Trinity 22 – And still, forgiveness

I am sure that he who began a good work in you
will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
[Philippians 1:3]

We are near the end of Trinity season and our ascent into the Kingdom of Heaven, we’re considering the highest stages of maturity in Christ. Why do we still have in the Gospel this parable about forgiveness [St Matthew 18:21-35] in the next to last Sunday in the season ?  Surely that is something we dealt with long before?  And indeed, if you look at the readings in Trinity season, being forgiven by God is the beginning (Trinity 3) and forgiving others is something spoken of repeatedly in the early part of the season.  But it seems there are still things for us to learn about forgiveness – it was the subject of a miracle in Trinity 19 and it is back again today.

Vimy Ridge Memorial

I thought it appropriate on this Remembrance Sunday, as we reflect on the ultimate sacrifice made by many for the freedoms we enjoy and also the great pain caused in so many hearts by the violence of war, to quote extensively from Corrie ten Boom’s account of forgiveness, from two of her books, The Hiding Place and Forgiveness.  She is someone who knew great suffering during the war and was completely dedicated to a ministry of reconciliation between enemies in the years that followed.

It was at a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear.

It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.

It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown.

“When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.”

The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.

And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.

It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp where we were sent.

Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”

And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course–how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.

“But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.  Fräulein” – again the hand came out –“will you forgive me?”

And I stood there – I whose sins had every day to be forgiven – and could not.  Betsie had died in that place – could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it – I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”

I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Bloemendaal for victims of Nazi brutality.

Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion – I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.

“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. From my shoulder, along my arm, and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His.  When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.

And having thus learned to forgive in this hardest of situations, I never again had difficulty in forgiving: I wish I could say it!  I wish I could say that merciful and charitable thoughts just naturally flowed from me from then on. But they didn’t.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned at 80 years of age, it’s that I can’t store up good feelings and behavior – but only draw them fresh from God each day.

Maybe I’m glad it’s that way. For every time I go to God, He teaches me something else. I recall the time, some 15 years ago, when some Christian friends whom I loved and trusted did something which hurt me.

You would have thought that, having forgiven the Nazi guard, this (new situation) would have been child’s play. It wasn’t. For weeks I seethed inside. But at last I asked God again to work His miracle in me. And again it happened: first the cold-blooded decision, then the flood of joy and peace.

I had forgiven my friends; I was restored to my Father.

Then, why was I suddenly awake in the middle of the night, hashing over the whole affair again? My friends! I thought. People I loved! If it had been strangers, I wouldn’t have minded so.

I sat up and switched on the light. “Father, I though it was all forgiven! Please help me do it!”

But the next night I woke up again. They’d talked so sweetly too! Never a hint of what they were planning. “Father!” I cried in alarm. “Help me!”

His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks.

“Up in that church tower,” he said, nodding out the window, “is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding then dong. Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops.

“I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive someone, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.”

And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversation. But the force–which was my willingness in the matter–had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at last stopped altogether.

And so I discovered another secret of forgiveness: that we can trust God not only above our emotions, but also above our thoughts.

And still God had more to teach me, even in this single episode. Because many years later, in 1970, an American with whom I had shared the ding-dong principle came to visit me in Holland and met the people involved. “Aren’t those the friends who let you down?” he asked as they left my apartment.

“Yes,” I said a little smugly. “You can see it’s all forgiven.”

“By you, yes,” he said. “But what about them? Have they accepted your forgiveness?”

“They say there’s nothing to forgive! They deny it ever happened. But I can prove it!” I went eagerly to my desk. “I have it in black and white! I saved all their letters and I can show you where–”

“Corrie!” My friend slipped his arm through mine and gently closed the drawer. “Aren’t you the one whose sins are at the bottom of the sea? And are the sins of your friends etched in black and white?”

For an anguishing moment I could not find my voice. “Lord Jesus,” I whispered at last, “who takes all my sins away, forgive me for preserving all these years the evidence against others! Give me grace to burn all the blacks and whites as a sweet-smelling sacrifice to Your glory.”

I did not go to sleep that night until I had gone through my desk and pulled out those letters – curling now with age – and fed them all into my little coal-burning grate. As the flames leaped and glowed, so did my heart.

“Forgive us our trespasses,” Jesus taught us to pray, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In the ashes of those letters I was seeing yet another facet of His mercy. What more God would teach me about forgiveness in the days ahead I didn’t know, but tonight’s was good news enough.

When we bring our sins to Jesus, He not only forgives them, He makes them as if they had never been.

————

There are different levels of forgiveness and directions that forgiveness must flow.  With each failure to forgive is a kind of binding, a holding of us back from being free, from receiving ever more fully the mercy that God wants us to know at the very core of our being.  There is the failure to ask God’s forgiveness, there is the failure to forgive our enemy, there is the failure to forgive our friends, our lover.  And there is also the failure to forgive ourselves.

How can we fail to forgive ourselves?  This is a particularly strange binding, one that I see again and again in my ministry.  It is as if our will blamed our intellect for not seeing more clearly to avoid some disaster, or as if our intellect kept blaming our will for acting against, or for failing to act according to, some impossibly high standard we set for ourselves, failing to acknowledge our humanity, our brokenness and need of God’s healing and grace.  If this is what you struggle with, consider a simple prayer, Lord Jesus, help me!  Lessen that voice of self-condemnation, and bring about a reconciliation within my soul.  Help me to show mercy on myself that I might know the depths of your mercy.

Mosaic above the altar at Holy Cross Church in Palermo

All of these failures to forgive bind us.  And Jesus has come to reconcile us to God and to reconcile us to our neighbours and to reconcile us to ourselves.  Mercy is what he shows us on the Cross and he would have that mercy, His mercy, flow towards ourselves first, to the very core our being, and then outwardly towards the whole world.  It is among the first words of Jesus to His disciples after he rose from the dead, Peace be with you… And he showed them his hands and his side – the sure sign that it was really him and that his offering of himself has been received by the Father…Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven, whose sins you retain, they are retained… As the Father sent me so I send you. [St John 20:19-23]

In the Holy Communion we repeat this presentation of our Lord’s death on the Cross until he comes again, not just to restore us from new outward sins committed, but because Jesus knows that the goodness of God is so unfathomable to our hearts, it must be presented to us again and again afresh, to be received ever more deeply inwardly.  So the call to forgiveness is, from the beginning of our lives and all the way to the very end of our lives, the core of the message of Jesus.  This is the way to freedom, this is the way to the opening of the doors of our hearts to Love.

Let us prepare ourselves now to receive Christ through repentance and faith…

Amen +