Real talk on forgiveness (2 Corinthians 2.1-10; Matthew 18.21-22) [Sermon 05-29-2016]


May 27, 2016 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday May 29, 2016. Scriptures are 2 Corinthians 2.1-10 and Matthew 18.21-22.

This is the second sermon in the Narrative Lectionary’s six-week summer series in 2 Corinthians (say that several times fast!).

An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen.

There’s no church without forgiveness

We’re not quite sure what all the mess was behind the letter we know as 2 Corinthians. We just know for sure that there was a mess. A big one.

Like I said, we don’t know the source of the conflict. The traditional view is that it all goes back to Paul’s last letter—1 Corinthians 5. There, Paul had confronted the church over some dude who had shacked up with his stepmother. Instead of calling out the bad behavior, some of his bros had high-fived him over it. Paul had to put his foot down. We need to hand this man over to Satan, he had written, to destroy his human weakness so that his spirit might be saved on the day of the Lord (1 Cor. 5.5). Some suspect that the guy in question had gotten offended, and said: Just who does that Paul guy think he is to tell me what I can do in my own bedroom?! And that he’d come close to splitting the church ranting and raving against Paul. [1] Others think it may have had something to do with a situation Paul addressed a little later in 1 Corinthians. In the sixth chapter, he had to deal with some church members who had fallen out, and now one party was taking another to court. The fact that you have lawsuits against each other means that you’ve already lost your case, was Paul’s response (1 Cor. 6.7). Again, those who hold this view suspect that the ones bringing the lawsuit decided Paul had quit preaching and gone to meddling. So they raised a ruckus aimed at turning the church against their apostle. Still others think it was something completely unrelated to the events of 1 Corinthians. That someone—perhaps a brother who disagreed with Paul about some doctrine or other—had launched a smear campaign against him.

All of these suggestions have their strengths and weaknesses. We weren’t there, so we don’t know. What we do know is by the time he wrote 2 Corinthians, Paul considered the matter handled. And he needed to guide the church through the process of forgiving the offender, and restoring him to fellowship. The punishment handed out by the majority is enough for this person, writes Paul. This is why you should try your best to forgive and to comfort this person now instead, so that this person isn’t overwhelmed by too much sorrow. If you forgive anyone for anything, I do too. And whatever I’ve forgiven (if I’ve forgiven anything), I did it for you in the presence of Christ.

The church just isn’t the church without forgiveness. After all, we Christians understand ourselves first of all (or at least we should) as people who need to be—and have been—forgiven by God. But then what does forgiveness mean? Does it mean, for instance, that once an apology has been offered and accepted, everything goes back to how it was before? Is forgiveness a reset button? Must we forget what we have forgiven? Or do victims get a say in setting future boundaries? Are there conditions that need to be met in order for forgiveness to take place? If we insist that victims extend unconditional forgiveness, isn’t that grace for the offender, and law for the victim?   

I don’t intend to try to answer all those questions in our time today. But I do want to use what we have heard from our readings as a starting point for some real talk about forgiveness.

What’s forgiveness for?

The last few decades have seen a shift in how we understand forgiveness, and truth be told, I’m a bit alarmed by it. I’ve encountered it in pop psychology articles; in self-help books; in recovery ministries; even from pulpits. What we’re seeing is a movement toward a very therapeutic view of forgiveness. We hear people say things like: I’m forgiving you for my own peace of mind. Or, I’m forgiving you so that you won’t be renting space in my brain anymore. Basically, I’m forgiving you for me. Whether or not it does anything for you or for us is beside the point.

And I totally get that. Especially when someone has done us a grave injury and refuses to acknowledge it. Or perhaps they can’t, because they have died. Or you know that they’re not in a place to change, so you just need to establish your boundaries and move on. I completely understand. I’ve lived through all of the above personally, and still live with some of it. I know the destructive toll that an inability or refusal to forgive can take on the soul. I have personally experienced the spiritual and emotional consequences of letting resentment fester.

So while forgiveness is therapeutic; and resentment does harm us, the purpose of forgiveness is not so I can feel better. Personal benefit is not why we forgive. The reason for forgiveness is the healing of broken relationships. Forgiveness is also about restoring community and fellowship.

