The Creed - Week Five: The Forgiveness Of Sins
I was five years old when I learned a valuable lesson about confession and forgiveness--a lesson I have never forgotten to this day.
Can I tell you that at five years old, I was a straight up theologian?
Seriously. By the time I was five I had heard scores of sermons, endured countless altar calls in the little Baptist church we attended, and because of this I knew one unalterable fact: If I sincerely asked God to forgive me---no matter what I had done---God would forgive me.
So on that fateful day in the grocery store when I was--to coin a very Southern term--acting a fool, and my mom, who is the most patient human being on the planet told me I was getting a whooping when I got home... I decided that the only thing left to me was to bring it to God.
I found a spot by a stack of canned beans and started to pray. The fact that I can recall that I was praying by a stack of canned beans is beyond me. Of all of the details of things I can't remember about yesterday---I can remember those dang beans.
I prayed to God, "God, I am sorry. Please forgive me."
A feeling of relief washed over me like I had never known. I felt free. God had forgiven me. I went to my mom and told her about my miraculous moment. "I don't need a spanking any more," I told her. "I asked God to forgive me, and He did, so now you don't have to spank me."
Boom. Theology ninja at age five.
And here's the kicker. It actually worked! My mom was so bemused by this that she let me off the hook. Which is why I tried it again on another occasion when I was acting a fool.
And this is when I learned a valuable lesson about the consequences of sin. I learned that even though God might have forgiven me, what I actually needed to avoid a whooping was a different schtick. It was cute once, but the second time... not so much.
Looking back on those experiences, I can see how even as a child I was struggling to answer the deep existential questions that every one of us has when it comes to guilt, shame, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
And these two questions are: "Can I be forgiven?" and "Can I forgive others?"
We all struggle with these questions.
Most of us walk around feeling wrong, most of the time. We know we aren't the people we ought to be. Even those among us who have rationalized their poor behavior away as someone else's fault, or "just the way I am..." we know we aren't right.
And sometimes we wear this close to the surface. I have had so many conversations with people who have said to me: "You don't know what I've done... You have no idea who I really am..."
So is it any wonder why we also walk around feeling wronged all of the time. We ask,
"How could I ever forgive them---those who have wronged me, who have made me anxious, who have caused my life to be less than..." But what we are really saying, is "How could I possibly forgive anyone else, when I can't muster up the strength to forgive myself?"
Today we're going to be working on the fifth installment of the sermon series, "The Creed" a study of the essential Christian beliefs as outlined in the Apostles Creed.
And our focus today is on the phrase, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins..."
What I want us to focus on today is something so simple, and so unbelievably transformative. It's the answer to those two big questions we asked. Here it is:
You are forgiven to forgive.
Let's watch a video of the Apostles Creed...
This next bit is for all of you history buffs out there. This line of the Apostle's Creed was actually added in the fourth century after Christianity had essentially become the state religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine.
The line was added to address what is known as the Donatist Controversy.
Prior to Constantine, Christians were persecuted pretty terribly in the Roman empire, and many Christians chose to outwardly give in to the outside pressure to give up their faith. Many of them were forced to burn their sacred texts on pain of death, and they did.
And there were also many more Christians who did not give in to persecution and who were jailed, tortured and even executed.
So when Christianity became the state religion, the Church began to readmit many of the people who had recanted to save their lives. And, lo and behold, the Christians who hadn't recanted did not want to let them back in.
The Church had to determine which way to turn. Would it lean toward the people who had kept the faith the whole time? These people were pretty stringent with the rules, and with good reason.
So it came down to embracing ultra-holiness and exclusivity or being a loving, forgiven people ready to welcome those who wanted to return to the fold.
Aren't we glad that we've moved on from such ancient, archaic ways of being the church?
The line "I believe in the forgiveness of sins..." is evidence that the Church (at least in that moment) chose to be inclusive, open, forgiving and full of grace. But what exactly were they thinking when the included it? What are we saying when we say that we believ it?
The words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount were helpful to our Christian sncestors, and they are certainly still helpful to you and me.
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. - Matthew 6:14-15
The word that is used here for "forgive" is aphiemi, which means literally "to release" or "to set free." So let's read this again using the literal translation.
14 For if you set free other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also set you free. 15 But if you do not set others free from their sins, your Father will not set you free from your sins. - Matthew 6:14-15
First things first... it kind of feels like Jesus is putting some conditions on God's forgiveness---a pretty clear "if/than" statement. If you don't forgive others, than God won't forgive you. But when you dig down into this in the ancient Greek and even further into the ancient Aramaic that Jesus spoke, what you get is this:
"If you don't set others free when they sin against you, how will you ever be set free from your own guilt?" In other words, you can't fully experience God's unconditional grace until you are free from being someone else's jailer.
And all of this... all of this begins with your own awareness of how you have been set free from that guilt and shame. This is why I think we need to reframe the idea of what it means to confess because far too many of us have messed up ideas about confessing sin.
The word for confess in Greek is homologeo, which means "to agree or to speak the same." In other words when we confess our brokenness to God what we are doing is finally agreeing or speaking the same thing that God already knows about us. We finally become aware of our role in the ways we strain our relationship with God and others.
Coming back to those questions... "Can I be forgiven? Can I forgive others?"
What we learn from a close reading of the text is that your awareness of your own forgiveness leads you to a greater awareness of the effect that forgiveness has on others. So when you forgive and set someone free, you also become aware of your own freedom.
Because you are forgiven to forgive.
When we say we believe in the forgiveness of sins we are affirming:
We have been forgiven--we are part of the Church because we have been forgiven. That's what baptism symbolizes.
We must forgive others--when we are set free it's easier to free others, but this isn't a suggestion, as Jesus indicates. If we want to have the full, abundant life that Jesus promises to those who follow him, we need to forgive as we have been forgiven.
In Matthew 18 Jesus tells the story of a servant who owes the king the equivalent of $10 million. He has no way of paying, and is looking at serious prison time. He begs for forgiveness and the king grants him mercy, absolving him from the debt.
This same servant goes out and finds another guy who owes him the equivalent of $10K and roughs the guy up. When the guy reveals he can't pay, the forgiven servant throws him in prison--a merciless act.
When the king finds out about what's happened---he's not happy. The ungrateful servant ends up worse off than he would have been in the first place.
This story raises two questions for me.
1st, what is an appropriate response to the extravagant grace of the king? What could that guy have done to show his gratitude? The king doesn't need his money, nor does he really need him for that matter. The appropriate response, Jesus intimates, was to simply show the same kind of extravagant grace and forgiveness.
2nd, and this is kind of a strange question, but what do you think that second guy, the one who owed $10K to the ungrateful servant, what do you think he thought of the king on account of the way the king's servant treated him? He isn't as close to the king as the other guy, so you can assume that his view of the king was tainted by what the ungrateful servant did to him.
It's not hard to imagine that countless people have had their view of God tainted and marred by the unforgiving actions of people who claim to serve God.
As I close. I want you to hear something very clearly.
Because Jesus Christ took on the worst that the world had to offer, sin, death, hatred, violence---the worst... and because Jesus defeated all of it by rising again... You don't have to live enslaved to sin, death, fear, hatred, violence... the worst things---they have no power over you.
And listen... listen... you are not defined by the worst things you've ever done--the ways that you have contributed to sin, death, hatred, violence and all of the rest... You are not defined by what you've done or who you've been.
You are forgiven.
You have received extravagant grace--grace that you could never hope to repy in kind---except, except... by forgiving others. This is the highest and best response you can have in light of what has been done for you.
Because you are forgiven to forgive.