I am indebted to Tim Keller’s explanation in ‘The Reason for God‘ on how forgiveness “works” for the following homily given at a recent funeral for a family member. Christians often stress the need for forgiveness, but don’t always do a very good job at explaining how and why it is needed and what it achieves for us. Perhaps the following will help you the next time you talk to someone about what it means to be forgiven by God.
As we say our farewells today and recall various memories, some that are heart warming, some heart breaking. Some of these memories make us laugh, others that might cause us to feel regret or sadness or something much stronger. Let us now consider what it means for us who remain, how to move forward.
A very full life has ended and now as a result, our lives will change. Whether that change means no more hot Christmas Day lunches or no more Trifle Dessert or perhaps that change means no more regaling of childhood adventures and stories that for some seem too much to be true. How many of those stories were fictional distractions and how many really took place? That is now a mystery she has taken with her.
For some of you there is now, time and space to grieve and, I think, to rest. For some there might be lingering thoughts and feelings of things left unsaid. Or perhaps there are some regrets of things spoken in haste, that may have been best left unsaid. What closure are you offered at a time such as this? That is what I would like to consider today.
As a Christian Minister I cannot afford to play the game of pretending everything is all sweet by and by. Jesus came to give his life for sinners and offers all who trust in him forgiveness. The confidence I hold when anyone returns to God and meets him face to face (whether they be a believer or not), that the judge of all the earth, God Almighty, will do that which is good and right for his glory.
How, though, do we move forward with confidence, hope and forgiveness?
When Jesus taught the Disciples to pray:
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”
He also said,
“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
When someone owes us money and we opt to forgive their debt, we are choosing to bear the cost of their debt. It requires sacrifice on our part. The debt does not magically disappear and go away. It must be borne by someone.
To bear that debt yourself and refuse to make someone else pay means you have chosen to suffer. If that debt is not merely financial but involves something where have been robbed of some happiness, your reputation, some opportunity or some freedom you could have otherwise enjoyed the suffering is much greater. Your sense of violation does not go away by someone merely saying, “I’m sorry”. To suffer in this way, means an incredible hurt that can often feel like a kind of death.
But forgiveness is a death that leads to resurrection and new life, hope and a future. Because with it, bitterness, cynicism and resentment also die because the fuel they need is removed and they subside. Only when you release the determination for the other person to get what’s coming to them will you have any chance of changing and healing. When you submit yourself to the suffering and cost of forgiveness you are expressing the greatest human act of sacrificial love to another and you will then open yourself to hope and your future.
It should not surprise us that God was determined to forgive us and not punish us for all the ways we have wronged him and each other. He went to the cross in the person of Jesus Christ and died there. He endured the greatest suffering of all to achieve forgiveness on a cosmic scale. His actual death and actual resurrection give us ultimate hope that all evil and all suffering is defeated through his forgiveness. Human forgiveness works because we unavoidably reflect the image of our creator extending forgiveness to us.
Jesus death is not some great moral lesson unless it is much more than that. It was absolutely necessary to rescue us. We had a debt to pay, but God himself paid it. We had a penalty coming, yet God himself bore it. His infinite suffering for our forgiveness means we can experience the freedom that comes from forgiving and being forgiven.
Let go of the past, things said and done, things not said and not done and having received God’s forgiveness in Jesus, forgive others and know closure and certainty of hope and future.