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Apology and forgiveness

Read Luke 17: 1-5 to start.

A few weeks my wife had her hair dyed. She has a good friend who has done this for her in the past, and the same friend came over again and helped her with it. That friend’s husband also came along, he’s a friend of mine, and so we had some time to chat while all the hair colouring stuff was going on, neither of us had anything to contribute to that, and it was far better to stay out of the way. We talked about all that’s going on in the world today, in particular with our neighbour to the south, we talked about politics, we talked about school, we talked about literature. As it happens, we both went to the same high school, although a few years apart, and we had some of the same teachers, and so we reminisced about that. This is what happens when you get older, kids, you sit around and talk about the past way more than is really needed.

There was one teacher that he had for English that I never had, and he related something that had happened in her class that still remained reasonably fresh in his mind, even though 20 years and then some have come and gone. He related he had received a poor mark on an exam, even though he had written out a detailed and reasoned analysis of the question asked of the novel they had been studying, and specifically about which character had earned redemption through the story, and why. The reason for the poor mark was because the teacher completely disagreed with his answer. My friend had said that the main character, who out of resentment toward another character, had caused an accident that resulted in permanent injury to his friend. Through the novel this character comes to terms with what he had done, and eventually admits that he had brought harm to another. The teacher maintained that it was another character, the one who had been injured, and had therefore suffered more, who had earned redemption. My friend was unable to understand her point of view. He eventually realized that her opinion was most likely due to her staunchly Catholic background, that she put great emphasis on suffering as being needful, rather than the cycle of repentance, apology, and forgiveness.

This morning I would like to talk about apology and forgiveness, so if you were worried that I was going to spend the next 20 minutes on an analysis of a novel from the 1950s, you can rest easy. That being said, that conversation about that novel lead to the inspiration for this sermon. You see, after talking about unfairly graded exams, and the importance of apology, we moved into a discussion of the current cultural zeitgeist, how people are constantly offended about one thing or another, and how many people are unwilling to admit that they are wrong.

There is a political leader, an American political leader, one whom I’m sure we’re all familiar with, whose greatest flaw, and like every political leader, he has some flaws, but his biggest one is that he will never admit when he makes a mistake, or when he is wrong about something. He would sooner double down on ridiculous error, he would discredit and ridicule those who point out his mistakes, than he would ever say that he was wrong.

Of course, it’s hardly confined to one man. We see a lot of that when we look at the United States, and perhaps that is at least in part a result of the litigious culture that exists in that country, where the admission of wrong is taken as an invitation for a lawsuit. Many there are hesitant to say they are sorry, and that is a great problem, because it’s hard to make much headway on dealing with the faults of the past when people refuse to apologize.

At the moment we see wide ranging demands for change, for the wrongdoings of generations long past to be resolved, for current mistreatment of certain groups to be remedied, for longstanding attitudes to shift. That starts with an apology, an admission that wrong has been done.

Of course, all the demands for action, change, and apology, all the insistence upon redress for past wrongs, has it really changed much of anything? I’m not so sure that it has, at least not yet. Otherwise we would not see the same wrongs taking place again and again and again.

Here in Canada we of course say “Sorry” for almost everything, for slights real, imagined, or utterly inconsequential. On an official level, several different Canadian Prime Ministers have apologized on a number of occasions over the last few decades for wrongs that have taken place long ago, sometimes well over a century ago. And of course, our current PM and at least one of his senior cabinet ministers  have apologized several times recently, including in the last week, for personal failings and lapses in judgement. Sometimes our PM apologies about recent events, sometimes regarding incidents from two decades ago. Say what you will about him, he also has no shortage of flaws,  but at least he knows that it’s needful to apologize.

It’s important to apologize when we mess up, whether it’s due to accident, negligence or malicious intent, saying that we are sorry is an important second step. In our family, we have made a point of teaching our children to apologize thoroughly and in detail when they do something wrong.

Our apology model, and I’m not saying it’s the only way to do this, but it’s worked for us, is that the person who is apologizing goes through essentially a script to address the wrong. I’m sorry, sibling’s name, for pushing you, or calling you a name, or taking your stuff, or whatever. This was wrong because it was mean, or disobedient, or disrespectful, etc. In the future I will provide an example of positive alternative. Will you forgive me?

I say that apology is a second step, because before you can truly say you are sorry, you have to admit that you were in the wrong. You have to repent first, you have to look at what you have done, and agree that it has been flawed, or erroneous, or out and out wrong and transgressive. That is the first step.

Sometimes with our children, and frankly, with everyone’s children, and it’s just as bad with adults, I’m sure, there is a false apology. The half-humbled “Sorry” at the insistence of mom and dad. The reluctant “I’m sorry that you were hurt” or the insincere “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or the disingenuous “I’m sorry if I had a part in your situation.” I recall an old I think it was a Bazooka Joe comic, kids today won’t be familiar with this, but when I was young you could get individual pieces of bubble gum with a little comic strip inside. The gum was dry and hard and lost its flavour in five minutes, and the comics were no better, so you aren’t missing out on much. But I recall one of those corny little jokes that fits with this topic. An adult is telling one of the child characters “You told him that he was stupid. Tell him that you’re sorry.” “Okay teacher.” And the next panel is one child telling the other “I’m sorry you’re stupid.”

