“Recently the Templeton Foundation, which has campaigned for an increase in what it calls “forgiveness research,” funded a major nationwide study on people’s attitudes toward forgiveness. Co-sponsored by the University of Michigan and the National Institute for Mental Health, the study found that 75% of Americans are “very confident” that they have been forgiven by God for their past offenses. The lead researcher, Dr. Loren Toussaint, expressed great surprise at such high confidence, especially since many of these same people are not regular church attenders. Still, three-quarters of the people surveyed had few doubts about God’s penchant to let bygones be bygones.
The picture was less bright, however, when it came to interpersonal relations. Only about half of the people surveyed claimed that they were certain that they had forgiven others. Most people admitted that whereas God may be a galaxy-class forgiver, ordinary folks struggle. It’s difficult to forgive other people with whom you are angry. It’s even difficult to forgive yourself sometimes. But where forgiveness does take place, the study found a link between forgiveness and better health. The more prone a person is to grant forgiveness, the less likely he or she will suffer from any stress-related illnesses.”1
These last couple of weeks we’ve found out some things about Jesus that we don’t think about much. We’ve seen that Jesus wasn’t afraid to roam around parts of the Middle East that Jews normally didn’t go, pagan lands that would have been seen as rather exotic to a bunch of back-country Jewish guys. Jesus was also not afraid to shell out both power and rebuke to His closest friends and disciples. This week we find that Jesus was not in any way a utopian savior. He didn’t try to gather His disciples into some system of communes where they would live in peace and mix up big, special batches of Kool-Aid.
On the contrary, “Jesus was not so naive as to think that the church would be such a bright, sunny, happy place that forgiveness of sins would never be needed.” He never said “that if only a few simple ground rules were followed, his future disciples would experience unending bliss.”2 In the Gospel we just heard, Jesus is even setting up a legal system of sorts, a way to work things out in the Church. We don’t stick to these things, of course, I think because it would be too easy to just do what Jesus told us to do. Jesus tells us to actually talk to the person who sinned against us, and why on earth would we want to do that? If we, by some stretch of the imagination, get past that first step and the sinner does not acknowledge his crime, we are supposed to gather up a witness or two and talk to a priest, a move that I’ve seen and usually works. But if the sinner still refuses to fess up and apologize, that sinner is to be kicked out of the Church, shunned by the community. Shunning can be difficult and dreary work however, so it rarely gets done nowadays, which I think is good, since real forgiveness so rarely gets done either.
But it’s really the last couple things that Jesus said that give us the clue about the bigger picture here. “Again I say to you,” Jesus said, “that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” Jesus is being very clear here that no sin is committed against a single person. A sin, any sin, is committed against the actual victim, yes, but also against the community of believers and against the God who sustains them.
We’ve seen our share of sins here at the church and in the city, and we will soon be remembering (and probably in some ways re-living) the greatest sin against our nation in generations. I grew up in the midst of plenty of old men who still held a grudge against the Japanese, so forgiving those who attacked us on 9/11 will not be an easy task. I haven’t; not really, not when I see those images of New York and D.C. and Pennsylvania and remember the sights and the smells and funerals and the friends I won’t see until that great Last Day. I also know I would be better off if I did outright forgive our attackers; not only is it my duty as a Christian, but I’d be healthier in body and soul. I hope you’ll join me in trying to forgive, and I hope that today and every day we gather here, that we remember that Jesus is with us, guarding us in body and soul, reminding us that we are forgiven as we forgive others.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week