Tuesday, August 01, 2006

forgive us our sins: a reflection on the lord's prayer

You’ve heard sermons about forgiveness before. I’ve preached sermons about forgiveness before. It might be good at the outset to let you in on what this sermon is not. It’s not a sermon that conveys “I understand forgiveness and I want to share what I know with you”. It ‘s not a sermon that says “I’ve arrived in the practice of forgiveness, like a guru coming down from the mountain”. It’s not a sermon that insists “If we just worked harder at forgiveness, we would be happier”. It is not a sermon that suggests “Some people get it, about forgiveness, and some don’t”.

It might also be good to ask a question at the outset. So much is written, preached, taught about forgiveness, and where has it gotten us? I want to attempt something more modest today. I want to say that forgiveness is a process that has three steps. And I want to say that all of us are somewhere in the journey of forgiveness. We’re not yet there. We’re on the way. I am convinced that these three steps are the way to forgiveness.

Jesus teaches us to pray, forgive us our trespasses/sins, as we forgive those who trespass/sin against us.

First, forgiveness is our need. This is the therapeutic meaning of forgiveness. We need to forgive others, for our own sake. When we do not forgive others, we are the primary casualties. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “hate is a cancer, and it is capable of destroying the person who hates”. It is not all about what the other person deserves---we’ll get to that later. It is about our need to forgive.

Jesus is saying that there is something about forgiveness, our capacity to forgive, that is connected with his forgiveness of us. There is something about our grace toward others that is related to our living a grace-full life.

But how do we forgive, practically? John Patton teaches pastoral counseling in Atlanta, and he has an insight that has been startling for me. He insists that forgiveness is not something we can achieve by trying harder. Forgiveness is not something we do. Forgiveness is something we discover.

If we focus on our own decision to forgive or not to forgive another person, it is likely that we will never do so. Patton says, “forgiveness is the discovery that I am more like the person who has hurt me than different from them. I am able to forgive when I discover that I am in no position to forgive.”

Our inability to forgive holds us captive. . If you want to see this in scripture, turn to Matthew 18. 23, the parable of the unforgiving servant. The Latin word for mercy is eleison, related to our english word liaison or bond. Christians around the world chant the prayer “Kyrie Eleison”, “Lord have mercy”. When we refuse to forgive we hold others and ourselves in bondage. When we forgive, we loosen the attachments, freeing the other person and ourselves in the process.

Jesus spoke the Aramaic language, and in a series of meditations on the aramaic version of the Lord’s Prayer, we hear this familiar prayer in a new way:

Loose the cords of mistakes binding us

as we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.

Lighten our load of secret debts

as we relieve others of their need to repay.

Forgive our hidden past, the secret shames,

as we consistently forgive what others hide.

When we forgive we release the other person, and in the process we are released. As we understand our own forgiveness, we discover a forgiveness for others. The bonds are loosened. The hate is tossed to the winds. We forgive because God forgives our sins. We are not God. We are forgiven sinners. All of us. Forgiveness is our need.

Second, forgiveness is our witness. Forgiveness is an essential dimension of the Christian faith is that it makes our witness as a community possible. Without forgiveness there is no family, no community, no church. None of us is perfect. At First United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City the congregation gathered for worship on the Sunday after the horrible bombing. In addition to the enormous human travesty, their beautiful sanctuary, on the historic registry, was in a shambles; a massive renovation would be ahead. In the midst of death, grief, fear and loss, the people were in shock. Nick Harris, the pastor, made this statement in a sermon: We have to pray for the people who did this. If we don’t we’re not a church; we’re a social club.

Providence United Methodist Church is not a social club. We are a community of forgiven and forgiving sinners, saved by the grace of God. This is the evangelical value of forgiveness. Now the common stereotype of an evangelical in our culture is someone who is judgmental, maybe someone who has conservative political convictions, maybe someone who is mean-spirited. If you don’t believe me, ask a stranger this week, someone you’re waiting in line with at the grocery store, or someone you are standing near as you go into a movie, ask them about the first thing that comes to their mind when they hear the word “evangelical Christian”. Authentic evangelical witness is all about the good news of forgiveness, and how we are compelled to share that good news with others.

