Monday, November 10, 2008

Sorry Isn’t Enough

(This is the sixth in a series titled 'A Declaration of Dependence: The Lord's Prayer.)

In the film The Mission, Robert De Niro plays a very bad man—he’s a slave trader who at one point kills his own brother over a woman. He comes to a point where he’s stricken with guilt, and confesses his sin to a priest. For penance, De Niro’s character climbs a muddy mountain with a huge load of junk on his back. It takes him forever to get up the hill, only to be confronted by a child from a tribe he had sold into slavery. The child comes up to him with a knife, pauses, then cuts the rope that tied the heavy burden to his back, and pushed it over the side and down the mountain.

That scene is about forgiveness, but it’s also an illustration of the difference between justice and mercy. Justice is getting what we deserve, but mercy is getting something better than we deserve. The character in the film carried his burden to the point of exhaustion, and in the end expected to be punished. But that’s not what happened.

We continue our journey through the Lord’s Prayer. We’ve been saying that this prayer of Jesus is at the core of our faith—that it shows us the heart of what we believe and also what we’re called to do about it. The Lord’s Prayer functions like a heart in that it takes us in wherever we are: broken, wounded, afraid, and depleted. It takes us in and restores us—it gives us back our spiritual energy—it renews us and sends us out for service again.

Even though we say it over and over, we’re different each time—we’re in different places each time, and that makes the prayer new and different and life-changing…each time.

We’ve prayed more than half of the prayer already:

Our Father, who really exists,
You reveal yourself to us as holy and loving,
Bring your Kingdom,
Make this world into the world you meant it to be from the beginning.
Provide for us, O God, and teach us to provide for others.

Today we start to focus on being living examples of God’s Kingdom on earth—living examples of God’s mercy.

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Teach us to live by the values of your Kingdom. Teach us to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation everywhere.

It’s interesting how different church traditions have translated this part of the prayer. You hear it each time we pray the prayer together: Some people say ‘debts’, then have to wait for the ‘trespasses’ crowd to catch up. The real word translates most accurately to sins, and so the variation tells us something about the way this part of the prayer has been understood in the history of the church.

Debts and Trespasses are breaches of human relationships. We owe people debts that they can reasonably expect to be paid, and we trespass onto property owned by others. I suppose the point here is that these examples of brokenness among and between people matter somehow to God. But the bigger point is that—from the perspective of the Cross and Resurrection, our relationships with each other mattered enough to God for him to do something decisive to heal them.

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Teach us to live by the values of your Kingdom. Teach us to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation everywhere.

Forgiveness has fallen out of fashion in our culture. It makes us appear weak. To ask for forgiveness is to need something from someone else, and we’re pretty well trained not to do that these days.

But it also gives control over to another person. In our ‘master of our own destiny’ culture, giving this kind of power to another person seems ridiculous. Giving this kind of power to someone else goes against all of our conditioning and even our therapy.

But the biggest reason we don’t talk much about forgiveness anymore is that we’ve been taught by the culture that we don’t have anything we need forgiven. We’ve individualized faith so much that we’ve lost touch with the idea that there’s anything we might do that, well, we shouldn’t do.

Someone told me recently that the church or the Christian faith wasn’t in a position to discuss ‘moral imperatives’, but what they really meant was that they didn’t want anyone—and certainly not the church—telling them right from wrong. But if we’ve lost our sense of what sin is, how do we go about confessing and forgiving? If it’s not in our cultural language anymore, who exactly is listening when we confess and forgive?

The Christian faith is based on the idea that God made the world to be a certain way, but that things were broken—shattered—by our rebellion. Now the story doesn’t end there. God didn’t reject or condemn or turn his back on his creation. He allows it to be self-governing, to a certain extent, but he is also active in trying to repair and restore what we’ve broken. More importantly, God has acted—acted decisively through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to reconcile his creation to himself.

The Second Helvetic Confession, which dates back to the Reformation, describes it like this: ‘By Christ’s passion and death and everything which he did and endured for our sake by his coming in the flesh, our Lord reconciled all the faithful to the heavenly Father.’

Four hundred years later, the United Presbyterian Church—which ironically was still divided at that time from the Southern Presbyterian Church—described God’s actions on our behalf like this: ‘The reconciling work of Jesus was the supreme crisis in the life of humankind. His cross and resurrection become personal crisis and present hope for men and women when the gospel is proclaimed and believed. In this experience, the Spirit brings God’s forgiveness to all people, moves us to respond in faith, repentance, and obedience, and initiates the new life in Christ.’

