Forgiving Trespasses

 

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

http://www.revcooper.ca/sermons/0015.htm

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (MAT 6:14, 15).

Our text for this morning is taken from the Sermon on the Mount; the verses that immediately follow the Lord’s Prayer. These words are extremely familiar to us as the responsive that follows the Lord’s Prayer in our services of worship: The minister says, “O Lord forgive us our trespasses,” and we respond, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Forgiveness is an extremely important topic, because we are all affected by it in so many ways, and in so many different aspects of our lives. We look at the course of our own lives and we pray to the Lord for His forgiveness. We examine our relationships with family and friends and we become painfully aware of things that we have done to anger or hurt the ones we love – and we long for their forgiveness. Perhaps we even look deeply enough to see things that we profoundly regret that we have done to ourselves or to others against our better judgement, things that cause us to grieve, to say, “I’ll never be able to forgive myself for that.” We need to forgive ourselves so that we can be at peace with ourselves and get on with the uses of life.

All these kinds of forgiveness – from the Lord, from others, and from ourselves – have one thing in common: that we have done something that has caused offence to others and for which we need to be forgiven. This is the forgiveness that is given the most attention in the Heavenly Doctrines, for it specifically regards our personal relationship with the Lord.

However, there is another side to forgiveness that is just as important to our spiritual welfare, and that is that we must be forgiving to others.

While the natural world is governed by the Lord, yet He permits evil men to act, so that the evil can be seen, and rejected. If He did not allow men to express their evils, they would forever remain in the will, and would corrupt the spirit from within. Therefore, in order that a person can be saved from his evils, the Lord allows him to act them out. That means that things do not always happen the way we think they should. People try to say one thing, and something else is heard. A friendly jest made in passing strikes deeply into an unsuspected emotional wound and causes extreme pain instead laughter.

We could go on at some length compiling a list of the ways in which we can offend people without intending it, or even knowing that it has happened, but the picture should be clear enough by now. Giving and receiving offences is a fact of life in the natural world. These offences lead us to feelings of anger, enmity and even hatred towards those with whom we live and work. Everyone can immediately see that feelings of anger, enmity, and revenge make it impossible to act in charity toward the neighbour, and since the life of religion is to do good, these angry feelings actually remove us from a life of religion. Forgiveness is the only salve for these painful emotional wounds.

The Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church tell us that in the other world new spirits sometimes do or say what is wrong. Spirits who intend evil to another and then act on it are severely punished. However, good spirits, if they happen to speak something unkind or thoughtless, or do something that has been forbidden, are not punished, but pardoned and excused; for it was not their intention to do evil. The angels know that the evil actions were excited in them by the hells, so it is not judged to be their fault. The nature of their intention can be determined by whether or not the spirit has resisted the act on previous occasions, and, if he has failed in his resistance, by whether he was obviously grieved by his failure. (Remember that in the spiritual world no one is able to be hypocritical, their true nature shines forth from their face for all to read.) These are the signs that the angels use to judge a spirit’s intentions. We can use these same signs (resisting beforehand and grief if there is failure) ourselves in our everyday relationships with other unregenerate human beings (See AC 6559).

It has happened to every one of us that an unkind word, or an evil act has simply popped out before we could do anything about it. If it’s a minor thing, we can sometimes smooth it over with a quick and sincere apology. Since it has happened to all of us, we should then be able to recognize in the abstract that the same thing can, and does, happen to anyone – and when it does, it is no more their fault than it was when you did it.

As long as we are not personally involved we can stand aloof, be objective, and try to calm the angry parties down. We frequently excuse one person’s actions to another by saying, “yes, I heard what he said, but he didn’t mean it that way…”

This is even easier to see when we think of an adult trying to settle an argument between squabbling children. We find it so easy to tell the children to stop being angry at each other because the offences were not intended. We insist that they stop being so silly, that they make-up, and be friends.

It is much more difficult for us to be calm and objective about a situation where we are personally involved, because our built in defences are immediately called into play. Sometimes we think it is more important to find someone to blame than it is to solve the problem. The Lord created us with a strong love of self so that we could defend, care for, and educate ourselves. It was intended to be controlled by the rational adult mind and be fully subservient to the loves of the Lord and the neighbour. However, very few of us can say that our self-love is under our full rational control. Instead, it intrudes into our lives, blinding us to reasonable explanations, turning us away from peaceful solutions, and making us feel angry and vengeful instead.

Our text tells us two essential truths about forgiveness. First it tells us that the Lord wills to forgive us for those things which we have done against His commandments, and secondly, it tells us that in order to receive the Lord’s forgiveness – which every one of us needs – we must first forgive those who have offended us. We may be able to see that we should forgive those who have offended us, but not know how. We might be able to say, “I forgive you” but find that the anger still burns within, the grudge is still carried. How can we forgive in such a way that we feel better for it ourselves? We must look to the Lord’s own example for our answer.

