May 31, 1998 was one of the most important days in my life. On that day, I graduated from Shady Spring High School. It was a celebratory day in my life.
And I danced.
I danced in the aisle at the Raleigh County Armory in a way that was embarrassing and, at the same time, funny. To my knowledge, no photos exist of this jig and no videos are known to exist either. If I remember correctly, the dance could best be described as one part touchdown dance one part a Ric Flair strut. Looking back, that dance would likely prevent me from being the first pastor to be featured on “Dancing With the Stars.”
The dance wasn’t for show. It had a purpose. It wasn’t done just in celebration of the end of one journey and the anticipation of another. It was much deeper than that. I danced because I knew I would likely never see the people I graduated with again, and it made me happy. That might sound mean coming from a pastor, but graduation was a day of healing and the end of a long dark road.
I was the kid who was bullied. My heart breaks when I hear of story after story of children being bullied in our school system, because I can relate to it. The bullying took on all forms and, trust me, it was not “kids being kids.” I was pushed down bleachers and steps. I had personal belongings destroyed for laughs. I was called names I can still hear today – stupid, fat, and gay.
None of these words represented any truth about me, both then and now, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt. I’ve always wondered why they were said. The best I can deduce is it was because I didn’t “fit in,” whatever that means, and I refused to change, as a high school friend told me a few months ago. I was more interested in life beyond southern West Virginia. I knew there was something more important to life than staying in my closed-minded community. For that, for a desire to explore the world, I was abused, ridiculed, and considered a nobody.
I am 32 and those words and actions still impact me. I can still hear the words being said. I can still feel the pain of falling down the steps and the sting of hearing my teammates root against me in a wrestling match. I struggle with it all. Do you want to know what I struggle with the most? I struggle still today with forgiving those who hurt me in my youth. This is what I wrestle with: how can you forgive someone who hurt you so much?
It is a question I ask myself, and I am sure it is a question you ask as well. I am sure you can think of times in your life, or maybe times today, where you struggle to forgive. We all have moments that are difficult to forgive. You can probably think of things in your life you have not forgiven. Maybe someone has said something to you that was hurtful and you’ve not forgiven. Maybe something happened to you that you’ve never let go. And when you see that person, the first thing you see is a person who has hurt you.
Each of us have situations or events in our lives that are difficult to forgive. One in particular came to my mind this week, especially with the start of March Madness. Twenty years ago, Duke’s Grant Hill threw an inbound pass nearly the length of the court into the waiting arms of Christian Laettner, who proceeded to turn around and make an improbable shot. The shot sent Duke to the 1992 Final Four and defeated a very talented Kentucky team. UPS, which has a hub in Louisville, focused on the shot in a commercial aired during some games. Some Kentucky fans were irate, and the media ran with stories seeking fan response to the ad. What we learned is that 20 years later, the resentment towards Laettner and the anger of the moment is still real as it was in 1992. This is the picture of unforgiveness. It is the essence of being like the Pharisees who refused to honor the forgiveness of so many whom Jesus encountered. When we do not forgive someone, we hold on to the raw emotion. We hold onto the anger. We want to seek revenge and remind everyone of the pain.
Forgiveness, this bedrock principle of our faith, is something that is very difficult for all of us. We can make it sound easier than it really is, but we all know how difficult it is to do. To say the phrase “I forgive” is simple, but to live it out, in a reality that changes our feelings and emotions towards someone or something, is completely different. If forgiveness was easy, I’m not sure it would be as rewarding and life changing as it is.
So, how can we forgive others as God has forgiven us? This is the principle of forgiveness we see from the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6. We are called to forgive others of their wrongs just as God has forgiven us of our sin. Fortunately for us, God gives us a template and a path to follow in forgiving others and, as well, in receiving forgiveness of our sins. In dealing with humanity’s sin, our abuse of God’s love, God’s response is to freely show mercy.
Our passage points this out, especially in Hebrews 8:12. The author of Hebrews has written of Jesus being our mediator, our great High Priest. When he gets to this verse, which is a quote of Jeremiah 31:31-34, he writes, “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” God not only forgives our sin, but he will also choose not to remember our sins.
What is God doing here? We have to go back to the Old Testament. The covenant given to Moses was an outward expression of faith. The covenant existed as a relationship between God and the people of Israel. If the people of Israel would live up to the terms of the covenant, then God promised He would protect them. We know how this story goes. The people of Israel, our ancestors, could not live up to the covenant. They sinned and fell short of God’s law just as we sin and fall short of God’s law.
