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A Sermon I needed to Preach… A Sermon I needed to Hear

October 1, 2013

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Since it seems to have struck a cord (positively and negatively) here’s Sunday’s Sermon manuscript:

 My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the 1990’s.  He chose the less aggressive way of treating it.  He died of died of prostate cancer in 2006.  He might well have beaten it had he chosen a more aggressive path.  We’ll never know.  After his initial treatments my mother was diagnosed with Leukemia and he spent most of his time caring for her.  While he was busy caring for her he failed to get follow up testing and the disease raged.  After my mother died and he had dealt with his grief and the many matters pertaining to the estate he began to look at his own life and health and decided he ought to have a physical check up.  And the diagnosis was grim.  He was given 6 months to a year.

 Friends, unforgiveness is like that.  It is a cancer that grows within.  It is a methodical and effective killer of our spiritual lives.  Just like heart disease, high blood pressure, and many forms of cancer, unforgiveness can grow undetected until it rears its ugly head with devastating consequences.  We have a medical term for the presentation of a disease without symptoms.  They’re called asymptomatic.  In our spiritual lives the situation is simply referred to as denial.  Christian often live in denial of their unforgiveness, unaware that it lies deep within the recesses of their souls, eating away at their faith, building resentment, frustration, and anger until it rears its ugly head – in a simple conversation about a deeply held conviction, in an event such as the incapacitating illness or even death of a loved one, or even in changes within the church, changes that in other healthier circumstances might be dealt with positively even humorously. 

 So many times in ministry I have discovered the unexploded ordinance of unforgiveness.  It is like a landmine waiting to be triggered by the unsuspecting.  I say something and boom and I have a mess in front of me.  Perhaps you have had this experience.  The comment can be innocent enough but you know when you have stepped in it.

 It ought not be so.  Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta, talks in terms of unforgiveness not fitting a Christian as if he, who wears a 41 long suit were to dress in a 62 short.  People would notice.  They’d tell him to go home and change his clothes.  Christians who harbor unforgiveness eventually become symptomatic.  They show signs of previous encounters to which they hold tightly.  Divorce, unfaithfulness, abuse, deception, teasing, humiliation.  This is the lot common to life in general.  But Christians are expected to handle it differently.  We are to forgive.  Not to tolerate.  Not to stuff down and ignore.  But to actively pursue forgiveness.  And that is costly.  It means that those of us who notice are supposed to bring it to your attention.  We’re supposed to be telling one another “that suit doesn’t fit you.”  The unforgiving attitude is unbecoming.

 In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says that he insists that those who would call themselves Christians must not live like the as nonbelievers.  They are ignorant.  Their hearts are hardened to the things of God.  But we who believe, we who have taken upon ourselves the yoke of slavery to the Lord Jesus Christ accept his way as the only acceptable way to live – “to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness…forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

 Each and every Sunday we pray – “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  This is a significant prayer.  We do not and we dare not ask God to forgive us more than we forgive one another.  In fact it presumes that we have forgiven each other before we seek God’s forgiveness for ourselves – and forgive us our debts as we have forgiven  is that actual Bible verse in Matthew; the Luke version says “Forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

 Let me ask you to intellectually think through the limitations on God’s forgiveness.  Is God unable to forgive some sins?  Is God unwilling to forgive some sins?  The only Biblical reference to such a concept is the sin that grieves the Holy Spirit – the context of which is where someone says that the work Jesus did is not by the power of God but by the devil – accusing the Holy Spirit of doing demonic work.  That is the one sin that cannot, that will not be forgiven.  Everything else, EVERYTHING else is forgivable.

 The sin your neighbor, your father, your spouse, your child, your rapist, your abuser, committed is not unforgiveable – by you or by God.  But harboring that unforgiveness seems to be something which we justify in so many ways.  “You don’t need to forgive that” our friends will admonish us.  “To forgive that sin, that crime, that whatever, would be to make light of it.”  WRONG!   The depth of the sin only reflects the depth of grace necessary for the forgiveness.  And Jesus Christ gave everything for our forgiveness.  So too are we expected to go to any lengths necessary to forgive those who sin against us.  One might argue that the depth of the unforgiveness we hold onto testifies to the depth of depravity within us as much as to the extent of the sin committed against us.