God’s reconciling work—his forgiveness of our rebellion—is truly an amazing thing.

Last week one of my friends in California sent me a link to a singer songwriter with a new CD out. His name is Dustin Kensrue, and one of the new songs retells the story of The Prodigal Son, a parable that isn’t really about the son at all. It’s about the Father who waits, ready to run out and meet his wayward child—to put his arms around him and kiss him and throw a party for him. The song goes like this:

And now you've hit bottom,
all those open doors have shut,
and you're hungry stomach's tied in knots,
but I know what you're thinking,
that you troubled me enough,
nothing could ever separate you from my love.

I still stand here waiting,

with my eyes fixed on the road,
and I fight back tears and I wonder,
if you're ever coming home,
don't you know son that I love you,
and I don't care where you've been,
so please come home.

The foundation of God’s forgiveness toward us is the simple fact that he loves us more than we can ever understand. No matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done or even believed before. God loves us and waits to run to us and throw a party.

But all of this so far is about what God has done for us, which is great—don’t get me wrong. The saving, restoring, reconciling work of God through Jesus Christ is the single most important event in human history. No war, no peace, no election can even come close to what God has offered to his creation through Jesus Christ. But in our prayer this morning we see that there’s a little more to this story that saying simply saying sorry to God, and being forgiven.

The Lord’s Prayer is telling a bigger story than that.

The Lord’s Prayer is calling us to a far more radical action than that.

The Lord’s Prayer is our way of proclaiming not only God’s work in our own lives, but also his work on behalf of the world he made and loves.

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Teach us to live by the values of your Kingdom. Teach us to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation everywhere.

Last week we talked about our role in bringing ‘daily bread’ to people who need it. This week is no different: we hear a clear call in this part of the Lord’s Prayer to not only receive forgiveness, but to share that gift with the rest of the world. Sorry isn’t enough—there’s more to God’s reconciling work than simply receiving it.

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’

Here’s the dark question that confronts us in this ancient prayer. Do we forgive those who sin against us? Whose burdens do we release and push down the side of a mountain somewhere?

Forgiving is hard—for the reasons I said earlier and for countless more. Forgiving is hard.

But forgiving is also one of a handful of indicators that shows Christ living in us and through us. Remember that the Lord’s Prayer is a part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus describes what life would be like if God’s people lived as if God really existed—what relationships would be like if God’s people lived and loved as if God truly reigned.

In that sense it’s not really about whether forgiving is hard or easy. The real question is the extent to which each one of us will allow Christ to work—to love and help and serve and forgive—in and through our lives.

Miroslav Volf was a professor at Fuller Seminary, and now teaches at Yale Divinity School. In his book, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a World Stripped of Grace, he wrote this:

“Just as Christ grieved more over our sin than over the injury our sin caused him, so we can grieve for others if Christ lives in us. Just as Christ overcame evil with the power of good rather than avenging himself, so can we. Just as Christ absorbed the effect of wrongdoing so as to free wrongdoers from punishment, so can we if we’re united with Christ. Just as Christ lifted the guilt from their shoulders, so can we.”

The discipline of forgiveness—of forgiving those who sin against us—that’s really the discipline of allowing Christ to live and work through us. It’s the decision to live according to the radical rules of the Kingdom of God—of Christ’s reign over all creation and his power over all things, even death. The discipline of forgiveness is the foundation of living as a disciple of Jesus Christ—of being a Christian in the truest sense.

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Teach us to live by the values of your Kingdom. Teach us to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation everywhere

The invitation to all of us today comes in two parts. First, it’s to experience the amazing gift of reconciliation that God offers through Jesus Christ. It’s to see the Father waiting along the road—waiting for us to turn his way so he can throw that party. It’s to acknowledge that even if we can’t know, we can still believe and experience the presence and promises of God.

But that invitation calls us to be not only forgiven, but also to be people who forgive. The sign of Christ’s work in us is when we can show someone else what it means to live according the values of the Kingdom of God—of Christ’s reign. When we can help someone lose the bag of junk on their back—whatever burden they carry that keeps them from enjoying the presence of God and fullness of the life he made—when we can do that we are living as agents of the Kingdom—we’re living as citizens under God’s reign, where the love and mercy of God splashes around freely and gets all over everything.

That’s what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer. Let’s stand together and pray it now.

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