Even though the people abandoned the law, God never wavered on His side of the agreement. God never gave up on the people of Israel, and he never has given up on you. He continued to show grace, but he knew something was different. He needed to redo the covenant, so it would be more effective. The covenant would be one that would be internal. It would be secured by the act of Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus served as the mediator between humanity and God. Our forgiveness was secured in this moment. His blood became the sacrificial offering required by the covenant and ushered in a new covenant that is written on our hearts. Christ’s death and resurrection gives us hope of our forgiveness.
Christ paved the way for God’s mercy to become available for all. But, how do we receive God’s compassion? Forgiveness is not something we do, but it is something God does for us. There is nothing we can do to earn forgiveness. No amount of work, no amount of effort, can secure forgiveness from God. It is a free gift. God freely takes it upon himself, through the act of Christ, to pave the way for forgiveness. When we receive the gift of grace, the gift of forgiveness, we are deemed saved, forgiven, by the justifying act of Jesus Christ on the cross. We are pardoned and brought back into a relationship with the Father. We are restored. Our sin is no longer held against us. In showing mercy to us, God is saying, “I know you did wrong, but I still love you.”
God also says that when He sees you, when He sees me, He will not remember our sin. What is God saying here? God is saying that when he thinks of us, he is not going to call to memory those things we have done wrong. God is not going to hold up, for instance, a scroll that has every wrong that we have committed listed on it. God is going to take a deep look into our hearts, our soul, and call us “beloved by grace.” God makes the choice to not see us as disobedient sinners. This doesn’t mean our many acts of sin did not occur. Instead, God takes the loving and life-giving response to look beyond our sin, to look at our faith in Christ, and to call us justified, redeemed, forgiven.
You and I can strive to be like that. We can do this by being receivers and givers of forgiveness. We receive grace by accepting God’s act of forgiveness through the act of Jesus Christ. There is no sin God will not forgive. Peter disowned Christ and Paul, as Saul, persecuted the early church, yet both were leading Apostles in sharing the message of the Gospel to all people. When we see, as John Wesley did, that Christ did die for us, it opens the gates of God’s love and forgiveness. It changes our life and brings peace to our soul. No longer are we burdened by the guilt, the pain, and the hurt of sin, but instead we are called be loved and redeemed. To live a life in response that is in obedience to God’s love and law, because of what God has done in us and for us. Oh how I wish we would all seek this and desire this for our lives!
Not only are we called to receive grace and forgiveness, we are also called to be people who forgive. What would it look like if you forgave that person who has hurt you? We can be witnesses of God’s grace and love by sharing forgiveness with those who have hurt us. It is a difficult act, especially when someone has hurt you so much and in ways that are deep. When we forgive, we are showing justice by giving up our desire for revenge. We are taking the higher road of grace by showing love. We are choosing the difficult path of not being caught up in resentment and anger by choosing not to remember the harm done to us. This doesn’t mean we forget these things happen, how can we? Instead, it says we desire to live in a world where evil does not rule us. As Desmond Tutu says, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.” I might add, that without forgiveness, there is no hope for us to be one with Christ and one with each other in Christian love.
We live in a world that needs men and women who desire to proclaim forgiveness and to share forgiveness with others. Our world desires to be resentful and seek revenge when someone does us wrong. Imagine a world that shares Christ’s act of forgiveness with those who have hurt us? The only way the world will ever forgive each other is if we desire to live as people who are forgivers, because God has forgiven us. The world needs to see Christians living as people of forgiveness. Forgiveness is our witness of Christ love.
In a moment, we are going to sing “Amazing Grace.” It was written by John Newton, an Anglican priest and a former participant in the slave trades. Newton felt God’s mercy, forgiveness, of his sinful life and wanted to respond. This was his response to God’s grace. It is a beautiful narration of the joy that comes when we are forgiven and when we forgive others.
As the song is sung and played, I want to invite you to think about who in your life do you need to forgive? Who do you need to ask God to show you how to forgive? I invite you, if you desire, to come to the altar and give that to God and allow God to begin a healing in you that will transform your life and the lives of those who have hurt us, all because God freely chose to give us the greatest love in forgiveness, which comes from faith in Jesus Christ.