Monday, October 7, 2013

Forgiveness - Afterthought, or the Heart of the Matter?

Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, October 6th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Genesis 28:10-17, Ephesians 4:17-32, Matthew 9:1-8
     What place, exactly, does forgiveness hold, in the Church, in the life of the Christian?  What is the role of forgiveness in the ongoing mission of God?  This may seem an obvious question to you.  Or perhaps, as you live your life, and think about being a Christian, and hear Christians talk about the faith, the place of forgiveness may not be so clear.  Our readings today invite us to consider forgiveness closely, so let’s do that. 

     As we drove out and back to Chicago last week, we listened to a bit of Christian radio, but we didn’t hear much about forgiveness.  One speaker explained in great detail the teaching of purgatory, how God uses purgatory to perfect Christians who, while they did not reject God in this life, in the end fell short of the perfect love that God requires of everyone.  It was a perfectly reasonable explanation of a completely false teaching, the only thing missing being any Biblical evidence to support the teaching.  Forgiveness, in the false purgatorial scheme, is ultimately unimportant, as you will have to work off your imperfections in purgatory, regardless of what the Bible says about the blood of Jesus cleansing you from all sin. 

     Several other programs were all about you learning how to properly handle your money, how to be a good steward, avoid debt, and  have lots of money for your family and for your church.  I didn’t hear anyone claim that proper money management would earn you heaven, but given the frequency of these programs on Christian radio, being a good money manager must be the center of  the lives of many Christians.  Pay off your debts, live economically, give to your church, be a good financial steward, noble goals all, but where does forgiveness fit in? 

     Another common Christian radio theme is Israel.  Not the New Israel, the New Testament Church of Christ.  Nor Old Israel, that is, not the Old Testament people of God.  No, the Israel most often discussed on Christian radio is the 60 some year old modern state of Israel, the support of which is critically important in the minds of many American Christians.  Now, I support supporting Israel, because they are a modern, law-abiding, democratic nation sitting in the middle of the Middle East, where radical Islam menaces.  Radical Islam is a real danger to America, and the world, and especially to Christians.  Good is served whenever constitutional law and true democracy flourish, so I think we should maintain strong ties to modern Israel.  But modern Israel has nothing to do with Christian faith.  Paul did not write an Epistle to the United Nations.  The Scriptural basis given for the claims that the End will not come unless modern Christians support modern Israel is flimsy, wrongheaded, and certainly does not focus our attention on the question of forgiveness. 

     It would seem, from what plays on Christian radio, and also, I’m pretty certain, on Christian T.V., that forgiveness is not a particularly central idea in Christianity.  Indeed, even when forgiveness is discussed, the forgiveness of God for sinners is often brushed by quickly, often replaced on center stage with learning to forgive yourself, whatever that means.  I can never seem to find the Bible verse that teaches us to forgive ourselves.  No matter, after a break, we’ll get right back to helping you straighten out your finances, so you can send more money to support modern Israel, or perhaps buy your Aunt Bessie out of purgatory, because you know she must have received a lengthy sentence.

     The forgiveness of God delivered to sinners today is a very infrequent subject of conversation amongst many Christian teachers.  But there is another subject even less frequently brought up – the real presence of God, on earth, both throughout time, and also today.   That God is present is often acknowledged, but in an airy, “spiritual” sense, a “spiritual” sense that gives off a strong whiff of unreality, of a feeling that can’t be tied down or relied upon in any concrete manner.  “Let the Spirit speak to you, and feel His indwelling;” such is the common exhortation of preachers.  But how exactly, should the indwelling of the Spirit feel?  And how do I “let” Him do anything, since the Holy Spirit is Almighty God, and I am, well, just me? 

     Jacob got a glimpse, an understanding of the real presence of God, through the vision God gave him while he slept.  After seeing the ladder stretching into heaven, upon which angels descended and ascended, after hearing the Word of the Lord, spoken to him by the Lord, standing next to him, on the earth, after hearing the lavish promises of a Seed to come who would be a blessing to all of Jacob’s vast family, and also a blessing to every family on earth, Jacob wakes and exclaims:  "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it."  And he was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."  Jacob suddenly understood that, at least in that place, God was truly present, even though he could not normally perceive it.  Jacob believed in the real presence of God, and he was afraid. 

     Why?  Why did the real presence of God frighten Jacob?  After all, the Lord made wonderful promises to him; why was Jacob not simply overcome with joy?  Could it be that the real presence of the Holy, Holy, Holy God is always a frightful thing, if you realize that you are a sinner?  Of course it is.  Adam and Eve knew, right away after they sinned, that they needed to hide from God.  God wanted them in His presence, but their sin made that dangerous, from their perspective, impossible, for they were now sinners, and God is by His very nature the destruction of sin. 

     We are all sinners.  And God is truly present, even more for us than for Jacob.  God appeared in a dream to Jacob, but He has promised to be in your midst, every time two or three of you gather in His Name.  God the Holy Spirit has poured Himself into you in your Baptism, and speaks through me, and you, whenever we speak His Holy Word.  God the Son has joined Himself to you, and you to Him.  In your Baptism, you were clothed with Christ.  The Temple of God is the Church of Christ, a house of living stones, in which God makes His dwelling.  Whether you realize it or not, God is truly present. 

