Released from Prison

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Throughout the month of August, we’re taking a close look at 23 verses of the New Testament.  They comprise Ephesians chapter one, which paints one of the Bible’s most comprehensive pictures of what it means for ordinary people to be “in Christ.”  
Ten years after the end of World War II, a pair of peacemakers approached a group of Christians in Poland.
“Would you be willing to meet with other Christians from West Germany?” the peacemakers asked.  “They want to ask forgiveness for what Germany did to Poland during the war and to begin to build a new relationship.”
As Philip Yancey recounts in his book The Scandal of Forgiveness: Grace Put to the Test, silence fell over the room.  Finally, one of the Poles spoke up. “What you are asking is impossible.  Each stone of Warsaw is soaked in Polish blood.  We cannot forgive!”
That appeared to be end of the discussion.  But as the meeting wrapped up, the Polish Christians gathered to pray aloud the words of the Lord’s Prayer.  When they got to the line, “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us…” the room once more fell silent.  Then the same Pole who had earlier spoken so vehemently sighed, “I must say yes to you.  I could no more pray the Our Father, I could no longer call myself a Christian, if I refuse to forgive.  Humanly speaking, I cannot do it, but God will give us his strength.” 
Eighteen months later the two groups met, establishing a connection that endures to this day.
In the opening lines of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul declares that those who are “in Christ” have been chosen by God from before the creation of the world, and have been inundated by a tsunami of his grace and love.  Then we come to verses seven and eight: In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” 
We’ve encountered words like these so often that they hardly register any more.  God’s forgiveness can begin to feel like an entitlement.  God is supposed to forgive us, right?  Isn’t that simply part of his job description?  
In the words of the poet W.H. Auden, “I love to sin.  God loves to forgive.  The world is admirably arranged.”
But Paul makes sure that we don’t overlook the cost of this life-altering gift.  “In him we have redemption through his blood.”  The language of redemption comes from the ancient marketplace.  It means “purchasing or buying back some item or person that would otherwise be lost, taken prisoner, or destroyed.” 
In other words, God has rescued us by paying a price.  The price is the blood of Jesus, shed for humanity on the cross.  Long before we were born or could possibly have suspected that we would need his intervention, God was already at work.  He would pay the ultimate price to bring us to himself. 
The word “forgiveness” translates the Greek word aphesis, which means “release.”  We used to be incarcerated in a living hell called sin.  But God has opened our prison cell door and thrown away the key.
And that has to mean more than just the overwhelming relief that we can now stand before God, forgiven and free.
As those Polish Christians discovered, we cannot acknowledge our own freedom without accepting the call to release other people – those who have sinned against us.
Ken Sande puts it this way in his book The Peacemaker: “Christians are the most forgiven people in the world.  Therefore we should be the most forgiving people in the world.”  Think of the vertical and horizontal beams of the cross.  Ephesians 1:7 speaks of what God has done for us in the vertical dimension.  Later in Ephesians, Paul will remind his readers that receiving God’s forgiveness implies a call to share such lavish, grace-empowered forgiveness along the horizontal dimension with others. 
And that will be far from easy.
Haltingly yet perseveringly, a number of Germans have attempted to take responsibility for their nation’s wartime crimes.  When chancellor Willy Brandt visited the capital of Poland in 1970, he fell to his knees before the memorial to the victims of the Warsaw ghetto massacre. “This gesture,” he later wrote, “was not planned.  Oppressed by the memories of Germany’s recent history, I simply did what people do when words fail them.”  Brandt’s spontaneous action, captured in the photo above, helped build a bridge of reconciliation between the German people and their Polish neighbors. 
Japanese leaders, by contrast, have struggled to find their way forward for more than 80 years. 
In August 1945, having been soundly defeated by the Allies, Emperor Hirohito spoke evasively to his people: “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”  That was putting it mildly.  The U.S. invited Japan to send delegates to Hawaii in 1991 as part of the 50th anniversary of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor – but on the condition that the Japanese would offer a simple apology.  No apology came.  “The entire world is responsible for the war,” was the best they could manage.
Yancey points out that German schoolchildren are routinely reminded of the suffering inflicted by the Nazi vanguard, in particular the horrors of the Holocaust.  But Japanese schoolchildren are typically sheltered from hearing about the war crimes committed by their leaders, including the massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanking and atrocities committed against Koreans, Filipinos, and American soldiers.  They learn instead about the suffering they experienced – the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 
Germany has once again become a respected member of the global village.  Yancey observes that Japan “is still negotiating arrangements with its cautious former enemies.  Its slowness to apologize has delayed the process of full acceptance.” 
It’s hard to apologize.  And infinitely harder to forgive.
Paul makes it clear that the miracle of forgiveness begins not with us, but with God.  God is the one who alone has acted to redeem the world. 
Our call, relying on his grace and power, is to give that gift away.
But how can we do such a thing when it seems as if forgiving would mean giving up on justice, common sense, and the right to acknowledge our deepest feelings?
We’ll take a closer look at that question tomorrow.