Summary: 41st in a series from Ephesians. We need to forgive others in the body the same way God forgave us.
On Monday morning, October 2, 2006, a gunman entered a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. In front of twenty-five horrified pupils, thirty-two-year-old Charles Roberts ordered the boys and the teacher to leave. After tying the legs of the ten remaining girls, Roberts prepared to shoot them execution style with an automatic rifle. The oldest hostage, a thirteen-year-old, begged Roberts to "shoot me first and let the little ones go." Refusing her offer, he opened fire on all of them, killing five and leaving the others critically wounded. He then shot himself as police stormed the building.
But what differentiated this school shooting from the many others that we have unfortunately witnessed recently was the reaction of the community. The Amish community forgave the gunman, and embraced his family. They attended Roberts’ funeral, offered help to his family and even channeled money to them.
Three college professors have written a book titled “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy” in which they examined the faith of the Amish that is the basis for that forgiveness. One of the authors, David Weaver-Zercher, made this observation about the Amish community:
They all work together to make forgiveness a possibility. To be forgiving people, we need to create a whole life and connection that allows us to be a forgiving person. We need to embed ourselves in a community that values forgiveness.
That is exactly the point that the Apostle Paul makes as he continues with his letter to the church at Ephesus. You’ll remember that in Chapter 4, Paul has been writing to followers of Jesus Christ about how they are to live their lives within the body of Christ, the church. Although this section certainly has implications for us as individual believers, Paul’s focus here is on how we interact with each other within the church. And, as we reach the end of Chapter 4, Paul deals with the issue of forgiveness within the community of believers we call the church. Let’s read our passage out loud together:
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 4:31, 32 (NIV)
Paul recognized that because we are sinful human beings, there are inevitably going to be conflicts within the church. People are going to hurt us and we are going to hurt others. And just like there was very little that the Amish community could have done to prevent the senseless shooting, there is often little or nothing we can do to prevent those hurts. But what we can control is how we respond to them.
At first glance, our passage seems to contain two unrelated commands. On one had, we’re told to get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander and every form of malice. On the other had, we are told to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other. But let me suggest to you this morning that these two commands are really different sides of the very same coin. And those two sides are held together by the last phrase of the passage which gives us the model we are to follow in heeding these two commands – “just as in Christ God forgave you.”
In other words, when someone does something to hurt or offend us, we can choose to respond in one of two ways:
• We can focus on ourselves and on our rights and respond with bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander and malice.
• We can focus on God and respond with kindness and compassion by forgiving the other person.
In Romans, Paul quotes a couple of Old Testament passages in order to make it clear which of those two alternatives God wants us to choose:
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:19-21 (NIV)
I’m not going to spend much time at all on verse 31 this morning other that to observe that this is the way most of us tend to react when we’ve been hurt or offended. That’s why the reaction of the Amish community to the school shooting in their community was such a shock to so many. Their response to this tragedy was so completely foreign to the way that most of us would react that it became big news.
But as followers of Jesus Christ, we’re commanded to put off that kind of self-centered response when we’ve been hurt or offended. In verse 31, Paul uses a number of related words to drive home the point that we are to put off any form of response that is based on getting back at the person who hurt me. And in order to do that, I have to get my focus off of me and back on God.