Readings: Jonah 1 – 2: 10, Luke 7: 36-50
This is the fourth in a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer and in preparing for it I have been asking people which verse in the Lord’s Prayer they think is the most important. And perhaps – at this point we should all pause and reflect for ourselves which we think is the most important verse.
Well what did you decide? Perhaps the first verse – ‘Our Father in Heaven’ - because it is the first. If you haven’t eaten recently perhaps you went for ‘Give us today our daily bread’. But I hope – some of you at least - came to the conclusion that it is a stupid question because, of course, no verse in the Lord’s Prayer is any more important than any other and that includes the verse we have come to today: ‘Forgive us our sin as we forgive those who sin against us’. But having coming to this verse in our sermon series, we do, of course, need to concentrate it upon it.
In this sermon I want to discuss three questions in relation to this verse:
Firstly: what do we mean by sin?
Secondly: what do we mean by forgiveness?
Thirdly: what is the connection between the first half of the verse ‘forgive us our sins’ and the second ‘as we forgive those who sin against us’?
So, firstly, what is sin? Now those of you who heard Steve’s – our vicar’s - excellent sermon on sin at this year’s carol service will need no reminding. At the end of the carol service someone said to him, ‘Steve, I am so glad that you disobeyed the Church Times’. Apparently: earlier that week the Church Times had run an article exhorting preachers at carol services to avoid the subject of sin because irregular church goers might be put off by such a subject.
Of course you won’t have forgotten what Steve said but I’ll remind you anyway. Basically Steve said that when Christians talk about sin they are expressing three basic convictions, that:
1. Something is wrong and needs restoring, fixing, sorting, personally, relationally, and globally.
2. And that that something is not just in other people but is an issue in all of us.
3. Our moral wrongdoing is not only about harming ourselves, or other people, or the planet, but is an offence against the God who made us.
But I guess that the Church Times article reflects the fact that sin is not as fashionable a subject for sermons as it used to be. Sin is of course a religious term that you now hardly ever hear out of church. But is the fact that sin as a subject for sermons is on the wane a good thing? Actually I do think it is - but not because the use of the word sin might discourage people from coming to church. Rather because I think forgiveness of sins – whilst being an important part of the good news that is the gospel - is not the whole of that good news. It’s only one verse in the Lord’s Prayer. Now this might sound controversial to some but bear with me and, of course, feel free to disagree with me.
In the Book of Common Prayer Communion Service – a service which we hold most Sundays at 8 o’clock at St Matthew’s - the topic of sin comes up in virtually every part of the services: the Collect for Purity, the Prayer of Humble Access, the Prayer of Consecration, the Prayer of Oblation, the Gloria and of course the Confession. This isn't to discourage you from coming to this 8 o’clock service by the way.
Not all churches have made sin the central focus of their liturgy and their sermons. And perhaps it’s just me who seems to have been subjected disproportionally, over the course of my life to, what are known in my family, as ‘I in sin’ sermons.
The basic and take-home message of such a sermon was/is that: We all have sinned. Sin cuts us off from God. Jesus cane to save us from this situation. Through his death on the cross we can, if we have faith, be restored in our relationship with God. If we truly accept this we will go to Heaven instead of to Hell. They are called ‘I in sin’ sermons in my family because in such sermons it was common to point out the ‘coincidence’ that the letter I – which is, of course, also the first person personal pronoun - is in the middle of the word S I N – sin. This was to reinforce the sermon’s message that we are all enmeshed, downing in sin or some such appropriate metaphor.
I should, at this point, say that is of course a caricature of a certain type of sermon which is very rare indeed at St Matthew’s so what I am about to say should not be taken as criticism of sermons here.
These I in sin sermons used to leave me feeling more doubtful and guilty than anything else. They made the gospel all sound so simple but I could never be sure whether I believed it sufficiently or not: whether I had enough faith. My problem was that I had come to a growing awareness of the existence of God but I wasn’t utterly certain of what God’s existence meant for me. I doubted – and I still am not sure - that salvation is just or even mainly about salvation from sin.
