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Traditional – The Good Fight: Forgiveness – The Final Form of Love | Rev. Michael Bowman

Scripture Reference – Colossians 3:12-15 (NRSV):

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 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. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.

On the evening of June 17th, 2015, a 21 year old white male named Dylann Roof entered the Fellowship hall of an historically black congregation known as Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He sat down amongst the group, gathered there for their weekly Bible study. He waited until the end of the Bible study was over when the group closed their eyes one last time for their final prayer.

When he took out his handgun and opened fire, killing nine people, including the church’s pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney. This selfadmitted white supremacist said of the massacre in his confession, I’ll save you most of the language he used, but he said I had to do it because somebody had to do something. And to summarize the rest of it, it was clear through his confession that in Roof’s eyes, black people needed to be eradicated from this earth.

Two days later, the family members of the victims went to the court hearing Roof’s bond hearing, in fact. And the judge presiding over this hearing gave the family members a chance to address the court and give a statement if they so wish. Nadine Collier, who is the daughter of Ethel Lance, who had been murdered that night by Roof, began her statement saying, I forgive you, I forgive you.

You took something really precious from me, and I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.

Other family members, shockingly, would go on to do the same thing. And my question is, why? Why forgive? What kind of a person could be able to forgive someone of doing something so horrible in the name of something just as evil? The Reverend Dr. Norvel Goff, at this point in his career, a very seasoned pastor, had been doing it for for some odd decades at this point, was appointed by the bishop of the AME Church in South Carolina to now lead this traumatized congregation.

Their first Sunday back and worship was Father’s Day. And in his very first sermon, Reverend Dr. Goff kind of gives us an answer as to why they were able to forgive. Goff said a lot of folk expected us to do some things strange and break out in a riot. Well, they just don’t know us. They don’t know us because we are a people of faith.

We believe that when we put our forces and heads together working for a common good, there is nothing we cannot accomplish together in the name of Jesus. He went on to say, I’m reminded by some news media persons who said, I wonder why the nine families all spoke of forgiveness and didn’t have malice in their hearts. Well, on this Father’s Day, you ought to know the nine families.

Daddy, if you knew the nine families, Daddy, you’ll know how the children are behaving. You probably guess it at this point. But our topic today and this sermon is forgiveness. And because we’re talking about forgiveness, I want to begin by being as clear as I possibly can be. I want to be clear because in my experience and from what I’ve heard from other people, as I’ve asked this question, the topic of forgiveness has been something we preachers have not done well with when preaching on such things.

We preachers stand week in and week out in front of a congregation, in front of a group of people, some of whom are looking for hope, some of whom are looking for belonging, some of whom are looking for safety in their church. And as preachers, this is just my opinion. But we have primarily given sermons on the topic of forgiveness that have been harmful rather than helpful.

It hasn’t been done well. And because that is true, or at least because I think that is true, I want to offer a sermon to you this morning as carefully and with as much sincerity and sensitivity as I can. So before we even get really into the meat of the passage and what is going on here, I think I just need to clear up some things about forgiveness.

For example, the after use phrase of forgive and forget. You’ve heard this right? Forgive and forget. Sounds really good. I think it’s terrible advice. Forgiveness is not forgetting forgiveness most of the time has to do with remembering. Remembering what has been done to you. Remembering any of the harm that someone hasn’t acted upon you. Remembering how someone has hurt you.

Remembering and forgiving does not mean that you simply are to forget such things ever happened. How could you? Forgiveness also doesn’t excuse anything that has been done and it does not condone someone of their actions. You see, there are people in this world who are divisive. There are people in this world who are toxic, who are abusive, who are harmful.

You probably have some people coming to mind right now. And because that is true, sometimes forgiveness means remembering so that you can set up boundaries or eventually even leave that person behind. And because the statistics are overwhelmingly and unfortunately true in a group this size, I think it needs to be said, if he’s hitting you, get out. Please hear that from your pastor.

With all the love that I have and can muster up, find help, leave if you can get out. Forgiveness is not about going back to that relationship, seeking to repair it. Forgiveness necessarily doesn’t have to have reparations happen. See, there’s a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Reconciliation has to do with two people, two people on agreed upon circumstances or expectations, whereas forgiveness can be one sided.