     And so, paradoxically, we face a great temptation to ignore the forgiveness of sins, even though it is quite clearly the heart of the matter in everything Christian.  Why?  Why are Christians tempted to talk about anything but forgiveness?  Why are we tempted to make good works, or music, or financial planning, or potlucks, or anything at all the center of our Christian conversation, rather than talk too much about forgiveness?  Because to get to forgiveness, first we must confess our sin.  And if God is truly present, or even if we think He might be present, we in our brokenness fear saying out loud the truth about our sins, about our sinfulness.  Much easier to assume that everyone knows about all that sin and grace stuff, and move on to talk about the Christian life, or to talk about made up teachings concerning the end times, or the time after death, anything at all, rather than honestly speak of the reality of our sin. 

     When we succumb to this temptation, Satan has us in his tentacles.  There is nothing more frightful or dangerous for a believer than to pretend sin isn’t an issue for me, as I enter into the presence of God.  Go ahead, whispers the Serpent, go to Church, go to your prayers, and say nice things about God and yourself.  Talk about how much good we can do, how much good we are doing.  No one has to know what a sinner you really are. 

     But God already knows.  The Holy, Holy, Holy, Almighty God, who hates sin, is coming to reveal His true presence in your midst, and He already knows all about your sin.  We are experts at hiding our sin from one another, but woe is me if I really think I can hide my sin from God.  God is present, and I’m a sinner.  Yes, I’m afraid.  Better to be afraid than a hypocrite, so I confess, yes, many times I’m so afraid, I can’t even drag myself to meet God.  Sometimes it has to wait till I’m paralyzed by sin and its consequences, unable to get to God, so pitiful that my hopeful friends drag me to Him. 

     Such was the plight of the paralytic in our reading from Matthew, a man brought to Jesus by his friends, literally carried into the presence God, whether he realized it or not.  And what did the Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, the Son of God made man, have to say to this pitiful sinner?  Did He say, Here, let me give you some exercises to strengthen your legs?  Here, let me teach you to balance your budget?  Here, let me work out for you how much and how long you must work to earn forgiveness in purgatory?  Here, let me show you how to really be a Christian?  No, Jesus is no radio preacher, He doesn’t say any such thing to the paralytic.  Jesus cuts right to the heart of the matter:  Take heart, my son, your sins are forgiven. 

     Wait a minute.  Who among us has not, at some point, cried out: wait a minute God, it can’t be that easy.  You are holy, and you have all these laws, and that guy, maybe not this guy, but certainly that guy is clearly a sinner.  What flesh and blood man can speak for God and forgive sins, just like that, real sins, like the real sins that I’m hiding in my conscience, afraid to speak out loud?  Jesus is blaspheming. 

     No, says Jesus, I’m not blaspheming, and neither are those who go forth, declaring the forgiveness of sins in my Name.  You see, says Jesus, I AM the Lord, the Almighty God, the hater of sin, coming into your midst.  Oh sinners, I am coming into your presence, but fear not.  Yes, I hate sin, but I love you more.  So does my Father.  So great and eternal and perfect is the love of God for mankind that I am come into your midst, to take your sin from you.  I will make this paralytic walk today, to prove a point, says Jesus, but the real business I have come to complete is much greater.  I am come into your midst, to destroy your sin, in my own flesh and blood.  This is the heart of the matter, my sons and daughters.  So take heart, your sins are forgiven by my Father, for the sake of my suffering and death.  And now, risen from the dead, death has no power over me, nothing has any power over me.  I am free, declares Jesus, free to forgive and restore every sinner. 

     God is in this place.  He has promised, and so it is true.  God is present, not because we are so worthy, but precisely because we are not worthy.  God is in this place, to confront sinners, and forgive them.  The Lord has given this authority to His Church, to the Body of Believers.  When someone comes to you, confessing they have sinned against you, be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.  Forgive each other, in the Name of Jesus.  The Lord has given this authority to His Church, and given the Church the office of the ministry to publicly deliver this same forgiveness.  The forgiveness I declare, the Absolution I speak, is not my Word.  It’s not based in my authority or virtue, but solely on the Authority, Virtue, and Word of Christ. 

     Flowing from forgiveness, the Christian Church and the Christian’s life are full of many things, like fleeing from sin and living as Christians.  Put off your old self, … corrupt through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds.  Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.   Christian living is full also of helpful, practical things, like good works done for the neighbor, maybe even the good work of giving practical advice for living, certainly good works like consoling the sad and sick, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked. 

     But apart from forgiveness, the Church is an empty shell, no matter how pretty or powerful or useful she may appear.  In the Church, everything is to be focused on the delivery, day by day, of the forgiveness Christ has won for all, forgiveness delivered to you, through His Word and Sacrament. 

     And so, sons and daughters of God, take heart, God is truly present in this place, and your sins are forgiven, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

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