“When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves.”
This passage from Luke gives us the first of the last seven words of Jesus Christ. In my opinion they are his most powerful. Forgiveness is an incredibly complex thing. We see that as Jesus is being killed; the nails have been driven in, the beatings have left him bloodied and broken, the weight of his body on the cross crushing him, he uses one of his last breathes to ask for forgiveness. But, not forgiveness for himself, he asks God to forgive us: the very people who have condemned him to this violent death. And despite God having to watch as his only son crucified and the guilty run free, we are forgiven.
From the moment we are baptized we are told that we are forgiven all our sins; and we are reminded every Sunday that even though we are imperfect people we are loved and forgiven by God. But, sometimes I wonder if we have lost sight of the reason forgiveness is so stressed in our stories and liturgies. We focus on God forgiving us, so thankful that when we can’t even forgive ourselves we still know that God will forgive us and love us unconditionally. Every Sunday after the confession and forgiveness of sins I know that I breathe a sigh of relief and am grateful to know that even though I am flawed and sinful that God can offer me what no other human can – unconditional love and forgiveness.
As people we struggle to forgive. Of all the things we are asked to do in the name of God, forgiveness can sometimes be the hardest. Sometimes we even struggle to accept God’s forgiveness of us, but we are still comforted by it because it is constant. But, all of us fall desperately short in the forgiveness of others. So, the Church is constantly reminding us. In the Apostle’s Creed we say that we “Believe in the forgiveness of sins”; which I always assumed was believing in God’s ability to forgive us, but lately I have been looking at it from a different perspective, I have been trying to picture it as believing in our ability to forgive each other. Which we all promise to do in the Lord’s Prayer! “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. We promise to forgive our neighbors and freinds, but how successful are we at actually doing it?
In a recent article in The Lutheran, Peter Nash says, “Being Lutheran means that I know a lot more about justification than I know about human forgiveness. We are much more concerned about getting right with God than we are with living right with our neighbors as faithfully as possible.” Nash’s statement is so dead on that it is almost scary. We are recipients of God’s unrelenting grace and forgiveness on a daily basis and yet it is still so difficult for us to forgive each other.
The worst part is that we see amazing examples of humanity’s ability to forgive every day, a blueprint, if you will, for our own acts of forgiveness. Take for instance the story of Nelson Mandela. As some of you may know I lived in South Africa for a year and served through the Young Adults in Global Mission. Even before stepping foot onto South African soil I was an admirer of Nelson Mandela. But, after spending a year with the people he liberated and talking to those who remember all too well the time before democracy in South Africa and how hard it was to fight for I admired him even more. He led by example; while many people thought he would call for vengeance, to rid the country of the white minority that had oppressed the black majority for so many generations, while they waited for civil war, he surprised everyone, and said “forgive”. While in jail on Robben Island he befriended his captors, learned their language, taught them about his culture and built a mutual respect, this allowed him to walk away from that cell in 1990 and to tell the people of South Africa, now is not a time for vengeance and war, now is a time for forgiveness. Despite the very violent years leading up to the 1994 elections South Africa’s transition to democracy will go down in history as a bloodless one, one of forgiveness and reconciliation. While Mandela’s actions can be very difficult to understand what we can also focus on is the amount of time and prayer that went into his ability to forgive and then the process that came after that was needed to heal those wounds, which is where the reconciliation comes in.
Forgiveness does not mean that everything is and always will be ok. Forgiveness is merely the first of many steps to peace. To forgive doesn’t mean that you can’t be mad or hurt, those feelings are normal when you feel you have been wronged. And when we think about it even Jesus was known to flip a table or two. But, if we are to follow the example of Christ we see that the anger does not last long, the love and forgiveness follow shortly after, and once those three magical words are spoken, once you say “I forgive you”… that is when the road to reconciliation can begin.
We should never forget the power of forgiveness, it is one of the few things that can show unconditional love. Love is natural when times are easy, when everything is going right. But when we see the sin, the hate, the mistakes, and cruelness of this world, that is when the love can leave us, but it’s also the times when we need it the most, so if we can forgive, despite the mistakes and mess then we truly will understand the strength of God’s love for us, given to us because of the sacrifice that Christ made on the cross. Through his death Christ paid for our forgiveness, with his words “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do” Christ saved us all. And perhaps, if we can find the room in our hearts to forgive, we may start to save each other.