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How To Forgive: A Sermon based on Philemon

We are wrapping up our final sermon in this series where we’ve been reflecting on conflict, using Paul’s letter to Philemon as a case study. Paul wrote this letter to Philemon because of a dispute between master and slave. The slave, Onesimus, had run off, perhaps having stolen some items from Philemon’s household, he left without leave and went to seek out Paul. Onesimus found Paul in prison, called on him for help, and during that time Onesimus came to know Jesus. Things are not happily ever after at this point, because there still his fractured and damaged relationship with Philemon. For the sake of the fellowship, Paul knows that this must be addressed. That is the occasion of the letter. Paul is walking Philemon and Onesimus through conflict. Our first week in this series, we reflected on how this letter shows us that sometimes our conflict is bigger than we can handle, and we might need an intermediary to help sort things out. The next week we noted that Paul was praying for Philemon, thanking God for him, as well as praying that the conditions be right for reconciliation. We reflected on how we can model Paul’s approach to prayer as the first step in conflict. Last week we noted how Paul neither ignore the conflict or bullies the people involved into doing what he wanted them to. Instead, Paul was assertive, meaning he stated his perspective as clearly as possible, leaving the other person free to respond as they wish. It seems that this approach creates the most potential for the conflict to be a blessing, for the conflict to draw the people involved deeper in relationship with Jesus, and for the conflict to bring about reconciliation. Throughout all of this, we’ve been reflecting on how conflict can be an opportunity to grow deeper in relationship with the other person and deeper into the heart of God. Today, we’re going to look at how in conflict, God draws us deeper in relationship with himself by inviting us into forgiveness. This will be the final perspective in this series: forgiveness.

First, let me ask you something. What do we mean when we say, “I forgive you”? Beyond saying, “I forgive you”, what are you actually doing when you forgive someone? What mental shift needs to happen? What changes? Is forgiveness a change in mindset? A concrete action? Forgiveness is something we talk about all the time, but I think in practice we can be a little unclear about what it means to forgive someone. A lot of times when we say, “I forgive you,” we’re not saying very much more than, “Its ok.” That definition is all right for lighter conflicts. It might be a little misleading, but it will get the job of forgiving done. But for really deep, tough and dirty conflicts, we’re going to need a bit more help with figuring out what it means to forgive.

I think the best place to start with understanding forgiveness is the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our… What would you say? This is always the most awkward part of reciting the Lord’s prayer in a group because we get totally our of sink. Some people say, “Forgive us our sins” some people say, “forgive our trespasses,” but those who are most faithful to the original Greek, we say, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It’s this image of having a debt erased that guides our understanding of forgiveness throughout Scripture. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus teaches us what it means to forgive by telling us a story of a king who wanted to get repaid by a servant who owed him a huge sum of money. The servant couldn’t repay, cried out for mercy, so the king cancelled the debt and let the servant go. That’s what it means to forgive, cancelling someone debt and letting them go.

That definition of forgiveness gives us some insight into the story of the prodigal son. In the story, the youngest son squanders a huge portion of his fathers estate and ends up destitute. In his destitution he decides he’ll go back to his dad and say, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son, make me like one of your hired servants.” In this story, the son acknowledges that he has sinned against his father, but he does not ask to be forgiven. Perhaps the son doesn’t feel able to ask to for forgiveness. Instead, he says he’ll try to work off his debt on his own. There is a difference between, first, acknowledging you did wrong, and, second, asking for forgiveness. The first says, “I screwed up.” Asking forgiveness says, “please don’t hold it against me. The prodigal son admitted he was wrong, but he did not ask for forgiveness.

When a person has done you wrong, they are in your debt. The more complex the wrong is, the more complex it is to figure out what it means to forgive. Its like the reverse of a lawsuit. In a lawsuit the wronged party brings another to court to assess the damages and get them to pay. Say the wronged party is suing the owner of a steam roller because they ran over their dog. What the court is trying to figure out is the damages that will need to be paid out. Maybe there were psychological damages because the aggrieved person was really attached to the dog because it once saved him from drowning. So, the judge awards the wronged party $1500, plus a new Doberman Pincher. When we intend to forgive someone, we need to do that same work of calculating the damages.

This is actually an important step for both parties. Before rushing to the next step, it is an important thing to take stock of the damage that has been done in conflict and the hurt that has occurred.

