NOT every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say, they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.
Forgiveness is something that most people agree is a good thing. Theoretically. When it comes to the actual real-life practice of forgiveness, it is a much harder prospect for most people. We know that we want forgiveness ourselves, and so Article XVI’s reassurance of forgiveness, even if we sin after we have been baptised and born again in Christ, is sweet music to our ears. There is an acknowledgement that, even while the desire of the Christian soul is to be better, kinder, more loving, human nature is still weak.
There is also an overtone in Article XVI against those who would deny forgiveness. And that feel a little more close to the bone. It is ultimately God who forgives, but Christians are called to be forgiving. And that is much easy to say theoretically than practically.
For example, you may remember the following tragedy. On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse. There were 26 students in the schoolhouse. He allowed the 15 boys, and 4 adult females with infant children to leave safely, but he held the remaining 10 girls captive. His motive was his anger toward himself and God for the death of his newborn daughter nine years earlier. Not long after the police arrived, Roberts started shooting, killing a total of 5 children and himself.
In the face of such tragedy, one can only imagine the hurt and anger the loved ones of the victims might feel. In an extraordinary demonstration of forgiveness, members of the Amish community, including family members of the deceased victims, attended Robert’s funeral and comforted his widow. The Amish community did not stop there—they also offered financial support to Robert’s widow.
The reason I wanted to reflect on this tradegy, is because we cannot talk about forgiveness only as a concept. Difficult but inspiring examples, like the Nickel Mines Amish community, show us what it means to live out our faith even when it is seemingly impossible.
Because forgiveness is at the heart of our faith – it’s there on the cross, Jesus dying for our sins, asking the Father to ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do’.
Judgement is pronounced on the Church when its members do not practice forgiveness amongst themselves. Peter at point tried to look extravagantly forgiving – ‘I’ll forgive them 7 times over’, but Jesus told him he was blessed with God’s mercy on an infinite scale and therefore he should show the same forgiveness to others.
Perhaps that is what is so striking about the Amish community. So often we think of forgiveness as individual thing: between 2 people, or between myself and God. But in the case of the Nickel Mines shooting, there was a community response as well as individual ones.
The grandfather of one of the murdered girls stated “We must not think evil of this man.” Note, the ‘we’. Not ‘I’, but ‘we’.
That culture of forgiveness was one which the Amish community was already rooted in. It was part of their faith, part of how they chose to live their lives. And because they lived it together, they were able to response naturally and support one another.
It is abundantly clear that forgiveness is not easy. It is a long process, where some days are easier than others. But forgiveness is an act of will. We choose to forgive. Every day we get up and intentionally think – I forgive you.
It is one reason to say the Lord’s Prayer every day. It reminds us of that habit of forgiveness that we want to live, because of the mercy that we have already received. If we pray that every day then it will keep us going.
Christ Stoltzfus, father of one of murdered girls, later said “it’s a journey. I still made that immediate choice in principle. But it took me a few years until I could feel that I really meant it inside me, to forgive Charlie. I felt a great weight falling off me. I felt lighter.”
Here he touches on the other reasons why forgiveness is good for the soul. It is frees us from the past, from hurt and anger – maybe not immediately, but in contrast over time those who cannot forgive finds it knots them up inside.
Physically forgiveness lowers your blood pressure, heart rate, stress and anxiety levels and is thought to reduce the risk of alcohol and substance abuse. Forgiveness allows for a more positive outlook, and so people feel able to move on with their lives.
It doesn’t mean that the wrong can be undone, or that justice isn’t needed, but forgiveness is the first step towards a future that is more hopeful, and by modelling ourselves on God’s mercy, we can trust in his promises of mercy for ourselves.
O LORD, we beseech thee, absolve thy people from their offences;
that through thy bountiful goodness we may all be delivered from the bands of those sins, which by our frailty we have committed:
Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our blessed Lord and Saviour. Amen.
Prayer from the Collect for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Trinity,
Book of Common Prayer