The Practice of Merciful Forgiveness

A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on April 29, 2018, called “The Practice of Merciful Forgiveness.” The sermon is a reflection on Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount.

Here is a written excerpt:

Earlier, I said this: Forgiveness is a necessary part of the very fabric of the universe; it should be as ordinary as breathing, as everyday as eating and drinking.

That is, in fact, how Jesus talks about it in the Sermon on the Mount. Mercy is embedded in the Beatitudes, one of the essential qualities of those truly blessed by God. Forgiveness is embedded in the Lord’s Prayer, something we long for, we pray for, daily.

It’s also how Jesus talks about these things beyond the Sermon on the Mount. Teachings about forgiving another person not just once, not just seven times, but seventy times seven times. Stories about being forgiven a half-million-dollar debt but refusing to forgive a debt of a few thousand dollars. His example of scandalously, freely forgiving sinners, and of hanging on the cross, praying for the forgiveness of the very people who put him there.

Forgiveness is a necessary part of the very fabric of the universe; it should be as ordinary as breathing, as everyday as eating and drinking.

And so we need to make merciful forgiveness another of our daily spiritual practices, one of our “habits of holy love.” How can we do this? Two quick thoughts.

We can practise self-awareness of sin. This doesn’t mean beating ourselves up over our sin, but being realistic about it: we all sin, we all harm others, intentionally or unintentionally. 1 John 1 puts it pretty starkly: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

When we practise self-awareness of sin, it makes us more prone to seek forgiveness of others when we harm them. It also makes us less prone to judge other people for their sins, real or imagined.

We can also learn the liturgy of forgiveness, and use it regularly. The basic liturgy is simple: “I was wrong. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”—and in response—“I forgive you.” Teach this liturgy of forgiveness to your kids and grandkids and great grandkids; practise it yourself. No excuses, no conditions: “I was wrong. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” “I forgive you.”

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount presents us with a hard but important lesson: it is only in forgiving others that we can fully experience the forgiveness of God.

The truth is this: we are forgiven by God in order to forgive others. But if we do not forgive others, harboring resentment and or anger toward others, have we truly experienced God’s forgiveness? If we stand in self-righteous judgment over others, have we truly experienced God’s mercy? If we do not show lovingkindness to others, whether neighbours or enemies, have we truly experienced God’s love?

As hard as it may be for us to hear, the answer to these questions, from Jesus and the rest of the New Testament, is a resounding “No.”

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