Has God Really Forgiven You?

Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Date: Pentecost XIII + Proper 19 + 9/11/11

What a terrible choice of scripture to be read on this day, don’t you agree? this day on which we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the evil attacks of our enemies on the United States on September 11, 2001? A terrible choice! Forgiveness? Wouldn’t it have been better if we had heard of Moses mightily leading the children of Israel through the divided waters of the Red Sea and those seas then closing in and drowning Pharaoh and his army?

Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Ex 15:1-10)

Or, how about Joshua and the fall of Jericho? There’s a song for that one too!

Joshua fit de battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho
Joshua fit de battle of Jericho,
And the walls came a tumblin’ down.

But no. Even with the memory of that terrible event of ten years ago still fresh in most of our minds what do we hear today? We hear of Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers sins (Gen 50:15-21) and the end of Jesus’ parable, saying, “And should not you have mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” Mercy? Still we ask, isn’t there a difference between how we are to relate with fellow Christians on the one hand and those Muslims on the other? Or at least isn’t there a difference between whether we are acting as Christians, as “Church,” or are battling as loyal, patriotic Americans? Yes, there is a little difference, as Luther noted, a difference between what we call the kingdom of the right hand (the Church) and the kingdom of the left hand (the secular government). But ultimately the left hand kingdom will disappear and the kingdom of God remain forever. Jesus seems to have that end goal in mind when He says, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

But He says, “your brother”! Surely this means only other Christians, right? It seems that all of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 about caring for the greatest, that is, the least and neediest among us, is speaking about those of the family of faith, fellow Christians. Nevertheless, clearly related passages do not seem to limit forgiveness just to those of the household of faith as when we are taught to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:43-45). Add to that, of course, our Lord’s words also from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), and the fact that Christ died for all, for the ungodly, for sinners. Love and forgiveness even of the enemy is one way we reflect our reconciled relationship with God our Father to the world. So, no, you can’t weasel out of the obligation of forgiveness that easily.

The biggest difference between our Christian obligation of forgiveness and the feelings we might have toward those who are enemies of our nation is that we are not held individually accountable or responsible when there is no individual, personal relationship. That is to say that none of us here are in the position, have the authority or responsibility of speaking either a word of condemnation or forgiveness to anyone on behalf of our nation. We are held accountable, however, in all our personal engagements. Think of Saint Stephen, the first martyr, praying in the same manner of his Lord for those stoning him, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

The fact is there is no sin that cannot be forgiven except for the sin of refusal to receive forgiveness.

Once again we find ourselves identifying with the apostle Peter questioning…seriously questioning the application of forgiveness, especially in times like these, especially when it is difficult to work through our emotions of anger or rage. He asks that there should be a limit to forgiveness. He even suggests a sanctified number of seven times, the holy number of completeness. Whether rendering the ambiguous Greek of Jesus’ response, “seventy times seven” or “seventy-seven times,” the point is the same and it should be obvious. Jesus forbids any and all counting to reflect God’s limitless grace based on Jesus’ own full and complete payment for all sin on the cross.

As in the little parable, all are to know that in Christ God has graciously forgiven all sin on the basis of the only sacrifice worthy of wiping out the guilt of every sinner, namely, the precious body and blood of Christ crucified. We are to know and acknowledge that, as with the first servant’s huge debt impossible to ever pay, so are our sins so far beyond our power or ability ever to atone for. Our only hope is the compassion and mercy of the love of God that passes all comparison or understanding. In this sense, salvation is that easy and liberating.

But now the hard part, namely, reflecting that same compassion and mercy to others out of true thanksgiving to God for His compassion and mercy on us. When we hear the story of the forgiven servant’s lack of forgiveness for his fellow servant, who owed him a relatively small debt, we might wonder at how blatantly depraved and wicked he was. We agree with the “great distress” of his fellow servants who reported him to their master, and with the master’s angry repeal of his earlier mercy and imposition of a jail sentence. We agree until we get the point of Jesus’ punch line, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

What? Is it actually possible that God would remove or take back His forgiveness of my sin simply if I refuse to forgive someone else? Hence the disturbing sermon title, “Has God Really Forgiven You?” And hence that troubled feeling, right now, as you might recall that anger or vengeance still harbored, even after many years, against that vicious or spiteful person who, to this day, has not apologized for their part or asked for your forgiveness. Such a troubled feeling calls us to repentance, true contrition or sorrow over that past sinful act or attitude. But then not just sorrow or contrition but also faith: faith that knows and takes comfort in the fact that, if you were never troubled about a sin in the first place would be the more dangerous thing. As Jesus prayed from the cross, so we pray, “Father, forgive” him, her, them.

Refusal to forgive calls into question whether you know or have really received God’s forgiveness in the first place. So it is not that God removes anything you haven’t first received. The forgiveness is there. But so important is your witness to the forgiveness you yourself have received that you readily, freely forgive others.

So, yes, on behalf of Jesus Christ the Savior of the whole world and my Savior, we proclaim the wonderful forgiveness of God to all, even any who have or would ever array themselves as our enemies. Governmental or military retaliation or justice notwithstanding, the forgiveness of God is there for all who would hear, repent and believe.

When aimless violence takes those we love,
When random death strikes childhood’s promise down,
When wrenching loss becomes our daily bread,
We know, O God, You leave us not alone.

Through long grief-darkened days help us, dear Lord,
To trust Your grace for courage to endure,
To rest our souls in Your supporting love,
And find our hope within Your mercy sure.  (LSB 764:1, 4)