“Forgiveness Part 2 of 2: Human Nature”
Colossians 3: 1-13 & Matthew 18:15-22 ~ Northwood UC ~ October 22, 2023
What are you chained to in your life? What drags you down? What is holding you back from living in freedom and liberation? In Greek mythology, you might recall the myth of the beautiful princess Andromeda who was chained to a rock as she was being sacrificed to the horrible sea monster. In this myth, Andromeda’s mother, Queen Cassiopea had boasted that her daughter was more beautiful than all the daughters of the sea god Nereus. To punish the queen for her arrogance, Poseidon sent a horrible sea monster to ravage the coastline where Queen Cassiopea lived. King Cepheus was desperate as he sought to avoid this catastrophe, and found that the only way to avoid this impending disaster was to sacrifice their daughter Andromeda to the approaching sea monster. And so, the king made the horrible decision. Andromeda was stripped naked and chained to a rock. Princess Andromeda stood there naked, chained to the rock, unable to move. Have you ever felt stripped of your dignity? Chained to difficult parts of your past? Unable to escape?
As we move into this second of our two Sundays focusing on the nature of God’s forgiveness, we switch our focus. Last week, we focused on forgiveness as being one of the key characteristics of God ~ that our God is foundationally a God of forgiveness. We considered how God’s forgiveness is an extension of God’s very nature as Creator. And through God’s ongoing forgiveness, we are being continually remade into a new creation. Indeed, as we array of God’s gifts unto us, we considered how the gift of God’s forgiveness is one of God’s true blessings. God’s forgiveness is a foundation which gives us strength, hope, and peace for the journey ahead. As the timeless words of Alexander Pope echo: “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” But as I mentioned last week, there is a second part to the equation. While the first part has to do with God, the second part has to do with you and me. The second part is how we respond to this nature of God. As we were examining the Isaiah passage last week, forgiveness of Israel’s transgressions required God’s forgiving character, AND it also had to do with how that empowered their desire to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. As we ponder the nature of God’s forgiveness, we see that forgiveness has as much to do with us as it does with God. And so, this morning, having considered Forgiveness: God’s nature, we now shift to consider Forgiveness: human nature.
The first text for today that Pat read is Colossians 13. For the early Christian community, Paul is presenting a call towards living the new life of the Christian Way. He encouraged them not to be chained to the ways of this world, but rather to: “seek the things that are above”, to “set oour minds on things that are above”. While much of the philosophy of Paul’s day encouraged physical gratification / “gratification of the flesh” as he often puts it, Paul sought to shift people’s dependence away from the material ream into one of being blessed by the heavenly. He wanted the early believers to understand that their links to the heavenly realm were ones that could be established in the here and now. That they could, in fact, gain some experiences of the heavenly realm…NOW. He calls them out on being enslaved to the ways that lead to death and destruction. As Paul loves to give lists in groups, he offers three lists of five here. Put to death that which is chaining you / enslaving you to all that is earthly he advises. Paul lists the first group of five vices: “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed”. He continues giving another list of five which further enslave us to the ways of evil and death: “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language”. And as we think these items through, these are generally the areas that take us astray, aren’t they? We don’t much like to talk about this word, but these are the areas of sin, aren’t they? They are the places that we are chained and held down. They are the areas that cause broken relationships with others, brokenness in the world. Paul is pointing to origins of pain and suffering that we cause / and experience in the world.
For Paul, he encourages his community to replace these old ways with a new way of living. For Paul, it is almost like putting on a new set of clothing. He encourages them to ‘put on’ a list of five virtues: “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience”. For Paul, it is a call to become connected to an entirely different form of living. As he begins with the call to “set our minds on things that are above”, “to seek things that are above”, this is the way in which he sees us as exercising it. To no longer be enslaved to these old ways of being / to no longer be enslaved to these vices / but rather to now be attached to the heavenly realm – to be clothed in the ways of Christ. Paul is urging us to choose the clothing of “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience”. In case we didn’t already get the allusion to one’s baptism, where we consider how we both figuratively and practically to ‘put on Christ’, Paul proceeds to use the baptismal formula popular at the time saying “in [our baptism] there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all”. Paul is offering a way of turning away from being the chains of enslavement and being liberated to the heavenly realm, the glory of God.
I’m feeling a little bad for leaving you hanging with the Greek myth of Princess Andromeda. We left her a few moments ago chained to that rock with the sea monster approaching. Well, as many know, the story does not end there. And, I suspect you have read a few princess and dragon tales in your day to be waiting for a happy ending. For Princess Andromeda someone came to save her. Perseus was returning from his battle where he had just sleighed Medusa. As the story proceeds, Perseus kills the sea monster, frees Princess Andromeda from her chains, and marries her. Andromeda was not enslaved to death, but rather she was liberated from her chains, clothed and freed. We too have been liberated from our chains in this life through the way of Jesus Christ. We do not need to be enslaved to the ways of death, suffering and pain. As Paul taught, Jesus’ way of “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” offer us a way to be connected with God. As the text concludes, the key to breaking the chains, and not be weighed down, is forgiveness. Living in forgiveness is the key to living in freedom! Paul begs them “bear with one another, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive”. Paul knows that forgiveness is the key to this new community finding strength and resilience; forgiveness is the key to them growing; forgiveness is the key to them ‘putting on Christ’ and connecting with God. As much as forgiveness is a characteristic of God, forgiveness is also a foundational characteristic of God’s people ~ living in forgiveness, seeking forgiveness, offering forgiveness.