Forgiveness is not just personal; it is interpersonal. Our supplemental reading from Matthew today assumes this. Peter asks: Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Forgiveness is first about mending a torn relationship.

Forgiveness is also not always just an individual affair. It may involve the whole community; or multiple communities that have been in conflict. Notice what Paul said in our reading from 2 Corinthians today: if someone has made anyone sad, that person hasn’t hurt me  to some degree. When someone we love is hurt by someone else’s sin or thoughtlessness, we hurt for them. We grow angry on their behalf. We lash out for them, because our love is fierce. But that other person may also have people who love them. Who may not appreciate us pouring out all our wrath on someone they care about. So of course, they are going to strike back. In their defensive stance, they might seek to excuse or downplay the hurt that has been caused. Or smear the character of the victim. There’s also another thing that happens when communities have gone especially dysfunctional. When a community cannot find peace among themselves, they will often unite around a common enemy, and pour out their rage on a scapegoat. Failure to forgive can tear the social fabric of friendships, marriages, neighborhoods, even churches, to shreds. So forgiveness must often involve entire communities.

This means forgiveness is not—at least not primarily—a private and personal matter. It is relational. It is social. And forgiveness has a definite end or goal. Forgiveness looks to break cycles of hurt, resentment, and retaliation that tear relationships and communities apart.

The alternative to forgiveness

Going back to our supplemental reading from Matthew, Peter asks: Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times? To which Jesus replied: Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. What many fail to notice is that seven and seventy-seven aren’t just arbitrary numbers that Jesus and Peter picked out. They go all the way back to the first book of the Bible. Genesis 4, to be precise.

Genesis 4 records the story of the first murder, when Cain killed his brother Abel. God exiled Cain, and Cain was afraid of retribution: anyone who finds me will kill me, he said. God promised Cain he wouldn’t let that happen, and put a mark on him that told people to keep their hands off Cain. God promised that anyone who kills Cain will be paid back seven times (Gen. 4.14-15).

Skip forward a few verses and a few generations, to Gen. 4.19-24. We meet Cain’s descendant, Lamech. Lamech was a violent man, who went around bragging: I killed a man for wounding me, a boy for striking me; so Cain will be paid back seven times and Lamech seventy-seven times.

Peter thought he was being extravagant when he offered to forgive an offending brother seven times before he let them have it. But Jesus knew the truth—we’re way past Cain. Jesus knew that this is Lamech’s world. A world that seeks seventy-sevenfold vengeance. An unforgiving world, where offended people cry out for blood.

Jesus was drawing a deliberate contrast between Lamech’s desire for seventy-seven times the vengeance; and the disciple’s willingness to forgive seventy-seven times.

Forgiveness is the alternative to Lamech’s world, where resentment and outrage and a need for vengeance leads to death. If that doesn’t move you enough, let me flip it around the other way for you. The alternative to forgiveness is Lamech’s unforgiving world, where people will kill you for looking at them the wrong way.

Whenever you or I refuse the way of forgiveness, we are tilting our world in Lamech’s direction. But when we choose forgiveness—no matter how small or great the offense—we are guiding our world off the way of Lamech.

The way of forgiveness

In our reading from 2 Corinthians today, we heard Paul tell the church that: The punishment handed out by the majority is enough for this person. This is why you should try your best to forgive and to comfort this person now. So we see that the church had to confront the injury this person had caused as a community. But when the person repented, the church also reached out as a community to forgive and reintegrate them into the body. Like I said, when one of us injures another, if it is not dealt with—if it’s not confronted and worked through—the entire body suffers. The fabric that weaves us together is shredded.

Probably the Corinthian church went through a process with this person like the one described in Matthew 18.15-20. That was the immediate context of our supplemental Gospel reading today. Too often in the church we have understood and used these verses as a process for shunning. But Jesus meant them first as practical instruction for the often messy work of conflict resolution. A process for forgiveness of an offender, not their shunning.

