"It ain't the parts of the Bible I can't understand that bother me -- it's the parts I do understand!"
Mark Twain said that, and you gotta agree. Yes, parts of the Bible are tough to understand. But there is a lot in the Bible easy to understand BUT tough to put into practice.
There was a movie star in the early 20th century who had a checkered life, as so many celebrities seem to do. Near the time of his death, a friend came to see him. The friend was shocked to see this movie star reading the Bible. "What are you doing?" she asked. He answered, "Just looking for loopholes."
I'm with him on that one.
And so is the apostle Peter. Peter was looking for loopholes. "Lord, if my neighbor keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive? Seven times?"
Looking for a loophole. Forgiving other people is really, really hard. So how long do I have to keep it up before I can quit?
Jesus does not give Peter the loophole he wants. No limit, Jesus says. Forgive seventy times seven times. In the Bible, seven is the mystical number of completeness. So seventy TIMES seven means forever and always. And if you think it's easy to forgive someone, you've never tried it.
I'm with Peter, and that movie star I told you about. I want loopholes. Forgiving is really, really hard. But Jesus puts no limit on it. We may not like that, but it's what he taught.
It's also what he did. Remember the scene at the crucifixion? According to Luke's Gospel, as he was being tortured to death, Jesus said this about his own executioners: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." He practiced his own teaching.
He also told Peter a ridiculously exaggerated story about forgiveness. The servant owes millions of dollars, gets forgiven, but then tries to choke a debt of a few bucks out of someone else.
Jesus says that we've been forgiven, so we really oughta forgive. You know, like in the prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we......." Jesus taught this and did this.
But sometimes we get hurt pretty bad, and it's hard to forgive. Not impossible, however.
I hope you know the famous story from the Second World War. In 1940, the German air force was bombing England. There was great destruction and much death. Coventry Cathedral was hit and destroyed.
After the attack, workmen picked through the rubble. They found nails, lots and lots of nails. Some dated back to the middle ages when the cathedral was built. So the nails were gathered up. They were crafted into little crosses.
One was placed on an altar in the ruined cathedral. Behind the altar was a larger cross, charred by the flames. And on the wall behind that, they inscribed these words: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." The words Jesus spoke from the cross.
The little nail crosses were sent to churches in other nations involved in the war. One ended up in a Berlin church bombed by the Allies. Another was donated to the Chapel of Reconciliation which formed part of the Berlin Wall memorial. All of these crosses symbolize the really, really hard work of forgiveness.
It's easier to hate than to love. It's easier to carry a grudge than to let it go. We human beings have short fuses and long memories.
And yet, Jesus is about freedom. Forgiveness is about freedom. Think about that person you just can't forgive yet. As long as you can't forgive, you are the one in prison, and that person you can't forgive is your jailer. Forgive, and you walk free. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
I know it's hard, but don't blame me...blame Jesus.
Peter was looking for a loophole. That movie star long ago was looking for a loophole. The church down through the centuries has wanted a loophole. The church has been a little weak on this forgiveness thing. We have not found it to be a winning proposition for us. Judging people and condemning people has been more fun.
But Jesus leaves no room for loopholes on this one.
Think of the nails from Coventry Cathedral. Forgiveness is hard...hard as nails. But forgiveness is possible. You can do it, and so can I.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
And the good news is this: forgiveness equals freedom.