Forgiveness of sins

A sermon preached in a continuing series on the Apostles’ Creed.

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Well, once again this morning I find myself in an unenviable position – here I stand, with about fifteen to twenty minutes to explore the forgiveness of sins. That’s our topic for today. Of course, I’ve got no one to blame but myself. It was my choice to preach through the Apostles’ Creed and there’s no backing out now. 

You could say that I feel this morning like someone who has been asked to explain in a few words the music of Oscar Peterson, that great Montreal Jazz artist. How, in a few words, could anyone capture the musical ability, the keyboard dexterity, the emotional range of that great pianist and composer? How could words ever come close to capturing the essence of great music since by definition music belongs to a different realm than that of words? Ultimately, the great music of Oscar Peterson isn’t something to be explained or talked about, it is something to be listened to, experienced.

The same thing goes when it comes to forgiveness. Words about forgiveness, explanations of forgiveness, can only dance around the subject – words will never get us as close to forgiveness as we really need to get. The truth is that you can only understand forgiveness and know forgiveness from within the experience of forgiveness. Like the amazing music of Oscar Peterson, perhaps, forgiveness isn’t something that can ultimately be explained – forgiveness must be lived, must get a grip on our lives.

Now, that’s not to say that we can’t say anything about forgiveness – to some extent we can describe forgiveness – we can give some sense of what forgiveness involves, what it looks like.

Even in trying to give some sense of what forgiveness might look like, however, we will run into problems since forgiveness is as complicated as our lives and relationships. What applies in one situation might not apply in another. The idea of forgiveness is as full of twists and turns as the narratives of our sometimes messy lives. When you say one true thing about forgiveness, you realize there are 10 important things you haven’t said.

This morning, however, we stay with that first problem I mentioned – we stay with the realization that we don’t really know forgiveness until we know it from the inside – until it is part of our experience.

And today we are also going to limit ourselves by only talking about divine forgiveness – about the forgiveness God extends. Next week we’ll come back to forgiveness as it comes to expression in human relationships. In order to consider God’s forgiveness, we come back to that memorable parable from Matthew’s gospel – focusing especially on the first part. Let me summarize that first part, again, and do so following the interpretation offered by a particular biblical scholar. The story goes like this:

There once was an ancient, Oriental sultan – a king. And he conducted an audit of his minister of state and of his provincial governors – those who were his servants. And having conducted the audit, he discovered that one servant, perhaps the governor of one of his wealthier provinces, had embezzled an immense amount of tax revenue. The amount that the governor has taken, in fact, was equivalent to a day’s wages for one hundred million labourers – it is an immense amount of money. So much has been taken, in fact, that restitution is impossible – it cannot be paid back.

Rather than simply executing the scoundrel, however, the sultan determines to inflict a more degrading and protracted punishment; the man and his wife and children will be put on the block – sold into slavery. Hearing this judgment, the embezzler pleads with the king, begs the king to show mercy. He promises to make it up to the king (which we know is impossible, since so much has been taken). Yet in response to the pleading of the man, his plea for mercy, the king suddenly displays the whimsical eccentricity of a despot: he abruptly reverses his decision and lets the villain off scot free. The debt is gone.

Now, as we read this parable, we should not think that the king is fully representative of God – parables don’t work that way. We cannot attribute all of the king’s actions to God – for example, God doesn’t condone slavery or sell his children into such abusive relationships. What we are meant to see at the heart of this parable, however, is an act of astounding magnanimity. The astounding graciousness of the king, is the point of the story.

            A debt beyond the ability of the governor to repay, is forgiven.

            The governor’s massive embezzlement and fraud, is not held against him.

With this parable, Jesus wants to remind us of the astounding magnanimity or graciousness of God – as the Psalmist puts it, of the God “who forgives all your sins, who heals all your diseases, and redeems your life from the pit.”

No matter how grievous our sin, or how minor, God is sufficiently gracious to forgive. “Who forgives all your sins, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit.”

At the heart of the gospel is the truth that God in Christ extends mercy and forgiveness to the world – indeed, the gospel simply is the story of God’s amazing forbearance and forgiveness. God forgives our wrongheaded thinking, our wrongheaded actions, our wrongheaded living.

I believe the forgiveness of sins.

That the forgiveness of sins lies at the heart of the gospel is revealed at the end of Luke’s narrative, when Jesus commissions his disciples by opening the Hebrew Bible to them and declaring: “Thus 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. You are my witnesses of these things.”

Though it is a profound mystery, in the crucifixion and death of Jesus, in his resurrection to new life, our sin is crucified – God puts an end to our sin, without putting an end to us. The Apostle Paul thus writes: “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” In Christ, through the suffering of his cross, through his resurrection to life, there is forgiveness – we belong now to the kingdom of God’s beloved son.

So as we read the New Testament, we get some sense of what it means to believe in the forgiveness of sins. We have some sense of the mysterious and wonderful truth that God forgives. But to say that we now know the forgiveness of sins, would be like saying that we know the music of Oscar Peterson after having read an article about it in the Montreal Gazette.

You don’t know the music of Oscar Peterson until you’ve heard it, and been moved by it. You don’t know the music of Oscar Peterson until it rhythms and melodies and syncopation have touched you – when it has set your fingers to tapping and your feet to dancing.

So also, you don’t know the forgiveness of sins until it touches you, moves you, gets inside you – you don’t really know what the forgiveness of sins is until it has set your fingers to tapping and your feet to dancing.

Through this series on the Apostles’ Creed we have been reminded that the ‘I believe’ of the Creed is not just a head thing – it’s not about saying ‘I believe this is true’. Rather, the ‘I believe’ of the creed must be understood as saying ‘I trust’.

I don’t simply believe, in my mind, that God the creator is there –

I trust God.

            I don’t simply believe, in my mind, that Jesus is the risen Lord.

I trust Jesus as Lord.

            I don’t simply believe, in my mind, that the Holy Spirit is among us.

I trust that the Spirit comforts us and equips his people for service.

In the same way, we aren’t to simply accept in our minds that sin is forgiven. Rather, we are invited to trust that the forgiveness of sins is a reality for us and our world. Through Jesus Christ, through his cross, the forgiveness of sins is a reality.

I believe the forgiveness of sins.

We trust that this is a true statement of what God does (he forgives) and a true statement of who we are (we are forgiven). Like great music, whether the music of a fine chamber choir, or of a string quartet, or a mass choir, or a great jazz pianist, forgiveness must move us, must touch us, must make its way into our heart – and until it does, we don’t know forgiveness.

We can put this another way by saying that God’s forgiveness of sins is personal:

It’s personal. God forgives your sin – the sin that is particular to you. God invites you into new life. (Of course, forgiveness is more than personal. God also forgives the institutional and social sin that marks the lives of communities, but God’s forgiveness is also, first, personal.)

Here we do well to attend to those powerful words of Psalm 51, which we read this morning. It is a Psalm attributed to David and presumed to have been written on the occasion when the prophet Nathan came to him and confronted him with the murder of Uriah and of adultery with Bathsheba.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions and my sin is every before me.

For David, the reality of forgiveness is personal –

Forgiveness has to do with his own actions – thing he has done.

Forgiveness has to with his own story – it has to do with the circumstances and relationships that are particular to him.

Forgiveness has to do with his own relationship to God – it has to do with his own desire to know the blessing of God.

Each of us this morning will have our own personal response to the Creed’s declaration of God’s forgiveness of sin. Each of us will have our own reaction to the news that in Christ God puts an end to our sin without putting an end to us.

Some of us might respond with humble – yes, I know the ways my life is messed up. I have a sense of what it means that God forgives me, and I’m trying to live out of that truth – the truth that I’m made new and different through the resurrection of Jesus.

Others of us might respond with a dismissive – ‘whatever’. We’ve never taken the idea of sin too seriously, and that hasn’t changed this morning. The creed may announce that God forgives but we don’t have any particular sense that we need to be forgiven.

Still others of us might respond with a heavy heart, aware of profound failures in our lives. We might feel like our mistakes are so profound that God will not forgive – or, that we do not deserve forgiveness.

Perhaps a shameful action was performed,

perhaps a powerfully hurtful word was spoken,

perhaps in a moment when action was desperately needed, you recall standing by and doing nothing.

I believe the forgiveness of sins.

It is one thing to know in our heads that God forgives our sins. It is something entirely different for the truth of forgiveness to become real in our lives.

It is one thing to be able to tell the story of Jesus’ cross. It is something entirely different to recognize in the cross your own wrongheaded decisions, your own wrongheaded actions, your own wrongheaded life.

It is one thing to be able to tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection. It is something entirely different to know the freedom from shame and the freedom from guilt that comes through the resurrection life of Jesus.

It is one thing to know in your mind that God forgives sin. It is an entirely different thing to trust in the marrow of your being, that God’s grace extends even to you.

For any preacher, on any given Sunday, there is a moment when he or she becomes profoundly aware that his or her work has come to an end, and someone else’s work has begun. In today’s sermon it feels like that moment is now.

The word of grace, of God’s forgiveness has been spoken – and now we all have become hearers of that word – myself included. This is the moment, then, when the preacher’s work ends and someone else’s work begins. In this moment perhaps the Spirit of God begins to stir, and perhaps our own hearts begin to stir in us. Now is perhaps the moment when there is some work for the Spirit of God to do, and some work for each of us to do – as we reflect on our lives, and reach out toward the resurrection life of Christ. The word of grace has been spoken, and it hovers there in the air, wanting to take on flesh in our lives.

In this moment, my prayer for each of us, as hearers of God’s word, is that we will know the forgiveness of God. That we will know it from the inside – that our fingers will be set to tapping, and our feet to dancing in the experience and reality of God’s forgiveness.

It is wonderful news for us, that in forgiveness, the judgment of God and the mercy of God meet. In forgiveness, the judgment of God and the mercy of God kiss.

Forgiveness means, yes, that God judges our lives. But in the same moment that God judges, God looks beyond our sin and invites us into the resurrection life of Jesus Christ……

Forgiveness means, yes, that God judges our words and actions. But in the same moment that God judges, God looks beyond our sin and invites us as new selves into the resurrection life of Jesus Christ – into freedom and joy.

My prayer is that we will all know this forgiveness, this freedom, this joy – that we will know it from the inside. Amen.

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