Five Marks of a Christian: Forgiveness (Luke 23:34)Pastor Jon Truax, September 24, 2017
Part of the Five Marks of a Christian series, preached at a Sunday Morning service
Five Marks of a Christian: Forgiveness
Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Have you ever used the expression, “Famous Last Words?”
In my family, we sometimes say that humorously when one of us utters something that could be taken as a grave, final mistake. Such as, “Well, that rope looks sturdy enough,” or “This potato salad is probably still safe to eat, right? It’s only been sitting out since last night.” These are words that are liable to be your last, even if you don’t yet realize it.
Our culture is fascinated by last words, those final speeches issued by souls about to die. Condemned prisoners, for instance, are often given a chance to make a final statement. But the last words of the rich and famous also make us take notice. Here are some examples:
Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple: “Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.”
Douglas Fairbanks, Sr: “I’ve never felt better.”
Roman Emperor Caligula: “I am still alive!”
Thomas Edison: “It is very beautiful over there.”
Queen Elizabeth I: “All my possessions for a moment of time.”
Oscar Wilde: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”
Groucho Marx: “This is no way to live!”
Karl Marx: “Go on, get out. Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.”
Pancho Villa: “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something!”
General John Sedgwick, in his last battle: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist...”
Have you ever given any thought to what your last words might be? Would you leave your friends and family with a message of hope, of encouragement, of good humor? Would you convey an emotion of bitterness, or irony, or sarcasm? Or would you depart with an expression of your deep love, and fondness, and gratitude for them?
I don’t yet know what words I would choose to be my last ones, but I deeply appreciate the last words Jesus left us. We all know that, when the time comes, we may not get to pick our final words, but I believe Jesus carefully chose his. He knew it was coming.
Every Good Friday, the Alliance of Churches sponsors a special afternoon service at Vine Street United Methodist Church where various preachers share about the seven last words of Jesus from the cross. The first thing that Jesus said as he was being nailed to the cross was a prayer, I believe, intended for his followers to model: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” according to the King James wording. The message is at once both stunning and startling, yet at the same time really no surprise coming as it does from the lips of Jesus. In some depictions of the crucifixion, these words are portrayed as spoken while the very nails are being driven into his hands and feet.
The plea that those responsible for his barbaric torture and gruesome death should be forgiven is shocking because of the sheer brutality Jesus is undergoing. To conceive that one could offer grace and forgiveness at a time like this, especially on behalf of those crucifying him, is enough to boggle our minds and overwhelm our imaginations. Is it any wonder that the centurion stationed at the cross later concluded, “Surely this was the Son of God?” Who could possibly forgive like that?
And yet…this is Jesus we’re talking about, the one who famously proclaimed that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, the one who always insisted that we should be willing to forgive as we have been forgiven. This is, after all, precisely what we ask for every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, and it was Jesus who gave us that prayer. Was this really more than just happy talk and empty platitudes, pleasant-sounding words for the crowds assembled in the heady days at the Sermon on the Mount? Apparently so, because Jesus was prepared to practice what he preached, even to the very end. When it came to the worst moment of his life, he did not abandon his teachings about forgiveness; he stuck by them, he embraced them, he lived them.
We are in the midst of a series called “Five Marks Of A Christian.” Last week we began with the characteristic of Joy, which we saw was present in the lives of Jesus and His followers in the early church and that ought to be evident in our lives as well. Today we’re exploring the mark of Forgiveness which permeates the New Testament and cannot be overestimated as a fundamental reality in the life of a Christian disciple. In this case, forgiveness means being forgiven and forgiving.
I was in a discussion with some other pastors recently when the sticky question came up: “Are you willing to forgive others without a demonstration of repentance on their part?” After considering the question, I responded that, yes, I believe in forgiving without requiring an apology first. “Then you’re saying you’re better than Jesus,” remarked another pastor. “Because even Jesus requires repentance.”
Have you ever been in a situation where you think of the perfect comeback ten minutes later? That was me that day. Because as I further reflected on that question, Romans 5:6-8 came to mind: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus Christ paid for our sins before any of us were even born. He offers forgiveness; we merely have to accept it, receive it. So often we have this image in our heads of having to work to get right with God first, before we ask forgiveness. But we can’t do that, we can’t make any progress in the Christian life, until we first come to him, just as we are.
Let’s me make this message very practical in the time that I have left. Let me talk about life today. Is forgiveness like this even possible? Or is it strictly reserved for those who are the Son of God like Jesus? Did Jesus demonstrate an impossible standard? Or are we really expected to live this way, too? I think those who came after Jesus showed that it wasn’t just him. The mark of forgiveness is for all of us.