Forgiveness and forgiving someone means that you can do so at a distance and you don’t have to return back to that relationship to that person. It’s recognizing that the relationship may never be as same, the same again. And that’s okay. Finally, I want to say forgiveness does not release someone from the consequences of their actions. That’s important. It’s not releasing someone from the consequences of their actions.

Now, forgiveness is also personal. What I mean by this is I’ve heard often from folks, friends of mine, even that I could never forgive that organization, that former place of employment. I can never forgive the church, which, of course not. You might have reason to say that, but of course not, because those things don’t have a face. You can’t forgive something.

You can only forgive someone. What you really mean when we say such things as valid as those statements might be, is you really are saying I can’t forgive him. I could never forgive them for what they said, for what they did, for how they harmed me or that person, which is all valid and good. I hear you. But it’s always personal.

And forgiveness will take naming that person, naming what was done and naming any of the harm that we may have experienced in order to set ourselves free. We’ll come back to that idea later on. Forgiveness is personal, but it’s also a process and healthy relationships. You might have a spat with someone. I might say something rude or mean that I didn’t actually mean to say.

And then I come and say, I’m sorry. You’ll forgive me. Well, hug. That’s it, right? We move on like nothing happened. All good. But most of the time, forgiveness is a process. It’s a process because maybe you’re 45 years old and you’re starting to have panic attacks and you’re wondering where are these coming from? So you’re working it out in therapy and you realize that these feelings that you have, these anxieties that you’re experiencing are attached to something that happened to you earlier on in your life, maybe when you were a child.

And now forgiveness is the process of coming to terms with such things having happened, naming who was involved and gently, slowly, hopefully with some help, walking your way through it.

It’s a process. Okay. That was a lot. We can all take a deep breath now. This is pretty heavy for a Sunday morning, but you gave me forgiveness to talk about. So here we are. I guess it was my fault. We’ll blame him in relation to the series that we are in today. We’re finishing up my sermon series on the good fight.

This is the kind of fight where we are fighting for. We’re not fighting against. And in any good fight and which you are fighting for, the conclusion, the rightful conclusion is forgiveness. And here’s where it gets a little bit heavier and a little bit harder for us, because if you call yourself a Christian, if you proclaim and profess faith in Jesus, that you are apprenticing under him and his ways and want to live like him in this world, well then forgiveness for you and for me is mandatory.

It’s not an option. And his Sermon on the Mount Matthew chooses to place the Lord’s Prayer right there in the middle. And Matthew six, Jesus is teaching his disciples to pray by giving them a prayer, to pray. And he says, Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. We prayed at a moment ago with Maggie leading us, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Jesus clears up a little bit of what he means by forgiveness. If you notice at the end of Matthew six there, right after his teachings on the Lord’s Prayer, he says, for if you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your father. Forgive your trespasses. If you forgive, you will be forgiven.

If you do not forgive you won’t be forgiven. Has anybody ever felt like this following Jesus thing is hard. Okay. You guys laughed at 830. We didn’t get laughter, so that’s good. I know. I’m in good company. Then these words of Jesus are echoed by the Apostle Paul in the passage that Maggie wrote for us earlier in Colossians, when Paul wrote to the church there, 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. Now, hearing that, did you notice that Paul changed the order? Jesus says it, or at least according to Matthew’s gospel, if you forgive, you’ll be forgiven. Paul says it. You’ve already been forgiven. The Lord has forgiven you. So now you must go and forgive. Likewise. But the question for us this morning is how?

How do we do that? How do we become the kind of person who is capable of forgiveness? How do the family members of nine innocent victims killed in cold blood stand before their family members, killers, look him in the eye and say, I forgive you? How do we forgive our parents? How do we forgive our spouses? How do we forgive our siblings or those who are closest to us who have hurt us the most?

How do we forgive? Feel okay with that, I’d like to reread the entire passage from Colossians three that Maggie read a moment ago. It goes like this. Paul wrote, As God’s chosen one’s holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another. And if anyone has a complaint against another or forgive each other, just as the Lord is forgiving you so you also must forgive, He says, above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds all things together in perfect harmony and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts to which indeed you are called in the one body and be thankful.

