Forgiveness is fundamental and foundational to the Christian faith. We cannot be followers of Jesus if we are not willing to ask for and offer forgiveness. Jesus taught us this when he taught us to pray forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. To follow Jesus means we ask God and others to forgive us as well as offering forgiveness to others.
Jesus goes further and says that we really can’t be children reconciled to God if forgiveness is not part of our lives, look at Matthew 6:14-15. That last line is harsh. If we do not forgive others then God will not forgive us. We can’t be reconciled to God if we are not willing to allow forgiveness to be part of our lives. We have to ask others to forgive us and we need to be willing to forgive others. That this flow of forgiveness is really important is made clear when Jesus makes it two of his final words from the cross and three of his first words from the empty tomb.
The first of Jesus final words from the cross was, Father forgive them, for the do not know what they are doing. By making it his first proclamation from the cross – Jesus is making a statement to all who listen to him, trust him and want to follow him – you have to be willing to forgive. If we believe in Jesus and desire to live a life that reflects God’s love, power and grace then we need to take seriously this call to forgive. But Jesus doesn’t leave it there; after he rises from the dead and leaves behind the empty tomb he shows us and teaches again that forgiveness is part of what it means to be part of his family but here he shows us and teaches us what forgiveness is really all about. Let’s look at John 21:15-19.
To really understand this passage we need to remember what happened the night before Jesus was crucified. While Jesus was celebrating the Passover meal with his disciples he said that they were all going to fail him and let him down. Peter said to Jesus, no way. Even if everyone else fails you, Jesus, I will not. I never will. But then a few hours later Peter was standing in the courtyard after Jesus was arrested and when he was asked if he was a follower of Jesus, Peter said no. He denied he was a follower of Jesus and went on to vehemently deny that he even knew Jesus. Three times Peter failed Jesus, three times he betrayed Jesus. Three times Peter sinned against him.
In the hours and days to come, Peter had to face the reality of his failure. Watching Jesus beaten and crucified knowing that he had failed must have been hard and when Jesus died and was laid in the tomb Peter thought his failure and sin could never be forgiven or overcome. When Jesus rose from the dead, however Peter is given the opportunity to come to Jesus and find forgiveness and that is what we believe is taking place in John 21. This is a scene of forgiveness. The three times that Jesus says to Peter, do you love me what we are hearing Jesus say is, Peter are you sorry for your failure and sin. And the three times that Peter says, yes Lord you know that I love you, we are hearing Peter say, Jesus, I am sorry. So if this is a scene of forgiveness and reconciliation, then what does it teach us about forgiveness and reconciliation?
The first thing it teaches us is that forgiveness needs to be personal. Jesus comes directly to Peter and says, Peter, do you love me. Jesus addresses Peter personally and directly because Peter failed Jesus personally. After stating that he would never deny Jesus and never fail him – he did, not once or twice but three times so not once or twice but three times Jesus comes to Peter personally to open the door of forgiveness. So forgiveness has to be personal and this is one of the things that makes forgiveness so hard for us.
None of us like to admit that we are wrong and none of us likes to admit it personally and directly. It is not easy to sit down and look someone in the eye and say, I’m sorry I failed you or I’m sorry I hurt you. It is uncomfortable because we make ourselves vulnerable. We don’t know how the other person is going to respond, but there is no forgiveness without it being personal. We can’t just issue a blanket statement of apology and trust that it is good enough. If we have offended and hurt people personally then we need personally ask those we have offended to forgive us and seek to restore a healthy relationship.
As relationships in our culture become more and more impersonal as we communicate and connect with friends through social media, we can’t let go of the power there is in a personal apology. Email, cards, letters and notes are nice and maybe they open the door with people or break the ice – but what Jesus shows us here is that when it comes to forgiveness we need personal communication and personal connections. We need to look someone in the eye, take them by the hand and say to them – I’m sorry and I would like you to forgive me.
Not only does forgiveness need to be direct and personal but it needs to be sincere. Jesus asks Peter three times, do you love me and with each question he is pushing Peter to dig a little deeper into his emotions. Jesus wants Peter to come to terms with what he has done and acknowledge the pain and sorrow that it caused. Asking people to forgive us can’t come from the surface of our lives; it has to come from the soul. In other words, forgiveness has to come from a truly broken heart which is full of remorse. Psalm 51:17 says a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. True forgiveness only comes when our hearts are broken because of what we have done and our lives are ready to seek reconciliation. I wonder when it dawned on Peter that Jesus asked him three times if he loved him because three times he had had failed him? I wonder if it was that third time when Peter stopped and thought, three times, wait, I failed you three times, I denied you three times. Jesus, I am so sorry, yes I really do love you.