 So what does forgiveness entail?  It means freely giving up the resentment.  Freely sacrificing the anger. Freely surrendering any right we have to be mad, to feed hate, or to retaliate.  It means turning over the justice and the resolution of the situation to God.  But the thought of someone who wronged us being forgiven is hard.  We reason that it is different than the thought of our being forgiven by God.  Usually we think our sins pale in comparison to those perpetrated against us.  It’s easier to hold on to our unforgiveness that way. 

 To be unforgiving then is to voluntarily hold onto the anger.  It is a deliberate refusal to give up the resentment, the right to revenge.  And it is a slap in the face to God.  It is our way of saying to him that we don’t believe he is capable or interested in the justice of the matter.  We fear he might let someone get away with something.  Today’s litigious environment is exactly that – an environment of unforgiveness, of playing God, of seeking revenge BECAUSE we don’t trust God.  We shouldn’t have to pay the price…

 Think about the preposterous, arrogant nature of that thought for just a minute.  That the God of the universe, the all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present God knows less than we do or is less capable of dealing with it than we are, or would have us perpetrate another injustice in the name of justice.  Unforgiveness dethrones God and attempts to put us in his place.

 So how do we deal with sin in the family of God.  This morning’s passage in Matthew 18 makes it clear.  If we start from the 17th verse and work backwards everything falls into place.  The sin must first be worthy of something that would cause the church to exercise discipline and throw the person out treating them as a non-believer.  In other words in order to be considered something worthy of discipline or action it first has to be so significant that it warrants the person being considered not to be a believer.  It is something a true believer would NEVER do.  It is that significant a sin.  It is not a mistake.  Any other sin is not worth the action.  And then we go to the beginning.  Vs. 15 If your brother sins against you… This is only for believers.  It is to be assumed that non-believers will sin against us.  It’s what non-believers do.  And their sins aren’t even worth considering.  Forgive them they are not worth the trouble. 

 I expect behavior of Hollywood like I hear about in movies and in the news reports.  I don’t expect anything better.  But we are to have a higher standard of behavior for those in the church.  And so, when a brother or sister in Christ sins against US…. Oops.  Wait a minute.  Only those sins that are against us personally are worthy of our consideration?  What someone did to a friend of ours is none of our business?  When someone sins against us we are to go to that person.  If someone sins against a friend of ours, it is their responsibility to address the situation not ours.   This is not an optional process.  It isn’t presented as a “here’s one way to handle it.”  It is an IF this happens, then you are to…  We can’t use the excuse “I’m not comfortable with confrontation.”  We are directed, commanded to go to them and show the person their fault and to give him or her a chance to repent.  If they don’t, we go get someone else FROM THE CHURCH.  Not a non-believing friend or neighbor.  Someone from the church.  The church doesn’t air its dirty laundry in public.  We don’t talk about the sins of our church with non-believers.  It besmirches the image of God and degrades everyone else in the fellowship.  Nor does the church sweep its sins under the rug.  It doesn’t ignore them hoping they will go away or hoping that we can just live together in peace.  It deals with them. 

 So secondly we get a couple of folks from the church as we approach the believer whom we feel has sinned against us.  If he or she still refuses to deal with the issue we take it to the entire church, the congregation.  While sin may be personal IT IS NOT private.  It is a disease on the church which needs to be dealt with openly, honestly, and candidly but even more importantly with love in a forgiving manner.  To deny a brother or sister in Christ the opportunity for forgiveness is to withhold the very grace of God.  It is to play God ourselves.  It is to judge the other person and to judge God himself.  And in so doing we ourselves are judged.

 And yet unforgiveness plays not an insignificant role in our congregation.  It rears its ugly head in the strangest of circumstances.  I’ve heard unforgiveness (under the guise of “righteous indignation”) expressed over previous pastors being asked to leave, or over congregational members who led the charge to asked pastors to leave, over the misspending of money or the politicizing of the gospel.  I still hear anger and resentment, unforgiveness expressed over the closure of PCDC.  We need to build a bridge and get over it.  This is what the cross is all about. 