That may be amusing, but sometimes that’s about as good as it gets for an apology. We’ve likely all heard it, maybe we’ve been on the receiving end of such a sorry, maybe we’ve done it ourselves. But such an apology is no apology at all. With no realization of wrong, with no admission of error there can be no true apology.

That’s a massive problem that we see in the world around us, because it’s ever so easy to say the words “I’m sorry,” I’m sure as Canadians we say that every day, but it’s far more challenging to actually be sorry. To be sorry is to express sorrow for wrongs done. Sometimes apologies are issued because someone is forced to do so, and sometimes the only sorrow expressed is because someone got caught.

When politicians apologize for something that happened long before they were in power, how much does that actually mean? Sure, they might feel sad about terrible things that happened in the past, but does it change anything for anyone? There may be symbolic value to some, but in my mind it feels like an easy way to claim to have done something about a long standing problem, but not really to change anything, to improve anything. An apology for the mistreatment of any one particular group of people, for example, how many of those who were mistreated are still with us, and how likely is it that those saying the words ‘I’m sorry’ actually had anything to do with the mistakes of the past? I think we’ll all know the answer to those questions. But yet, that is what people are looking for, official apologies for past offenses, for places to be renamed because of the sins of our forefathers, for statues to be removed because of questionable and problematic behaviour, even if it may have been acceptable and normal at the time. And so we hear hollow apologies at every level, from the child on the playground to the top official behind his podium, we hear so many saying “I’m sorry” and so few who actually mean it.

As important as it is to apologize when we do wrong, as needful a secondary step as that is, it’s not the last stage. It’s not the most important thing. Often we think that apologizing is needful and once you say you’re sorry, then that’s final and done and all good, but there’s more. Forgiveness is the third step, the end point of that cycle. Repentance and apology lead up to forgiveness. On their own they might be helpful, but they are not complete. Without forgiveness, things are left unfinished and raw, prime for future offense.

In the verses we read to start, the word apology does not actually appear, but it’s clear what the subject matter describes. 3 Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. 4 And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him. There is a cycle there, a closed loop. A wrong is committed, offense is registered, in that the trespassing brother is rebuked, he repents, and then is forgiven. Seven times in a day the brother does wrong, and seven times he repents. Seven times he is forgiven.

In Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 18 to be precise, Peter asked the Lord how many times he should forgive his brother for a wrong, and he suggested up to seven times. Peter probably thought that was plenty of forgiveness to offer, because if someone wronged you more than that, well, that’s well beyond reasonable. But the Lord did not say that seven times was enough. At verse 22 of that chapter, Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. That’s 490 times if you don’t feel like doing the math. Essentially, forgiveness doesn’t stop. It doesn’t reach an end point. No one is going to keep count for those kind of numbers, not even the pettiest Pharisee, and the whole point is that you are not supposed to. Forgiveness is not something to be doled out like the last few scoops of ice cream in the bottom of the container; it’s available to us in whatever quantity is required. 

God’s forgiveness is vast, and Christ has told us this, and we know that we should forgive those who wrong us, but knowing all of that, that doesn’t make it easy. It’s hard to forgive someone who has wronged you. In Luke 17 where we read to start, what was the disciples’ response to Christ’s instruction to forgive repeatedly? 5 And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith.

The twelve might have been limited in what they actually understood at that point, but they clearly knew that it was hard to forgive. They did not have enough faith in themselves to do that. It goes against human nature to forgive, because we don’t enjoy being wronged. We don’t want to forgive as much as we want to avenge. We might want an apology from someone, but we want to see things evened up, to see them suffer as we have suffered, and maybe just a little bit more. But of course revenge doesn’t fix anything. And apologies on their own don’t actually do much to make things better. Forgiveness does far more.

When you look at scripture, it actually speaks very little about apology. We see plenty about forgiveness though, in the KJV there are 109 instances of the words forgive, forgiven, forgiveness, or forgave. Sometimes it shows up in places where we don’t even notice it. No doubt we’re all at least somewhat familiar with the Lord’s Prayer. Just in case, I’ll read it now, from Matthew chapter 6, starting at verse 9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 10 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. 14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

We’ve heard this many times, we know what it describes, how to address God, how to give Him honour and praise, how to ask Him for what we need, such as food and protection from evil, and to ask Him for forgiveness. The prayer ends with Amen at the end of verse 13. Then what does it continue with? After making a memorable statement, it’s usually followed up with something relevant, something to take home with you, something to think about and process. What is the key takeaway from the Lord’s Prayer? It’s not about God’s glory, it’s not about thankfulness or appreciation, it’s not about our physical needs. Those are all important, those all belong there, but that’s not where Christ called attention. No, the thing to remember is about forgiveness. 14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Notice how there is no disclaimer or qualifier in those verses. The Lord did not say “Forgive those who are deserving of it, or forgive those who sincerely apologize to you, or forgive those who repent and don’t wrong you again.” He didn’t say that at all. He said to forgive, and to be forgiven. Instead of offering any sort of excuse or cop-out from forgiveness, He instead provided a reminder that if we are generous with forgiveness, then God has forgiveness for us, and likewise a warning that if we are stingy with forgiveness, then God may not have forgiveness for us either. That is a most serious and frankly, it should be a sobering, even an alarming thought, because God’s forgiveness is something we truly need.

