Matthew 18:21-22 (ESV): Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
The January sermon series we’re launching into today is going to be different. In fact, I wonder if the sermons I’m going to preach would have gotten me an “F” in seminary preaching class.
Preaching professors tend to emphasize the need to connect the congregation to the big concepts in the Bible. By the time you’re done hearing a sermon, you should be thinking about ideas like grace, resurrection and eternity.
I’m sure we’ll touch on those subjects the next few weeks, but my primary focus is going to be much more mundane. When it comes to church involvement, we’re going to ask the question, “What’s in it for me?” And I’m going to try to provide answers regarding the practical, short-term benefits of being in a church community.
I want to begin this series by talking about a kind of pain most of us know. Involvement in a healthy church community can free us from this pain.
When we talk about sin in church, we usually think about ourselves as the sinners, the people in need of forgiveness. And that’s appropriate, of course. We all fall short of holiness. We all make decisions that separate us from God, and we need Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to make union with God possible.
Sin runs rampant, however, and because it is so widespread, each of us at some point in our lives is likely to play another role: the victim of sin.
We can find ourselves victimized in big ways. For example, children who are abused or molested by the adults who should be protecting them can be deeply, tragically affected by the experience. Some can be so devastated that they are led into sin themselves as they grow older, inflicting the acts they suffered on others and perpetuating a cycle of sin.
We also can feel victimized in smaller ways. Maybe someone has cheated us. Maybe harsh words during a disagreement have triggered powerful emotions, the kind that can linger for months or years if left unresolved.
Whether in big or small situations, victims naturally feel angry. If that anger is not resolved in a reasonable amount of time, the victim experiences even greater harm. To heal, a victim needs to forgive, even if the offender never seeks to be forgiven.
When we are in a healthy Christian community, we are among people who practice forgiveness and all the behaviors that make forgiveness possible. It is a kind of forgiveness that is without limitation; that is what Jesus means when he says to forgive someone “seventy times seven.” Fair communication, patience and perspective would be high on my list of important scriptural behaviors that lead to forgiving hearts.
By fair communication, I mean the model Jesus provides us in Matthew 18:15-17. This model and our forgiveness-without-limits text provide context for each other. Yes, Jesus’ communication model ultimately calls for separating yourself from a sinner who will not listen; it doesn’t allow us to forego forgiveness, however.
By patience, I mean we give each other the benefit of the doubt. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve spoken and been misunderstood or acted in ways that were misinterpreted. In a healthy church, we assume the best of each other until it becomes overwhelmingly obvious that someone is not being nice.
Perspective simply means that we as Christians are mature enough to understand that we’re all imperfect and deserving of God’s punishment. We forgive graciously because we are forgiven with infinite grace. That’s the point of the parable that follows Jesus’ “seventy times seven” teaching.
In a community where such forgiveness is practiced, we learn from experience the value of letting go of grudges, anger and a need to get even. The pain anger brings us should melt away in such a warm environment.
And yes, there are real, tangible benefits. The Mayo Clinic lists on its web site these benefits of forgiving someone:
- Healthier relationships
- Greater spiritual and psychological well-being
- Less anxiety, stress and hostility
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer symptoms of depression
- Lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse
The WebMD site lists additional benefits: a stronger immune system and reductions in back pain, headaches and stomach problems. There is a powerful link between our willingness to forgive and our health.
Yes, forgiveness can be difficult. It is a process. But it is a process a healthy church can encourage, a major benefit to those in its midst.