I'm going to make a couple of bold assumptions this morning. My first assumption is that you have somebody that you need to forgive. My guess is that every single person here has been hurt or wronged by somebody else, and that you have been hurt. I've rarely found a person who has said that forgiveness is an irrelevant topic. We all need to forgive because we have all been hurt. Am I right? Everybody has somebody they need to forgive.
I'm making another assumption this morning, and it's that all of us want to forgive. We don't always feel like it. When something happens and we've been hurt, the last thing we feel like doing is to forgive. But most of us, deep down, realize that refusing to forgive is not a good option. We really do want to forgive if we could figure out how.
For some of us, it's for selfish reasons. I think it's Anne Lamott who said, "Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die." Not forgiving is toxic. It kills us. A psychiatrist has said that if he could teach a third of his patients to forgive, to let go of their anger, almost all of the problems he is treating them for would go away. So some of us want to forgive because we don't want the damage that not forgiving causes in our lives.
But the real reason why we want to forgive is much deeper and more profound. Regardless of whether or not forgiveness benefits us in any way, we need to forgive because God commands it. It's a theme that comes up over and over again in Scripture. We read a passage this morning in which Jesus told Peter to forgive without limits. Another time, Jesus said: "If you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matthew 6:14-15). Forgiveness is a sign that we have been forgiven, and a refusal to forgive is evidence that we have never been forgiven by God. Forgiven people forgive.
We also want to forgive because it's so crucial for our church. Loving each other, we've discovered, is the one thing that really matters. It's what Jesus demonstrated by his example. It's what he commanded and prayed for. It's what will validate our authenticity as followers of Jesus Christ. Andrew Murray said:
When the world sees a church from which selfishness is banished, then it will acknowledge the divine mission of Christ because he has wrought such a wonder, a community of men [and women] who truly and heartily love one another.
So I'm assuming that we all have someone to forgive, and that we all would like to be able to forgive. But I don't want to leave this as a theoretical issue. At the end of the service today you will be given an olive branch. An olive branch is a symbol of peace. We're going to look at God's Word today on how to forgive other people. Your assignment this week is to take this olive branch home with you as a symbol of the forgiveness that we are all called to offer each other. You may be called upon to physically offer the olive branch to someone else as a token of forgiveness.
Before we do this, though, we need help from God. How can we become the type of church where we forgive each other? To answer this question, I'd like to look at Paul's letter to the Colossians. Join with me as we read Colossians 3:11-15.
Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
How do we forgive? You could spend weeks exploring what Paul says in this passage. Today, though, I'd like to suggest three things we can do as we move towards being a church that practices forgiveness. The three things are this:
- Understand who we are
- Base your forgiveness on what Christ has done
- Act! (with the Spirit's help)
Let's take each one of these and explore how we can become a forgiving church.
Understand Who We Are
The first action we can take as a church is to understand who exactly we are. This has a negative and a positive side in this passage. Let's start by looking at the negative.
The negative part is the assumption in this passage that we are going to have a need for forgiveness within the church. Paul is writing to the church in Colossae. As far as we know, he wasn't writing to address any particular relational problem in the church. It's more of a theological book. But Paul just assumes that being part of a church community means that we will have to learn how to bear with each other and forgive. He just assumes that from time to time we're going to have grievances with each other, and we'll need to learn how to forgive. There is no ideal church in which everybody gets along. If you are part of a church, you will need to learn forgiveness. That, according to Paul, is reality.
Late last summer, I was at the point where I had to do some forgiving, and so did other people with me. My first inclination was to run to another church, thinking that would take care of the problem. Paul gives us all a reality check. You can't just run to another church. There is no such thing as a church anywhere in which there are no grievances. We're going to have to learn how to forgive in any church. This is the negative part of understanding who we are. We'll always need to know how to forgive as long as we're part of a church.
If you find that discouraging, you need to hear the positive side of who Paul says we are. He says in verse 11: "Christ is all and is in all." We are part of the only community of people anywhere for whom it is true that Christ is in every member. When you need to forgive, never forget that Christ is in you, and that Christ is in the life of the brother or sister you need to forgive. The church is the only community of people for whom this is true. Christ is all and is in all.
Paul goes on in verse 12: "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved…" These are packed words. We are chosen by God. We aren't here by chance. We are holy through what Christ has accomplished for us. We are dearly loved by God. But there's even more here than meets the eye. These are all words that had previously been used for God's chosen people, the nation of Israel. Paul is saying that if you are part of the church, then you are the people of God in this world. You are the ones God has chosen to be his representatives. You are the heir of all of his promises. That's why forgiveness is so important.
Then in verse 15 Paul says, "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace." Put this all together and ask, "Who are we, and how does this help us forgive?" The answer is that we are broken people who will occasionally run into grievances and hurts within the church. We can just assume that it's going to happen. But we have Jesus Christ. We are God's people. And he has called us to peace, to live as a church under his rule and resources. We will hurt each other, but he has given us everything we need to handle it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was German pastor and part of the resistance movement against Hitler. Listen to who he said we are within the church:
Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter, or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.
"We belong to one another," he says, "only through and in Jesus Christ." This is what makes it possible for the differences to be obliterated between Gentile and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free. Christ is all, and is in all. If grievances come up, it will split us apart if our unity is based on anything else but Christ. If our unity and fellowship is based on age or gender or race or musical tastes, our fellowship will not survive grievances and hurts. But Paul says that it is based on so much more. It is based on Christ.
The first step toward forgiveness is to understand who we are in Christ. We will hurt each other, but our fellowship is in Christ. He has given us everything that we need to make it through whatever happens.
