This is the last in our series on 'Making the Church Real' - that is, living out what the church is and what the church should be in practice day by day. We've thought about loving one another, teaching one another, submitting to one another, acting with purity towards one another, not slandering one another, encouraging one another and serving one another.
In other words, the church should be an extended family in which all the ways that we relate to one another should be motivated by love. A family in which everyone puts the interests of others before their own, seeing what needs to be done and then getting on and doing it without complaint and without looking for any payback. A family in which everyone fulfils their responsibilities in their different roles, working together as a powerful and effective team to extend the kingdom of God to a needy and spiritually dead world.
A family in which all relationships are wholesome and godly, unmarred by lust or greed. A family in which conversation is encouraging and upbuilding, people naturally and appropriately talk about what God is teaching them from his Word, prayer is a normal response to any need, and thanksgiving for God's blessings is frequently heard on people's lips.
When members of the family are feeling weak, they're supported. When they're suffering, they're comforted. When they're tempted, they're guided. When they're timid, they're emboldened. Everyone knows they're being prayed for often. Everyone is looking out for one another. Newcomers are welcomed and quickly feel at home. The church should be a large and growing family of genuine friendships, true freedom, and deep faith - with everything and everyone focussed on the Lord Jesus.
That's what the church should be - and more. And I for one continually find myself praising God for the extent to which those things are a reality among us. God has blessed me personally beyond measure through my membership of this church over the years.
But what do we do when things are not like that? What do we do when things go wrong - when that picture I've sketched seems like a fantasy church - an unreal dream that just feeds your cynicism about the reality of what actually goes on among us?
The truth is there is one absolutely crucial ingredient of healthy church family life that I didn't even touch on there, which is precisely why there was an air of unreality about it. That ingredient is forgiveness. It is forgiveness that enables us to hold together both a gritty realism about what we're really like, and a confident hope for the future.
And that, of course, leads us to the final title in this series: Forgive One Another. The verses that we're focussing on are there in Colossians 3 on page 1184 - verses 12-15. This is a paragraph that begins with the word 'therefore' - so Paul is drawing an implication for the way we should live that flows from what he's been saying before this. What has he been saying? Let me try and sum it up.
'Praise God for the love and faith and changed lives that I see among you. You've still got to change a lot, and I'm asking God to make that happen. But it's staggering what God has done and will do not only in you but also all around the world. And it's all down to Jesus. He alone is the Lord and Saviour of the world, through his blood shed on the cross. Don't be fooled. Living for him is going to be very tough this side of heaven. Watch out! Don't let anyone trap you and disconnect you from the real Jesus. And look up! Jesus is in charge now and he'll be back to wrap everything up. So our chapter, chapter 3, begins in this way. Take a look:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Therefore (this is in verses 5-11), because you belong to Jesus, ruthlessly kill off your old, sinful, ungodly, self-centred character. Instead let God form in you the character of Jesus, and practice living like him more and more. So, verses 12-15:
Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
And I want us to focus especially on verse 13 there.
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Now my aim this evening is not that we should understand that verse - though certainly we need to understand it. No, my aim is that we will do it - that we will be forgiving people, and a forgiving church. So there are three simple questions on the outline, which make my heading. First, What grievances do we have against one another? Secondly, How did the Lord forgive us? And thirdly, How should we forgive one another?
First, WHAT GRIEVANCES DO WE HAVE AGAINST ONE ANOTHER?
Paul says - God says to us through Paul …
… forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.
What's meant by 'grievances' here? The first thing to say is that these are real and not imagined grievances. It's perfectly possible for us to bear a grudge against someone - or to feel hurt by them in some way - when the fault doesn't actually lie with them at all, but with us. One example of this would be when someone rebukes us for some behaviour of ours that's wrong. We easily become resentful of that, and get angry at whoever has shown us up in that way. But that's not a genuine grievance. We can't forgive someone in that situation, because they owe us nothing - rather we're in debt to them, though we would never admit it. There's nothing to forgive. It's our own attitude we need to sort out. So make sure your grievances are real.
