The Forgiveness of Sins (Apostles' Creed, Pt. 11)


TEXT: 1 John 1:5-10

We’re almost there. For months now we have been preparing for our journey into mission by examining the map left to us by the ancients…the Apostle’s Creed. We have gone through controversial lines, misunderstood lines, historical lines, and confusing lines. By contrast, this week we come to a simply difficult line…a line we basically understand and, I think, a line where we have at least a gut level of agreement. When it comes to the forgiveness of sins, however, we find it terribly difficult to actually do.

When we say, I believe in the forgiveness of sins, we are making a powerful statement about the nature of God. Sin is simply an offense against God…something that goes against the basic goodness of the universe. We know in our earthly dealings that to offend the boss or the company president often means painful consequences. We might be written up, denied a promotion, or fired. To say, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” is to say that I believe the nature of God is so kind and loving that God will not hold me eternally accountable, as long as my heart is in the right place. That is pretty remarkable.

There are really two parts to the issue of forgiveness: God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness toward one another. This morning we are just going to deal with the first part, and we’ll get to the other one in the weeks after Easter. We’re dealing with God’s willingness to forgive us first, because that understanding is the foundation of our ability to forgive one another or ourselves.

All across the Christian church…Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants alike…we believe that God can and does forgive sins. We differ, however, in the mechanics of how that actually works. I don’t know enough of Orthodox theology to speak to that branch, but I do know that a primary difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants is in the notion of penance. We both believe that forgiveness follows honest repentance and confession of sin. Because Jesus asked for forgiveness for those who tortured and executed him saying, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing,” we also leave room for forgiveness for those who are ignorant of their sin…who truly believe what they are doing is right, even if their actions are truly misguided.

If you want something interesting to talk about over dinner sometime, take that shoe of forgiveness and try it on Osama bin Laden sometime.

Both Protestants and Roman Catholics believe that good works follow forgiveness, but we differ significantly in why we think that is. Those of you who began life as Roman Catholics know this well. After you confess your sins and forgiveness is given, you must do penance…that is the priest will tell you what good works you must do to balance out the sin you have committed. In the Roman Catholic system of belief, you participate in your forgiveness by working off your sins, in a way.

In Protestant thought, however, it looks different. We believe that God’s forgiveness is a free gift of love…we don’t need to pay for it or activate it in some way by what we do. We believe that good works will naturally follow forgiveness for two reasons. First, as an outpouring of gratitude for the gift we have received, and secondly because if we are truly sorry for what we have done we will actively try to be better the next time around.

Now, in one sense the Roman Catholic tradition may well be more suited to human nature. At least in American culture, gratitude is in short supply. We, who have more than most of the world can even imagine, spend most of our time in prayer asking God for things and precious little time thanking God for what we have been given. When my sister-in-law got back from two months in Zambia a few weeks ago she said that the most noticeable cultural difference was that in Zambia “there was no whining.” There was 50% unemployment, most locations were only accessible by foot, and a third of the women were HIV-positive, but, she said, “there was no whining.” No complaining. They just went about their business, grateful for what they did have at any given moment.

Now in defense of the Roman Catholic system, I think there are many of us that could be well served by responding to the news of our forgiveness with saying the Lord’s Prayer 50 times. It might help us in the gratitude department. But I disagree with the notion that God requires such action in order to forgive.

Forgiveness is an act of love, and love is not love unless it is freely given from the heart. To pay for it with our works takes away the gift and makes it an earned wage. It is no wonder that in the medieval church, the notion of penance came to exactly that sort of abuse, so that people were literally encouraged to pay for forgiveness for themselves and their loved ones. Such money built St. Peter’s in Rome, and such abuses finally pushed the monk, Martin Luther, to the place of splitting with his church and beginning the Protestant Reformation.

We are not trying to say that our works don’t matter. The only actual judgment criteria taught by Jesus is in Matthew 25 where the people are judged on whether or not they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited those sick and in prison. Works matter. But we believe that those good works are only truly good when done as a grateful response to God’s free gifts to us…the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of love, the gift of forgiveness, which we call “grace.”

Garrison Keillor once said that the church should really quit preaching about forgiveness. The whole church is kept running, he said, by people who are trying to work off their guilt, and if they knew they were truly forgiven, there would be nobody left to serve on committees! He was speaking tongue in cheek, but if you’re around churches long enough, you see the piece of truth that makes his statements funny. There are many who do “good” works only for themselves…because they need to feel needed, because they are trying to wipe out guilt from their past, because they have low self-esteem and need the praise of others for the work that they do, because they want the person they are helping to be obligated to them in some way. The list of neurotic reasons for charitable work is pretty long.

Truly “good” works are about the other person, not about ourselves, and I agree with the Protestant tradition that teaches we can’t get to a place of performing such truly selfless acts unless we have first freely received the gifts of God…the Spirit, the love, the grace. Then we are not only capable of truly good action, but it becomes the desire of our hearts.

And that is why all invitations to the Christian faith begin with sin. The beginning of the Communion liturgy is a confession of sin and pronouncement of forgiveness. The beginning of baptism has an acknowledgement of sin and profession of repentance. Old evangelical systems like the Four Spiritual Laws or the Romans Road begin with the recognition talked about in the reading from 1 John. We have all sinned.

In some way or another, all of us who have lived to the age of making choices have made choices that are offensive to God. Sometimes we have done so knowingly, sometimes unknowingly. Sometimes our sins have also harmed others and have been obvious. Sometimes they have harmed only our souls and the love of God. But we all come from the same place. We don’t come together to judge the specks in the eyes of others, we come to acknowledge the beams in our own. Christian faith begins where all 12-step programs begin, with the acknowledgement that each of us has sinned.

The Christian walk starts with our own sin, because the most basic level of good news that Jesus brought is that God is so eager to be in relationship with us, that God will overlook all offenses if we will simply keep working at love. Once we thought sin was an impassable obstacle in our relationship with God, but Jesus came to say that we had misunderstood. God would absorb our sin…blow by blow, nail by nail…no matter how much it offended the overflowing love God has for us, God would not let it become an obstacle to our relationship. God would rather die than have that happen.

That’s what this coming week is about. That is what the Communion table is about. It is about recognizing just how far God will go in order to stay in loving relationship with us. We have offended God…all of us, in some way or another…but God will not drop us. We’re not going to be passed over for the promotion or sent to the lowest job. We’re not going to be fired…any number of Biblical characters can show you that.

God’s judgment of us is like Jesus’ judgment of the woman taken in adultery in John 8. Jesus helps all those who have come to stone the woman to see the sin in their own lives. They drop their rocks and leave, one by one, until only the woman and Jesus are left. “Neither do I condemn you,” says Jesus. “Go, and sin no more.” Her works are important…she should try to be better…but Jesus, like God, does not come to condemn. Jesus, like God, comes to forgive.

All the rest of your life as a Christian hinges on understanding that Jesus came to show us the nature of God, and the nature of God is to forgive sin…believing that receiving such love will enable us to turn around and give it away to others. At the Lord’s Table this morning, I invite you to really receive that gift…maybe for the first time. You don’t have to work your way to the Table…Jesus is offered freely to all. If sinners couldn’t come, the Table would be empty.

Whatever you have done in your life, God would like to simply wipe it away. You don’t need to carry it with you anymore. You don’t need to work it off or beat yourself up for it. You might need to make things right with others you have harmed, and we’ll talk about that in a few weeks, but the only wall between you and God is the one you have built yourself. Take it down. The God waiting on the other side loves you. Amen.

(c) 2004, Anne Robertson

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