called us to be his witnesses. In the Baptismal Covenant, we declare that part of what it means to claim the Christian faith for ourselves is to commit to proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ. And what is that good news? It is not merely that the tomb is empty—that Jesus was raised from the dead. It is the good news that, because the tomb is empty, the path of repentance will lead to forgiveness no matter who it is that walks down that path. 

That is why Jesus died and was raised. He himself said it that plainly. His death and resurrection are the means by which forgiveness is possible for all people. This is God’s great gift to the world. This is why Christianity exists. Because of Jesus, we believe that God’s forgiveness belongs to all people, whether they deserve it or not. Because of Jesus, nothing is unforgivable. No crime, no sin, no evil is unredeemable. When God overcame the bonds of sin and death and raised Jesus on the third day, God set all of us free. And, because we are participants in that forgiven life, because the risen Christ has set us free, we must be witnesses of these things. 

We are Easter people. We are people of the resurrection. We are people of unconditional love and limitless forgiveness. If we have experienced that truth—if we have seen it and heard it and touched it for ourselves—we must be witnesses of it. We cannot live in the truth of the resurrection without sharing that truth with others. We cannot experience the limitlessness of God’s forgiveness and not share that forgiveness with the world. The world is desperate to know that its burdens have been lifted. People are dying to know that they can set those burdens down. And this is the place where they can do it. We are the people who can help them find it. We are the ones who have the good news of forgiveness to share. We are witnesses of these things.

If we allow ourselves to doubt the limitless power of forgiveness, we deny the truth of Easter. If we live in fear that something we have done is too awful to be forgiven, we have not encountered the risen Christ. If we withhold forgiveness from someone else, we cannot know the fullness of forgiveness in our own lives. But no matter what fear we are holding onto and no matter what resentment we carry in our hearts, the power of God’s forgiveness is real, and it cannot be defeated by any fear or doubt or grudge that we can muster. 

If you are stuck in that place where you have heard that the tomb is empty but you haven’t yet experienced the power of the resurrection, you’ve come to the right place. You’re in the right place because the risen Christ is here in our midst. He is here in the breaking of the bread. He is here in the body that is broken and made whole. He is here in order to show himself to you. He is here in order that you, too, might be a witness of these things.

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