We have a real grievance when someone has sinned in such a way as to hurt us. When we sin, it's always against God primarily - it's an expression of our rejection of his rule in our lives. But when we disobey God, other people usually suffer, directly or indirectly, as a result. And that means we owe them something. When we sin against someone, it's as if we become indebted to them. That's a picture Jesus used, and it's very helpful. And that debt can become very large.
What kind of behaviour creates grievances? Well, that's exactly what Paul's been describing in verses 5-11, where he describes all the things we've got to stop doing - all the things we've got to kill off in our lives. Verse 5: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed. Verse 8: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language. And lieing to one another. That's not comprehensive, but it's enough to be going on with. If we are on the receiving end of any of those things, we have a genuine grievance. And we're talking about things within the church family here. We can no doubt have plenty of grievances against people outside the church, and we need to exercise forgiveness in those situations as well. But Paul has relationships inside the church in view here.
That doesn't mean our grievances are necessarily small. Think of Joseph, for example. You remember the story in Genesis. His own brothers were resentful of him, conspired together to kill him, and in the end sold him into slavery. Joseph had to learn to forgive that massive grievance he had against his brothers.
So you need to ask yourself: What grievances do I have against other people?
Another way of analysing them might help also. You can think of grievances in terms of their size, and also in terms of the period of time over which the sin was committed against you. A grievance could be the result of a large or small sin. It could also either be a one-off event, or it could be repeated over a long period of time. That immediately gives you grievances caused by four types of sin. First, a small, one-off sin. Second, a small sin, constantly repeated over a long period. Third, a large one-off sin. Fourth, a large sin repeated over a long period. Each of them, I think, needs a rather different perspective, even though the root of all sin is the same rebellion against God. But the basic principle for dealing with all sin against us is the same: forgive it.
Here, then, is a little exercise for you. You'd really need to sit down with a pen and paper to do this properly - and you might find it valuable to do that at home - but for now, do this in your mind. Simply list in your mind the grievances that you have against other members of this church. If you're a visitor today, or not yet a member here, then you can think of grievances against whoever you like. A minute of silence for you to do that. And this is, of course, entirely confidential. You will not be asked to tell the person sitting next to you.
OK, so we have at least the beginnings of an answer to the question: What grievances do we have against one another. Now for the second question.
Secondly, HOW DID THE LORD FORGIVE US?
Have another look at our verse - verse 13. It ends in this way:
Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
There are at least two things to notice about that. First, the way Jesus forgives us is to be an example to us of the way that we should forgive others. But second, do you see who Jesus has forgiven? You. He forgave you. He forgave me.
If we don't understand that properly, we'll never be able to forgive others. And I mean really understand just how much we've been forgiven ourselves. Ramzi was saying last week that if we're going to become increasingly a church of people who serve one another, then it's looking at the cross that'll change us. The same is true of forgiveness. We will become a church of forgiving people when each of us realises how much we've been forgiven ourselves - and how much in need of forgiveness we were and are. What did it cost for us to be reconciled to God - for the debt that we owe to God because of our sin to be paid off? Paul's already told us that back in 1.21-22. Take a look - back one page:
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of our evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation -
In other words, debt free. What did it cost? It cost the death of God's Son. That's how serious your sin against God is. That's how big God's grievance against us is. But he has wiped our debt away. If in your heart of hearts you don't think you've really done much that needs to be forgiven, then you'll never learn to forgive those who've hurt you. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. No grievance you have against anyone else, no matter how big - and they can be very big - is anywhere near the size of the grievance God had against us. And God forgave us. If he hadn't, we would be headed for hell. As we nurse our grievances against others, we need to remember that. We're the ones who need forgiveness.
