Section "R" of the church constitution briefly states how we observe the Lord's Supper at Grace Baptist Church, and the very last part of that section says this: "Unforgiveness between church members should be dealt with before coming to the table."
Forgiveness is a central theme in the observance of Communion. Indeed without God's forgiveness there would be no Lord's Supper.
Two Sundays ago I had some harsh words for my son Steve. The day before he had committed to selling our old 486 computer to one of his friends. When Sunday morning came, I hurriedly tried to unhook all the plugs and cables. But when I went to look for my computer tool kit, the one that has the very tiny screwdrivers, and when I couldn't find it, I was furious. Knowing that Steve had borrowed it just a few days before, I demanded that he find it immediately. He searched all over his room and all through the garage. Then when he said, "I know I gave it back to you," I was enraged. Indeed, I said some very unkind words that are never used in polite company. But he kept his cool and calmly said, "May I look through your desk."
"Sure," I said disgustedly as I went to search the garage. A few minutes later Steve reappeared holding the toolbox. It had been in the top middle drawer of my desk, where it belonged, the whole time.
Frankly, I felt like warmed over cow manure. I laughed nervously and told him I was sorry.
Later during the church service I still didn't have closure. Between hymns I again asked him to forgive me. He just said, "It's okay."
Then, later between services I found him out on the sidewalk. I caught up with him and put my arm around him. That might have looked real loving, but it was just me asking for forgiveness again. I said, "Steve, what hurts most is that you didn't lash out at me when I was so wrong."
He replied, "I was ticked off. But it's okay."
What I didn't realize was that it truly was getting harder and harder for Stephen to forgive me.
When Steve was younger I failed him many times, speaking sharply and unkindly in the context of discipline and anger. He always willingly forgave me, hugging me tightly to confirm his sincerity. And I would say, "Son, I have failed you so many times. I wonder if the day will come when you won't be able to forgive me anymore."
Now that day was just around the corner.
You would think that I would have learned my lesson. But two days later I failed the test again. That day I received a telephone call to help a friend who was having modem problems. When I backed my car out of the garage I ran over something. When I got out of the car I found a hammer, a shovel, and pieces of wood. In an air headed moment Steve had left his tools in an area where he knew we backed out our cars. I was furious, felt completely justified in being furious, and confronted him immediately.
"How dare you leave your tools out in a place where you know we back out our cars. Put those away immediately. Furthermore, you will not be allowed on the Internet for the rest of the week."
I punctuated the confrontation by immediately turning around and storming out of the house. He never got a chance to say a word.
Once I arrived at my destination I knew I had failed again. Once again, although I had been right and I had been strict, I had been unloving. Ephesians 6:4 says, "And you fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
This is not rocket science; this is not deep theology; this does not require careful consideration of ancient idioms. But somehow I missed it. Sometimes my head can be as thick as the oak in Steve's casket.
This is what I missed: discipline administered without love provokes children to wrath.
I had clearly violated the principle of Ephesians 6:4 by disciplining Steve in an unloving manner.
However, when I returned home later that evening, Steve was sitting on the couch calmly reading a book. I had expected either an apology or a confrontation. When I got neither, I got busy with other things and forgot about our little tiff.
During the next few days Steve never complained about being punished, and I considered lifting the penalty. But I didn't, arguing to myself that the punishment needed to remain in order for it to have its intended affect of making him more responsible.
During my last moments with Steve, before his accident, there was no indication of bitterness. He was so happy to be going to the park on that final Thursday, the day of his fatal crash.
Five days later after he died, on Tuesday, February 13th, I just kind of moped around. I couldn't stand for it to be dark. As early as 3:00 in the afternoon I would begin to dread seeing the lights go out, because I knew that when I looked down the hall, Steve would not be there. Never again would I have a chance to ask for his forgiveness; never again would I have a chance to tell him how much I loved him
As I lay on the couch recounting this to my wife Nan on this rainy day, I cried uncontrollably. Nan came over, knelt beside the couch, and put her head on my chest. She said, "Greg, I am sure that wherever Steve is, he has forgiven you."
I cried harder, and she let me cry for a minute. Then she continued, "Greg, I have something to tell you, and I wasn't sure whether to tell you, because I didn't want you to think that I was criticizing you. When you left that day after you blew up at Stephen, he was very angry. In fact I had sensed over the past few days that his attitude was deteriorating. I knew I had to do something: I had to teach Steve how to deal with anger and bitterness. So I got him and took him beside our bed. There, as we both knelt by the bed, I told him that this is how you handle anger or despair, this is what you do: you go to your bed, you kneel down, and you cry out to God.
"Greg, while he was there, while he was still on his knees, I heard him cry out to God, asking God to help him to forgive his father."
I was amazed. Suddenly this heavy weight that had been crushing my soul was lifted, and although I cried deep guttural cries, these were cries of release, of joy, and of heartfelt gratitude, that in those final days of Steve's life, even though I had failed him many times, Steve had forgiven me.
No longer would I be seized with horror in the evening; no longer would I dread seeing the lights go out. Indeed, that night I slept peacefully, knowing that God in his mercy had given Steve enough forgiveness to dispense one last time.
But there is a forgiveness that is greater than Steve's, the forgiveness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Even as our savior suffered on the cross He was able to cry out, "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
Over the years I have occasionally heard people say that they would love to have Christ appear to them so that they could see Him in person. When I would hear this I would always think, "If Jesus were to suddenly appear in a room, I would not go boldly before Him; I would cower. How could I possibly face Him knowing how many times I have failed Him? Surely He would bring with Him his list, an account of His grievances against me. Certainly He would tell me how disappointed He was in my behavior and in my lack of faith."
But now I understand better His forgiveness: that even as His love embraces me now, His forgiveness also embraces me. My sins have been removed as far as the east is from the west; and He is fervent in His love, constant in His compassion, and consistent in His forgiveness.
And when the lights go off at night, I can sleep peacefully the sleep of His saints, certain of His forgiveness and secure in His love.
Thank God for the forgiveness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, thank God for making sure that Steve could forgive me one more time, and thank God for teaching us how to forgive.