So look around you this morning. Who do you see? I hope as you look around, you're under no false pretenses. These are people who will probably cause you grievances in the future if they haven't already. It's inevitable. But these are also people in whom Christ is present. They are part of the body that God has called together here in unity. Despite our differences, we are called to be one, and our fellowship is based on Christ. Forgiving each other means that we understand all this about each other.
Base Your Forgiveness on What Christ Has Done
That's who we are. Negative: we are people who will hurt each other. Positive: Christ is all and is in all. He has called us, and our fellowship and unity is based on him.
Here's the second thing that I want to pull out of this today. Our forgiveness has to be based on something. When my kids fight, I often make them forgive each other or else. In that case, their forgiveness is based on fear of consequences.
When we run into grievances which each other, we could try to base our forgiveness on a number of things. We could base it on the fact that our kids play together and we have to get along. We could base it on a desire to be nice. We could base our forgiveness on willpower, or that if we don't get along a pastor or deacon will come along and confront us. We could base our efforts to forgive on any of these things, but we'd be doomed in our efforts to forgive. It would never work. None of these is a strong enough basis to overcome the hurts of the past and to bring about real reconciliation and forgiveness.
But none of these things are the basis for the forgiveness we are to practice in the church. Paul gives us the basis for our forgiveness at the end of verse 13: "Forgive as the Lord forgave you." This phrase gives us both the extent and the basis of how we are to forgive others.
First, the extent. "Forgive us as the Lord forgave you." How much should we forgive others? Well, how much do you want the Lord to forgive you? Do you want the Lord to forgive you partially or completely? To the extent that God has forgiven us, to that same extent we are to forgive others.
How much has Christ forgiven us? He has offered us forgiveness of the highest order. He initiated forgiveness before we had ever confessed to him. He forgave us freely. Psalm 103 says that he:
…forgives all your sins…
The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:3, 8-12)
That's the extent to which we're called to forgive others.
It's also the basis of how we forgive others. "Forgive us as the Lord forgave you." Christ's mighty work of reconciliation is the basis on which we are able to forgive others. God's forgiveness is underneath ours. It creates and supports our ability to forgive.
Miroslav Volf said, "Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners." He's write. When someone offends us, we go, "Liar! Evil! How dare they!" We label them and hire them and "exclude them from the community of humans." When we fail, we say we're complicated. There's something powerful that happens when we see those who've wounded us the same as we see ourselves: as a community of sinners who are in need of forgiveness and who have been forgiven as Christ. We are able to forgive each other because Christ has forgiven us.
I don't know who needs forgiving in your life. To forgive them based on your own willpower or any other basis is impossible. But it is possible to forgive them, because people who have been forgiven are able to forgive others. We base our forgiveness on the forgiveness that Christ has offered us.
Act (With the Spirit's Help)
So here we go. When understand who we are in Christ, and base our forgiveness on Christ, we'll be able to act. Paul says:
Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)
Remember last week? We want to get rid of all this stuff – anger, rage, malice, slander, and so on – and put on clothes like forgiveness. Paul says it's possible, because Christ has provided us with these new clothes. All we have to do is to put on what Christ has already provided for us.
Some of the virtues here overlap with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians. The Spirit is producing these virtues in our lives. With his help, we can begin to act in ways consistent with the new nature and forgive those who have hurt us.
I want to point out two terms in verse 13. One is to "bear with each other." This means to put up with each other even when they fail us or act differently than we expect. We're called to put up with each other. We're also called to forgive. Forgive is based on the root word for grace. Bearing covers present and future offenses. Forgiving covers past offenses. We're to forgive each other for the past and put up with each other in the present.
Now listen. If you don't hear anything else this morning, this is what you need to hear. The only way to become a community of grace and forgiveness is if we understand who we are in Christ, and what he has done for us at the cross. That's critical. If you ever get to the point where you can't forgive, then you have to go back to the beginning. Can I forgive you? No. Okay. Then let's go back and remember who we are in Christ Jesus. Okay, now I remember. Christ is all and is in all. We are God's chosen people, holy, and deeply loved. Okay, got it. Now I need to remember what Christ has done for us at the cross. Okay, Now I remember. Maybe now I can begin the process of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is never easy and it isn't always fast. The only way that we at Richview can become this community of grace and forgiveness is if we're crystal clear on who we are, and what Christ has done for us. Then we can clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bear with and forgive each other, and love each other. It all goes back to knowing who we are and what Christ has done for us.
The greatest risk we face as a church in these days is not that we may lose an organ, or that we may lose money, or that we may lose members, or that we may lose staff, or that we may lose reputation. The greatest risk is that we may lose heaven. Because one way to lose heaven is to hold fast to an unforgiving spirit and so prove that we have never been indwelt by the Spirit of Christ…
The greatest risk that we face as a church is that we won't do this. God has given us everything that we need to forgive. We all have someone to forgive, don't we? We all want to forgive, for our own good and for God's glory. You feel like you can't forgive, and you're right. But when you see who we really are, who Christ has made us, and when you base your forgiveness on the forgiveness that Christ has offered you, you are ready to act with his help.
We're going to watch a DVD. When you leave today you will receive an olive branch. The idea is that we all have some forgiving to do. It won't be easy. If you're not ready to give the olive branch to someone, maybe you can keep it somewhere as a reminder to keep going over who we are in Christ, and what he has done for us.
But when you're ready, it would be a beautiful thing to see olive branches exchanged, and forgiveness being offered, as we live out the grace that God has poured out on our lives.