 In the Session’s recent planning work we labeled these points of unresolved conflict or unforgiveness,  as “freeze points.”   They’re places we are not able to get past because the sin and unforgiveness have not yet been dealt with.  These freeze points hinder the ongoing work or advancement of the church because of lingering issues of distrust which arise from this unforgiveness.  Sin is sin.  We are all guilty.  And we need to get over it.  We need to get over ourselves.

 Unforgiveness is a seed that grows.  It establishes long, strong and bitter roots.  And gossip is the fertilizer that feeds it.  Unforgiveness is unbecoming a congregation and unbecoming of every individual member of any congregation, and I dare to say that we each have our own share of unforgiveness.  After years and years of rehearsing the stories in our minds, we know what the truth is whether we were there or not.  We’ve convinced ourselves of it and or our right to be mad.  We trust the people that share the stories with us.  We associate with those that will affirm our own stories.  And the roots grow deeper. 

 There is a thorny vine in the front yard of the manse.  I have dug and I have dug and I am unable to come to the root ball, the original source of the vine.  It has become endemic. And every year if have to deal with it to keep it at bay.

 Unforgiveness is like that.  Unless or until we deal with it we will suffer.  Of course the earlier we deal with it the better.   It may not rear its ugly head until the sanctuary is painted, until the carpeting is replaced, until a staff member moves on, but it will rear its ugly head.  And it has.

 What we need is a movement of the Holy Spirit where members of this congregation, members of this community who consider themselves to be Christian, stand up and be counted; to stand up as men and women of God and confess their own complicity in the harboring of resentments, in the self-righteousness and arrogance of judgmentalism, in the unforgiveness that permeates who we are.  Unforgiveness is unbecoming a child of God.  It is unfitting.  It is a besetting sin.  It stifles spiritual growth.

 Is that unforgiveness in your heart for something someone has done but not to you personally, maybe to a friend or a family member?  Let it go.  You do not have the right to be unforgiving. The sin wasn’t committed against you.  Is that unforgiveness you harbor for something that does not prove the person is a heinous, reprehensible non believer?  Then let it go.  It’s not worthy of the energy you will expend nursing that grudge.

 And if that unforgiveness you harbor IS for something significant enough to cast the member out of the church if they don’t repent, then your responsibility is to address the situation in a biblical. Kind and loving manner.

 No matter how you view it, unforgiveness is never, under any circumstances, acceptable.

 So who is ready to confess the sin their unforgiveness and to resolve it with the offender?  Who is man or woman enough to stand up and to seek God’s forgiveness?  Who is Christian enough to go across the room, to make the phone call, to visit the house of the one who has so offended you and to extend a hand of forgiving fellowship, to admit your own complicity in holding on to resentments that have begun to eat away at you and even at this congregation’s fellowship, to either forgive and let go of all claims or to take action to resolve the difference.  You can’t have it any other way and call yourself a follower of Christ.  Unforgiveness doesn’t fit us.  It just doesn’t look good and it keeps us from doing what we really need to be doing.  It saps our energy.

 But rejoice and be glad.  In forgiveness, in dealing with our own sin of unforgiveness there is freedom.  In forgiving we release the person to God’s care, to God’s correction, to God’s provision for them.  We free ourselves from the bondage of discontent, anger, and resentment.

 Playing God can be very tiring.  Unforgiveness is draining.  I encourage you to give it up.  To give the throne back to God.    It’s freeing.  It’s healing.  It’s restorative.  It’s THE best health decision you can EVER make.  It doesn’t have any side effects like chemo therapy.  It isn’t as physically exhausting as exercise.  There are no pills to swallow.  Just our pride which is wrongly placed anyway.  Let go and let God and make a life that is truly worth living, one that models the grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Forgive one another as you want to be forgiven by God, for so shall we be.  Let us pray…

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Leith permalink
    November 12, 2013 10:07 pm

    Amen!!! Thanks be to God for this Word that resonates of Truth, and for the gift of the Spirit that is evident in your writing. May God give you grace to fan it into full flame! Shalom.

    • November 13, 2013 8:08 am

      And thanks to you, my faithful brother, for your ministry in that precious name which is above all names – Jesus Christ!

  2. Sue permalink
    November 24, 2013 1:20 am

    Thanks for these liberating thoughts on forgiveness. This truly spoke to me as I read it. Letting go of past sins really helps go forward with a renewed spirit.

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