Sermon: Forgiveness

Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
10th of May, 2020

Acts 7:55-60

The Book of Acts, the story of the creation of the Christian church after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, contains some memorable sermons. Last week we heard the aftermath of Peter’s sermon to the crowds at Pentecost, when 3000 people joined the existing 120 believers and were baptised. I said last week that while we could use Luke’s summary description of the activities of this group as a way of assessing our own practices as a church, we shouldn’t worry too much about that group’s rapid transformation from a suburban-sized congregation into a megachurch. Nothing we do or don’t do is going to bring in a sudden flood of thousands of new members. But ‘bums on pews’ has always been one way in which the faithfulness of congregations has been judged; and there is a dreadful tendency for churches to assume that God approves of them if they grow, and disapproves of them if they decline. So it is salutary to read today’s story, the response to Stephen’s sermon, alongside last week’s response to Peter’s. As one commentator on this story writes: ‘Perhaps all unsuccessful preachers should take some comfort here. If their congregations merely complain or fire them, at least they do not stone them.’[1] Because that’s what happens to Stephen after the sermon he preaches. He becomes the church’s first martyr.

Stephen was one of the seven men that the disciples chose to help the Twelve in their work, the seven that we remember as the church’s first deacons. We’re told that ‘Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people’ (Acts 6:8). But some people complain about him, and he is brought before the council. Stephen takes the opportunity to preach a long and elaborate sermon telling the history of the people of Israel and their many failings and ending: ‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers’ (Acts 7:51-2). This is somewhat similar, although much more aggressively stated, to what Peter had preached at Pentecost: ‘Jesus of Nazareth … handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law’ (Acts 2:22-23). But where Peter’s sermon led to conversion, the response of the council to Stephen’s sermon is to become enraged and grind their teeth. (There might be a lesson there for preachers on how to preach on unpalatable topics.) That’s where today’s reading starts.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Stephen sees a vision of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. He tells the people this, and their response is to cover their ears; drag Stephen out of the city; and stone him. As they do, they lay their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul, who will later, after an experience on the road to Damascus, become the Apostle Paul.

Bernardo CAVALLINO The Martyrdom of Stephen

The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen by Bernardo Cavallino (1645)

In his death Stephen imitates Jesus, and Luke’s telling of the story shows his readers a distinctively Christian way to die. Stephen prays, asking God to receive his spirit, as Jesus prayed on the cross. Then Stephen further imitates Jesus in asking God to forgive his killers. Stephen’s sermon was a complete failure. But Stephen’s death is a complete success as a witness to what faith in Jesus means. It means confidence in the face of death. More relevantly for us, people who aren’t going to be killed for our faith, it means the ability to forgive.

Forgiving others for the wrongs they’ve done isn’t easy. As a minister I have quite often had people tell me of a wrong done to them, concluding by saying that they will never forgive the wrongdoer. And I have always had to say that while I absolutely understand how they’re feeling, as Christians we don’t have a choice in the matter. The Lord’s Prayer contains the request: ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’. If we don’t forgive others, then every time we pray this prayer we’re asking God to refuse to forgive us our sins. People who live perfect lives might be okay with that. I’m not. I’m relying strongly on God’s forgiveness.

The best explanation of the Christian imperative to forgive that I’ve ever come across comes from a book called Free of Charge by the theologian Miroslav Volf.[2] Volf explains that forgiveness isn’t about denying that wrongdoing took place. It’s not as though Stephen asked God to forgive those stoning him on the basis that what they were doing wasn’t really so bad, or that he deserved it for preaching such a controversial sermon. Instead, Volf argues that forgiveness involves naming the sin and condemning it, while sparing the sinner. First, we condemn the wrongdoing. Then we give wrongdoers the gift of not counting the wrongdoing against them.

At its very best forgiving involves forgetting. We treat the person who wronged us as if the wrong had never happened. We give them the gift of existing as if they hadn’t committed the offence at all. We release them not just from punishment but from guilt. ‘When those who forgive see the forgiven offenders, they see innocence, not guilt. The offenders were guilty. Now they are innocent … when we forgive, we let the offence slip into oblivion – not right away, but eventually, not as a matter of course, but when the time is right.’