As much as it is needed, forgiveness from God is not something that we can earn. It is given freely to those who ask for it, and also to those who do not ask. God has forgiven so much for so many who don’t even believe He exists, because if He did not extend forgiveness He would smite us all dead. If God did not forgive us far beyond what we ask for He would end all life on this planet in a moment. But because He knows how frail and fault-ridden we are, and that we need to be forgiven, and most importantly because the Lord Jesus Christ has paid the price for our sins on the cross, then God has forgiveness for any and all who will take Him up on His offer.

We may not realize that forgiveness is what we need, is the crucial thing we require, but God does. He knows, and He forgives. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Even before we confess, before we admit our wrong, before we even acknowledge or realize the depth of our problem, He stands ready to forgive.

We see this in how Christ forgave those who came to Him with other concerns, because that was more important than whatever they thought had ailed them. There is a well known occasion where He specifically did that first, we could read about it in Matthew’s gospel, but I’ll read from Mark chapter 2, there’s a bit more detail there. 1 And again he entered into Capernaum after some days; and it was noised that he was in the house. 2 And straightway many were gathered together, insomuch that there was no room to receive them, no, not so much as about the door: and he preached the word unto them. 3 And they come unto him, bringing one sick of the palsy, which was borne of four. 4 And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee. 6 But there were certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, 7 Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only? 8 And immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, he said unto them, Why reason ye these things in your hearts? 9 Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? 10 But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,) 11 I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house. 12 And immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went forth before them all; insomuch that they were all amazed, and glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion.

This man’s four friends cared enough to haul him and his bed, well, more likely the equivalent of a stretcher or a cot, it’s not like they dragged a four-poster bed through the streets of Capernaum, but they carried this paralyzed man across town, then up onto the roof, then through the roof, all because they knew that someone was there and that he could help their friend. But the Lord did not heal him, not right away, instead He offered forgiveness of sins. It wasn’t even a question, would you like this, no, it was a declaration of sins forgiven. That upset the scribes who were present, because it is in the remit of God Almighty to forgive sins. The fact that Jesus of Nazareth was ready and willing and apparently able to do this, and to heal any ailment brought before Him, this confounded them, because He did what only God could do, and they were unwilling to accept and believe His teachings.

You and I can forgive someone who has wronged us. We can forgive another person for something they have done against us specifically. If you hurt me in some way, I can forgive you for that. If you hurt someone else, though, I can’t forgive you of that. I’m not involved, it is beyond me. But even more so, if you sin against God, and ultimately, all sin is against God, then how can I possibly forgive that? Only God can extend the forgiveness that we need.

Thinking back to the conversation I had with my friend, something I said then needs to be repeated for us all. Apology and forgiveness go hand in hand, but forgiveness is more important. We all would no doubt like to hear an apology from someone who has sinned against us, who has hurt us in some way, and hopefully when we receive that apology we would forgive the other person, but how often does that last part not happen, and the loop remains open? Or how often does no part of it actually take place, there is no apology at all, and no forgiveness, and all that we end up with is bitterness, anger, strife, and revenge?

It’s easy to be bitter. It’s easy to be spiteful and anger and filled with resentment and hate, to hold grudges and to wish ill on those who have done us wrong. But that benefits us nothing.

It’s not easy to apologize. It’s not easy to forgive. But it is oh so very necessary. Christ said time and time again that we need to forgive others, and to be forgiven ourselves. Unforgiveness, that hanging unto of wrongs done against us, that will only bring us greater pain and suffering. Keeping a record of wrong, and frankly, waiting for someone else to apologize and be sincere about it, well, it’s like pulling the pin on a hand grenade and then holding it close. It’s going to cause damage, and we’ll be the ones to suffer the most of it.

If someone has wronged us, and no doubt someone has, we need to forgive them. Whether or not they are truly sorry, or even a little sorry, that doesn’t excuse us from extending forgiveness. And if we have wronged someone else, and no doubt we have, we need to apologize to them. Whether or not they forgive us, we can’t control that, but it’s far easier to forgive someone who has apologized than it is to forgive someone who has not.

No matter how many wrongs we have done, or how many we have received, the fact remains that we’ve all transgressed against God far more than anyone else has against us. It’s His forgiveness that we need most of all. And it’s His forgiveness that we can be sure He will not withhold from us.