Then, as I said, the other thing to notice is that when Paul says: 'Forgive as the Lord forgave you', he's also making the way God forgives in Jesus an example for us to follow. Now one of the clearest revelations of the mind of God as he forgives his people is in the prophet Hosea, from which our Old Testament reading came. Let me mention a number of aspects of how God forgives, that he shows us through Hosea. You might like to turn over to that reading from Hosea 11 which is on p 907.
First, God has a clear abhorrence of the sin of his people. In 1.2 the Lord says, 'the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord.' The sin of God's people is like vile adultery. Then in 11.1-2 the picture changes, and instead of husband and wife, the analogy is with the relationship between father and son. I quote:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me.
The sin of God's people is like the extreme rebellion of a son against his loving father.
Second, God's abhorrence of sin leads to fierce anger. So in 11.9, even as the Lord turns aside his anger, he reveals it to us, when he says:
I will not carry out my fierce anger…
Third, God's love for his sinful people leads to grief over their sin. 11.3-4 exposes that love and grief:
It was I who taught Ephraim [that is, his people] to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realise it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them.
Four, there is a recognition that a lack of repentance on the part of God's people will mean continuing consequences from their sin. 11.5-6:
Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent? Swords will flash in their cities, will destroy the bars of their gates and put an end to their plans.
Fifth, there is costly love and a determination to forgive. 11.8-9:
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? [Places God destroyed.] My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devestate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man - the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.
And from a New Testament perspective we know that the cost of God's determination to forgive was the cross.
Finally, when there is repentance there is complete acceptance and reconciliation. 11.11:
They will come trembling like birds from Egypt, like doves from Assyria. I will settle them in their homes.
How does God forgive us? All of those things are present in his response to our rebellion: hatred of the sin; fierce anger; loving grief; continuing consequences where there is no repentance; a costly determination to forgive; and reconciliation.
And that brings me to the final question:
Thirdly, HOW SHOULD WE FORGIVE ONE ANOTHER?
Well, we've already seen the answer. We should forgive one another as the Lord forgave us.
You can see that forgiveness is not a cheap and easy thing. Real forgiveness sees clearly how abhorrent sin is. It isn't just a matter of turning a blind eye, or pretending it didn't happen, or that it doesn't matter. And there is a right, righteous anger that we experience towards those who sin against us. Though it has to be said that our righteous anger is so often mixed with unrighteous anger that we have to be very careful and self-critical. And repentance on the part of the sinner is crucial if the consequences of the sin are going to be minimised, and if there is going to be reconciliation. What is repentance? It's a change of heart that leads to a change of behaviour. But a Christ-like person with a grievance will not simply dwell on his anger. He or she will move beyond it to a determination to forgive, and a readiness for reconciliation.
Forgiveness, remember is not a feeling. It is an objective decision to release someone from the debt that they owe us as a result of their sin against us. Jesus uses the picture of wiping out a monetary debt that someone owes us. That's what forgiveness is like. That's so helpful because the objective nature of forgiveness is so clear. If you wipe out someone's debt, tear up the paperwork and throw it in the bin, it's clear that's not a matter of having a certain feeling towards them. After you've done it, you may still feel bad towards them, but they no longer owe you anything. That was your action, motivated by love. The feelings will look after themselves. They'll come round in time. Forgiveness is an act of the will.
'Bear with each other', says Paul. Be realistic. We're a bunch of sinners forgiven by God and learning painfully slowly to be more like Jesus. We will be sinned against. We will sin against others. We will have grievances against others. We will cause others to have grievances against us. Sometimes it'll be a very little thing - although even very little things repeated over and over for years and repented of just as often need great grace for forgiveness, as any wife will confirm. Sometimes it'll be a very big thing - a very deep and severe wound that's been caused. But we're still called to forgive. We will never get to the point where the Lord says to us, 'that grievance is so great, you'd better hang on to that one.' No grievance, however great, comes near the grievance that God has forgiven us.
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Do we understand that? Now we need to live it. We need to be a forgiving church. A church of people who forgive one another.