Rev. Teri Peterson
Luke 15.20b-24, Matthew 18.21-22
3 August 2014, Faith Questions 7
(A young man made some questionable choices along his life’s path…) While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
Over the years I have noticed that sin is a wildly unpopular topic that we love to talk about. I mean, when it comes to other people, particularly people with whom we disagree, we stand ready to explain their sinfulness from multiple angles. But considering our own sin—especially in any way that might require us to relinquish privilege or change profitable behavior—is the last thing on most of our minds. Even those of us who think about our wrongdoing are only occasionally willing to let go of our guilt and shame long enough to repent—to turn around and go another way. The Hebrew word for repent—shuv—literally means to turn your body around and go in a different direction. The Greek word, metanoia, is about changing heart and mind, thinking differently, believing differently, loving differently, living differently.
Differently from what? What is sin anyway? I think the classic definition of “things that separate us from God” can be helpful, except that then we run straight into Romans 8, where Paul declares that nothing can separate us from God’s love. God’s love is always present, in and through and among us, and we can’t do anything to stop that. We can, however, miss it. We can feel separated, as if there are barriers between us. Nothing can change the fact of God’s love, but many things change or even block our experience of love and our response to God. Those things that block us from experiencing God’s grace and responding with gratitude—those are sin. And they grow out of a human reality— that all fall short of God’s glory.
We know that our calling as human beings made in the image of God is to reflect the glory of God into the world. We also know that we are like broken mirrors—we reflect a cracked, distorted, and incomplete image. Because of the cracks, sometimes the choices we make lead to more brokenness, rather than more healing. In many ways, we can’t help it. In the 7th chapter of Romans Paul talks about how he does the very thing he does not want to do, and he can’t help himself. It is only through Christ working in him he is ever able to make a good decision or do a good work.
If this line of thinking makes you uncomfortable, just wait. Because while I’ve noticed that we don't much like talking about sin, I’ve also noticed that there’s something we are even more uncomfortable with. It seems odd and I’m still very curious about why this is, but I think it’s true: we are incredibly uncomfortable with forgiveness. The concept of forgiveness breaks all our rules of fairness and stomps on our hopes for vengeance. We mix up forgiveness with excusing, and think it means erasing consequences—which is does not. And while we might even be okay with the idea that we should work to forgive one another, we have real problems with the idea that God might just be in the business of forgiving more than we would.
An example, from a story many of us know—the boy who asks for his inheritance, runs away and squanders it with all the bad choices we can imagine, and whose father is waiting for him, watching out the window, running down the road every time he sees puffs of dust rising from the path. So often we read that as being about God the Father—who watches for our return and greets us with an extravagant party of Amazing Grace. Yet how often are we actually the next character in the story—the older brother who is bitter and angry that he, who followed the rules, didn’t get a party? He stands outside, listening to the music but refusing to go in because he can’t believe his father would be so forgiving—not even listening to the younger brother’s repentant speech before firing up the grill.
How long did the younger brother wait before acting on his hope that his father would be forgiving? How long did the older brother stand outside fuming and disbelieving? How often do we decide what God’s breaking point must be, and live by that, rather than simply coming in the house?
When Peter asked Jesus how many times he was to forgive another person, Jesus’ answer was preposterous—77 times? or in some translations, 70 times 7? Some commentators say this is an indication that forgiveness is hard work—that it might take 77 steps, or 490 little daily efforts, to truly forgive someone. That is probably true. But I also wonder if it isn’t a lesson for us who seek to be transformed ever more into Christ’s likeness—we are to practice forgiveness over and over and over, until we lose count, because that’s what God is like.
Why is it so hard for us to allow God to be infinitely forgiving, just because we are not? I mean, what if God has no breaking point? No point when God will decide that’s it, enough, too much, and cut us off? What if it’s true what Psalm 139 says—that there is nowhere we can go away from God’s presence, that God knows our hearts and our actions, and loves us? What if the whole reason that God is God and we are not, the whole reason that eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil was enough to get Adam and Eve kicked out of the garden, is precisely because God knows that we humans do have a breaking point—a point when we cannot take any more, when it is healthier for us to step away, create boundaries, leave abusive situations, stand up to bullies. We cannot excuse or dismiss wrongdoing, nor can we erase the long-lasting consequences that hurtful behavior has on those who perpetrate it. Yet sometimes the first step we humans can possibly make toward forgiveness, or toward justice, is to leave a situation or relationship. But God doesn’t need that—God is relationship, is love, in essence and by definition.
So what are we afraid of? What is so dangerous about the idea that God has no breaking point, that forgiveness is possible over and over, that love is present all the time no matter what we do? Are we afraid that we might be asked to try to become more like Christ in ways that make us uncomfortable, so better to have his judgment match ours?
I think there’s something else to it. If all people are broken mirrors and God chooses to use us to reflect the divine image anyway, if God really is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, if God’s love really is patient and kind and ever-present, then we have to come to terms not only with our impossible calling, but also with a God who is outside our control. And part of our sinfulness is that we desperately want to be in control. Isn’t that what the younger brother and the older brother both wanted? Isn’t that what Peter wanted? Isn’t that what Adam and Eve wanted? What Paul lamented? Control. Perhaps that is the true original sin. It has certainly twisted our understanding of life—when control is our root desire, then failure becomes sin rather than opportunity, judgment is just below the surface, and we find ourselves unable to love because we’re so sure that they have to earn the love God freely loved us with first.
Whatever form this takes in our lives, there is something planted more deeply in human beings, and in all creation, a force well beyond our understanding and beyond our capability: for God is love. Whether we like it or not, whether we comprehend or not, and whether we are willing to be forgiven or not, God’s love is all about the seventy times seven, the preposterous irresistible grace that makes life possible. What would happen if we lowered our barriers, opened our eyes, practiced the kind of forgiveness Jesus showed rather than the kind we think we deserve, and lived as if grace and gratitude were the same word?
May it be so.