We essentially have two choices when it comes to forgiveness: to practice forgiveness or not. A recent article published by the Mayo Clinic notes that if we don’t practice forgiveness, we are usually the one who pays the most dearly. The chains of anger, resentment and bitterness, (and the many extensions of these) will enter into every future relationship and experience. The article outlines the casualties of being chained to the ways of destruction. We become so enwrapped in the wrong that we cannot enjoy the present. Some of the casualties we suffer are that we become anxious, depressed and often feel that our life lacks meaning and purpose. Remaining chained to such emotions is costly, painful and (in the cases when these emotions are taken to their extreme) they are deadly. Yet, if we chose to link our lives to the way of forgiveness, we can embrace greater experiences of peace, hope, gratitude and joy there is hope. The article cited the path of forgiveness as leading to healthier relationships, lowered levels of stress, anxiety, and hostility. It noted physical benefits such as lowered blood pressure, improved heart health, higher levels of self-esteem and diminished reports of depression.
As I have mentioned in other instances, I have deep respect and admiration for people who transform their lives through the 12 steps, as they recover from an addiction. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to join in the celebration with our AA group as one of their members celebrated their 50th year of sobriety! There were some very powerful words he shared about forgiveness, about faith, and about transformation. There were a lot of tears and a lot of joy. It was an acknowledgement of both forgiving oneself and seeking forgiveness to be free and live the life that he was meant to live. Or, as Paul spoke about, of “setting one’s mind on things that are above”.
This is probably a good transition time to move to the gospel lection. What Jesus is teaching in this passage is that forgiveness is not an easy thing to achieve, nor is it an easy thing to offer. It is something we must PRACTICE…again and again…forever working towards this way of being. When Jesus is asked flat out ‘how many times ought we to forgive another?’, his response is beyond counting: 77 times! 77 times forgiveness is about living in the ways that Paul describes, rather than counting trespasses against us. Forgiveness needs to be a practice as we actively seek to be people of reconciliation and peace. Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by this passage when he wrote: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude”.
Millennia after Jesus, psychologists would study the practice of forming habits and scientifically report what Jesus so eloquently described. Habits are formed when actions are repeated in a consistent context…over and over. They talk about the 3-step patter of forming habits (good or bad): reminder, routine and reward. We need a reminder ~ a trigger that initiates the behaviour. We need a routine ~ action of forgiving. And we need a reward ~ the benefit gained from the action. I wonder if we truly took Jesus’ words to heard about forgiveness if we might (increasingly) be able to make forgiveness a habit in our living? What might be a good reminder for you to practice forgiveness? There was a wonderful trend a while ago when people would wear WWJD (what would Jesus do?) bracelets. That was a good reminder. Or perhaps it is the cross you wear. Or your prayer practice. Or something that serves as a reminder for the practicing of forgiveness. What might be a good reminder for you, when you get in the difficult times, to offer a presence of forgiveness? Next comes the routine. The routine we are seeking to adopt is, of course, forgiveness. At the beginning of our day, we might set an intention to live in this way, and as we review our day before bed, we might consider where we were forgiving. Finally comes the reward. The letter in Colossians says that, over time, we will experience a deeper peace in our being when we react in this way. It says that we have this opportunity to “put on Christ” to live in the heavenly realm in the now. We, increasingly, will have the opportunity to know peace, wholeness, and a deep joy through this practice. Forgiveness, as Jesus teaches, must be an ongoing practice. 77 times is a long commitment. Long before we reach that number, it will have become ‘in the bones’, and the way we live and love others.
So, what chains you to the ways of death? How are you holding onto the ways of death, and yearn to be freed? I am not an expert on forgiveness, but I will close by sharing one of mine. I once had a horrible experience with a person in a former congregation I served. I remember driving home after publicly being humiliated at our congregation’s annual meeting. I remember feeling angry and wondering how I would ever find the strength to serve as this person’s minister in the days ahead. The following day, one of the elders of the congregation, came to visit me in my study. Bill was a wise man, and a man of few words, and in this case, there were no words…only numbers. He presented me with a piece of paper that he had printed: “77”. He said “Rev. Scott this is the cost of being a Christian, but the reward is always worth it”. That piece of paper remains very important to me; it was important to me in the days ahead as I sought to practice forgiveness; it was important on the day I presided at Bill’s funeral; and those numbers “77” will always be important in our lives. They are important because they invite us into the divine life of freedom, not being enslaved to the wrongs of the past, but rather choosing to irrevocably be connected with the God of life who forgives us time after time. Who calls us to choose life, to choose freedom, to receive the gift of forgiveness and to offer back into the world.