The Limits of Forgiveness

Acts 7:54-8:1

First Baptist Church Laurens

April 7, 2013


If you think that our text for today seems eerily similar to where we have been in recent weeks as we followed Jesus to his death, then you are right. Jesus was put to death for claiming, or at least not denying, that he was God’s son. Stephen was executed for making the same claim about Jesus.  In his death, Jesus became our crucified Lord.  In his death, Stephen became the first, in a long list of Christ-followers that continues to this very day, who have given their lives while following Jesus as lord.  Jesus was crucified.  Stephen was stoned to death.  And, both, in a remarkable way, offered the crowds who watched their deaths something unexpected and not asked for – forgiveness.

While there are indeed similarities in their deaths, there are certainly also differences with one of them being related to this offering of blanket grace.  In Jesus’ case, we really don’t know if anyone in the nameless crowd did anything with the forgiveness that Jesus offered.  That is to say, we don’t know if any of them really took his words to heart and lived differently as a result of his pardon for their actions.

But, in the case of Stephen, we do know the rest of the story at least as it relates to one figure that was present.   According to the text, one of the figures at Stephen’s stoning was a man by the name of Saul. Saul not only approved of what happened to Stephen but was also engaged in seeking to put other followers of Jesus to death as well.

Yet in an amazing about face, this same Saul would become the apostle Paul as a result of his Damascus Road encounter with God.  In an instant, he would move from someone focused on killing believers to someone focused on inviting the world to come to know Jesus as God’s son.  And perhaps what gets lost in Paul’s amazing personal story of transformation is the role that Stephen’s words must have played.  Along with the voice of God, Paul also had in his memory bank the voice of a fellow human who had forgiven him and his actions as well.  Surely, whenever Paul doubted his worthiness- as almost certainly he did at times, he had both the words of Jesus and the words of Stephen to fall back on. Along with the risen Christ, Paul had the words of one he had helped execute who reminded him of the love and grace that were his.

This act of Stephen and its effect on Paul remind us of the limits of forgiveness on at least two fronts.  First, what better example do we need than that of Stephen, and Jesus for that matter, that there really are no limits to what can be forgiven? After all, at its base level, both of them were forgiving people who were in the process of putting them to death.  And, even in our world today, there really is no more egregious act than to take someone’s life.

Think about it for a moment. In the scriptures themselves, Moses, David and Paul all committed murder.  And, in each case they were forgiven.  What good news for us and for others.  Whatever mistakes we make or sins we commit can be forgiven. There really are no limits when it comes to God’s grace or to the grace that we all have the chance to offer to each other.

Second, and equally important, is the reminder here that forgiveness is not the end of the road. What I am getting at is the fact that often times, even if we embrace God’s forgiveness or life’s chances to forgive others, we still often feel as though we are dealing with damaged goods.

In other words, even in the light of forgiveness, we generally remain people who see ourselves as having shameful pasts and our thought is that there is nothing much that God or anyone else can do with us as a result. In the same vein, even when we offer forgiveness to others in the midst of their failures, we often change how we view them and their usefulness to God or to the community.

Nothing however could be further from the truth in the story before us today.  Stephen’s forgiveness and God’s forgiveness in Paul’s life was not an end in and off itself but rather a means of giving Paul the courage and the freedom to do something real and meaningful with the life before him that he still had a chance to live.

Now this is not to suggest that our mistakes don’t lead to consequences and it is not to insinuate that sometimes with mistakes come parameters and boundaries.  But, there is a big difference between there being ramifications for our poor decisions and concluding that because of our past sins we are no longer of use or value to God, the church or the community of which we are a part.

This morning, let me offer a couple of real life examples of exactly what I am speaking of here.  The first is the story of the Second Chance Coffee Company in Wheaton, Illinois. Founded by a man named Pete Leonard in 2007, Second Chance has only 10 employees. 7 of them are former prison inmates. This reality was born out of Leonard’s on life experience. You see at the same time Pete Leonard was thinking about starting a coffee company, he and his wife Debbie also had a relative who had recently been released from prison but who could not find work. Simply put, no one would give him a second chance.

With this family situation brewing on one front and the desire to start a coffee company percolating on another front, Leonard brought the two together in his infant company.  As a Christian, Leonard believed in forgiveness for his relative and that this forgiveness should indeed be the impetus for a new life for him.  In turn, if no one else would give his family member a job, he would create one for him.  Thus Second Chance was born.  And in the same vein, for all seven former inmates who work there, the story was almost identical. If not for Pete Leonard and  the chance he gave them to make coffee, they would have all struggled mightily to find anyone to give them a new lease on life.   “The Hope Roaster”, April Burbank, Christianity Today, April, 2013

The other example is where we began worship today with the act of forgiveness shown to the family of Charles Roberts after he killed five girls at the Amish school house in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania in 2006.  Though Charles Roberts killed himself after committing his horrific acts, members of his family found a way to live again due in large part to the love and forgiveness shown to them by the same Amish community that he wronged.

Those same Amish families attended his funeral. They also gave part of the money that poured into their community from around the world to set up a college fund for his fatherless children. And they reached out to his extended family who were equally ashamed and in need of love as a result of his actions.

The most profound results might be what happened with Roberts own mother Terri.  As a result of the love and forgiveness offered to her by these Amish families, she felt freedom to in turn reach out to their children who survived the shooting.  In the years since the crime, she and her husband have established significant relationships with these surviving children and their families. They have hosted teas for the girls and their moms and have had swimming parties at their homes for them.  And, in the special case of one child from the school who was physically handicapped named Rosanna, Terri Roberts – the shooters mom – has visited with her and shown her love and care every Thursday evening until this day. The Amish Way of Forgiveness, Donald Kraybill, Steven M Nolt and David L, Weaver-Zercher, The Washington Post, March 25, 2013

What Stephen’s story, Paul’s story, the story of Pete Leonard and Second Chance Coffee and the Amish story from Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania all remind us is that not only are there no limits to what can be forgiven but thanks be to God, forgiveness is not an end in itself.  Instead, we can be used by God in profound ways in the aftermath of the forgiveness that we receive.

This is God’s good news to each of us on this day. Are we accepting this grace for our own lives? And, are we ensuring that this good news is a reality in the lives of others? Amen.