Jesus said: If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. Let me say something about these words up front. I know of churches that have used this instruction to force victims of abuse—physical, emotional, spiritual, even sexual—to confront their abuser privately. The letter kills, y’all. That turns forgiveness into law for the victim and grace for the offender. Matthew 18.15-20 simply will not apply to every situation.

But Jesus does lay some responsibility on the injured party to confront the one they believe has sinned against them. Sometimes we may decide that an offense is too small to mention. But even small wounds fester. Jesus does not want us to risk losing our sister or brother, or ourselves, because we allow resentment to infect the relationship. A sin that isn’t confronted can’t rightfully be forgiven. If a sin has not been truthfully named, any forgiveness that follows is based on a lie. If the wound it has inflicted on its victim has not been honestly acknowledged—if the offender is allowed to minimize the hurt they have caused—then that forgiveness is based on a lie.

Jesus continued: But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. If the two of you can’t work it out between yourselves, then you bring one or two others. It’s often the case that a fresh set of eyes and ears can help to sort out the problem. Perhaps you were wrong about being wronged. Whatever the case, the purpose for bringing one or two others into the conflict is not so that they can gang up on the other person and force them to see things our way. They are there to nurture both the offender and the one they have wounded toward forgiveness.

But if they still won’t pay attention, Jesus said, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.

This isn’t a matter of the church kicking someone to the curb. Someone who refuses to acknowledge the hurt they have done to someone else is really refusing to be forgiven. That person has made themselves a stumbling block for the entire church community. How can someone who refuses to be forgiven by their sister or brother who is right there with them, accept forgiveness from the God they cannot see? By refusing to be forgiven, that person has cut themselves off from the church—the forgiven community. We also need to be careful how we hear Jesus. He said to treat them as you would a Gentile or tax collector. Whatever else that might mean, it doesn’t mean that the church cuts off all contact with the person. Jesus himself ate with tax collectors, and healed Gentiles. Tax collectors and Gentiles were the mission field. The church still has a responsibility to offer forgiveness to the offender.

Once the sin has been confronted; the hurt that sin has caused the victim has been acknowledged; and the one who has sinned against their brother or sister has been won back; Paul says: you should try your best to forgive and to comfort this person now instead, so that this person isn’t overwhelmed by too much sorrow. Forgiveness restores relationships and rebuilds community by allowing us to own what we have done, or what we have suffered, and still be able to carry on. We don’t have to go on seeing ourselves as offenders or as victims forever. Forgiveness creates a new future for both the victim and the offender, because our past is not allowed to have the final word.

The work of forgiveness [2]

Forgiveness is hard and messy work. It’s also something that most of us don’t do well on our own. Forgiveness is a craft or skill that must be developed. In this way, it’s like learning to build cabinets or lay bricks or crochet little hats for babies or play the piano. And like any craft or skill that must be mastered and honed and practiced, the best way to learn is to apprentice ourselves to a master of the craft. That’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We are apprenticed to the master of forgiveness. The one who was able to pray, Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing, for the men who were killing him (Luke 23.34). Being apprenticed to Jesus also means being bound to his forgiving Father, who refused to give up on us even after we murdered his Son. We learn forgiveness by practicing forgiveness. But most of all, we learn forgiveness by being forgiven, ourselves.

By the way, when Jesus prayed that the men who killed him would be forgiven, I doubt he meant for his Father to pretend it never happened. I’m quite certain what he wanted was for their hearts to be broken, so that they’d find some other line of work than nailing Jews to crosses. Truthful forgiveness transforms the forgiven person.

Several years ago, Anne Tyler published a remarkable story about the transforming power of forgiveness in her novel, Saint Maybe. [3] The hero of the story is named Ian Bedloe. When we first meet Ian, he’s a nineteen-year-old college freshman. Ian suspects that brother’s wife is cheating on him, and tells him so. His brother gets plastered and drives into a brick wall, killing himself. A few months later, his brother’s wife kills herself with an overdose of sleeping pills. This leaves behind three orphaned children, for Ian’s aging parents to raise.