Words alone don’t mean anything. The words I’m sorry don’t mean anything if our hearts are not full of sorrow and our lives aren’t ready to work on reconciliation. Jesus asks Peter three times do you love me, do you really love me, are you sure you love me and this leads Peter to a place of remorse that allows there to be true forgiveness and reconciliation.
As we go to others and ask them to forgive us, we need to ask ourselves if we are truly sorry and remorseful. If we aren’t, then we need to ask God to open our eyes so that we might see the pain and hurt that our words and actions may have caused. That was the situation with King David. He had failed miserably and sinned greatly against God and others. He had committed adultery and then in an effort to hide his sin he conspired to murder and then he wasn’t willing to see the real hurt that he had caused. It wasn’t until a friend of his, the prophet Nathan, came to him and put his sin into perspective that David really understood what he had done. It was in that moment of self realization that he was able to ask God to truly forgive him.
To ask others to forgive us means we have to be truly sorry and broken hearted by what we have done. It’s not enough to just go through the motions and say the right words, forgiveness is more an attitude of the heart then the actions of the mouth so we need to dig deep into our hearts and souls and ask God to show us the pain and hurt we have caused so we can confess that when we ask others to forgive us.
So forgiveness needs to be personal and it needs to be heartfelt and sincere, but it also has to come with actions. It’s interesting that this conversations isn’t just, hey Peter are you sorry? And then Peter’s response, yes, Lord you know that I am sorry. And then they simply go back to fishing. There is more. Jesus goes on and says, then feed my lambs and tend my sheep. Forgiveness is not just expressed through words; it needs to be backed up and expressed through actions. Words alone cannot heal wounds and restore relationships, sometimes forgiveness needs something more.
Now let me be clear, God’s forgiveness is free. We don’t earn it and we could never pay God back for the grace and mercy he shows us, but God’s forgiveness does call us to act differently. Remember the word repent does not mean to feel sorry or even say we are sorry it is to turn, to literally turn and walk in a different direction which means living a new way and acting differently. Forgiveness has to come with changed actions and behaviors. Forgiveness has to come with a new life that reflects not only our remorse but a desire for reconciliation restored relationships.
What this changed behavior looks like is different in every relationships. In marriages it might mean clear boundaries that protect the integrity and bonds of love and commitment after someone has been unfaithful. In finances it might mean cutting up credit cards and allowing someone else to manage our money and set up our budget if our debt has skyrocketed out of control. With teenagers it might mean checking in often with your parents and handing over phones in order to reestablish trust and honesty. It is never enough to simply ask for forgiveness and then move on as if nothing ever happened, it wasn’t enough for Jesus. Change and accountability is needed.
This conversation Jesus has with Peter wasn’t to figure out if Peter really did love Jesus, Jesus knew that answer, it was to help Peter be sincere and teach him that with forgiveness comes change and new life. For Peter to once again follow Jesus it was going to mean that he had to spend his life feeding, caring for and tending to the followers of Jesus. Peter couldn’t just say, hey, Jesus forgive me and let me go back to life as normal – he had to be willing to work for reconciliation which meant allowing Jesus to set the terms of the new relationships. If we have offended someone and ask them to forgive us, then we need to allow them to help set the terms of a new relationship. It’s called accountability. Those we have hurt need to share with us what it will mean to rebuild faith and trust. We can’t set those terms. We have to allow others to do that. Peter doesn’t get to set the terms of what a reconciled relationship with Jesus is going to look like – Jesus does.
So forgiveness is personal, it has to be sincere and heartfelt, it has to include not only a changed heart but changed behaviors and actions and it will take time. That is the other lesson we learn here. The process of forgiveness and reconciliation takes time. It has already taken time here. This is not the first word of Jesus from the empty tomb, in fact; this scene could have taken place weeks after the resurrection. Sometimes forgiveness takes time. Finding the courage to ask people to forgive us takes time and finding the courage to forgive others takes time. Forgiveness is a process and we have to be willing to be patient with one another through the process.
If we are waiting for someone to come and ask us to forgive them, we need to give them time. They may not be at a place where they understand the depth of their sinful actions or they may be too embarrassed and afraid to come and talk with us. It may take them time. The same is true for us. We might not be at a place to forgive someone right now, but that does not mean we are unforgiving people, it just means we might need more time to heal and more time for God to shed his grace and mercy on us.