I also wasn’t at all sure I was as sinful as all that. These sermons seemed to be suggesting that I was – in the eyes of God – a wicked, unworthy, miserable offender even if I had been saved (and I wasn’t entirely sure that I was). I didn’t feel particularly wicked. OK I knew I wasn’t perfect. But when I checked out, say, the 10 commandments or the seven deadly sins I seemed to doing OKish even with Jesus’ qualifications about sinning in your thoughts as well as by deed. I also didn’t really want to feel unworthy. Depending on my stage in life I thought I was doing reasonably well at school, at my job, at being a parent OK, again, I hadn’t done as well as perhaps I could have. And I didn’t feel particularly miserable about my sins either. I always left the church- after such a sermon - feeling guilty about not feeling more guilty.
I think if you go back and look at the basic message of such ‘I in sin’ sermons’ you can see there are several things missing. To remind you: their take-away message was: ‘We all have sinned. Sin cuts us off from God. Jesus cane to save us from this situation. Through his death on the cross we can, if we have faith, be restored in our relationship with God. If we truly accept this we will go to Heaven instead of to Hell.’
Firstly this account misses out both the life and the resurrection of Jesus as if they are of lesser importance than his death. Of course the cross is central to the good news that is the Gospel but Jesus’ crucifixion needs to be seen in the light of his resurrection otherwise where is the assurance that the cross had or has any meaning at all. Furthermore the crucifixion and the resurrection make no real sense unless we can see who Jesus was though the accounts of his life.
Secondly there is no mention of love here and in particular God’s love for us. If we are all wicked, unworthy, miserable offenders why would God – in the shape of Jesus - want to die for us? The answer is that God loves us and he loves us because we are loveable. And we are loveable because God made us in his image. An image that may be marred but not entirely covered up.
Thirdly this message seems to all about the future: what happens when we die – and tells us nothing about Jesus’ saving work in the here and now.
Fourthly and perhaps most importantly in relation to today’s sermon - this basic story doesn’t really mention forgiveness. OK forgiveness might be implicit in the message. The idea that Jesus’ death on the cross restores our relationship with God implies, somehow, that henceforth our sins provide no barrier to that relationship. But does this mean those sins are forgiven or what?
Which brings me to my second question: what is forgiveness? But before seeking to answer this question and perhaps it doesn’t need saying but I’ll say it anyway: ‘God can and does forgive us’. This ability on God’s part is assumed when we ask him to forgive us when we say ‘Forgive us our sins’ as part of the Lord’s Prayer and indeed similar words in our ‘Confessions’ - which are integral part of all our services. We are going to say a Confession later.
But then I think we can distinguish two sorts of forgiveness: one that might be called forensic or technical and one that is felt. There is a type of forgiveness which seems to be a technicality but not felt on the part of the person who is the forgiven and perhaps even the forgiver.
Going back to those ‘I in sin’ sermons just for a moment. And I really do want to leave them behind. Does the restoration of our relationship with God through the cross mean that our sins have been covered up or washed away or what?
I prefer the idea that our sins are washed away – as in Psalm 51 verse 2 where the psalmist asks God to ‘Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin’. But the idea of covering up our sins rather than washing them away is also common. Psalm 31: 1 says ‘Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven whose sin is covered.’ [And this is verse quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans [4:7]]
Now asking God to cover up our sins and him doing so without removing our sins – is a type of technical forgiveness. But I also think we can experience God’s forgiveness – and indeed need desperately to do so. If nothing else I would like you to leave this service today with the more certain knowledge and hopefully feeling that you are forgiven.
But how are we to feel/experience God’s forgiveness. I have been scouring the Bible for stories of forgiveness to see if we can learn more from them. There are, if you begin to think about it, hundreds of stories about forgiveness – or rather hundreds of stories where forgiveness is an aspect of people’s encounter with God and in particular Jesus. Jesus also tells stories of forgiveness in his parables. The picture behind me – of the return of the Prodigal Son – depicts an act of forgiveness. We have, in our readings today two stories of forgiveness.
First the Old Testament story of Jonah. Actually the whole of the book of Jonah is about forgiveness but Michael read to us just the first half. The bit where Jonah deliberately disobeys God’s instructions to go to Nineveh and ‘cry out against the wickedness’ of the people there. In consequence Jonah gets swallowed by a whale. Jonah begs God for his forgiveness, God gives him that forgiveness and rescues him from the belly of the whale and Jonah proceeds to obey God’s previous instructions. Nowhere in Jonah does it say that God forgave Jonah for his disobedience but we can see that God did through his action in rescuing Jonah.
