Sunday, May 8, 2016
Two weeks ago, I suggested that we are all called to sit at God’s table. One might hear that and imagine a heavenly banquet, and that would not be wrong, but, this is more than simply the hope that we will be with God after death. This is a call from God now. God beckons us to live as Kingdom people, and this means we make hospitality a normal way of life. We invite other people into our lives. A question I invited the church to ponder is how does participating in communion with other Christians link us to one another?
Last week’s message was each one of us is called to live in God’s story. We think of our own lives as stories to be told. We immerse ourselves in God’s story so that the story of our lives cannot be told apart from the story of the salvation we have in Jesus. Thus we are challenged to name specific things that assure us that we are part of God’s story. As we look at the world around us and at our lives and relationships, what reminds us that we are part of God’s story?
Both of these things – fellowship and hospitality, and life lived as integrated story; my story and God’s intertwined – both of these run into the same problem. We are called to fellowship and we are called to story, but we are sinners. We mess up, we disobey God, we ignore God, we say discouraging things to each other, we lie and cheat, we fail to give love when God puts people in need of love in our lives, we hoard resources instead of sharing, we curse instead blessing; in a millions ways we are, all of us, sinners. This means we commit sins daily.
How can serial rejecters of God’s word and God’s way answer the call to fellowship and the call to enter God’s story? We destroy fellowship and dump filth on the story. How, in our sin, do we ever do God any good?
We’re in the midst of a 5-part series on call and this week’s may well present the biggest hurdle for many of us to overcome. We are called to forgive. We are each sinners, which means each one of us lives among sinners. Ask my wife or children. They could give you a detailed list of the ways I fumble things. They could catalogue hurtful words that have spilt out of my mouth. They could offer extensive testimony to my temper, my forgetfulness, my laziness. And they wouldn’t be exaggerating, nor would their accounts be intentionally mean-spirited. It would be honest.
I could give a similar account of each of them. The people in your life, who know you best, could do the same with you. Sin wrecks life and one cruel truth is we sin most against those we love the most. Indeed, how could we, demolishers of all that is good, answer the call to fellowship and the call to tell and walk in the story of God? James K.A. Smith writes, “The church … is a witness to the renewal of creation. … But given the brokenness of our relationships, the abuses and violence and competition that fragment our communion, the body [the church] must be reknit together through practices of reconciliation and forgiveness. A kingdom-shaped community cannot be satisfied with private, isolated individuals only reconciled “vertically” to God, for the manifest witness of such reconciliation will be love of neighbor.”[i]
Jesus connects forgiveness between a person and God and forgiveness between people in Matthew 6. In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer; in the middle of this prayer, we find forgiveness. “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (6:12). The first instance, God forgiving me, does not stand apart from the second, me forgiving the jerk who hurt me. He can’t be “the jerk.” There’s no doubt he hurt me. He’s guilty. He bullied, or lied, or cursed, or stole from me. His sin is reality and I am injured. But, the call of God on me is forgiveness.
In the verses that come immediately after the Lord ’s Prayer, Jesus paints a crystal clear picture. “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespass” (6:14-15).
Many Bible commentators, especially evangelicals who want to read the Bible as scholars and as Jesus’ disciples, struggle mightily with these verses. It sure does sound like God’s forgiveness is contingent. We read Romans and other passages in Paul’s letters and build our faith a theology of God’s unconditional grace and love. We are saved because of what God did, not because of what we do. A major aspect of our salvation is that God, in His mercy, forgives our sins. But, here in Matthew, straight from Jesus’ mouth, forgiveness sounds conditional. We are forgiven if we forgive. If not, well, that’s a sadder story.
Some of the experts I read try to find ways to get us off the hook. We can be forgiven even if we fail to forgive. I appreciate their efforts to be thorough in reading this passage as scholars and skilled interpreters. But I think trying to give us “an out” from the hard work of forgiveness misses Jesus’ point entirely. We are called to give and receive forgiveness. Rather doing hermeneutical gymnastics for the sake of making the scripture say what we want it to say instead of what it actually says, as faithful Bible readers we do well to respond to what it actually says.