The Lord tells us that He can forgive any sin, except one: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven because it is in effect the denial that the Lord has the power to save. If a person denies that the Lord has the power to save him, or if he believes that he does not need to be saved, he will not ask for forgiveness. Since we know that the Lord preserves and protects our spiritual freedom above all else, it can be seen that the Lord will not forgive a man who does not wish to be forgiven, who does not ask for His help. The Lord can forgive any sin, He can help a person out of any trouble if only that person sincerely asks for His help. This is why blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven: it is not the Lord who refuses to forgive, but the man who refuses to seek the Lord’s help. The Lord will not enter a person’s life without an invitation.

We should try to adopt the Lord’s attitude, to learn from His example. We need to cultivate a forgiving attitude in ourselves, be willing to forgive any offence. This is, of course, extremely difficult to do at first, since our emotions become stirred so quickly – but it might be helpful to remember the arguing children and try to ask ourselves, when offences come, if we really believe that the other person intended to cause harm. And, if we believe that there was no intention of harm, what then were they trying to do? We may find that in most cases where we take offence that there never was any real offence to be forgiven!

In our third lesson, we read about three degrees of hatred. The first, signified by being “angry without cause,” is to have evil thoughts about another person, and could be exemplified by common gossip – telling stories that show people in an unflattering light. The second degree of hatred, signified by saying “Raca” is to intend evil for another, and could be exemplified by slander – telling what we know to be lies to harm the reputation of another. The third degree, signified by saying “Thou Fool” is the evil will, which would lead to harmful action towards another. In forgiveness, each of these three degrees of anger and hatred must be met by the appropriate degree of love and charity. We need to be prepared to counter evil thoughts with good thoughts, evil intentions with good intentions, and evil will with good will.

As we saw in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant in our first lesson, and as can also be seen in many other places in the New Testament, the Lord wants us to forgive others in the same way He will forgive us. And in the same way the Lord fails when a man chooses to refuse His forgiveness and join others like himself in hell, we too will sometimes fail in our relationships with other people. We may be willing to forgive, but they cannot bring themselves to ask for it. It is unfortunately true that there are people who, for one reason or another, act as if they either don’t care about the feelings of others, or else they seem to enjoy hurting their feelings. There is not much we can do about such people, for that is the path which they have freely chosen for themselves, except to hope that they may eventually see the light and change their lives.

There is not one of us who has gone through life without making a mistake, without doing something that causes pain and grief to another, pain that we certainly did not intend. We need to look at the deeds and words of others as we would have them look at ours. We need to try to look at the words and deeds of others in the same way that the angels look at the words and deeds of new spirits in the other life. We need to recognize that the feelings of anger, enmity, and hatred that we feel come from hell specifically so that they can destroy charity while at the same time appealing to our loves of self. We must be as aware of these feelings and shun them as we would adultery, theft, or murder – for they are just as dangerous to our spiritual life.

We must even judge ourselves honestly according to the actual intentions we had at the time, and not according to facts that only came to light after the action had already been taken. The Lord judges us only according to the intentions of our hearts, and forgives all those who ask for mercy, provided that they themselves have during their life in this world, conscientiously practised mercy and forgiveness.

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (text). AMEN.

First Lesson: MAT 18:21-35

Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” {22} Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. {23} “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. {24} “And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. {25} “But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. {26} “The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ {27} “Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. {28} “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ {29} “So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ {30} “And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. {31} “So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. {32} “Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. {33} ‘Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ {34} “And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. {35} “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”

Second Lesson: LUK 6:20-38

Then He lifted up His eyes toward His disciples, and said: “Blessed are you poor, For yours is the kingdom of God. {21} Blessed are you who hunger now, For you shall be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, For you shall laugh. {22} Blessed are you when men hate you, And when they exclude you, And revile you, and cast out your name as evil, For the Son of Man’s sake. {23} Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! For indeed your reward is great in heaven, For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets. {24} “But woe to you who are rich, For you have received your consolation. {25} Woe to you who are full, For you shall hunger. Woe to you who laugh now, For you shall mourn and weep. {26} Woe to you when all men speak well of you, For so did their fathers to the false prophets. {27} “But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, {28} “bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. {29} “To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. {30} “Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. {31} “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. {32} “But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. {33} “And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. {34} “And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. {35} “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. {36} “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. {37} “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. {38} “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”

Third Lesson: AE 746f. [18]

That one who thinks ill of his neighbor without adequate cause, and turns himself away from the good of charity, will be punished lightly as to his soul, is signified by “Whosoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be liable to the judgment;” “to be angry,” signifies to think ill, for it is distinguished from “saying Raca,” and “saying Thou fool.” “Brother” means the neighbor, and also the good of charity, and “to be liable to the judgment” means to be examined and to be punished according to circumstances. That one who from wrong thought slanders the neighbor, and thus despises the good of charity as of little value, will be punished grievously, is signified by “whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be liable to the council,” for “to say Raca” signifies to slander the neighbor from evil thought, thus to hold the good of charity to be of little value. That one who hates the neighbor, that is, one who is altogether averse to the good of charity, is condemned to hell, is signified by “whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be liable to the hell of fire.” These three describe three degrees of hatred, the first is from evil thought, which is “to be angry,” the second is from consequent evil intention, which is “to say Raca,” and the third is from an evil will, which is “to say Thou fool.” All these are degrees of hatred against the good of charity, for hatred is the opposite of the good of charity. Amen.

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