Pentecost 19A – Reformation Series, “Forgiveness Will Change Your Life”
October 15, 2017
Texts: Exodus 32:1-14 (RCL); Psalm 51:1-12; John 20:19-23; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21
Forgiveness will change your life. That is the lofty claim of today’s Reformation theme. But to really grasp how true that was for Luther, we need first to have a sense of what his reality was as compared to our own. So to start today, here is a little history lesson:
Death was literally at the doorstep for those living in 16th century Europe. The plague, the “black death,” was breaking out all over and seemed to strike down indiscriminately, taking down otherwise healthy people in a matter of days. In an effort to make sense of this devastation, some wondered if God might be punishing people for their sin, that the cause of death was a God of wrath, who instead of mercy, brought death upon a sinful and unrepentant people.
The Church capitalized on this rampant fear. In response to people’s fear of their own sin, and the wrath it seemed to bring, the Church offered ample opportunity to confess, including long lists of possible sins one could have committed. Of course, only priests had the authority to forgive those sins, and so the Church had a monopoly on power over people’s peace of mind. As the Church continued to try to assuage people’s guilt from the burden of their sin, it developed a system known as indulgences: that is, people could in essence buy some of Christ’s abundant merit in order to shorten the time they would have to spend in purgatory, a state that was a sort of halfway-between-heaven-and-hell. In fact, people could not only buy their own way out of purgatory, but also, for a hefty price, their deceased loved ones who were presumably already suffering in this in-between state. This sale of indulgences, of course, was what inspired Luther to enter the conversation with his posting of the 95 theses, in which he called out the Church’s abuse.
But his calling out that abuse didn’t come until after he had lived several years in this devastating state of depression and agony over his sins. Even after Luther took the vow to become a monk, he was overcome by his sin, spending hours in confession every day. In fact, the confessor would dread Luther’s arrival; for up to six hours a day, he would listen to Brother Martin list every single thing he had ever done wrong. Although Luther had hoped the cloistered life would offer a haven from the crushing reality of his sin, it offered him no relief. It was not until that same confessor, Johann von Staupitz, urged Luther toward a more academic vocation, and in particular one in biblical studies, that Luther was able finally to grasp that God was not a God of wrath, but a God of immense grace – that indeed, ours is a God of forgiveness.
It is difficult to grasp just how life-changing the news of forgiveness was for Luther without understanding his place in life. He grew up in a home where he experienced more discipline than love, and deeply disappointed his parents by becoming a monk and priest rather than a lawyer as had been planned. He lived life constantly under the burden of sin and the threat of death, both physical and spiritual. And so to suddenly grasp in scripture that this burden, this captivity of sin was not Christ’s hope for us indeed changed his life… and the lives of so many others living in a time when sin and death were in their faces every single day, a time when people carried the weight of their sin like a yoke, and the most compelling relief came from the purchase of Christ’s merits from the institutional Church – who then used that money for less than Christ-like purposes.
Yes, we can see why Luther saw forgiveness as such good, even life-changing news. But is this news as good and life-changing for us today? In 2017 we are in a really different time of history. Sure, some are still consumed by their sin, maybe even some in this room today. But by and large, most of us fancy ourselves to be pretty good people. And if we slip up somewhere, we are pretty good at noticing and fixing it in the future, right? In this age of optimism and self-help, we are not as keen to dwell in the darkness of our sin, nor to seek external help, even from the Church. Our relationship with God is between us and God, and God is good, and Jesus is our friend, not our judge. The Church has for many become a place not to receive relief from the weight of sin, but rather, to see people we love and learn and teach our children good values and come together to do good in the world. We give money not in order to be forgiven or to get in good with God, but because we are grateful for the work of our Church and want to support it. These are not inherently bad things, but they are different from what Luther was dealing with. So, what does the forgiveness of sins, this essential Reformation teaching, really have to offer us today?
Well first of all, we are not so sinless as we might like to imagine! As we talked about last week with the Law and Gospel teaching, using Luther’s explanations of the 10 Commandments we can begin to see that keeping the Commandments is not just about keeping laws, but about fulfilling them. It’s not just, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” but it is also standing up for those who are oppressed, speaking out against abuse, lifting up the downtrodden. It’s not just going to church on Sunday and calling yourself a Christian, it’s about looking at your priorities and practices and making sure that your Lord and God really is Jesus – not your family, not your bank account, not your safety, not your reputation, not your privacy, not your comfort. When we start to look at it this way, we see that we really do have quite a lot of things for which we need God’s forgiveness! And while there are lots of places where you can see people you love and learn good morals and do good in the world, the truth your will find in the Church – that God does forgive our sins – is extraordinary. Indeed, it is life changing.
For the second thing forgiveness of sins can offer us, we can look at our Gospel lesson today, in which Jesus gives to his disciples his peace, and the power to forgive others. There is certainly peace in being forgiven, in having Jesus take from our shoulders the weight and burden of our sins (and yes, there are many!), and telling us, “I love you! You are mine!” But there is also peace in the ability to forgive others. Holding onto grudges does not bring life. Holding onto anger does not bring life. The gift of God’s forgiveness of us means also that, as it says in the Lord’s Prayer, God forgives us “as we forgive those who sin against us.” In other words, God’s gift of forgiveness of our sins makes it possible for us to forgive others, and find the life-changing peace that this brings to our hearts.
The third real gift of forgiveness is what we see in our text from Corinthians: that God has given us the ministry of reconciliation, and that we are to be reconciled to God. Reconciliation is not the same as forgiveness; it is, sort of, the next step, the possible and often hopeful outcome of forgiveness. Forgiveness is erasing the past, letting it go, moving beyond it. Reconciliation is a restoration of the relationship. Now, sometimes reconciliation is not possible – in the case of abuse, for example, restoring a relationship is not a healthy path.
But with the exception of extreme situations, it is pretty clear here that reconciliation, the restoration of relationships, is a part of God’s hope for us – both with one another and with God. And that is difficult, but such important and life-giving work. Why is it so difficult? Because reconciliation is not just waiting for the other person to admit they were wrong. It requires also looking deep in our own hearts, to see what it is that we might have contributed to the brokenness – and to work on that. As Luther writes, “Judge yourself, speak about yourself, see what you are, search your own heart, and you will soon forget the faults of your neighbor. You will have both hands full with your own faults, yes, more than full!” Such searching of our own hearts requires humility, vulnerability, and a lot of deep breaths. It requires us to put our self-righteousness aside (how quick we are to point the finger and believe we are not to blame!). And it requires a whole lot of prayer – for when we pray for another, especially one who has hurt us, it might not change them but it may very well change you. And that is the business of forgiveness, and of Christ: it is to change, to transform, to create anew our hearts and our lives.
It’s difficult, heart- and time-consuming work. But it is by this work that we are reconciled to God. It is by this work that we ultimately receive the true joy and peace of forgiveness. It is by this work that we can hear the life-changing revelation of a guilt and sin-riddled Martin Luther, and discover that forgiveness, and the reconciliation that follows, does indeed change our life.
Let us pray… Restoring God, you have given us the ministry of reconciliation. Make us humble enough to seek understanding, to find forgiveness, to achieve reconciliation, and then make us grateful for the way that this gift changes our lives. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.