I reread these words for you. I offer these up to you again because I could have chosen one of the Jesus passages to preach on. But there’s something happening here. I think Paul is doing something beautiful. Did you notice with this command to go and forgive? It’s in the middle of all the other things he sang. I think this is on purpose.

I think Paul is trying to draw attention to the fact that if you want to be a kind of person who forgives, then you must bear in your life the characteristics of compassion and kindness and humility and meekness and patience. You see, to be able to forgive means having the capacity within you to share compassion with others. Compassion is the word we translate from the Greek and the Greek.

It’s two words. It’s actually a phrase and going to do some Greek with me. You ready? Because I’m not going to be the only one sounding like a fool. The words in the Greek that we translate to compassion are the words spoken on. You say Black, non. come on. Just a little bit. Splats non. All right. Don’t spit on anybody.

And the next word is autonomous. Good black, non or tier mass. You know what that means? It’s black, non or tier moss. Yeah. I’m going to mess it up. I’m going to stop saying it. It means bowels of Mercy’s bowels. Like what’s inside of you, of mercy is what Paul is saying is deep within you fostered and nurtured somewhere deep within the bowels.

You have a feeling associated with this is mercy of which there is so much there that it comes up and spills out you and you are able to offer it to others. That’s compassion and a forgiving person is capable of showing and sharing that kind of mercy, that kind compassion with others. To be able to forgive requires being someone who’s kind to others, whose life has been formed in humility and out of humility.

It’s the kind of person who moves and interacts with others gently, that is meekness. The forgiving person is someone who possesses the ever so rare gift of patience. But above all, as Paul says to the church in classic, the forgiving person has built their life on love, the kind of love which binds all things together in perfect harmony.

The kind of this kind of love, rather, is the foundation of forgiveness. It’s the starting point, because forgiveness is ultimately the result of love. And yet there’s more. Paul continues as he encourages his readers and his hearers to let the peace of Christ. He would say to another church, The peace that surpasses our own understanding. Let that kind of peace rule in your hearts.

Let it be the determining factor of your life. Let it rule and control the way in which you live. Because this is what forgiveness offers us. Ultimately, it offers us peace. The Greek term for peace there is the word Eritrean, which is a Greek translation of a Hebrew word that you might be more familiar with is the word shalom.

And you probably know this, but shalom means peace. Absolutely. It means calmness of being. But really it means deeper than that wholeness. And more than that, even shalom means freedom and see forgiveness as gifts us with freedom. Now, if you’re sitting here today thinking to yourself, well, no wonder forgiveness is so difficult. You and me both, I certainly don’t have this figured out.

I’ll admit probably speaking for all of us, but at least speaking for myself, that it doesn’t come easy. Forgiveness takes an inner work. Now, if you’ve ever been in therapy or received some type of counseling, then you probably up on the reality that inner work leads to transformation. Inner work leads to outer transformation. And the same is true of forgiveness, which, by the way, is a really great thing to work out in therapy.

Go to therapy. My wife’s a therapist. Just Maggie, I got to do a shameless plug. My turn, shameless plug, go to therapy. It’ll be good for you. But inner work leads to outer transformation. You see, we must first receive forgiveness ourselves and then receiving forgiveness. We can then begin to understand what it looks like and what it feels like and maybe become more capable of expressing it and sharing it with others and turn. We talk about embodying the way of Jesus together here at Asbury and to embody the way of Jesus together looks like forgiving one another.

We’re going to have to at some point. And let me repeat myself. For the follower of Jesus, forgiveness is not an option. I wish it was, but it’s not even hanging on the cross. Struggling to catch his breath, Jesus cries out to God the Father, forgive them. You know, I think I think the Christian is defined primarily in two ways.

A Christian is defined by our love for enemies and in our ability to forgive one another. We are defined if we if we call ourselves a follower of Jesus by our love for enemies and our ability to forgive. And I think that is so, because in our loving of enemies and in our forgiving one another, what we are doing is we are allowing ourselves to, metaphorically speaking. 

Okay, take our hands off the throat of that person. Take our hands off the throat of that person who has harmed us, who has said that thing about us or to us, who has hurt our feelings, who broke our trust, and not only set them free, but maybe even more importantly, set ourselves free and loving our enemies and our ability to forgive one another.

