Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Thou Shalt Forgive Him

Life of Christ 129

          The last six months of Jesus' life, from October to April, are notable for three high points at Jerusalem – the Feast of Tabernacles, followed by a preaching tour in Judea; the Feast of Dedication, followed by a preaching tour of Perea; and Passover. In this period of time we can almost see the opposition against hardening exponentially. Galilee, which had flirted with accepting Him, has now soundly rejected Him. Judea never did accept Him, and has only just reconfirmed this. There have been repeated attempts on His life at Jerusalem during this period. His appointment with Calvary, however, is still some months off, and He must spend His time somewhere. He chooses the mixed Jewish and Gentile region east of the Jordan River known as Perea. Here He will preach, evangelize, and do miracles, but primarily He will train the Apostles to lead the Church without Him.
          We come then to today's story (Luke 17.1-6), and again, He is dealing primarily with the Apostles. 'Then said he unto the disciples' (Luke 17.1). He tells them that in this organization they are going to build, the Church, offences are going to come. People are going to do and say things that hurt other people. Humans always have and always will exhibit selfishness, get mad and lash out at those around them, misunderstand and be misunderstood, and just naturally clash with each other at some point. The devil will, of course, actively seek to cultivate these offenses into full blown crises, swallowing up the focus of the church, and threatening its very existence.
The Colosseum in Rome was the site of much of the
early persecution of Christianity.
          Jesus has already taught the Apostles that the Church has a guarantee of divine protection, and that the devil does not have the power to harm it. 'I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it' (Matthew 16.18). Persecution, speaking broadly, has never harmed the Church. To the contrary, it has only strengthened it. Tertullian famously said, 'The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church', and wherever persecution has come the church has flourished. Today, as you read this, the largest collection of Christians to be found in one country is in China.
          Having established that, it is also true that thousands of local churches close each year in spite of this guarantee of protection. One of the primary reasons this happens is the ugly explanatory phrase church split. Offences come, indeed, and they are not properly resolved. They linger, then fester, then metastasize until they swallow up the life of their host. In just a few short weeks Jesus will die. A few weeks after this He will ascend. If the Apostles, and the infant Church, do not develop the capacity to forgive one another then the glue holding them together will dissolve.
So with this by way of a foundational explanation let us look a little more closely at our story.
Jesus said that the person who brings great offence had better beware. 'It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves' (Luke 17.1-3).
An offense is is not always a sin, or caused by sin. Sometimes it is caused by or an extension of human nature. But that is not the case with the great offenses such as are being described here. Child abuse is a great offense, and child abuse perpetrated on church children by someone in church is unspeakable. It offends everyone, and its ripple effects spread outward in waves of unintended damage. These great moral failures, done in church by those who claim God's name, permanently damage many a personal faith. The internet is littered with bitter testimonies of proof. Further, such foul deed harm the reputation of the church.
Child abuse is not the only way to greatly offend in the church. People in leadership living lives of great hypocrisy, morally bankrupt, bring great offense. People in leadership in God's work who set out to destroy one another, like two guys breaking up the bar around them unnoticed as they fight, also bring great damage to the Church.
Yet as horrific as these offenses are they are not the ones that keep me awake at night. Oh, there may come a day when wicked and ungodly men attack our church, but I hold a balanced belief in the divine protection of God, and such fears do not haunt me. I should not worry about anything, of course, but if I do it is that someone inside our church, a trusted and key member, rises up from within and wreaks havoc on what God is building among us.
This is why, in my humble opinion, we need to be very careful before we do something, from the inside, that is going to damage a local church. 'Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God' (I Corinthians 10.32). Before we cause a stink about our pet doctrine, or before we split the church while trying to kick the pastor to the curb we had better make sure we think it through very carefully. 'Well, it isn't an offense; it is a scriptural principle that is at stake. I must cause a fuss.' Make sure, then double check and triple check, that the damage is worth the principle.
          On the other hand, if you are the one offended, bitterness and anger are not the answer. Instead, approach the brother in question about the offense (Luke 17.3). Certainly most offenses are innocent or petty. In such cases we ought to be slow to take offense. Let us assume we have misunderstood the brother, and learn to let stuff roll off our back. Indeed, if we ignore this, and take great offense at everything, our own over reactions may well become a great offense to the church. But if the offense is sufficiently confusing that you need clarification for your own peace of mind, approach the brother. If you cannot overlook it do not let it fester. Do not gossip either. Go to the source. When you see or hear something that is egregiously wrong, approach the brother, in private, with humility and compassion.
Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of the Plymouth
Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York
 from 1847 to 1887
          Let us say that this is the case, and the conversation goes well, and the brother who was in error repents. In such a case we are to immediately forgive him, if for no other reason than the peace and harmony of the church. Henry Ward Beecher, whose theology and practice were suspect but whose wordsmithing abilities were not said, 'There is an ugly kind of forgiveness in this world – a kind of hedgehog forgiveness, shot out like quills. Men take one who has offended, and set him down before the blowpipe of their indignation, and scorch him, and burn his faults into him; and when they have kneaded him sufficiently with their fiery fists, then – they forgive him.' Such cannot be our kind of forgiveness. Instead, it must be quickly extended from the heart. Trust needs to be re-earned, perhaps, but not forgiveness.
          Now for the hard part: 'And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him' (Luke 17.4). Why is this so necessary? Because the church is so important, and the life and health of the church depends, in this area, on constant forgiveness.
          What people in a church so often forget about are the succeeding generations. I weep when good churches close, not just for the handful that now have no church, but for the thousands and thousands in the future who will be left without a witness, without a place of edification, without a place of comfort, and without a local body of Christ in their neighborhood. It is for this reason that one of the great guiding principles of my life is this: do not damage the church. Thus, if I must constantly forgive a constantly erring yet repentant brother, I must. I dare not damage the church.
          This constant forgiveness of others in the church who have wronged you is impossible outside of the grace of God. The only way this can be done is by depending upon the Lord to help us. 'And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith' (Luke 17.5). 'God, I do not have it in me to forgive this idiot again. Will you help me to do so?' Let Christ live His life through you, and specifically in this case, His forgiveness.

          I have been an integral part of a local church for over four decades. In that time I have known periods of sweet unity, and periods of poisonous strife. The former is much more conducive to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Beloved, we are all of us human, and when our humanity comes to the fore, let us respond in the Spirit. 
          'Thou shalt forgive him.'

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