Stephen is regarded as the first Christian martyr. We encounter his story early in the book of Acts: (After hearing Stephen preach about Jesus, the religious establishment) “covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Very close to another of Christ’s final words from the cross, by the way!) Then [Stephen] fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.” Stephen imitated Jesus in his life, and in his death. He imitated Christ in his forgiveness, too. Stephen even followed the example of Jesus in the words he chose to be his last.
I believe God answered Stephen’s prayer. Because rather than holding this sin against Saul, the Lord chose him to become a champion for the Christian faith. He became the man we know as the apostle Paul. Would that kind of total transformation be possible without forgiveness? Paul one day himself wrote about forgiveness. He commanded us: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
I believe that God answered the forgiving prayer of Jesus as well. Because beyond just that original crowd of crusty soldiers, bitter religious leaders, and shaky disciples who had played a part in Jesus’ execution, we must remember that we, too – our sins(!) – are responsible for our Lord’s death on the cross, just as much as our spiritual ancestors were. We, too, then, can stand in hope of forgiveness.
And the truth is that we not only need to be forgiven; we also need to forgive. To be like Jesus here. The opposite picture is bleak. To be a person who holds on to grudges, who withholds mercy, who refuses to forgive - is to be a person who is yet not fit for heaven. Forgiving others expands our hearts and transforms us into more loving, gracious souls.
I’ve heard a lot of good analogies and metaphors about unforgiving people as being the ones truly hurt by holding onto their resentment and refusing to forgive. One of my favorite authors, Max Lucado, describes the withholding of forgiveness as a prison. He wrote, “Forgiveness is unlocking the door to set someone free and realizing you were the prisoner!”
Max pointed out that when we put someone in our jail cell of resentment, we are stuck guarding the door, and that is a terrible fate. A prisoner may have it rough, but the guard has it even worse! Guards are even more confined than a prisoner. The guard must remain at his post, but the prisoner gets to walk around. The prisoner can relax, but the guard has to be constantly alert. You might object and say, “Yes, but the guard of the prison gets to go home at night.” True, but the guard of the prison of resentment doesn’t. He has to guard his resentment, nurse his grudge, and withhold forgiveness 24/7.
Lucado’s metaphor is true, but I think, in some ways, it is beside the point. Holding back forgiveness isn’t merely wrong because of how it limits and inhibits us – it would be wrong even if it didn’t!
Refusing to forgive is basically disagreeing with God. You want to exact a more severe punishment on sin than what God has judged to be best. When you refuse to forgive, you are telling God that He has it wrong about mercy, that your enemy needs to suffer and be put through the wringer, that they ought to be thrown into prison until the last penny is paid.
But who are we to tell God that? We are not merely an innocent bystander when it comes to sin – we ourselves are complicit and have been lawbreakers and sinners toward God many times over. So if we tell God that, then He will let us have our way on issues of justice and mercy in our lives. He will apply the very standard that we use – to us.
If we insist on asserting our rights and withholding forgiveness, we will only fall into the snares that we set for others. We become like Haman, executed upon the gallows he built for Mordecai. We become like the unmerciful servant, thrown into prison when he could have been a free man, all because he refused to let a fellow servant go free as well.
How would you inventory your forgiveness? How would you perform on a checklist of your Christlikeness in this area of forgiveness?
We so often struggle to forgive, not about being nailed to a cross, but about often petty matters in comparison. And what about those weightier sins that some of us have undergone – when we’ve been attacked, cheated, lied to, violated - physically and emotionally? Are we able to forgive as we desire to be forgiven?
As we close today, consider this: Forgiveness is not for the weak; it’s for the strong. We often have a misconception that forgiveness is somehow shrugging our shoulders, giving up, and saying something along the lines of, “Well, I guess what you did wasn’t so bad. I excuse it.” But that’s not what forgiveness is at all. Forgiveness isn’t excusing.
Forgiveness is a clear-eyed analysis of the situation, taking into full account the wrongness and severity of the misdeeds. Forgiveness is looking squarely into another’s eyes and saying, “What you did was horrible, and it’s inexcusable, but I’m not going to hold it against you. I release you, and I pray for God’s will, His best, to take place in your life.” Ultimately praying for our enemies means praying for God’s best for them, for God’s will to be done in their lives, for reconciliation between them and God, for God to forgive them.
I believe this is what Jesus had in mind when he called out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Forgiveness is so central to the teaching, ministry and example of Christ, that he took it to the very cross with him. And if we are to be His disciples, authentic forgiveness, both received and dispensed, must mark our lives as well.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do. And help us to forgive others, as we ourselves have been forgiven.”
May we all grow in grace to be more like him, our Savior and Lord and Forgiver!
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