After World War II (WWII) was over, a party of church leaders from West Germany visited Moscow to begin a dialogue with members of the Russian Orthodox Church. The German leaders began by expressing their sorrow and sadness over the horrors inflicted upon the Russian people by the Germans during the war. They asked to be forgiven. It was a very emotional time. During the worship that followed, there were many tears as they all remembered the cruelties and slaughter that took place Then the Russians said ‘God may forgive you’ and the Russians kissed the crosses of the German church leaders, embraced them and asked for their blessings. The Russians did not say, ‘We forgive you.’ But they said, ‘God may forgive you.’ In a similar way, when Jesus was being nailed to the cross, he did not say to his tormentors, ‘I forgive you.’ But he said, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’
Today, we are being encouraged to focus on forgiveness and reconciliation. In the prayer at the beginning of the service, we prayed,
who called your Church to bear witness
that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself:
help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you.
In the Gospel, we heard Jesus telling his followers how to handle disputes between individuals in their communities. If somebody sins against you, try to sit down and resolve it. If that doesn’t work involve others….and so the recommendations continue. This passage is part of a much longer one that goes on to speak about disputes, repentance and forgiveness. In the verses that follow, Jesus tells Peter about forgiving without limit.
Forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation play a large part in the Gospel. They highlight the importance of healthy and nourishing relationships both within the Church and also within society. I would like us to think for a few moments this morning on one of those three, the one that arises in that meeting between the German church leaders and the Russian Orthodox Christians: forgiveness.
Remember that when the German leaders asked the Russians to forgive them, they didn’t say, ‘Yes. We forgive you.’ But they said ‘God will forgive you’ and they kissed their crosses. What did they mean by ‘God will forgive’? I suspect that as much as they wanted to forgive the German people for the atrocities that were inflicted on them, they did not feel able to forgive. No nation was innocent of atrocities during WWII, but many war crimes were committed against the Russians including rape, genocide, massacre and torture. The Russian Christians will have known of this, may even have lost relatives as a result of this, and so the pain would have been so deep that they could not forgive.
At the same time, as Christians they knew that forgiveness was a part of their faith. Furthermore, the German church leaders were repentant, saying that they were sorry for what had happened. But still, the pain was too deep and it was too soon to be able to forgive. Yet they wanted to be in relationship with their German brothers and sisters.In addition, their faith encouraged them to love their enemies. But they were not ready to forgive. So they said, ‘God may forgive.’ Meaning that God could forgive, but they could not yet do so. It was all too painful and raw. But their wish to be reconciled with the German leaders was demonstrated by the way they embraced them and kissed their crosses.
From the cross, Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them’ – not ‘I forgive you’ – but ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Perhaps Jesus, who encouraged his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, could not forgive those driving the nails through his hands and feet. He was not ready to do so. But God could forgive them and Jesus wanted to create an environment where love and forgiveness could grow and flourish.
So too for all of us. Sometimes it is difficult to forgive people who have done us wrong, who have inflicted pain and abuse on us. Yet as Christians, we know that forgiveness is central to our faith. We want to forgive, but, if we are honest with ourselves, we can’t. The worse thing somebody can say to us – or the worse thing we can say to anybody else struggling in this area – is that it is our Christian duty to forgive. When we hear these words, it can make the burden even heavier and, paradoxically, forgiveness and reconciliation even harder. We may feel able to forgive a wrong done against us quickly, but it may take many years, or forgiveness may never happen in our life-time.
What is important is our honesty to ourselves and to God. If we cannot forgive, it is important not to pretend that we can. At the same time, there is a need to acknowledge the fact that forgiveness is an important part of our faith, that we would like to forgive but we are not yet in a position to do so. It helps us to know that ultimately, it is God who forgives, because sometimes, for very good reasons, we cannot. ‘God may forgive’ said the Russian Christians. ‘Father forgive them’, said Jesus from the cross.
So the good news is that our faith is nourished by a climate of forgiveness and reconciliation and we are encouraged to live in this climate. But God will forgive and will often do so on our behalf.
Readings: Romans 13.8-end; Matthew 18.15-20
Preached at St. Michael the Archangel, Alcombe on 6th September 2020
Image 1: Popular art in Berlin
Image 2: Ruins of Coventry Cathedral bombed during WWII
Image 3: Image on the cover of my book ‘Reconciliation – The Journey of a Lifetime.’ Artist: Daniel Bonell – The Father’s Forgiveness