The second story – from the New Testament – tells the story of a so-called ‘sinful’ women who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume. In this story we don’t know what the woman had done to be labelled sinful. What these sins were isn’t important to the story. What is important is that Jesus gracefully accepts the woman’s gift and tells the woman that her sins are forgiven and to go in peace.
The two stories about forgiveness are, in some ways, quite different. In the first we know what the fault was, in the second we don’t. In the first there is no pronouncement of forgiveness but in the second there is. In the first the forgiveness comes in the form of an action on God’s part: his rescue of Jonah from the belly of the whale. In the second we know nothing about what happens to the women after Jesus has forgiven here only that she was to ‘go in peace’.
But the two stories do also have some fundamental similarities: both are basically about relationships between God and human beings that come to be restored – not primarily though the action of the human participants in the stories but through the action of God. Even so the actions of the human participants are important. Jonah has to ask to be rescued. The woman has to buy the perfume and interrupt a party. They also show us that God cares for us who we are – warts and all. He wants us to be and do certain things in a different, better ways but he also rescues from the consequences of sin: guilt and shame.
Now these two things: guilt and shame are quite different. Crudely speaking we can see guilt as a good thing – it’s an emotion that tells the person that he or she has done something wrong, that they need, if possible, to repair the wrong and to do things differently in the future. Shame on the other hand is generally a bad thing. It’s not necessarily related to anything immoral that we have done. For example many people these days feel ashamed of their bodies when they have done nothing wrong to justify feelings of guilt. Similarly many are ashamed of their gender or sexuality when this is inappropriate. Shame is related to sin – but this is likely to be the sin of others rather than the person themself.
In our first Bible story we know that Jonah disobeyed God in a specific action – setting off in different direction to Nineveh. Jonah’s guilt was relieved when he repented and turned to God. In our second Bible study we do not know what the woman had done. It is perhaps clear that she was ashamed in that she wept, yet Jesus accepted her for what she was and relieved her of her shame. I think shame is much more common than might be thought. Most people don’t talk about what they are ashamed of. What I think is clear to everyone is that we all need more relief from guilt and shame. And this relief is a promise of God.
So finally the relationship between the first half of the verse ‘forgive us our sins’ and the second ‘as we forgive those who sin against us’? Again – as with choosing the most important verse in the Lord’s Prayer -one might be tempted to think that the first half of this verse is more important than the second. Surely, you might say, it’s more important for God to forgive us than for us to forgive other people. Actually I don’t think it is. These are two halves of one verse and one half of the verse is no more or less important than the other.
But the problem I have always had with the second half of this verse is understanding quite what it means. Does it mean that God forgives us in the same way as we forgive other people, or that if we are to be forgiven by God we must forgive others? The first reading seems problematic because clearly we are good at forgiveness ourselves and God is surely so much better at it than we are. The second reading is a problem because it seems to suggest that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon something we do – albeit related to forgiveness.
Matthew clearly recognises that there might be a problem with this verse and after giving us the Lord’s Prayer he adds a couple of verses seemingly to explain it. He records Jesus as saying: ‘For if you forgive others their sins your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins’. [Matthew 6: verses 14 and 15.]
This makes the second of the two ways of reading this verse: that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiveness of others more likely and if so it makes any simple model of forgiveness – such as all we need to obtain God’s forgiveness is to have faith in it - somewhat doubtful.
But it also means that God’s forgiveness isn’t just a personal thing but something which binds communities together. We forgive because we have been forgiven and we dare to ask for forgiveness because we forgive. St Augustine called this verse in the Lord’s Prayer that we are thinking about today a terrible petition because of the burden he thought it put on those who pray it. He thought it meant that if we asked God for forgiveness with an unforgiving heart we are, in effect, asking him not forgive us. But if you see the verse as a request to God for help with our forgiveness of others then it becomes less terrible.
So to summarise. In this sermon I have talked about what I think sin and forgiveness are. Or rather Steve told us what sin is at the carol service and I have tried to say that the concept of sin is not as important to the Gospel as it can be made out to be. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is something we need to experience more of. I hope that doesn’t sound paradoxical. I think we even need more forgiveness for imagined sins for which we are ashamed. We need more forgiveness: both from God and for each other. Forgiveness from God is a gift – a costly gift – we should accept it with gratitude and it's wroth praying for.