What we are doing is we are choosing to lay down the heavy baggage of anger and resentment and rage and revenge that has been put on us by someone. We didn’t ask for it. And when we forgive someone, we are choosing to let it go, to lay it down, to open our hands, and then our hands are now freed up, we can receive what it is that Jesus is offering us to learn from Him how to live freely and lightly.

Paul writes to the church in Galatia, It’s for freedom that Christ has set us free again. Forgiveness gifts us with freedom. Now, arguably one of the most important theologians of his time, he actually passed away only about six years ago around this time, actually, the late James Cone was asked about how these family members could forgive Dylann Roof for what he did.

He begins talking about the church, begins talking about Jesus, and then he says this line about forgiveness or said rather, this line about forgiveness, concert forgiveness is a form of deep spiritual resistance. Deep spiritual resistance. Well, what are we resisting when we forgive someone? We are resisting these simplistic and I would argue, weak notion of being one who thinks that they can take revenge into their own hands.

When we forgive, we are resisting the tendency to gossip and return. When we forgive, we are resisting the lie that one must carry around the weight and the burden of the harm that was done to them any longer. When we resist, or rather when we forgive, we resist the myth of redemptive violence. Have you heard of this? It’s the belief that if violence is enacted upon me, then I should just enact violence and return thinking that will solve the problem.

But it just creates this endless cycle. When we forgive, we put an end to such a cycle from continuing. Forgiveness is a form of deep spiritual resistance and a choice to allow ourselves to be set free, free from for free, rather to move on, free to care for others without holding any kind of grudge or resentment. And I should go ahead and tell you forgiveness is not fair.

It’s not fair because it has its roots in love. Forgiveness is not fair. Forgiveness. To think about it this way. Forgiveness is the fruit produced by the seeds of grace. The late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr gives us our charge today. He once said that we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness. So Nadine Collier Through tears, I went back and watch that hearing again this week.

Through her tears, she looks into the eyes of her mother’s killer and she says to him, I forgive you. And at the end of her statement, she comes back to that sentiment. She says, God forgive you and I forgive you.

That’s what forgiveness looks like. That is what we call the final form of love. That is deep spiritual resistance. That is the outward expression of someone who understands what forgiveness is really about, who has experienced it for themselves in such a way that it has shaped and formed their very being of someone who has let the peace of Christ rule in their heart.

And so may we all, little by little, find ourselves as being able to forgive. Now I ask the question how you might still be asking the question. Okay, that all sounds good, but how do we do it? How? I don’t have a great answer for you because it’s really hard and it’s not fair. However, maybe this is something you can do on your phone app.

Maybe this is a conversation you’re going to have over lunch. Sorry if I brought the energy down for that lunch you were looking forward to today. Maybe you can write it down on your notes on the back of your bulletin or tattoo it somewhere on your body so you’ll always remember it. But I think we become the kind of people who are able to forgive when we first forgive ourselves, when we actually accept forgiveness for ourselves, when we receive the forgiveness that God doling out to us in and through his son, Jesus Christ.

And I think that once we can accept that forgiveness, once we can, this is what I would write down if I were You can accept the fact that I am forgiven. Well, then maybe that will do something within us, bring about some kind of healing, some type of understanding, some type of peace that goes beyond all understanding. And then maybe we can become the kind of people capable of offering forgiveness to others.

I mean, that’s a let’s pray almighty, ever loving, everlasting and always present God. We give you thanks for this morning. I give you thanks specifically for this church, for the people gathered in this room. I thank you for what it is that you are doing and our midst help us to seek to be a people who are embodying the way of Jesus, but not alone.

Together, that we might become the kind of people who then express forgiveness, not forgetting what was done, not excusing the harm, not condoning the actions, but being able to forgive. What would happen to this community if Asbury was full of people like that? What would happen to Birmingham or this world if the church stood up and truly lived into what Jesus has called us to do, to love enemies and to forgive others?

It’s hard. God. We confess that it’s difficult, but help us. We believe that you can and we trust you by the help of your spirit that you would molest and shape us more into the likeness of your son, that you would bind us more together in unity, that we would be a people who truly love God and love others as ourselves. We ask all of this in the name of Jesus. Amen.