Michael Berry was a member of the British Parliament. He was killed by an IRA bomb in 1984. His daughter, JoAnne was 27 years old at the time. JoAnne remembers knowing that she did not want to become bitter. She knew that she wanted to find a way to bring something positive out of the death of her beloved father.
In November of 2000 she met Patrick Magee, the man who placed the bomb that killed her father. He had been released from prison as part of the Good Friday Peace Agreement which had been ratified on Good Friday of 1998. When JoAnne looks back on that day, she remembers being scared. Would she regret meeting him? Then the door opened, Patrick arrived and they sat and talked together for three hours. This visit had a sense of intensity that JoAnne had never felt before.
This visit made a profound change in both of them. JoAnne came to realize that if she had lived Patrick’s life, she might have done what he did. Patrick came to realize how many innocent victims had been killed by his violence. This friendship has been healing for both Jo and Patrick. They now travel the world telling their stories. JoAnne and Patrick now work together for peace. They speak for The Forgiveness Project. They have spoken in Spain, Austria, South Africa and Israel.
Today Joanne tells her audiences, “I guess God has given me a forgiving heart.” Those are her words: God has given me a forgiving heart. And those words echo the basic message of today’s Gospel. “Jesus has a forgiving heart.”
During his time on the cross Jesus forgives the repentant thief and he forgives the soldiers who nailed him to the cross. Yes, Jesus has a forgiving heart. Our faith tells us that He is the king of forgiveness - not the king of a tribe or nation - but the king of forgiveness.
I want to talk about forgiveness today and I want to look again at JoAnne’s story of forgiveness. I want to see what we can learn about forgiveness from her experience of granting pardon to those who have caused her so much pain.
The first lesson is that forgiving is not the same as forgetting. It is foolish to say, “Forgive and forget.” because that never works. JoAnne remembers that her dad was killed by Patrick’s bomb. She remembers it very well…She still feels the pain every day. She will never forget what happened. But she has chosen to forgive so that she can get on with her life. She is very wise in that she knows that it is possible to forgive and that it is not possible to forget.
The second lesson flows from the first - and you may have spotted it already. Forgiveness is a choice! Yes, a deliberate choice. JoAnne has chosen to live in the present instead of living in the past. She has chosen to forgive the man who did wrong. She could easily pursue the path of revenge and resentment. But she has chosen to say, “I forgive him.”
Why does she make this choice? Because she wants to get on with her life. She does not want to be controlled by what happened in the past. Jesus made a similar choice during his time on the cross. He could have justifiably condemned the soldiers who nailed his to the cross. He could have closed the door of paradise to the Good Thief. But he chose to leave this world as a forgiving person, not as a punishing person.
When he forgave the soldiers and the repentant thief, he revealed to us that forgiveness is a choice. Namely, a deliberate choice to want something good for those who have hurt you. In fact, it is a freeing choice. When we forgive someone, we are free from the burden of carrying resentment. Forgiving is a choice - and that is a lesson that we should never forget.
Lesson Number Three: Forgiveness is facilitated by prayer. It is very difficult to forgive; but, in some mysterious way, prayer makes it possible. And did you notice how Jesus proclaimed his decision to forgive in the context of a prayer? He prayed for the soldiers who nailed him to the cross. He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”
Forgiving someone is very difficult to do. In fact, it is nearly impossible without the help of prayer. If we turn to God in prayer, God will give us the grace we need, and forgiveness will be possible. That is our third lesson for today. Forgiveness is possible when we turn to God in prayer. We just can’t seem to do it when we rely solely on our own power. We need the help of our loving God when we want to forgive those who have hurt us.
The bottom line is that Jesus is truly the king of forgiveness. He is so filled with the spirit of forgiveness that he is able to forgive those who nailed him to the cross. We believe that Jesus created the kingdom of forgiveness and now calls us to belong to that kingdom.
Today Jesus is asking us to be active participants in His community of forgiveness. He knows that we are tempted to hurt those who have hurt us. We are tempted to retaliate when someone deliberately hurts us, or hurts our family members, or friends, or church, or country. We feel a strong urge to retaliate and even the score. We would like to go the route of resentment and revenge.
But Jesus, speaking through his church, says, “Turn away from those temptations and take on a new identity. Turn your back on the possibility of becoming a bitter person. Take on the identity of a forgiving person. Forgive others as God has forgiven you. Step away from the circle of retaliation and step into the community of forgiveness.
I will close with a quick summary of the lessons we can take home from today’s liturgy.
Number One – Forgiving is not the same as forgetting. We will never forget the harm which has been done to us. Forgiveness is living in the present even if the past pops up once in a while to haunt us.
Number Two – Forgiveness is a choice. A deliberate choice. We have to choose to forgive those who have hurt us.
Number Three – Forgiveness is facilitated by prayer. We can’t do it alone. We need God’s power to help us.
We take a moment now to ask Jesus, the King of forgiveness, to give us the grace we need to forgive those who have hurt us.