The Forgiveness of Sins
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I believe in the forgiveness of sins.
Canadians are famous for asking for forgiveness. We’re famous for always saying sorry. As in the idea that if I’m sitting on a bus and you go past me and accidentally step on my foot, I’ll apologize for my foot being there. “Sorry,” we say. Forgive me. I found out recently that most Canadian provinces have apology legislation in place, which allows someone in court to apologize without there being any legal ramifications. It seems like a good thing. Allowing someone to say “Forgive me.” I believe in the forgiveness of sins. Last week we heard about the communion of saints. The community of believers. The community of those whom Christ has claimed for his own. This is our community. This is one of the things that characterize our community. We are a people who are forgiven. This is the good news. Last year we looked at Peter going to Caesarea to preach the good news for the first time to a group of Gentiles. Cornelius and his family and friends. We heard someone describe the news like this “…everyone everywhere who believes this message, will receive a welcome at once, without more ado, into the family whose home has, written in shining letters above the door, the wonderful word ‘forgiven’.”
Over the door, the banner says “You are forgiven.”
This is who God is. This is how God is described as God passes before Moses in Exodus 34. “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty.” In the cross we see condemnation of sin and love mingled together. Sorrow and love flow mingled down, as the old hymn puts it. We are forgiven in Christ. Forgiveness is who God is. Forgiveness is God’s business. Forgiveness is what God is about. God is worthy of reverence and thanks because in God there is forgiveness. The psalmist sings this in Ps. 130:3-4. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you.” Psalm 103 is an extended song celebrating God’s forgiveness. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits – who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.” “…as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgression from us.”
And so we pray “Lord have mercy on us.” We do so with confidence in our merciful God. And so we say “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”
We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our rescuer. Our redeemer. The one by whom we are brought back to God. We all, I think, share the feeling that something has gone wrong with humanity. That things have gone awry. That we have gone wrong. That we were made to be better, to do better. I don’t know if you would get a lot of arguments against this. The question is “To whom do we look to make things right?” I came across this church sign recently which says “Let us help you write a better story.” The thing about following Christ is we don’t write our own story. The story of our life is folded into the story of Christ. The story of Christ making all things right. Have you ever tried to write your own story? I have and it wasn’t a good story! I needed help.
To say “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” is to say that we are a people in need of something outside ourselves. It is to say and sing again along with Psalmist “I know my transgressions” because who knows our own sin better than ourselves? It is to say “My sin is ever before me.” It is to say “Against you, you alone have I sinned” recognizing that committing sin against someone who is the beloved creation of God is akin to committing sin against God. It is to throw oneself on God’s mercy, knowing that God is merciful and praying “Create in me a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within me.”
The prayer of confession has long been a part of Christian worship. We try and pray it here every week. We have sinned against you, O God, in thought, word, and deed. We have done things we ought not to have done. We have left undone the things we ought to have done. In so praying we throw ourselves on the mercy of God knowing that God is a God of mercy. Knowing that the Holy Spirit working within us brings change which we are unable to make on our own. That it is not all up to us.
When we are asking God to forgive us each week we are reminded that we are people in need of forgiveness on an ongoing basis and that God is in the business of forgiveness on an ongoing basis. This line of the Creed is said to have been a late addition – somewhere in the 4th century. The church faced a situation in which it had been persecuted. Christians thrown in jail. Books burned. Places of worship destroyed. This resulted in martyrdom for some but not for all of course. Christians were given the option of renouncing their faith in Christ in order to save their lives or prevent incarceration. Many did. There was even the opportunity for mass renunciations.
Questions arose after the persecution ended. What was to be done in communities of faith with those who had renounced the faith during persecution? Was the church to be made up only of “the pure” or was it to be made up of a group of people all standing in need of forgiveness? Someone has described the meaning of these words to the church like this:
“At this point, the statement in the Creed helps us clarify matters. First of all, to affirm ‘the forgiveness of sins’ is to affirm that we ourselves have been forgiven. Coming immediately after ‘the holy catholic church’ and ‘the communion of saints,’ it means that those of us who recite these words are part of the church because we are forgiven. We declare the forgiveness of sin because without such forgiveness we would not be here, we would not be confessing this faith, we would not be part of this company. Through the action of the Holy Spirit in whom we believe, the church is the community of those who have experienced – and continue experiencing – the forgiveness of sins.”
Because God is in the business of forgiveness. Which means that we are in the business of forgiveness too. This is the other half of the line from the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. So important that Jesus comes back to this line in case his followers were wondering about it at the conclusion of the prayer in the Gospel of Matthew:
“For 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 trespasses.” I don’t think this is there to say that God operates in a quid pro quo manner, waiting for our quo. I don’t think Jesus said this for us to put limits around or barriers in front of God’s willingness to extend grace and mercy. God’s offer of forgiveness freely given is the thing that heals the broken relationship between humanity and God. To be a part of this relationship – to know the forgiveness of God – must mean that we not be people for whom revenge is paramount; or for whom an offence is simply brushed aside with the words “It didn’t really matter to me” which really mean “You don’t really matter to me”; or for whom when offence is given we simply move on. Someone has described these lines like this: “At first, these words seem to imply a sort of transaction: If you forgive others, God will forgive you. But the matter is much deeper. Often the reason we do not forgive others is that we ourselves are not convinced that we are forgiven. We may feel that we’ve done nothing that requires forgiveness. Or we may have such a sense of guilt that we can cling to our own self-worth only by considering ourselves better than those we refuse to forgive. In either case, we are not ready to accept God’s forgiveness. Our own non-forgiving attitude makes us incapable of being forgiven!”
And so we say “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” And we pray “Forgive us our debts, Lord, as we forgive our debtors.” And we may well pray “Teach us to forgive. Help us to forgive.”
Jesus would return to this theme later in the Gospel of Matthew. This talk of forgiveness is not to say that we are to let the ways in which we hurt one another go unaddressed; or that we are allowed to continue in any sort of behaviour for which a “Sorry about that” should suffice; or that we are called to bear whatever kind of bad behaviour on the part of others because we are after all a forgiven and forgiving people. Jesus deals with this question at the end of Matthew 18 where he describes what should be done when one member of the church sins against another. Forgiveness is not simply an “anything goes” policy. Ever-practical Peter though, asks the question “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Surely there must be some kind of limit to forgiveness! Jesus replies famously 77 times or 70 times 7 times.
To illustrate this Jesus tells a parable. A kingdom official owed a king ten thousand talents. The equivalent of 150,000 years of wages. Impossible to pay. The king ordered the official to be sold into slavery along with his wife and children. When the servant begs for patience, the king forgives what is owed. The servant goes out and sees a man who owes him 100 denarii (around 100 days’ wages). Man can’t pay and the servant has him thrown in jail.
We’ve been forgiven something we could never repay. How much should we extend forgiveness? How much forgiveness might our merciful God enable in us if we ask? Many of us are familiar with stories of miraculous forgiveness. One such story emerged from tragic circumstances of Botham Jean, shot in his apartment by off-duty Dallas police officer Amber Guyger. At Officer Guyger’s sentencing hearing, Botham’s brother Brandt spoke about forgiveness.
May we daily be reminded of our need for God’s forgiveness, the forgiveness that is ours in Christ, and the forgiveness which the power of the Holy Spirit works in and through us. May these things be true for us all.