The people of Boston might not be at a place right now to forgive the man who terrorized their community, but in time and if remorse is shown by this individual and with a change or heart and attitude, forgiveness might be offered, but not without consequences. That is what we need to remember, forgiveness does NOT mean there are no consequences. Forgiveness does NOT mean that justice does not need to run its course – it does. We don’t just let people off the hook and act as if nothing happened, there are consequences to our actions and at times we have to work through those difficult and painful times and hold people accountable. But we don’t have to hold it against people forever. Forgiveness means letting of our pain and anger so we can heal and moving forward with peace and reconciliation of people are truly sorry and willing to live a new life, but let’s also be clear – this takes time.
As much as we might want the process of forgiveness to be immediate and complete in one conversation – it won’t be. It is a process of healing. Restoring trust and rebuilding relationships takes time and we need to give God, ourselves and others this time.
Even the end of this conversation gives us a sense of the time it was going to take for Peter to be truly reconciled to Jesus. It was going to take the rest of his life. Jesus says to Peter that when he is older he is going to be led to places where he might not want to go and some believe this was a foreshadowing of Peter’s own death on a cross. A reconciled relationship with Jesus was going to mean a lifetime of service and sacrifice for Peter, but Peter loved Jesus enough to accept that challenge and even rejoice in that new life.
So we learn a lot about forgiveness from this first word of Jesus from the empty tomb. Forgiveness is personal. We have to personally ask God to forgive us, we need to personally ask others to forgive us and we need to personally reach out and offer forgiveness to those who have offended us. Forgiveness must also be sincere and heartfelt. Can we offer to God truly broken, contrite and remorseful hearts? Are we truly sorry for our sin? Do we understand just how hurtful or words and actions have been toward God and others and are we willing to own up to that hurt and ask to be forgiven?
Forgiveness must also come with actions – a changed heart and life. Will we order our lives differently to show our desire to rebuild trust and reestablish relationships? Are we willing to sacrifice what we want to offer forgiveness to those we have offended? Are we willing to accept the sacrifice others are offering to us and work with them to reconcile relationship and reestablish unity in our family and the family of God? And are we willing to bear patiently with one another and allow the process of healing and reconciliation to take place. When it comes to asking for and offering forgiveness we really do need to listen to the words of Ephesians 4:2 and be patient, bearing with one another in love.
So Jesus teaches us what forgiveness looks like both in his final words from the cross and his first words form an empty tomb. Will we put these words into practice? Will we ask God to forgive us? Will we ask others to forgive us? Will we forgive others? This really is the foundation of our faith but it is hard and at times it is messy. I want to close this morning by giving us some time to think about what this means for us. If you look at the next steps we have provided for you this week you will see three sections.
The first has to do with all those areas of our life where we know we need God’s forgiveness and grace. Can we confess to God with broken and contrite hearts and open ourselves up to God’s grace?
The second section is to name all those people we have offended or hurt and those people we might need to ask to forgive us. It’s easier for us to name those who have offended us and need to come and ask us to forgive them, but we need to first ask ourselves, who do I need to confess to? Who needs to forgive me for my actions? We need to take some time to think about those we have sinned against and actually name them, name the sin and begin to think about what a process of forgiveness and reconciliation looks like?
And then can we name those people are areas of life where we need to forgive others? We might not be at a place where we can sincerely offer that forgiveness and that is ok – remember forgiveness is a process, but just naming them can be the start of that process.
We would like to provide some time for all of us to simply reflect and maybe begin to name and write down those areas where we need to ask for and receive forgiveness and grace.
First Words from the Empty Tomb ~ Forgive
1. Name those things for which God has forgiven you.
• Give thanks for God’s forgiveness and grace.
• Allow that grace to give you the strength to offer and receive forgiveness from others.
2. Name the people and situations in which you need to ask for forgiveness.
• Are you truly repentant?
• Do you really “love” these people?
• Can you ask them to forgive you this week?
• What will reconciliation and restoration of these relationships look like as you seek their forgiveness?
• How can you offer to begin to set things right?
3. Name the people who have offended you that God is calling you to forgive.
• What does forgiveness and reconciliation look like in these relationships and situations?
• Who can strengthen you, love you and pray for you as you offer this forgiveness to others and work toward reconciliation and peace?