Third Sunday of Easter, Parish of St. Mark & St. Paul, Sewanee, April 14, 2024

Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk. 24:46-47).

“I can forgive but I cannot forget”: when we hear someone say this, we know it’s a sign, don’t we; a tell that they haven’t really forgiven, in spite of what they’ve just said. Like the nervous reflex in the poker game, that fails to conceal, we know the person’s bluffing when we hear it. The person who forgives but can’t forget is still holding on to something, not letting things go, which is at the heart of forgiveness. I’ve heard people say this and even seen them clutch themselves in the process, like they are continuing to clutch to themselves the injury received. At least they know they’re supposed to forgive.

Let’s not be shy here: people find it hard to forgive because they have received real injuries. It happens all the time. Some are unspeakable horrors, scarcely imaginable. Our Lord’s teaching about forgiveness is to the point: we need to forgive not just seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matt. 18:22). In other words, forgiveness is hard work that we will return to again and again. Jesus includes “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” in the prayer because we as human beings will be turning to this on a regular basis, at least as often as the request for our daily bread. Forgiveness is hard work because it’s hard to wrap up. There is a lot to forgive.

Yet there is still something amiss with “I can forgive but I cannot forget.” Holy Scripture is not kind to the idea of the “unforgiveable sin.” It has a very limited range: according to Jesus, all sorts of sins will be forgiven, except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:13). My candidate for the unforgiveable sin would be the failure to forgive, since Jesus in the prayer links our forgiveness to our own willingness to forgive others. In any case, the unforgiveable sin is in God’s hands, and not in ours, which makes it ridiculous for us to invoke it.

After all, God is willing to forgive and to forget. The prophet Isaiah, “For I am about to create a new heaven and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (Is. 65:17). Or even more pointedly, in Jeremiah, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). I think this is more than a rhetorical flourish on the prophet’s part. God’s not holding anything back when it comes to forgiveness: at least, that’s what I’m betting on.

All of this is a lengthy windup to our reading today, which places forgiveness at the center of the Gospel proclamation. As we heard, “the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and… repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Lk. 24:46-47). The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the repentance and forgiveness that flows from it, are the Good News. We don’t have any other message, or at least one that can be substituted for this one. “To this we are witnesses” (Lk. 24:48), as it says in our reading.

This message cannot be boiled down and reduced to some more general truth; it cannot be robbed of its particularity and separated from the need for transformation. “God loves you” is undoubtedly true, but it can’t eclipse or encompass in its totality the Gospel proclamation. The Good News we’re given is good news about Jesus Christ, after all, whom God raised from the dead. “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name” (Lk. 24:47), not in the name of anything else. This is the Gospel word to which we witness. It’s good news for you and for me.

Now, back to “I can forgive but I cannot forget.” The proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, of forgiving and forgetting, is rooted, strangely enough, in a profound act of remembering, of what God has done in Jesus Christ. “The Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day” (Lk. 24:46), our Gospel says. This is the truth that we cannot forget, the ground on which all forgiveness and all forgetting depends. Jesus’ act of sacrifice and love is the foundation of all our hope.

If forgiveness were something we had to conjure out of thin air, I’m afraid it would fail. It goes beyond our human capacity. Instead, it’s founded on God’s forgiveness of us: an act of forgive and forget in Jesus Christ if there ever was one. But to be witnesses of this, as Jesus says in our Gospel, we must remember what he has done for us and share it with others. Our confirmands today will be recommitting themselves to this way of life. Jesus forgives and forgets, and so should we, as we gather at this altar and remember him.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee