I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins (August 25, 2019)
Matthew 18: 21-35
I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins
I invite you again this week to turn to page 882, the Apostles’ Creed, in the hymnal as we begin our sermon today. As we talked about last week, the Creed was the statement of what we believed. It was a way for Christians to say who was in our group and what it meant to be in our group. And I want to say it together now.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit The holy catholic church The communion of saints The forgiveness of sins The resurrection of the body And the life everlasting. Amen.
I believe in the forgiveness of sins. The emphasis here in the creed is about forgiveness, not on the sin. it does not say “I believe humans are sinners,” but rather “I believe in the forgiveness of sin.” Now I will say that the idea that humans are sinners and that sin exists seems to be assumed in the creed. However, the belief; the thing that was so important to the people trying to define who was with us what it meant to be a part of us; that belief was not that sin existed, but rather that sin could be forgiven through Grace. That is what it means to follow the Apostles Creed.
We often have no issue recognizing that everyone in the world is a sinner. We often have no issue readily pointing out how others need God‘s forgiveness, and maybe even what specifically they need to be forgiven for. But sometimes people have difficulty recognizing their own faults, difficulty answering the question “where have you sinned this week?” Others have difficulty recognizing how God could possibly forgive their sin. They know where other people have sinned with these minor sins, but they don’t know how could God possibly forgive everything that they have done. And truth be told, some of us go between these two, and find ourselves in both places multiple times throughout our lives. So today I’m going to talk today about why we all need forgiveness (yes, even you); why we all can be forgiven (yes, even you); and then, believing what we do about forgiveness, how we can forgive others.
So who needs forgiveness? The answer of who needs forgiveness is anyone who has sinned. The definition of sin, if you remember back a couple of weeks ago when we were talking about Jesus Christ, was “missing the mark;” this idea that there was a mark to be shot for, a mark to try for and do something, and you missed it. It didn’t matter really if you missed by an inch or a mile, you missed it. You have sinned. If you have sinned, then you need forgiveness.
Missing the mark is pretty common. There is a list of the seven deadly sins that are what it looks like to sin. The seven deadly sins are not named so because they are the worst sins, but because they’re kind of the gateways; they’re what every other sin in founded on. You may remember that they are: lust, which is first on the list and therefore the least deadly, yet seems to be the most talked about. In part because I think it’s easy to convince ourselves that we don’t do it, it’s something that others do; but you need only look at the magazine stand at Walmart to know that is the problem in this country. Greed, you need only look at the massive inequality in this country to recognize the greed is a problem. Gluttony, take a look around, myself included. Sloth, which is defined as laziness; both as laziness as an action and also laziness of thought or of inaction because you just haven’t taken the time to think about the way that someone lives who is not yourself. That’s a massive problem in this country right now too. Anger, go take a drive down I 435 and you can see the anger is a problem. Envy, go look at our houses and see how everyone’s trying to one up the Joneses. And pride, again take a look at our houses, and take a look at pretty much every elected official or superstar.
These are the basis of sin. And everyone of them is present in Spring Hill. It’s likely that everyone of them is present in this room. It’s likely that at least one, probably even four or maybe even all seven is present, in each one of us. The reality is the world is not divided into the sinners and the righteous. It would be far easier if it was divided into those categories; you have the select few elected into being righteous and everyone else was sinners, and you just had to get in the right camp. But that’s not the way the world works. We all have the capacity to sin within us. So the answer of who needs forgiveness is: everyone.
But maybe you’re saying, “Well OK, everyone has sinned, but pastor you haven’t necessarily convince me that sin is actually bad. You’re just asking that I take your word for it.” My answer to that is that it is maybe true in the short term, but sin is insidious. It infests us, it snares us, and it enslaves. Once you’re okay with anger, then you start to hate. Once you’re okay with hate, then you can start doing atrocities. Once your okay with lust, then you start acting on it. Once you are okay with pride, then you start to believe yourself better than the other. It’s not just that you’ve achieved more and are feeling good about it, you believe yourself better than others and you put them down, and eventually they become subhuman. And that can again lead to atrocities. These things grow upon themselves. There’s only one way to break that cycle, and that is to put the sin down and pick up the virtue that is the opposite; to ask forgiveness and accept the forgiveness through repentance.
Just as sinisterly, sin can also enslave us. One of the things that birthed Protestantism itself was Martin Luther‘s inability to accept his own sinful nature, and inability to deal with it. He would go into confession, and he would have this a list of sins that he would confess for hours upon hours. Luther could not comprehend that God might forgive him without penance, and so he became obsessed with making sure he understood every little sin he had committed, and worried that he had missed one, and worried that he would commit too many or commit even one between sessions. And then there came a point when he finally realized that God could forgive him, even with this long list of stuff. Since God could forgive him, and it was his faith in that that led him into salvation, he sought to bring that knowledge to other people. And that was one of the things that that created the Protestant Reformation.
