Pastor Craig Carter
One of the perplexing and troubling things about COVID-19 is its unpredictability. Some folks contract the virus and don’t even know it – they are asymptomatic. Others get it and suffer only mild symptoms. And others are severely affected by the disease and their lives threatened.
Health care professionals are still trying to figure out why the coronavirus effects different people in such a wide variety of ways.
But one thing is known: persons with a compromised or suppressed immune system are more susceptible. Folks with heart issues or diabetes, along with cancer survivors and organ transplant recipients are among the most vulnerable.
There is no question that a strong immune system helps ward off the virus. That fact should not surprise any of us because we already know the value of a robust and properly functioning immune system.
With or without the coronavirus, we face a wide range of dangerous germs and harmful bacteria on a regular basis. So why aren’t we constantly sick?
It’s because God has wired us with a built-in defense mechanism called our immune system. It consists of cells, tissues and organs that protect the body from infectious organisms and invading microbes. Some parts of the immune system are defensive in nature, blocking the potentially harmful substances from entering the body. But if some do make it through the outer defense, the rest of the immune system mounts an offensive attack to destroy and remove the invading forces.
When the immune system is working properly, the human body is able to resist disease and sickness and remains in a healthy condition. But, when it’s not, we are vulnerable to disease and our health is at risk.
What is true of the physical body is also true in the spiritual realm. As human beings, we are under constant attack from a serious disease called sin.
Unlike the coronavirus, this sickness effects everyone the same way. It is a life-threatening ailment that, left unchecked, results in destruction and death. As Paul says, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
So it is imperative that do all that we can to keep sin from infecting our lives. We need some sort of spiritual immune system to protect us and thankfully God has provided such a thing.
In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul addresses the threat posed by sin. In chapter 3, he warns believers about the consequences of sin.
First, he describes the damaging effects of personal sin – things like sexual immorality, lust, and greed. Then, he outlines how other sinful behaviors – things like anger, rage, and slander – threaten the fellowship of believers. In no uncertain terms, Paul makes it clear that there is no room for sin in Christian’s lives or in the Church. Then, beginning in verse 12, he provides the antidote for a sin-sick condition:
Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15 NLT)
Notice that Paul suggests there are some steps we can take to lessen our exposure to sin. However, it is impossible to avoid the onslaught of sinful temptations and stay spiritually pure on our own strength and willpower.
We need some sort of effective spiritual immune system and it’s called forgiveness.
“Remember, the Lord forgave you, so must forgive others.” (v. 13b)
Through forgiveness we combat sin in our lives and vanquish it from our midst. Therefore we can add God’s forgiveness to our list of things that are essential to our existence. It is one of the things that is truly necessary if we are going to live as God intends.
Today I want to look at the subject from the perspective of the Church. As he does on a number of occasions in our text, Paul talks about the fellowship of believers as a “body” (comprised of many, individual parts).
Just as a physical body needs a strong immune system, so too does the Body of Christ. In particular, it is essential that we receive God’s forgiveness and share God’s forgiveness.
Let’s look at what is involved in those two parts that comprise a healthy immune system. First of all, it is essential that we receive God’s forgiveness.
As members of the Body of Christ, we share a common lot – we’re all sinners who stand in need of God’s grace. Everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard (Romans 3:23 NLT).
And all of our sin is ultimately against God. Against you [O God], and you alone, have I sinned… (Psalm 51:4 NLT)
So the only cure for what ails us is God’s forgiveness.
God made [us] alive with Christ, for He forgave all our sins. (Colossians 2:13b NLT)
The Greek word, forgive, used in the New Testament literally means “the cancellation of a debt.”
So through God’s forgiveness, we become debt-free which enables us to find true freedom that makes us feel truly alive. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we’re told how God’s forgiveness is experienced.
If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9 NIV)
In other words, in response to our acknowledgement of our sinful condition, God forgives us and immunizes us against the effects of sin.
So both we and the Body of Christ become healthy and whole when the immune system of the Church is working properly and people are experiencing God’s forgiveness. But that’s not always a given in every congregation. Stephen Macchia in his book, Becoming a Healthy Church, describes barriers that prevent God’s forgiveness from flowing freely, such as being judgmental and condemning, making folks feel guilty or unworthy, etc. In contrast, he says that when unconditional love and acceptance are present, when people are honest and open about their own shortcomings, and when mercy and grace prevail, God’s forgiveness flows freely.