At the end of Luke’s’ gospel, Jesus says,

It is written that the Messiah

is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day

and that repentance and forgiveness of sins

is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations

beginning in Jerusalem. (24.46-47)

Do you think forgiveness can be a witness? In the aftermath of the civil war, Abraham Lincoln was overheard to speak of the south in a kind way. How can you say that?”, he was asked. He responded, “madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

We forgive because we have a need to forgive. This is truth, and it is truth you might hear from Oprah or Dr. Phil. It is one step in the journey, but it is not the fullness of forgiveness.

We forgive because this is our witness. Here it gets more difficult. Here followers of Jesus depart from the practices of insurgents and diplomats, here followers of Jesus would read the Sermon on The Mount and realize that we forgive before the other party is worthy of our forgiveness. Jesus taught this very prayer to people who lived in the precise location on our planet where retaliation had replaced forgiveness, where the innocents suffer from the decisions of those who live great distances away, in Tehran and Washington and Jerusalem.

Why did Jesus teach his disciples to pray these words? It turns out, these would be words he would not only speak, but live. And that leads to another basic truth.

Forgiveness is our need.

Forgiveness is our witness.

Third, forgiveness is our gospel. In Jesus Christ, God has forgiven our sins. Paul writes to the Romans, in 5.8:

God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

None of us is so far along that we do not need to be reminded of this basic truth. We are forgiven, reconciled sinners, saved by the grace of God. I love the verse in Charles Wesley’s hymn,

He breaks the power of cancelled sin
He sets the prisoner free!

That is what it means to be a Christian: to know that I have been released from my own sin, my own guilt, my own failures, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that is our starting place: we all stand in need of God’s forgiveness. As a Sunday School teacher once said to me, along the way, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross”. That is the mind-altering, conciousness-shaping, ego-reducing reality of what it means to be a Christian: to know that I am not perfect, just forgiven.

The years come and go for our family, and at times we find ourselves in the emergency room. Kidney stones, allergic reactions, injuries playing softball and basketball and running through the house…you could add your own experiences to the list. When I’m there I look around the emergency room waiting area. Some of the folks are young, some are old. Some are rich, some are poor. Some speak English, some speak Spanish. Some are black, some are white. You can look at some of the people and immediately you know what is wrong. You can look at others are you aren’t so sure. But you know, beneath the surface, that they all have some need, or they wouldn’t be there.

A good friend recently reminded me that the church is not a school for saints, but a hospital for sinners. Could it be that many, many of us today have made our way to this hospital for sinners because we have something wrong with us, and it will not go away, and it has to do with forgiveness…

Maybe we need to forgive someone else?

Maybe we need to ask someone for forgiveness?

Maybe we need to forgive ourselves?

Maybe we need to hear that God has forgiven us?

And so I want to say it the way I heard it so often, in the church of my childhood:

Don’t leave this place unless you have wrestled with this prayer of Jesus, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Don’t leave this place unless you know, deep within, that you are forgiven, through the grace of God that is greater than all your sin.

Don’t leave this place unless you have begun to loose the cords that connect you with someone who needs your forgiveness.

The church is a hospital for sinners. We forgive because we need to forgive. We forgive because that is our witness. Indeed, the world has never been in more need of Christians who bear witness to forgiveness. And we forgive because that is the heart of the gospel. God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Brothers and sisters, in the name of Jesus Christ, and through the power of His cross, we are forgiven!

Sources: John Patton, Is Human Forgiveness Possible?; Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thought I would mention that any educated person and especially one who writes should realize that "a lot" is two words and is considered extremely incorrect as "alot"

8:20 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home