Psalm 130.1 8
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; 2 O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. 3 If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? 4 But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.
5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. 6 My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.
7 O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. 8 He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.
Twenty-eight years ago I had a time of deep, searing anger. A time when my heart was consumed with bitter, white-hot rage at someone who betrayed me, one whom I liked and admired and respected, but whom I felt had figuratively plunged a long, double-edged dagger into my back and then slowly twisted it. I hope you’ve never experienced this kind of anger. It’s a consuming, self-gratifying, self-justifying, self-fulfilling anger. It needs no tending or encouragement, since it’s a panjandrum of an emotional perpetual-motion machine. You see, I liked this rage. How wronged I was! How vicious my former friend had been to me! Oh, it was wonderful to be so completely in the right and have such a justifiable wrath! I didn’t want to forgive her without a price being paid. I wanted her groveling supplications for mercy, after which I planned to devastate her with a thundering cannonade of wounded righteousness. Only then would forgiveness follow—maybe.
But that’s not what Jesus taught. Jesus said in Mark 11:25, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."
How easy it is for to think of ourselves as forgiven sinners but forget that we are to be forgiving saints. If we want to be forgiven, we have to forgive. I’ve wondered about forgiveness. Paul wrote in Hebrews that God would not remember our sins and lawlessness after he forgives us. Jesus said to the paralytic man who had been lowered to him through the roof, “Your sins are forgiven.” So I wonder, what does it mean for Jesus to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” and what difference does it make?
There are two stories, both true, that answer this question for me.
The Washington Times newspaper reported one day of a Methodist minister in Virginia named Walter Everett whose son was shot to death by Michael Carlucci. Carlucci had been on a two-day bender of drugs and booze when the young Everett, a neighbor, knocked on his door. Carlucci did not know Everett, and thinking he was an intruder, shot him after a short struggle. Carlucci plead guilty to manslaughter.
Less than a month into his prison sentence, Carlucci got his first letter from Rev. Everett. “He told me that he had forgiven me for the love of God,” said Carlucci. “Tears were coming down my face. It made me feel like I wanted to live, where before I didn’t care.”
Carlucci was later released on parole, drug free and sober. Before proposing to his girlfriend, he asked Reverend Everett to officiate at the wedding. Everett agreed and the wedding took place.
In Rome in World War II, a Nazi Gestapo colonel named Herbert Kappler was responsible for rounding up escaped Allied prisoners and for destroying the Italian partisans. It was also his job to round up Jews and send them to Germany for slave labor. Later, the Jews were killed in concentration camps after they became too weak to work. Kappler had been hand-picked for this job by Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler himself, no doubt because of Kappler’s brutal suppression of the Belgian underground. In Rome, Kappler sent the Gestapo into the streets to enforce his will; all who resisted were simply gunned down on the spot. Kappler himself put a bullet through the head of a Vatican priest who had been captured carrying messages for the partisans.
The greatest obstacle to Kappler's work was an underground railroad, managed out of Rome, which was concealing more than 4,000 escapees and Jews. They were hidden in the city, the countryside or infiltrated north to Switzerland.
The key figure in this underground railroad was an Irish priest of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. Colonel Kappler greatly hated Father O’Flaherty. O’Flaherty coordinated the humanitarian effort by arranging financing and hideouts. He often physically escorted his charges part of the way on their journey. Kappler could not arrest O’Flaherty because O’Flaherty was a citizen of Vatican City, not Italy. And Vatican City was off limits by order of Hitler himself.
One day, however, Kappler determined that O’Flaherty was too dangerous merely to be arrested. He sent a pair of assassins into a Roman church to kill O'Flaherty as he prayed, but O'Flaherty eluded them. Kappler then posted snipers at various places around the Vatican with orders to shoot O’Flaherty immediately upon his departure, even by a single foot, outside the limits of the Vatican.
This could not stop O’Flaherty. He eluded the eyes of the Germans and made his way out of Vatican City to continue his work, disguised as a laborer or perhaps a shopkeeper. When Kappler captured another priest, O’Flaherty dressed in the uniform of a German officer and boldly walked into the prison to administer his friend confession before he was executed. Kappler's frustration and fury grew, and he intensified his efforts to capture both O’Flaherty and destroy the partisans.
The night came when O’Flaherty’s luck ran out. One evening as he lay in bed, Kappler’s aide, disguised in priestly robes, entered his room and placed a pistol to his temple. He took O'Flaherty to the Coliseum, dark and foreboding. A figure loomed ahead. In a moment O’Flaherty could see it was Col. Kappler.
We will pick up the story in The Scarlet and the Black, starring Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer, first with their meeting at the Coliseum, then Kappler's interrogation by his American captors, then the conclusion.
So I wonder about forgiveness. I wonder about Jesus’ justice when he forgives someone like Herbert Kappler. Of all people, we would likely say that Nazis are the ones who deserve eternal damnation. When Jesus forgives Nazis, we wonder, “Is there no justice?”
“I do not rejoice at the death of the wicked,” God said through Ezekiel, “but take delight when they turn from their ways and live.” God can forgive even Nazis. God can forgive even me. God’s justice is based on love. God’s justice springs from his saving righteousness, from his forgiveness. His justice means all the Nazis of human history do not win. Indeed, no evil wins because all the evil of all time combined is less powerful than God's one day of love and forgiveness on the cross. This is a great hope we have in Christ, that because he forgives, his goodness will triumph and our sins and lawlessness God will remember no more.
God’s forgiveness means we are not condemned to be broken people, consumed by hatred and bitterness and anger. It means that we are not destined to be broken souls, shattered of heart and spirit, irretrievably blighted of love and all that is noble. It means we will be mended, made new and filled with the goodness of Christ.
I know that Reverend Everett did a good thing, a holy thing, when he forgave his son’s killer and blessed him at his marriage. The cynic may snort and the scoffer deride, but within my heart I know that Reverend Everett is a better man than I, and far more fortunate to be of such holiness. He is strongest in his broken places because those are the places Jesus knit him back together. Everett forgave because he was forgiven.
Well, I finally prayed about my rage and anger at my friend. Several days after this started I was alone, washing dishes in the kitchen, and muttering to God, trying to explain how I couldn’t forgive this wrong and how I didn’t think I should have to. I heard a reply then, not from inside my head, it was from above my right ear. It was a stinging rebuke. It said, “Well, they made me carry a cross up Calvary but I forgave them at the top.” Those words literally knocked me down to the floor. To this day I remain deeply ashamed of having nurtured such anger in my heart and being so unwilling to forgive.
The greatest miracle Christ performs is to shower grace and forgiveness on you and me. Paul wrote in First Timothy, “ . . . Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” [1 Tim. 1:15b-16]
If God did not forgive us he would not love us. If God did not love us, we would be loveless in our hearts, barren and desolate in hopeless, empty solitude. God went as Christ to the cross to forgive. The fact that we can forgive one another is Christ's gift. The obligation to forgive one another is his commandment.
None of Jesus’ other miracles would matter if he did not forgive. Of what use is eternal life with God if he is eternally angry at me? Forgive is what God does. Having been forgiven, we may “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace....” [Heb. 4:16]
And having been forgiven, we are also able to forgive, and we are also required to forgive.