15th Sunday after Pentecost A 2017
Community of Forgiveness
In the name of Jesus, amen.
On the heels of describing the community of his disciples as a community of forgiveness, Jesus is confronted by the harsh reality Peter presents. There must be a limit to forgiveness. There must be some line, some measure, some point at which forgiveness is no longer an option. Our Lord’s response is in many respects terrifying. He seeks to clarify for Peter, and for us, what should already have been clear from the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” In forgiving us, God makes us a community of forgiveness that forgives each other. Jesus points out that we cannot have our cake and eat it. If our debts are cancelled, we have no right to cash in the debts owed to us; we are the forgiven community, so we are the community that forgives.
And yet Peter’s objections are not silenced so easily. He seems to have a point: forgiveness cannot simply be enabling someone as they continue to hurt us. We cannot simply fake it until we make it. To gather every week and ‘forgive’ our parent, or brother, or sister, or child, or spouse, or pastor, while we continue to hurt and be hurt is really no forgiveness: it is slavery. It is no less slavery than our addiction to sin, no less slavery than the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt. There can be no freedom without the destruction of slavery, the breaking of chains, the end of the oppressor. There will be no freedom from our slavery if we simply write blank checks for our neighbor to hurt us. We must be freed.
This freedom is what God does in the water. God brings us, as God brought the people of Israel, through the killing waters on dry ground, and the oppressor is drowned in the waves. God knows that we must be freed to forgive, and so God frees us. God knows that we must be forgiven to be forgiving, and so God forgives us. God knows our hearts of stone must be changed before our actions can be changed, so God drowns our addiction, death, slavery, and oppression in the waters of baptism.
God frees us as God freed Israel. And every week, those words that may seem simple bring us again to the waters where we are drowned as slaves and emerge as a forgiven community. “We confess that we are captive to sin”, and “we hear your word of love freely given to us, yet we expect others to earn it”, and that means we are unable to forgive. We cannot do what is required of us, what we ought to do, for God or for each other. And yet, “in the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins.” Yes, “God hears our cry”, the cry of slaves in captivity, “and sends the Spirit to change us and to empower our lives in the world. Our sins are forgiven, God’s love is unconditional, and we are raised up as God’s people who will always be made new.”
We are the forgiven community who do what God has done for us as we sing praise on the safe side of the sea. We gather first in the waters where God drowns our captivity, our fear, and our false selves. We are destroyed in those flooding waters, for we are Pharaoh and his chariots. We are those who do not forgive, who torture in prisons and who abuse the poor and vulnerable. We are those who must die so that God’s people may be free. God must put to death our evil and unforgiving hearts. And so God gives us new hearts, new lives. God knows we cannot forgive without first being forgiven, and so again and again the waters drown us, wash us, awaken us, renew us, restore us in God’s promise of mercy.
Now we are the forgiven people. Now we are the free people. Now we are the holy people. Now we do not fear each other, for we do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. Now we forgive, for it is not we who forgive but God who forgives in us. Now we free others, for it is not our work but the work of our Father in heaven to set the captives free. Now we abandon our claims and forgive our debtors, because all our claims and credits are left in the water with our crimes and our debts. Now we belong to God, who forgives all sin, whose mercy endures forever. Now we come again to the waters to be made new. Now we come again to forgive and be forgiven and to say to each other as Christ has said to us, “Peace be with you”. Now we gather to again pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
This is the clean heart that God creates in us, this is the right Spirit that God renews in us, and this is the forgiveness of the forgiven people. We may live or die, but we do it to the Lord and not ourselves. We have no need to be right and force our neighbor to be right as we are; it is the Lord who judges, not us. It is God who will correct, God who will teach, God who will drown us again in the endless fountain of forgiveness. We have no time for the speck in the neighbor’s eye; we are too concerned with the log in our own. We have been forgiven for so much, and so we can begin to forgive each other. God gives us new hearts, precisely so we can do as Christ commands, and forgive our brother or our sister from our heart.
This is the forgiven community. This is what it means to be made new. This is the people who do what has been done for them. This is the Holy Spirit, who brings us through the flood that drowns our sin and yet rejoices with us on the safe side of the sea. This is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, who has received Jesus Christ and now shares him in every corner of creation. This is the communion of saints, who gather together to forgive as we have been forgiven in the one baptism we all share and the one peace we are all given. This is the forgiveness of sins, offered by God in Jesus Christ, offered to each other in Jesus Christ. This is the resurrection of the body, where our physical lives are renewed as we are freed to be in relationship with each other without cutting off, without running away, without fighting, without slavery, without oppression. This is the life everlasting, come among us in the Spirit of the risen Christ, who gives us faith to pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
This sermon was preached on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017, at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Asbury Park. The readings were: Exodus 14:19-31; Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21; Romans 14:1-12; and Matthew 18:21-35.