God forgives us in Christ by faith, and gives us the power to forgive
through the Holy Spirit dwelling in us and all believers.
The director Ken Burns made a documentary about World War II called “The War”. In it he interviewed several people who told their stories of how the war affected them and their loved ones. Some of those who told their stories were soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen. Some were family members of servicemen. Some were the women who worked in the factories. One, a soldier named Glenn Frazier, was a survivor of the Bataan Death March. He had been in the Army, stationed in the Philippines on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese military attacked American forces at Pearl Harbor and began their invasion of the Philippines, an American territory. The Americans were caught off guard in the Phillipines, their airplanes destroyed on the ground on the first day of fighting. Without air cover, and without reinforcements, they fought a losing battle. Eventually, after a long fought and valiant retreat, and after all their resources were exhausted, the Americans surrendered. They were gathered to march to a POW camp.
The march to the prison camp became known as the Bataan Death March. The American soldiers, and their Filipino comrades in arms, were cruelly beaten, starved, abused, and killed on the way. The American prisoners who survived that march were eventually transferred to POW camps in Japan, where they were again brutally treated, barely fed with disgusting food, and forced to work in subhuman conditions. The prison guards told them that when the first American soldier stepped foot ashore invading Japan, they would immediately be killed. When the Japanese did finally surrender, after the dropping of two atomic bombs on their cities, the prison guards simply walked away from the prison. The American prisoners were free.
They returned to the homeland and hometowns they had never expected to see again. But for many, maybe most of them, the war did not end with Japan’s surrender. For they carried with them indelible memories of mistreatment, of cruelty, of unspeakable crimes. And those memories kept lit the fires of intense hatred for their captors, enslaving their souls, even as they walked bodily in freedom. Glenn Frazier, the man whom Ken Burns interviewed, said he could not sleep at night for all the terrible dreams of vengeance and hatred that would come to him. It got to the point where he dreaded falling to sleep at night. Eventually he came to realize that this hatred of his was weighing him down, crushing him, killing him from the inside out. He felt that he had the right to hate those who had been so cruel to him and others, but that feeling of being in the right gave him no relief from his torment. Deep down, he knew the only way he would ever be able to live again would be to cast off that weight of hate. He would have to find some way to forgive those who had mocked, tortured, and beat him. But he just couldn’t do it. Not by the utmost effort of his willpower. Not by himself.
So Glenn turned to his pastor, and his pastor turned him to God’s Word, and to prayer to the Lord Jesus for His Holy Spirit to work in him to do what he could not do himself–forgive his enemies. He followed his pastor’s counsel and began praying to God that the Holy Spirit would give him the power to forgive. From that time, Glenn Frazier began to be able to sleep again without nightmares. He began to live again, to enjoy life and freedom again. Glenn Frazier, by himself, could never in this lifetime find forgiveness for his enemies, but with the power of god he could. Christ’s Holy Spirit working in Glenn, with him, and through him, finally brought Glenn the healing that he so desperately sought, and lifted the enormous burden of hate and vengeance off his shoulders. Glenn stopped seeking vengeance in his heart, and handed over justice and vengeance to the righteous judge of all–the Lord God.
Like, Glenn, the former prisoner of war and prisoner of his own hate, we too must forgive our enemies, even pray for them, no matter how evil they might be, how unjust they might be, how cruel–for their sake, and for our own sake. But can we do this? Please take a moment look into your own hearts. Do you have a long-standing grudge against somebody who has done you some wrong? God commands “Pray for him. Pray for her.” Maybe someone has abused you, even a trusted relative? God commands, “Forgive him”. Has somebody been cruel to someone you love? God commands, “Do not seek vengeance on them.” Has someone betrayed you? God commands, “Love them.” Has a brother or sister in Christ treated you unfairly? God commands “Do not separate yourself from them by avoiding Sunday worship”
Can you do this? Can I do this? Are we able to obey these commands of God? If so, you and I have been blessed, because only by the power of the Holy Spirit of God working in you can you truly forgive your enemy, the one who has sinned against you. Our natural, fallen human inclination is to strike back, to return insult for insult, injury for injury, to get even, to get revenge when insulted or injured, to hold tight to our righteous anger.
But this is not what God wants us to do. He wants us to leave judgment and punishment in His hands, and in the hands of those He has set in positions of authority to administer justice. He has put rulers and authorities and judges and police in temporal authority to enforce the laws so that we might live in peace and quiet with our neighbors. He has set pastors in positions of spiritual authority to speak his Word, not their personal opinions, but His Word, so that His children may live in peace with each other, with their neighbors, and so they might live God-pleasing lives.
God wants us to obey all His commands in thought, word, and deed. He wants us to love and help our neighbor, no matter how much they have wronged us. He wants us to forgive whatever wrong they may have done to us. Again, how can we do this? Martin Luther asks and answers this question in his second sermon on our text for today:
“A person might here say, ‘What then am I to do? I feel all that within me, but I cannot change conditions.’ I reply, Flee to the Lord, thy God, lay thy complaint before him and say: ‘Behold, Lord, my neighbor has injured me a little, has spoken a few words touching my honor, has caused some damage to my property, this I cannot suffer, therefore, I would cheerfully see him killed. Oh my God, how gladly would I be amiable to him, but, alas, I cannot! See how wholly cold, yea, dead I am! 0 Lord, I cannot help myself, I must stand back. Make thou me different, then I will be godly; if not, I will remain like I have been.’
Like Glenn, the survivor of the Bataan Death march, we must first admit our own helplessness to forgive others.
Luther goes on to say:
“In view of this lay hold of his word and promise, that he will change you; this only will help you. Pray thus: ‘Oh my God, thou hast placed Christ, thine only beloved Son, before me as an example, so that I might lead a like life; but I am not able to do this. 0 my God, change me, grant me thy grace! God then comes and says: Behold, since you know yourself and seek grace from me, I will change you and do as you desire. And though you are not so perfect as Christ, as indeed you should be, I shall nevertheless have my Son’s life and perfection cover your imperfections.’ So you see we must always have something to keep us in the right humility and fear.
This is true comfort that does not rest on our ability, but on the fact that we have a gracious God, who forgives our sins; on the fact that we believe in Christ and not in our own worthiness, he cleansing us from day to day; on the fact that whenever we fall short, we should always place our hope and trust in Christ.” (Martin Luther’s second sermon on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, https://www.godwithuslc.org/luther-second-sermon-for-trinity-6/)
Through hearing God’s Word, and receiving the Lord’s body and blood, and in answer to our prayer, the Holy Spirit leads us to the source of our strength, the source of all healing and forgiveness: to our Lord Jesus Christ, to His command to us to be holy in thought, word, and deed, and to His pronouncement of forgiveness when we fall short and ask for mercy. We go to the source, His very Body and Blood, His very Word of absolution, His very promise to be with us forever. His Holy Spirit is making us even now into new creations, with new hearts, with gentler speech. He is making us into faithful witnesses to His truth and grace. We come back here, to our church, to the source of truth and grace, to Jesus. For here, in Christ, we have been adopted into an eternal family, born from above in the waters of Holy Baptism. Here we are fed and nourished by God’s Word, Body and Blood. Here we are guided by teaching and preaching, admonished when needed, but always forgiven in sincere repentance. Here we pray for forgiveness and forgiving hearts, and here we receive them to strengthen us, not for a death march, but for a blessed life march, to the Promised Land, to heaven, the resurrection, the new heavens and earth, and the life everlasting. In Jesus’ + name. Amen.