I know this is true because I’ve experienced it firsthand (on both sides). After some bad experiences, I found a church that loved and accepted people unconditionally and taught the truth of God’s Word. I became convicted of my sin and came to recognize my only hope was God’s mercy and grace. I confessed my sins and received the Lord’s forgiveness. I became a totally new person in Christ.
While I owe it all to the Lord, I also am indebted to that congregation at First United Methodist Church in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. They created a healthy immune system that enabled me to experience God’s forgiveness. I hope and pray that is what people find here at Lynn Haven UMC as well. We need to be a place where persons are loved and accepted just as they are.
That doesn’t mean we ignore sin; it means we allow God’s Word and His Spirit to do the pointing out of it. We must also be a place where honesty and transparency prevail. It’s beneficial to others that we share our own shortcomings and failures and let them know how God has applied the cure.
Paul’s description is helpful as we seek to boost the immune system of our fellowship:
You must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience…Above all, clothe yourselves with love… (Colossians 3:12, 14a NLT)
When we wear those garments, God’s forgiveness is felt and experienced. If you need it today, all you have to do is ask (in faith) and it is yours. Through the saving work of His Son Jesus, God grants forgiveness for our sins.
The second component necessary for a healthy immune system against sin is that we share God’s forgiveness.
Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. (Colossians 3:13b NLT)
Why? Because they deserve the same treatment we have received. In fact, their wrongdoing against us pales in comparison to what we have done against God.
Remember the parable of the unmerciful servant told in Matthew 18? A man owed the king millions of dollars but his debt was forgiven. Later, when he refused to forgive a debt of a few dollars a fellow servant owed him, the king had him thrown in prison.
We need to remember that Jesus didn’t just die for our sins only, “but the sins of all the world” (1 John 2:2 NLT).
So if God has forgiven other people’s sins, including what they have done to harm us, who are we to withhold our own forgiveness?
Notice that Paul doesn’t make forgiveness optional: Make allowance for each other’s faults and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. (Colossians 3:13 NLT)
Having received God’s forgiveness, we are commanded to share it with others. It’s why we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Matthew 6:12 KJV)
It’s worth noting that forgiving others is not a condition for receiving God’s forgiveness, but instead, is a response to it. Listen to what Pope Francis says in his book Our Father: Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer: “You will be able to forgive if you have had the grace of feeling forgiven. Only the person who feels forgiven is capable of forgiving.”
When we do that, we “let the peace that comes from Christ rule in [our] hearts. For as members of one body [we] are all called to live in peace.” (Colossians 3:15 NLT)
I’m not sure why forgiveness is the way to peace, I just know it is.
Shortly after I wandered into First UMC in Fort Walton Beach, I met a young lady named Lee Flores. She later became Lee Carter and it may surprise you, but over our 40 years together, we’ve had a couple of conflicts (okay, a couple of dozen … or maybe a couple hundred). And we have resolved very few of them, if any, through negotiation and compromise. But we live in peace because we have both been willing to forgive. We’ve found the only way to keep our marriage healthy and strong is to be liberal in our forgiveness (that’s especially true for Lee since I mess up so much!)
If we truly live as one Body in Christ, we are going to “bump” into our fellow members occasionally (unless we’re socially distanced during a pandemic). That’s because in close relationships, conflicts and hurts are unavoidable.
The only question is: What are we going to do when that happens? Get angry, tell the other person off, harbor bitterness and resentment? According to Paul, those aren’t options for folks who are living in Christ. The only solution is to acknowledge the wrongdoing, give the person the benefit of the doubt, and then choose to let it go – that’s called forgiveness.
I’m thankful to be a part of a fellowship that has a healthy immune system in this regard. I’ve personally benefited from it as some of you have been willing to forgive me for things I have done or not done, said or not said; and I’ve witnessed you making allowance for each other’s faults and forgiving one another.
As long as we live and work side-by-side, that must be the case because forgiveness will keep us healthy and strong and prevent sin from infecting our Body. It will also help us to accomplish our mission of bringing others into the fellowship because folks are looking for a place where mercy and grace prevail.
Friends, as members of this Body of Christ, each of us can help make the Lynn Haven UMC such a place and it’s absolutely essential that we do so. We boost our immune system against sinful effects that threaten our fellowship when we experience God’s forgiveness and then freely share it with others.
Remember: The Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. (Colossians 3:13b NLT)