Forgiveness involves knowing fully how much is owing and then deciding from that knowledge, to cancel that debt. Forgiveness means choosing not to make the other person pay. There are many, many ways we can make someone pay. We can make someone pay financially. We can make a person feel guilty or ashamed. We can make a person forever feel indebted for what they did. We can make them always feel like an outsider. We can make them feel our grudge. But that’s not forgiveness. When we forgive someone, we calculate the damages, and then we tear up our calculations. When we say, "I forgive you”, we are saying, “You don’t need to repay me for damages.” You don’t need to pay me back. Your debt is cancelled. That’s what it means to forgive.

At this point, we should note that forgiveness and reconciliation are different things. Our capacity to forgive does not depend on anyone else’s behavior. We can forgive someone even if they are not sorry at all. When we forgive someone, we are simply saying I will not try and get even. I won’t pay you back for what you did. But forgiving someone does not necessarily mean being reconciled to them. Reconciliation involves everyone. In reconciliation, everyone involved must ask for and offer forgiveness. For reconciliation to work, both must work together to do the hard steps to restore the relationship. If the other person is unwilling to take those steps, its possible to forgive them, but not to be reconciled. Sometimes the person hurt is in too much pain, and can’t reconcile, but they can still choose to say “I forgive you.”

In this letter, Paul is trying to bring about both reconciliation and forgiveness. We know that there were damages. Paul says to Philemon, “If Onesimus has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything…” Paul mentions this because he knows that Onesimus has wronged or harmed Philemon. Paul knows that Onesimus owes him money. Paul knows that Onesimus needs forgiveness. So, Paul acknowledges that there is wrong, but he is asking for Philemon not only to forgive Onesimus but to be reconciled to him. Forgiveness would look like not forcing Onesimus to pay him back. Forgiveness would look like refusing to press charges. Paul recognizes his request to Philemon is so challenging that Paul says, “if he’s wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, put that down on my account.” Paul is continuing the work of Christ on the cross, he is taking the debt of Onesimus upon himself. In doing so, Paul is hoping to make it a little easier for Philemon to offer forgiveness, and cancel the debt.

But Paul doesn’t let Philemon think that its unique for one person to be indebted to another. After he says, put Onesimus’ debt on my account, Paul says, “I’m not even going to remind you of how you owe me your own very self!” Paul has a very subtle way of not reminding Philemon that he’s in debt to him. Paul has a very subtle way of reminding Philemon that just as Onesimus is indebted to him, he is indebted to Paul. And this comment helps us begin to understand why we as Christians are forgiving people. This helps us understand why we don’t calculate damages to sue in court, we calculate damages so we know what to forgive. We are forgiving people because we are forgiven people.

We have all wronged someone. We have all been in another persons debt and been forgiven. We forgive others, and are forgiven by others. Yet, us being a forgiving people has even deeper roots. All of us have been indebted to God because we rebelled against God. God calculated all the damages against himself and humankind, and deemed the penalty to be death. But God did not calculate our wrongs to bring us to court, he calculated our wrongs so we might know the price of forgiveness. He calculated our wrongs and did what it took to cancel our debt. So God became flesh to cancel our debt. God became human to die our death on the cross. He took our place, so that our debts might be forgiven. God has forgiven us, and that means he has set us free. We are released from our debt. He has set us free, and that means life from the dead. We are like the prodigal son who tries out this speech about working our debt off like a slave, and God instead cries out, You are forgiven, my child, you were dead but are now alive, he were lost, but now are found.”

Now, Philemon is invited to offer this same grace, this same forgiveness to his slave that is coming back home. Philemon is invited to offer the same forgiveness, the same freedom that he, himself, received from Jesus.

Paul hopes that they will work together and go beyond forgiveness, and seek reconciliation. Paul hopes that Philemon will receive Onesimus as a brother and set him free.

As Christians, we are called to be a forgiving people. We forgive, because God has forgiven us. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have hard conversations about how we were hurt and wronged. If someone doesn’t know the impact of their actions on you, they cannot fully apologize because they don’t know the fullness of what they’re asking forgiveness for.

We have conversations about how we expect things to be different in the future. That’s all apart of reconciliation. But reconciliation starts with forgiveness. After looking at all the damages, we find a way to forgive. We release that person from our debt. We set them free. We forgive others, because God has set us free. He has paid the price of forgiveness, and our sins are wiped clean.

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