It’s not difficult remember where we were on the morning of September 11, 2001.
I remember it was a beautiful morning on the campuses of West Virginia University, where I was just a few weeks into my senior year. That morning I had to take a psychology exam I was not prepared to take.
I finished the exam in a few minutes, and started to head back to my apartment. I thought the rest of the day would be spent at home before heading to work. At that time, I worked as a sports writer for the Fairmont, W.Va. Times West Virginian, which is located 30 minutes south of Morgantown. It wasn’t going to be a difficult day.
That all changed the moment I got into my car. As I started my car, I heard an unexpected voice. Instead of hearing music, I heard ABC News’ Peter Jennings reporting on an accident that had taken place in New York. A plane, he said, had collided with one of the World Trade Center buildings.
I headed home, wanting to see the coverage. The trip home from the downtown campus to my apartment usually took about five minutes, and that day was no different. When I got into my apartment, I was in shock at the images on my screen. That shock turned into horror when the second plane crashed into the other World Trade Center tower. This was not an accident. We were under attack.
As the day progressed, I felt a fear that I had never felt before, and haven’t felt since. Morgantown is less than four hours from Washington, D.C., and I honestly wondered what was coming our way, or over my head. I called my family and told them what was going on. Then I sat in my apartment alone, and watched the coverage, while alternating between tears, screams, and silence.
For me, the uniqueness of that day was being a reporter on September 11. Though I didn’t go to Pennsylvania or Washington, as some of my friends did, I did have a job to do in Fairmont. I went to work extremely early, and helped with the news coverage as best as I could, while editing a very abbreviated sports section. The newsroom was in a complete state of chaos. It was interesting to be in a newsroom that afternoon, because we had some tough decisions to make. That included what photos to run. On a normal day, selecting a photo for a story would not take much thought. On that day, the paper had to decide whether or not to show photos where people were falling to their deaths.
September 11, 2001 is a day that is ingrained in my memory for the rest of my life.
On that day, our lives were forever changed. Much in our lives, and in our world, has been impacted because of those 102 minutes on September 11. We are a different today than we were 10 years ago.
In all honesty, since September 11, I have struggled with how to respond. We all have. We have experienced all the emotions. We’ve felt bitterness, anger, hurt, sorrow, and everything in between. Today on this 10th anniversary, we might still struggle with how to respond, as Christians, to such a horrible and tragic day.
I believe what we struggle with the most is forgiveness. How do we follow Christ’s call to forgive others as we have been forgiven ourselves when it comes to Al Qaeda? This is a group of people who callously, and without concern for the lives of others, desired to kill others in the name of their religion.
Forgiveness is not easy. The call to forgive our enemies, and even to pray for them and love them, is one we find difficult and uncomfortable. Then again, the call to truly follow Christ is not easy. In any circumstance, forgiveness challenges us to go against our natural response, and to respond in ways that are only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
The notion of forgiveness is one of our most important beliefs. It was central in Christ’s ministry. Much of Jesus’ teaching and life gives us an idea of what it means to forgive others. In the church, we spend a lot of time talking about forgiveness. Yet, at the same time, forgiveness is probably one of our least understood principles.
Simply put, forgiveness is the act of “removing the guilt from wrongdoing.” Forgiveness means that our sins are pardoned and removed from consideration. It is the act of moving towards reconciliation and renewed relationships with those who have harmed us. In forgiving “those who have sinned against us,” we make the concerted effort to remove the barriers in our relationships that a wrong has created.
Seeking forgiveness goes against our natural urges and desires. It is part of human nature to seek revenge. We want to be avenged after the wrong. That is how we want to be made right.
Our passage for today has a lot to say about forgiveness, but it also says something about our need for revenge. In the beginning verse, Peter asks Jesus, “How often should I forgive someone who sins against me?” Peter is asking Jesus what is required to truly forgive in God’s eyes. Jesus’ response is that we are to forgive someone “seventy times seven.” That is a lot, but Jesus is making an important point. Jesus is alluding to a story from Genesis. In Genesis 4:24, Lamech says anyone who kills him will be revenged “seventy-seven times.” Jesus, here, tells us that forgiveness is the complete opposite of revenge. Our forgiveness must equal our need for revenge. As much as we would like to seek revenge for something done to us, we are called to forgive just as much.
Forgiveness is not limited in its availability. It is available to all, and, as witnesses of Christ, we must be a people who proclaim that forgiveness is available for all. Christ’s ministry was about calling all people to repent of their sins, so that we may experience the fullness of the grace of God. He walked into various situations and talked with the worst of the worst and proclaimed God was willing, and able, to forgive their sin. On the cross, Jesus took on humanity’s sin and paid the penalty of our disobedience to God. The foolishness of the cross is that it not only covered the cost of our sin, but it also covered the sin of September 11 and the sin of all who played a hand in that fateful day.
