Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Bridges Over The River Kwai"

John 20: 19-23

Psalm 32: 1-5

      One of the greatest post-World War II sagas was written by French novelist Pierre Boulle in 1952. 

Its title: The Bridge Over the River Kwai.  Five years later, Sam Spiegel produced a film version of the

novel which featured actors Alec Guinness and William Holden.  This masterpiece chronicled the

work of a group of soldiers forced by their Japanese captors to build a railway bridge across a very

difficult mountain range between Burma and Siam.  Eric Lomax, a British soldier who was captured

while stationed in Singapore, was a real-life survivor of that group of prisoners. 

      Throughout his imprisonment, Eric along with thousands of other British soldiers were starved

and tortured, many of them to death.  When the Japanese officers suspected Eric of having a secret

map of their camp, they beat him mercilessly with the shaft of a pickaxe breaking both of his arms. 

Then he and other suspected prisoners were forced into cramped bamboo cages where their torture

continued.  For almost three years, Eric somehow managed to survive until the camp was liberated

in 1945. 

      Yet freedom did not bring Eric peace.  Although his Christian faith sustained him throughout his

ordeal, Eric struggled with the psychological and emotional effects of what he had gone through,

living with bouts of depression, terrifying nightmares, and relationship difficulties.  At that time, this

was called “shell shock.”  We now call it “post-traumatic stress.”  Eric had particular trouble forgetting the

face of one Japanese man; an interpreter who had supervised Eric’s interrogations.  Eric vowed that he would

find that man again and make him pay for what he had done.  Through an

army chaplain, Eric found out his name:  Nagase Takashi.  As it turned out, Takashi had spent the

years after the war performing good works.  He had built a Buddhist temple of peace to try to atone

for his war crimes, as well as involving himself in many charities. But Eric Lomax could feel no mercy.

      In 1989, a friend sent Eric – who was seventy at the time – an article from an English language

Japanese newspaper about Takashi.  The article portrayed a sickly, elderly man who had spent much

of his postwar life doing good deeds in the hope of making reparation for his treatment of prisoners

of war.  According to the article, Takashi remembered one prisoner in particular: a British solider

who had been accused of making a secret map.  He still had horrible visions of torturing this young

man.  Eric was shocked to realize that Takashi was remembering him.  In 1991, another friend sent

a book to Eric entitled “Crosses and Tigers” by this same Nagase Takashi.  In it, Takashi wrote of his

participation in wartime crimes, detailing the harrowing torture of Eric Lomax.  He wrote about his

deep remorse over his atrocities, and his belief that he had been forgiven.  But Eric Lomax would not

give Takashi that peace of mind.  He wrote to Takashi and told him that he had not been forgiven.

Takashi in turn wrote back a sad, gentle letter expressing his desire to meet Eric again someday.

Eric agreed to meet Nagase, if only to see his sorrow, so he could perhaps live better with his own. 

Yet he lashed out at anyone who suggested it might be a time to forgive.

      It took three years of reading each other’s accounts of the war for Eric to finally fly to Japan and

confront his torturer.  At the old prison camp where their paths first crossed over fifty years earlier,

the small, aged and sickly Takashi took the hand of an equally old, tall, pain-ridden Lomax.  Nagase

acknowledged the pain he had inflicted and said he would understand if Eric could not forgive him.

Eric came to understand that Nagase suffered the horror of one who recognized his own complicity

in great evil.  Eric gave up his hatred, and embraced Nagase physically and emotionally.  After their

visit, Eric’s depression for the first time lifted, and his nightmares disappeared.  By facing their old

enemies, both men had finally found peace.  They died within a year of each other, both at age 93.

      We know that forgiveness is central to living the Christian faith in a genuine way.  We pray in the

Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts [or trespasses] as we forgive our debtors [or those who trespass

against us].”  One of the foundation statements of Christian doctrine, the Apostle’s Creed, declares:

“I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”  But as most of us have discovered, forgiveness is a rare commodity. 

The cry we most often hear is for revenge, retribution, an eye for eye and tooth for tooth. We’ve been given

an example from the highest office in the land: “You hit me, I hit you back ten times harder.” That’s what Eric Lomax

had in mind and heart as he boarded a flight for Japan.  Yes, we know that forgiveness is central to living out the gospel.

  But forgiveness may be the hardest thing Jesus calls upon His followers to do.

      The passage we read from John’s Gospel records the first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus

to His gathered disciples.  It was the first day of the week.  The disciples, minus Thomas, were in

hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jews.  While it was Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples

as a group, it was His last teaching on forgiveness.  Hear again what Jesus says as He breathes upon

His followers that inspiration of the Holy Spirit:  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven

them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  Within these few words are at least three

things we might learn about forgiveness.

