God forgives us. We forgive ourselves. We allow ourselves to be forgiven by others.
Matthew 5 (The Message): This is how I want you to conduct yourself . . . If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.
What The Message calls ‘making things right’ is usually translated as “be reconciled”. Seeking and receiving forgiveness are biblically understood as reconciliation, a restoration of something that was lost.
Hence the practice of the passing of the peace taking place before coming to the communion table arose in the very early church – passing the peace is not merely a handshake or greeting among friends – it is the opportunity to restore one’s self to fellowship with someone wronged.
As noted in the Pulpit Commentary: “Our Lord is insisting that it is so important to lose no time in seeking reconciliation with a person whom one has injured, that even the very holiest action must be put off for it.”
There is a sense of urgency about the importance of seeking out forgiveness from someone we have wronged. It requires Honesty, Haste and Humility.
Our job is to do the work of seeking out that forgiveness. But how? Today’s passage suggests some obvious, clear, simple – not easy, but simple – steps:
(1) acknowledging/admitting that we have done something that needs forgiving
(2) asking the person or persons wronged to forgive us
(3) doing what we can to make amends
(4) leaving the decision to forgive to the person from whom we seek forgiveness
(5) making this a priority in our lives
1. Acknowledging that we have done something that needs forgiving. It’s about getting honest – with God, with ourselves and with the other person. It means saying it out loud. It is an act of humility to admit we’ve done wrong by someone, leaving out all the self-justifications, reasons, and resentments. It’s no accident that Jesus speaks of ‘remembering’ what we’ve done wrong while we’re at the altar. Where better to be reminded of our wrongs than standing before God? Thus, when we are reminded of something we’ve done that hasn’t been addressed, we might do well to also remember who reminded us. If God’s Holy Spirit is bringing something to our attention, chances are it’s because the matter needs our attention. Whether the other person has a part or not is irrelevant to your apology, your admission, your acknowledgment. Their part is just that – theirs. When seeking forgiveness, seek it. Don’t shift the blame. Don’t rehearse all your justifications. You’re caught. Live with it. Admit it. Seek to redress it. Period. Anything else takes you away from the land of honesty as well as humility.
2. Asking the person or persons wronged to forgive us Here’s the really humbling part: ask to be forgiven and walk away. Don’t demand it. Don’t beg for it. Don’t wheedle, whine, carp or nag for it. Simply ask and leave it at that. Maybe they’ll need to think about it. Maybe they’ll forgive you right away. Maybe they’ll even have forgotten what you’re talking about. In seeking another’s forgiveness, grace would suggest that we give them the space to do their work. After all, we’ve been thinking about this for some time. Shouldn’t we give them the same opportunity?
3. Doing what we can to make amends Reconciling, making things right between us really means making things right between us. If I have wronged someone, it’s not their job to erase the debt – it’s mine. And that may well include some form of recompense. I may not be able to do it all at once, in which case I outline what I am going to do – and then, and this is most important, do it. There is no credit here for my good intentions if they remain nothing but intentions. Sometimes there really is nothing we can do to make up for what was done. But we can refrain from repeating the same mistake. We can change.
4. Leaving the decision to forgive to the person from whom we seek forgiveness The person we’ve harmed has the choice to make once we have sought their forgiveness whether to forgive or not. What they should do is not up to us to decide. We have to be willing to risk being told no, as in ‘no, I cannot or I will not forgive you.” Once we honestly know we have done our part, we simply have to leave it at that and trust God’s Holy Spirit to begin a work within the their hearts just as was done in ours. We must accord the one harmed the same freedom given to us – the freedom to say no. That, too, is grace.
5. Making this a priority in our lives What the Holy Spirit brings to your heart requires your response – now. It is so urgent that Jesus speaks of literally walking out of church in order to go and seek the person out. “Lose no time.” The act of reconciliation is more important to God than what we might think of as the most holy act of worship. How we are with each other, then, we might understand as a form of worship itself. How do we worship God? By seeking the forgiveness of those we have harmed.
We do this work in the constant companionship of God’s own self, God’s Holy Spirit, who begs us to remember and act, that nothing, not even ourselves, might separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.