Forgiveness from God is a free gift that is available to all. When we repent of our sin and believe Christ died on the cross for us, we are forgiven from the guilt of our sin. This is available to anyone, regardless of what they have done. All who earnestly repent of their sin can experience this free gift from God. Because of the blood of Christ, we are free from the guilt of our sin and called redeemed in God’s eyes.
It is easy to seek and receive forgiveness from others. When we’ve done wrong, we are thankful when they forgive us. We feel a sense of peace in our soul when we are forgiven. We are thankful that Christ has forgiven us. As a people redeemed by the free gift of God’s mercy and forgiveness, we are called to be a people who forgive others, regardless of what they have done to us. We are called to create opportunities for forgiveness to take place, and for reconciliation to occur.
But, let’s be honest: It is harder to forgive others when they have wronged us. It goes against everything we know, and want to do. We want justice by our own hands, and in our own way. We want the person who has wronged us to be punished. We want the terrorist to be destroyed.
In a way, we resemble the unmerciful servant from our Scripture lesson. Jesus tells us of a servant who is owed a large debt, which he could not pay back. The king decides to place the servant, and his entire family, up for sale, which meant they would likely be tortured for the rest of their lives. In desperation, the servant begs for more time. The king shows mercy, and decides to forgive the entire debt.
Our expectation is that this act of mercy and forgiveness would transform this servant. Instead, it doesn’t impact him at all. The servant meets someone who owes him a small amount, and he asks for payment in full. When the individual could not pay and begs for mercy, this forgiven servant throws this person into prison. Even though he had been forgiven, he refused to show the same forgiveness to someone who had wronged him.
When we refuse to forgive others, we ignore the free gift of God’s grace and the expensive cost of our own forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift that we must give to all, even when it is difficult for us to do.
By seeking revenge, or retribution, we run against Christ’s message of forgiveness. Christ shows us the way to forgive the most horrific of offenders. On the cross, while Christ was dying for our sin, Christ showed mercy to those who were participating in his murder. He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” When we desire revenge and not forgiveness, we no longer desire to live at peace with others, or with God. We become enslaved to our bitterness and our anger. Forgiveness frees us from our desire for revenge and this enslavement. Forgiveness allows God’s grace and justice to work in any and all situations.
It’s not just our need for revenge that hinders our ability to seek forgiveness. We often refuse to forgive, because we believe that if we forgive, it means the act never took place. To forgive someone does not mean we ignore behaviors that are counter to Christ’s teaching. Unfortunately, what has been done cannot be undone. We cannot act as though the planes never hit the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, or a rural field outside of Pittsburgh. Forgiveness does not mean we ignore these events, but it does mean that we seek true Christian justice to make sure that they never happen again. Miroslav Volf writes, “[o]nly those who are forgiven and who are willing to forgive will be capable of relentlessly pursuing justice without falling into the temptation to pervert it into injustice.” In other words, the redeemed children of Christ, we gathered here today, are called to let Christ’s justice come forth by establishing lines of reconciliation with those who would desire to hurt us.
Forgiveness does two things. It allows for God’s justice to be at work. We do not attempt to seek it by our own means. Forgiveness also does something else. It embraces the enemy, and the potential enemy, and desires that they are transformed by the love and work of the Holy Spirit in their life. In Ezekiel, God says he never hopes for the death of those opposed to him, but that they are transformed and seek to live in relationship with Him. Forgiveness says we do not desire the destruction of our enemy, but their renewal into the life God has called them to live. Even if those who perpetrated the events of September 11 never repent of their actions, we are still called to seek forgiveness and pray for their transformation and renewal in the image of Christ.
This is not easy. Forgiveness is difficult. It is costly. It is a challenge for us all.
True forgiveness cannot be a one-way street that only comes from God to us. Our own forgiveness must impact how we engage the world around us. We are called to imitate Christ in all things, including forgiving others who have wronged us. We do forgive others out of response of God’s love for us, and God’s willingness to forgive us. This is not something that we can do on our own. It is impossible for us to forgive someone on our own. We must seek God’s help and wisdom on how to forgive. It is only when we are “utterly dependent” upon God can we truly begin to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with someone like a terrorist.
Many have begun the process of forgiveness when it comes to September 11. It is not easy, and like any act of forgiveness, it is a process. Forgiveness does not happen overnight, but comes as we give the event over to Christ and allow Christ to create room for forgiveness.
Forgiveness is possible, even in this post 9-11 world. We must not be a people of revenge, but a people of hope and forgiveness. On this day, this is the message this world desperately needs, and we must be willing to proclaim it. Forgiveness will not happen overnight, but it can happen and must happen. But it can only happen when we allow Christ to work in us, and through us, to be the living witness of the hope and love of Christ in this dark world.