      First, although forgiveness is clearly a mandate or non-negotiable requirement for those who

profess to be disciples of Jesus, it comes down to our free will.  We can choose to forgive and let go

of the sin, or debt, or trespass perpetrated against us.  Or we can choose to not forgive, rather, to

“retain.”  Jesus makes it clear with two if/then clauses.  If we choose to forgive a person, then they

are forgiven; in a sense, released from the debt of their sin against us.  If, on the other hand, we

choose to not forgive – to hold that grudge and nurse that grievance – then the one who sinned

against us remains guilty, and for our part, under condemnation.  At first blush, this may appear to

get us off the hook.  Hey, Jesus is giving us an out.  So either way, to forgive or not forgive, must be

okay with Him.  Not so if we read these words at a deeper level.  “If you forgive the sins of any, they

are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” If Jesus’ ministry makes nothing

else clear, it does make crystal that sin is the great enemy of humankind.  Sin – that which separates us from God, from one another,

and from our very selves – brings sadness, brokenness, loss, loneliness, despair, guilt, shame.  Jesus’ mission is to

overcome sin, and to restore us into right relationship….. with God, with each other, with ourselves.  So for sin to be retained -

for sin to continue to hang around as it were in our  minds and hearts – is incongruent with, antithetical to, and destructive

of our life as a Christian.  That leads into the  second thing we might learn about forgiveness. Choosing not to forgive is always –

reiterate, always – counterproductive.   Retaining gives sin opportunity, free reign if you will, to thrive and flourish, and to do its damage to heart, mind and body.

      Eric Lomax, the offended, and Nagase Takashi, the offender, were both suffering the consequences of un-forgiven or “retained” sin,

continents apart.  Rather than the sin being cut loose by forgiveness – In Eric’s case, by forgiving his enemy; in Nagase’s case, by forgiving himself –

the sin was retained and continued to spread like a malignancy through both men.  The disease could only be arrested, and the sin expunged,

by an act of will on the part of both offended and offender.

      How true this is in our own lives.  I expect there are more than a few of us sitting here or viewing

this morning who are carrying some grudge; unable to forgive some wrong done to us, be it real or

perceived.  And because the sin is retained through un-forgiveness, there are people suffering.  We

may be suffering in our own bodies the physical manifestations of retained anger:  stress, anxiety,

depression, and all that goes with it.  Our families, friends and acquaintances may be suffering

because withheld anger and retention of sin affects everyone around us via our attitude, our

demeanor, and our behavior.  The offender may be unable to move forward in his or her life as they

have need to confess to and be forgiven by the one who they offended.  Please understand, when

we choose not to forgive, but rather hold on to, it’s a lose-lose for everyone.

      A third thing we might learn about forgiveness is that it is not only a choice, it is a privilege that

Christ gives His followers.  As Jesus prepared to send His disciples into the world with the good news

of salvation, and imparted to them His Holy Spirit, He said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are

forgiven them….”  Let’s stop there.  Think about that for a moment….. Not only are we mandated

the responsibility to forgive sins, we have the spiritual power to forgive sins.  This is a staggering

thought.  If there is one valid criticism of mainline Protestantism, it is that we’ve not taken seriously

the special power and privilege of the church and its members to forgive sins.  Moreover, based on

the words of Jesus, the church and its members are given the divine authority, in the very name of

Jesus, to forgive sins.  That’s a piece of what the Reformation called “Priesthood of all believers.”

There is a part of the liturgy of our worship celebration which enacts this power, privilege and

authority.  It’s called “Assurance of Pardon,” wherein we state something like:  “The mercy of the

Lord is from everlasting to everlasting.  I declare to you, in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” 

Of course, it is not the church or the liturgist forgiving our sins.  But what an awesome thing to consider that the church

is given the divine power, privilege and authority to announce on behalf of Almighty God the forgiveness of sins.

      Let’s take this a step further to our own personal lives as Christian witnesses.  Your neighbor is

pouring her heart out about a situation from long ago that still troubles her; eating her up inside. 

She’s confessed to the one she’s wronged.  She’s confessed to her priest.  Yet she can’t get on with

her life.  She needs to let go of the past.  As a disciple of Jesus, you have the right, the obligation, the

power, the authority to say to her, “Through Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.”  Think what

healing might take place if we took seriously this privilege and power which Christ confers upon us? 

      Christ came to build bridges over every River Kwai that separates people from God, from one

another, and from themselves.  But the only way for this to be accomplished in the world is for forgiveness to

be offered and received, as it was by two men who managed to bridge the chasm of

time, distance, and lifetimes of unimaginable pain.  In our own lives, let’s recommit ourselves to

helping build bridges across the most difficult ranges of mountains in our lives, and in so doing,

enabling reconciliation, restoration, healing and peace into our lives, and into the lives of others; all

to the glory of Jesus Christ, living in us through the Holy Spirit.  Amen.