Repentance, Faith, and Forgiveness
October 2, 2022
There was a movie that came out about a year ago called Raya and the Last Dragon on Disney (because that’s my life right now). In this movie, the main character Raya is looking for pieces of this magical stone that were broken after a new friend of hers named Namaari betrayed her, unleashing these magical creatures that turned people to stone. After finding the titular “last dragon,” Raya goes on an adventure to find those pieces so that the magic can be restored and everyone turned to stone would come back—but we discover that the magic can only be restored by an act of trust. In the end, it’s only when Raya decides to trust Namaari—the same one who had betrayed her—that the magical stone works again, the evil magic is banished, and everyone who was turned to stone is restored.
It can be hard to trust others. We get messages from every angle about how no one can really be trusted, how we have to look out for manipulation and cruelty and evil around every corner. We’re told never to trust someone who asks us to watch their bags for a moment at the airport. We’re told not to trust our neighbors with Halloween candy that might be laced with drugs or poison. We’re told not to trust those we disagree with, those that don’t look like us, those that come from a different place than us. And with all that messaging of not trusting others, how can we be expected to hear Jesus’s words commanding forgiveness for the one who repents seven times a day and not be put off?
Jesus has been on a roll the past few weeks with these hard teachings, hasn’t he? First he gives us the complicated parable of the dishonest manager, asking us to use our positions of power and privilege to give others the justice they deserve, even if it bends the rules. Then he tells a parable of Lazarus and the rich man, showing that there are consequences for not taking care of the people that are in our power to take care of. And now this week, where he issues this command that we are supposed to forgive—even if the person sins against us seven times in a day, if they repent, we’re supposed to forgive! How can we be expected to follow that kind of command?
Well, before we talk about forgiveness I think we need to talk about repentance. So much of the time, for so many people, “repentance” has become a synonym for “feeling sorry.” When you feel bad for what you did, that is supposed to be enough to show you repent and is supposed to be enough for you to get forgiveness. When someone expresses remorse, how often do we pressure the hurt person to forgive the offender? How often do we encourage recipients of another’s hurtfulness to forgive and forget because the hurtful person apologized? How often do we get frustrated with someone we’ve offended because they won’t accept an apology and move on? But the thing is, feeling sorry not repentance. Regretting what you did is not repentance. Being ashamed is not repentance. Repentance is about doing.
The Greek word for “repent,” metanoia, literally means “turn around.” It’s not a metaphor. It means to literally, physically turn around from the thing you have been doing. Repentance is not when you feel sorry for hurting someone; repentance is when you turn around, stop doing the hurtful thing, and start doing whatever will fix the damage you’ve caused. Repentance is a whole action, not just a moment in time. And when that happens, when the hard work of admitting the wrong and changing behavior happens, that is when Jesus says you must forgive.
And that’s where the trust we talked about comes in. How can you trust someone who has hurt you? How can you trust that they are really repenting, turning around and not doing the hurtful thing anymore? Well, that’s why we are called to trust. To trust that our siblings in Christ are acting in good faith. To trust that redemption is possible for each and every one of us. And to trust that our community—this church community that surrounds us—will hold each of us accountable without banishing any of us from our midst.
The truth is it’s much easier to “cancel” those who hurt us than leave the door open to repentance. It’s much easier to dig in and hold a grudge than to forgive even when you see the work of repentance is being done. It’s much easier to write off your offender as irredeemable than it is to trust that God can change people’s behavior through the power of grace. Forgiveness, even when we reconsider what repentance actually is, is an absolutely stunning act of faith! The faith that is needed in the offender, the faith that is needed in the community to hold everyone accountable, and the faith that is needed in God to redeem what was broken would make any of us cry out to Jesus “increase our faith!” Because surely commanding a mulberry tree to dive into the sea is easier than this thing that Jesus is asking us to do!
But the thing is, faith doesn’t increase by magic. It’s not something we can simply will ourselves to have more of, or be given more of it by God. Faith grows in doing faith. Faith grows when we practice trusting, over and over again, learning to cling ever tighter to what could be. And that is hard work. It’s hard work to have faith, to trust that those who say they repent really repent. But when we walk the way of faith, leaning on each other, trusting in our community to hold each other accountable, and watching the work of repentance be done, we’ll find our faith will grow.
And when we do that together, the kingdom of God shows up in our midst. This community is built on the foundation of trusting that God is making all things new—including mending our brokenness, guiding us through repentance, and building us up with reconciliation. When we are honest and trusting of each other, and when we enter into the practice of repentance where we admit what we’ve done, turn around, and work to mend what we’ve broken, then we’ll see the kind of world that God is building in and through us.
So trust one another. Trust this community. Trust God. Your faith will grow by practicing it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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