If we forgive each other, our heavenly father will also forgive us. If we refuse forgiveness, we are not living as forgiven people. We are called to live as forgiven people. In a moment, I will demonstrate from scripture the fact that God’s forgiveness is unconditional. God’s grace pours out of God’s heart and floods our lives. But when that happens, will we dive into the living water? Will we receive the forgiveness we are given? As much as I can describe how sinful we are there is more important to realize and hold tightly. We are completely forgiven, and we are called to live as forgiven people. When we see ourselves as God sees us and in Christ, we realize God does not see the stains of our sins. God sees us and sees the purity of Jesus. We’ve got to see ourselves in that way. Yes, you are a sinner. In in Christ, you are new creation, a child of God who bears His image and whose sins have been washed away.
One of Jesus’ most brilliant parables illustrates this forgiveness into which we are called to live. This is from Matthew 18.
21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church[g] sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven[h] times.
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents[i] was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;[j] and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister[k] from your heart.”
Why didn’t the slave forgive his fellow slave? He had not received the grace given to him. Ten thousand talents is more money than a slave would earn in a 100 life times. How he came to fall into such a debt is another story, but his reaction was not to claim a mistake had been made. He did not say, “O My King, how could I ever have fallen behind so much money?” Imagine a minimum wage earner owing $25 million dollars. How many centuries of work at minimum wage would be needed to pay it off? And yet the slave says, “Have patience and I will pay every thing?” Asking for more time. More time? For that debt? Forgiveness never enter the slave’s mind, even when he receives it.
He grasps his fellow slave by the throat and that guy says the same he said. “Have patience.” The guy asks for time. The difference is the size of the debt. His fellow slave owed a few days’ worth of wages. It could be paid off in a week. But he won’t give even that week because he is locked in debt-payment thinking, not grace-forgiveness thinking.
When Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will forgive you,” I think he’s talk about the entire picture of living in forgiveness. Live in a mindset where we accept ourselves as forgiven people and extend that grace others.
We know God gives forgiveness and grace as His pleasure and regardless of our actions. Jesus died on the cross while we were still in our sin. He died for us whether we ever confessed or not. After the resurrection, Jesus received Peter on the beach. This is in John 21. Peter had denied knowing Jesus, and now Jesus was forgiving Peter and restoring him. The forgiveness extended to Peter was not contingent on whether or not Peter had forgiven his neighbor. The forgiveness of God is unconditional. However, it is not complete if we don’t receive it. God extends that forgiveness, but if continue, like the man in the parable to operate in a debt-payment view of the world, we’re not walking in grace.
Please not, I am not declaring that failure to receive forgiveness is a determining factor who is and is not saved. God determines who is saved and I don’t try to make a lists of the saved and the damned. God has not given me either of those lists nor has God told me I should try to speculate about either of them.
What I am presenting this morning is what I believe to be a call of God on all disciples of Jesus. Every one of us is called to live in forgiveness – both giving it and receiving it.
Where this becomes especially hard is in relation to someone who has hurt you deeply. The question our small groups will discuss around this is what changes occur in you when you forgive someone? That is not a simple question (a) because it takes a lot of spiritual energy and Christ-like love to give forgiveness and (b) because giving forgiveness doesn’t instantly erase the pain of the sin committed against you. So, don’t run out, say “I forgive the one who wounded me,” and then expect instant healing and blessing. It’s not easy or instant.
However, do explore this. Who hurt you? How bad was it? Can you, in turning to God with some trusted Christian friends alongside praying with you and for you, find in yourself to forgive? I believe the Holy Spirit will help. As hard as it is, forgive and then look inside to see the way the Spirit is at work in you. Note how different life looks when you walk in grace and live in forgiveness instead in a debt-payment mindset. And, ask that same group of friends to help you see yourself as forgiven and beloved because that is God sees you.
That’s what the cross means. God loves, forgives us, and receives as His own. Believe it. When you look in the mirror, see one who is loved by God.