One of the key moments in John Wesley’s faith life, and one of the things that I resonate with the most, was that there came a point in his life where he realized that not only did God forgive sins, but that God forgive his sins. He wrote in his journal that he came to realize that God forgave my sins, even mine. And he emphasized that word in the journal. In the United Methodist tradition, this is when we say you’ve really been saved is when you come to the realization, you come to the acceptance, that not only does God forgive sin, but God forgives my sin. When you internalize it, when you personalize it, is the goal. And that’s one of the reasons why every single month when I do communion I stand up here afterwards and I point out that God did everything God did in Jesus, God did all these things that we just got done saying in the creed and that we just remembered in communion, while you were sinners; that you didn’t do anything to earn it; and that because of that we can say with confidence that anything you have done is not so bad that God won’t forgive it. And I say with confidence that in the name of Jesus Christ, and through the actions of Jesus Christ, all our sins are forgiven. And that includes yours, that includes yours.
Sometimes there are people who know they are sinners and they think they’ve sinned too much that God could not possibly forgive them. And if that describes you today, I want to remind you again that the cup over which Jesus gave thinks, the cup that he said contained the blood of the new covenant which was poured out for the forgiveness of sin; that one of the Gospels reminds us the first person Jesus handed that cup was Judas. The one who would betray him. I don’t think you can commit a sin that is worse than betraying the son of God and handing him over to be killed. But of course if you could, the only one that might be worse would be actually killing him. But don’t worry, when Jesus was on the cross Jesus said “Father, forgive them.” The very people who were killing him.
There is no sin that is unforgivable. There is no sin that is too much. And that’s one of the points of the parable that was read today: yes, what we owe God is immeasurable and it is incredible, but God will just write it off out of the goodness of God. Our sins are a burden that weighs us down; they’re chains that drag us down. God so desperately desires to free us from that. It wasn’t the intended design of the world for us to have these burdens. And so God follows us around just begging to take them off of us. And to do so we must turn around and release them to him. To do so is called repentance; it is an acceptance of God’s offer of forgiveness and the releasing of our sins by turning away walking away from them.
Repenting of course means a commitment not to do so again. It’s not really that God will hand them back upon us if we fail. Rather the idea is that if you leave and you say “I’m just gonna do it again.” Or if you practice this “cheap Grace,” which is the idea that all will God will just forgive me, so I’ll sin now and just ask for forgiveness on Sunday morning and life will be good; then you haven’t really given up the sin. It still is the burden holding you back. Because yes you’ve given the chain to God, but you tied a rope around it first so it couldn’t get too far away. The idea is to leave it behind completely. That’s why we preach repentance. That’s also why, I believe, Jesus expects that we in turn forgive others.
If you’re asking must I forgive others, the short answer to that is “yes.” Remember in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus tells us to pray “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” And the Gospel of Matthew, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes a moment to just go back and make sure you got that. The Father will forgive your trespasses as you forgive those, and in accordance with how much you forgive those, who trespass against you. So short answer is yes, you must forgive those who trespass against you.
Now the long answer is it’s complicated. Because of course the word forgiveness has changed from what Jesus might have been talking about. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Forgiveness does not mean saying that the other person did nothing wrong; in fact it’s the exact opposite: in order to forgive you have to believe there’s a reason to be forgiving, a wrong to forgive. To forgive it means only to give up ones right for revenge, to give up one right for vengeance, to say with the Psalmist that vengeance belongs to the Lord. It doesn’t mean you put yourself back in a position to be hurt again. It doesn’t mean that the legal process is not to be followed, sometimes legal consequences are the means by which God uses for justice. It just means that you’re giving up your right to vengeance. Including if vengeance doesn’t seem to happen. If you say “I give my vengeance to the Lord,” and then it doesn’t happen, you don’t get to sit here and say “well now I just can’t believe God did that.” Well then you haven’t really given up your right to vengeance. You still wanted them to get what’s coming. That’s not what it means. Forgiveness means letting go completely.
Because you see forgiveness is not really about the other person at all. They don’t even have to know you forgiven them. Sometimes they do. If they ask “do you forgive me?” and you answer “yes,” then they’ll know. But it is not really about that. It’s about you letting go of the burden. Because if you don’t forgive, then you’ve taken off the chain of sin but you put on the chain of resentment, which is just as bad. And God seeks to free us from all chains. Forgiving other people is about freeing you. And it is in some sense a statement of believe that forgiveness of possible. We forgive because God forgave us. If you believe in forgiveness of sin, then forgive those who sin against you.
So you are in need of the forgiveness of sins (yes, even you); you can be forgiven (yes, even you); and you are called to live a life that forgives others (yes, even them). So let’s go this week and with live like we believe in the forgiveness of sin. Amen.