This sort of forgiving sounds incredibly hard to do, but it’s also difficult to receive. To be forgiven assumes that there was something to forgive, and we might not agree with the forgiver’s condemnation. Luckily for us, every time we come to church we have practice in being forgiven – in the Prayer of Confession and the Declaration of Forgiveness. Any time we sin, God condemns us and forgives us all at once. We receive both the condemnation and the forgiveness when we confess our sins and repent of them. From that moment we are innocent, our sins forgotten, and we can worship God with blameless hearts. Coming to church enables us to practice being forgiven; it should also enable us to practice forgiveness.

But why should we forgive? Why should we follow Stephen’s example by praying: ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them?’ Volf puts it very simply: ‘Briefly, God is the God who forgives. We forgive because God forgives. We forgive as God forgives. We forgive by echoing God’s forgiveness … God gives and forgives, and we make God’s giving and forgiving our own.’ There is nothing done against us or against those we love that cannot be forgiven, because our forgiveness imitates God’s forgiveness, which is indiscriminate. That’s the bedrock conviction of the Christian faith. There are no unforgiveable sins. There are no unforgiveable people. God doesn’t angrily refuse forgiveness until we show ourselves worthy of repentance. Instead, God loves us and forgives us even before we repent. We’re called to do the same.

Forgiveness is hard, but we don’t forgive in our own right or through our own strength. We forgive by making God’s forgiveness our own. In Christ, God has rightfully forgiven the sin of all human beings. From Christ, we receive the power and the willingness to forgive. Christ forgives through us, and that’s why we can forgive. Our forgiveness is an echo of God’s.

None of this means that the church should demand that people forgive immediately, or, as I said earlier, that we should deny that wrongdoing happened. The church has been guilty of both in its response to the survivors of family abuse and abuse by clergy. As Father Trevor tells Desmond in the Picture Book I read today,[3] we have the power to forgive when we are ready, but only we will know when that time comes. And forgiveness certainly doesn’t mean denying that we were hurt.[4] But the fact that churches have misused the Christian imperative to forgive in the past doesn’t make it any less imperative. That includes forgiving ourselves. Every week, as we hear what the liturgy calls the ‘Declaration of Forgiveness’ or the ‘Assurance of Pardon’ we practice knowing ourselves forgiven. God has forgiven us; how can we ask more of ourselves than God does?

In today’s story we see Stephen do three things. He dies without fear. He commits his spirit to God. And he forgives his killers. His sermon was an appalling failure, but the aftermath of his sermon, his death, was a great success. In his manner of dying he truly was a ‘martyr’, a witness to the enormous grace and love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Stephen is remembered as the very first Christian martyr with his feast day on the 26th of December, the day after Christmas. For us, two thousand years’ later, he is an example of one of the most important aspects of what it means to be Christian – not any immediate and obvious success in converting others to our faith but the ability to forgive those who have harmed us, including ourselves. As Father Trevor tells Desmond, ‘When you forgive someone, you free yourself from what they have said or done. It’s like magic.’ Let’s practice that magic in our lives. Amen.

[1] Gary Neal Hansen in Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 2, (2010) p. 448.

[2] Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).

[3] Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams, Desmond and the Very Mean Word, London: Walker Books, 2013.

[4] As I said on March 1, when we celebrated Ash Wednesday: One of the things that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse said was that a culture of forgiveness in churches might have led to poor responses to child sexual abuse. Abuse was seen as a sin to be forgiven, not a crime to be reported. Obviously, when the church says that all our sins are forgiven, that doesn’t mean that crimes should be ignored or that perpetrators shouldn’t be investigated and charged. Most importantly, the fact that sins are forgiven doesn’t mean that those who have done harm should continue to be in positions that enable them to do further harm. In fact, the awareness that we are all sinners, that as human beings we are all constantly liable to the ‘human propensity to muck things up,’ should mean that we don’t lead people who have committed child abuse into temptation by allowing them further access to children. That God forgives sin doesn’t mean that people, especially children, should be put at risk.

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