Ian is eaten up by guilt every day of his life. He blames himself for the deaths of his brother and sister-in-law, and their three orphans that his parents are raising. One evening by a twist of fate, Ian ends up in a storefront church called the Church of the Second Chance. The preacher, Reverend Emmett, is leading a prayer service. And Ian has a prayer request: “Pray for me to be good again,” he asks. “Pray for me to be forgiven.”

After the service, Ian reveals to Reverend Emmett what it is he needs to be forgiven for. He confesses that he told his brother his wife was cheating on him, even though he wasn’t sure it was true. He tells how both his brother and sister-in-law committed suicide, and he feels at least partly responsible. And he reveals to the preacher that his parents are now having to raise the children. Then the conversation between Ian and Reverend Emmett unfolds:

“Don’t you think I’m forgiven?”

“Goodness, no,” Reverend Emmett said briskly.

Ian protests: “But . . . I thought God forgives everything.” Reverend Emmett agrees. “He does. But you can’t just say, ‘I’m sorry, God.’ Why, anyone could do that much! You have to offer reparation—concrete, physical reparation.”

Ian wonders what sort of “concrete, physical reparation” he can offer. After all, he had a hand in two deaths. He helped orphan three children. He can’t raise their parents from the dead! Panicked, he asks: “But what if there isn’t any reparation? What if it’s something nothing will fix?”

Reverend Emmett answers: “Well, that’s where Jesus comes in, of course. He helps with what you can’t undo. But only after you’ve tried to undo it.”

Perhaps some of you are getting twitchy over Reverend Emmett’s brand of religion. Me, too. I’m not sure I follow his theology to all its finer points. But I think what Reverend Emmett was trying to tell Ian is that forgiveness can only do the work that forgiveness was designed to do, when sin and the wounds it has left have been named; and when the offender has taken ownership of the pain they have caused. Ian confessing his sin to Reverend Emmett was only the beginning of the process.

I don’t want to give away too much more of the story. But Ian’s journey toward forgiveness continues as he confesses to his parents the role he played in the deaths of his brother and sister-in-law. Then Ian drops out of college; apprentices himself to a local cabinetmaker; and devotes his life to raising the children his brother and sister-in-law left behind.

What Ian Bedloe learns along the way is that forgiveness is so much more than being absolved for a wrong we have done. It’s also much more than fire insurance to keep us out of hell after this life. Forgiveness reclaims and heals our past, and frees us for a new future with hope here and now. For Ian Bedloe, forgiveness meant caring for those three children. Raising them was how he took ownership of the harm he had caused. That was his “concrete, physical reparation” that Reverend Emmett spoke about. And those three children brought many gifts into his life that would not have been possible otherwise. His life was blessed and made richer because he sought forgiveness, and was willing to be forgiven—whatever the terms.

Well, church, every Sunday morning in this family, we gather to share the Lord’s Supper. A weekly meal that tells us we are forgiven. Here’s my challenge to us. Is there anyone here you need to forgive? Is there anyone here you need to be forgiven by? I think it would be a sin and a shame to share a meal together that says we’re forgiven, but we haven’t forgiven each other. So you have a week. Reach out to them. I’m not saying that you have to come to full agreement by next Sunday, or have everything hashed out. I’m just asking you to reach out and start working on it. You never know what gifts will come into your life when you do.

[1] Colin G. Kruse, “The Offender and the Offence in 2 Cor 2:5 and 7:12.” The Evangelical Quarterly 60, no. 2 (April 1988): 129-39. Accessed May 26, 2016.

[2] This movement of the sermon is owed to Stanley Hauerwas, “Why Truthfulness Requires Forgiveness: A Commencement Address for Graduates of a College of the Church of the Second Chance,” in The Hauerwas Reader, 307-317, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001); and L. Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: a theological analysis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).

[3] Anne Tyler, Saint Maybe (New York: Ivy Books, 1991), 133.


One thought on “Real talk on forgiveness (2 Corinthians 2.1-10; Matthew 18.21-22) [Sermon 05-29-2016]

  1. […] Relief Fund. In the meantime, there’d been some intense drama between the Corinthians and Paul. We talked a bit about that a few weeks ago. Some highfalutin preacher boys from out of town had come to Corinth and tried to convince the […]

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