The [Two] Ways of Forgiveness

Luke 6:37-38; Luke 11:1-4

How do you ask someone if they’re a Christian?

The line I usually use is, “Do you have a church you go to?”  I like this approach because I don’t want to assume that someone isn’t already going to church before I invite them to my own.  But I also find that line lacking; it can sound like the most important thing is the institution, as though it’s some kind of club membership I’m recruiting for.

And although I believe church is very, very important, it’s not the most important thing to ask about.  The most important thing is Jesus.  Pretty much always.

The early Christians had a different language for this, a way of identifying someone as Christian that we don’t often use today.  They’d talk about being “a follower of the Way,” as in, “Apollos was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures.  He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord…” (Acts 18:24-5).

I think that’d be the better way for me to ask people if they’re Christian.  It’d be confusing, maybe, but it’d get more to the point.

If someone says they go to church, that might mean they attend worship… but otherwise, live no differently.  Or it might mean their name is on the membership roll but they haven’t actually been in years.  To ask if they follow the Way of Christ implies a commitment to walk on a different life path with Jesus.

Which is, of course, a very good question for us to ask ourselves.

“Are you a follower of the Way?”

For the next few weeks we’ll be examining what it looks like to walk in this Way – some of the unique characteristics that show up when we decide to follow the path of Christ.  Today we’ll jump right in the deep end with what I think may be the most important of them all:

Forgiveness.

In fact, forgiveness is so important to being on the Way of Christ that we might even ask someone whether or not they’re a Christian with a question like this:

“Do you practice forgiveness?”

And our answer should be “Yes,” in two ways.

The first the way we receive forgiveness through Christ.  Jesus came to give forgiveness.  As he met people, he handed it out – to a paralytic (Luke 5:17-26), then a sinful woman (Luke 7:36-50), and finally to those who hung him on the cross (Luke 23:34).  By forgiving those who were undeserving (or at least seemed undeserving to the religious snobs), Jesus began to show that his forgiveness is available to all.

In Matthew’s account of the first Communion, Jesus lifts the cup and identifies forgiveness as part of what his sacrifice will accomplish:  “this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).  As I like to point out as we prepare for communion, Jesus was lifting the cup to twelve men who would soon need a lot of forgiveness:  for betraying him, for falling asleep in the garden, for scattering like scared animals when the crowd came, and for denying him three times.  Yet Jesus lifted that cup of forgiveness to them.  He lifts it to us, too.

Through Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.  That is the very important first way we practice forgiveness as Christians.

But it’s hard sometimes, isn’t it?

Here’s this free gift – God’s forgiveness – and yet sometimes it’s hard to believe.  It can be hard to shake off the weight of guilt.  When we mess up – really mess up – our response might be to get even harder on ourselves, hate ourselves for being so weak.  It’s possible to know in our heads that forgiveness is provided for us… but refuse in our hearts to really accept it.

That’s why forgiveness is a two-way street.  Sometimes, if we’re struggling to accept God’s forgiveness through Christ, we might be stuck because we’re not using the second way:

Forgiving others.

Jesus often linked our forgiveness with the way we forgive others.  Like:  “Do not judge and you will not be judged; do not condemn and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven…” (Luke 6:37).  But most famously Jesus did this in the the Lord’s Prayer.  Yes – right there in the Lord’s Prayer, which many of us have prayed thousands of times:

“And forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).

Which implies, of course, that God ought to forgive us as we forgive others.

That’s terrifying.

But instead of viewing it as a doomsday threat, I want you to view it more like a prescription for healing.

I personally have found that my acceptance of God’s forgiveness for me is directly related to how I do – or do not – forgive others.  If I am hard on others, I tend to be hard on myself.  If I’m gracious to others, I find it much easier to accept God’s grace for me.  The giving and receiving of forgiveness seem to balance each other.  If you find yourself struggling with one, it’s very possible the solution is in increasing the other.

It’s like this:

one-wayThe downtown of my home city is filled with one-way streets.  When I was a sixteen-year-old, first learning the basics of my car and my city map, this was incredibly tricky.  You had to remember that Fourth Street turned one-way at Fifth Avenue, and that you had to take Eighth Street in order to merge onto Ninth Street heading north to avoid the one-way part.  It was inevitable – a right of passage, almost – that you’d make a right turn into the business end of a one-way street at some point.  If you were lucky, it’d be a slow day downtown and you could reverse out of your mistake.

Since then they’ve changed a few of these, added a couple more two-way streets.  And man, does that make things easier.  The one-way streets can make it difficult to get where you want to go, forcing you to do laps around city blocks before finally landing at your destination.  If they’re all two-way streets, you just follow the grid and get where you need to be.  Everything moves.  Everything opens up.

Forgiveness is like that.  It’s a two-way street.  It’s intended to work as both receiving and giving, and it’s just about impossible to have one without the other.

The trick, though, is that it can feel like a chicken-and-egg scenario.  I want to forgive others more so I can receive forgiveness… but I need to accept God’s forgiveness in order to forgive others more…

Which is why it’s so beautiful that Jesus started it all for us.

Two millennia ago Jesus lifted that cup and declared that his blood would be poured out for the forgiveness of many.  Two millennia ago Jesus walked right in to a terrible death.  Two millennia ago the perfect sacrifice was made – for you, for me, for us all.

Sometimes, when I feel an inkling of doubt that God really forgives *all* my sins, I think of the cross.  The terrible, wonderful cross.  Would God have gone all the way to the cross if God didn’t mean it?

God means it.  God forgives us.

And God’s forgiveness sets us on a very unique Way.

If you believe you are forgiven, how could you do anything but forgive others?

And if you’re able to forgive others, how much more can God forgive us?

Once, Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive a church member who sins against him.  Do you remember Jesus’ jaw-dropping answer?  Seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:21-22; and if that’s not enough for you, some translations go with “seventy times seven”).  Maybe that crazy high number is exactly because we are to forgive as we want to be forgiven.

Let’s start right now.

Take a deep breath.  Be still.  Be in God’s presence.

Think of the cross.  As uncomfortable as it may be, think of Jesus hanging on it.

This is the sign of your forgiveness.

Now think of the empty tomb – death defeated.

Your forgiveness is real.  You are forgiven.

You are forgiven.

You are forgiven.

Take a deep breath.  Be still.  Be in God’s presence.

Think of someone who has wronged you.  Someone that has been hard to forgive.

Remember that God has forgiven you… of all your sins.

Ask God to forgive this person who wronged you.

Say – in your mind our out loud – “I forgive you.”

“I forgive you.”

Take a deep breath.  Be still.  Be in God’s presence.

You are forgiven.  You have forgiven.

You are on the Way of Christ.

Amen.

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