Tag Archives: Forgiveness

Holy Baptism: Grace Renewed (Pentecost +2) – July 18, 2017

During today’s service, we heard reflections from youth and sponsors who participated in the Nebraska Synod Mission Trip (“The Heart’s Journey”). Following their time, Pastor Andrew preached a sermon on Holy Baptism; unfortunately, that sermon was not recorded.

Pastor Andrew’s message focused on the relationship between Holy Baptism and the practice of repentance as a return to baptism. Following Luther, we believe that Holy Baptism is not simply a one-time event, but the well-spring from which the life of faith flows. As we repent daily – being honest about our faults before God and in relationship to others and resolving to turn our lives away from our own wants and toward God and our neighbor’s needs – we draw strength from the sacrament by which God calls us and claims us, and we receive what we need to face the day renewed in God’s grace.

Our series continues as we turn our attention to the second of the sacraments: Holy Communion.

The Christian Life: Forgiveness – May 29, 2016

Sunday’s Reading:
2 Corinthians 2:1-10

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Last Sunday, we began our series on the Christian life by talking about consolation as one of the defining characteristics of individuals and communities of faith. In the midst of hardship and struggle, we trust that God has promised to grant us the gifts of comfort and encouragement, and we understand that we are called to respond to those gifts by extending them to one another in Christ’s name.

Today, we turn to one of the most widely discussed and grossly misunderstood aspects of our life together: forgiveness. Forgiveness is, of course, a central concern for us as Christians. We understand ourselves to be part of this community precisely because of the great love that has been given to us in Jesus Christ, and we know that our relationship with God is based on the forgiveness that we have received through Christ’s death and resurrection. It is nearly impossible to talk about the Christian life without talking about forgiveness.

What is misunderstood – or, perhaps, underemphasized – is the extent to which Scripture defines forgiveness as the ground of our relationships with one another within the community of the church. This is demonstrated clearly by the fact that Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians moves almost directly from the topic of consolation to the importance of forgiveness for the Christian living in community. We discussed last week that this letter was occasioned by a deep divide within the church at Corinth over the nature of Paul’s authority. We can only guess at what happened – since Paul’s letter represents just one side of the conversation – but it appears that in response to that division, Paul made a “painful visit” to Corinth in which he confronted an individual who was at the heart of the dispute. Following that visit, the “offender” was apparently shunned by the church, causing still greater pain within the community. In today’s passage, then, Paul – despite the great hurt that he has experienced at the hand of this brother in the faith, and while acknowledging how much pain has been experienced by the whole community – urges the Corinthians to extend forgiveness to the offender.

This idea – that as forgiven people we should also be forgiving people – is present throughout Scripture. We need look no further than the Lord’s Prayer – the model for prayer given to us by Jesus himself – to see this sentiment expressed with absolutely no ambiguity: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Matthew 6:12) That Paul expresses it so clearly here, in a situation in which he himself has been gravely wounded by the trespass of a fellow Christian, is really important, because it takes this concept out of the abstract and sets it into a real, flesh-and-blood context. Forgiveness is one of those things that sounds simple enough in theory, but can be incredibly difficult to actually carry out when we find ourselves in situations of deep pain and hurt. Once we move out of the realm of theory, we begin to wonder if forgiveness is naïve, if practicing it necessarily leads us to our being doormats who are just asking to be injured again. We often question the sincerity of those who ask for forgiveness, or wonder about the propriety of extending forgiveness to people who aren’t even asking for it. Indeed, we should be honest about the fact that forgiveness is always a somewhat risky proposition, because offering it requires us to acknowledge that we’ve been hurt, and if there’s anything we human beings hate, it’s being vulnerable to other people.

In the event that I haven’t made it abundantly clear already, forgiveness isn’t easy. If anything, acknowledging all the difficulty involved in the practice of forgiveness should disabuse us of the notion that it is something that makes us weak. Think about a time when you were wounded by a family member or a close friend. If you eventually spoke to that person about how they hurt you, think about the resolve that was necessary to stop ignoring or minimizing your pain. These acts – facing our vulnerability and accepting the risks that come along with it – are incredibly powerful, and our ability to perform them comes from a deep and abiding strength, a strength that is ours because we know the power of the forgiveness that we have received from God in Christ to transform our own lives.

We should also be honest about the fact that forgiveness is, in reality, a radical proposition. There’s almost nothing as radical, in fact, as the act of freeing ourselves from the need to see other people get what we think they deserve. Despite Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about “turning the other cheek”, the concept of “an eye for an eye” is still very tempting at times. At the heart of the gospel, however, is the recognition that “God’s love was shown for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) We can barely wrap our minds around that way of thinking, and yet we are called to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:5)

All right, it’s should be obvious that forgiveness is important – difficult and radical, but really important nonetheless. So what does forgiveness look like? How are we called to practice forgiveness in a way that doesn’t lead to permissiveness, that doesn’t “excuse” behavior which truly causes pain to us or our community? Fully answering those questions could take a lifetime, but here are three things that I think might define our practice of forgiveness as Christians. First of all, forgiveness should be wrapped in prayer. There’s too much at stake in this powerful act to do it flippantly or without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Next, forgiveness begins with acknowledging the fault, with a recognition of how the act (or acts) in question have damaged the relationship and caused hurt to us as individuals or as a community. Making the gravity of the offense known is important for both the one who has been hurt and the one who has caused that hurt. Finally, I think it’s crucial for us to understand that forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting. Though we practice forgiveness with the goal of repairing relationships that have been broken, it is a reality of life in our world that those relationships may never be what they once were. When the hurt is deep, or when it has the potential to be long-lasting, we don’t have to act as though nothing has happened; actions have consequences, after all, and those consequences may include the need to set boundaries for the sake of individuals or the community. Even so, forgiveness can still be an important part of healing divisions and helping to restore a community to wholeness.

Next week, our series continues with a look at another misunderstood quality of the Christian life: humility. In the meantime, I invite us all to reflect on our identity as people who are forgiven and our calling to be forgiving people. It’s a calling that will never be easy to live out. It’s a calling that will always be radical. It’s a calling that we can’t escape. May God grant us the courage and strength to take it seriously, and the will to do it for the sake of Christ and this beloved community that bears his name. Amen.

The Book of Hebrews: Week 3 – August 23, 2015

Sunday’s Reading:
Hebrews 4:14-5:10

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

In mid-September of my first year at Gettysburg Seminary – almost eight years ago! – I was assigned to a congregation in York, Pennsylvania for a field education experience known as “teaching parish”. The goal of the teaching parish program was to place students within a congregation to begin the process of forming a pastoral identity. One of the facets of that formation was the opportunity to wear the familiar clerical shirt and collar, a widely recognized marker of people who occupy the office of pastor. When I got ready on the first Sunday morning of teaching parish, I remember seeing myself in the mirror for the first time and hoping- before anything else – that no one would mistake me for a Roman Catholic priest. I don’t know why I feared that so much. It would be an innocent enough mistake for someone to make. It certainly wouldn’t have been meant in a disparaging way – at least not from most people. In truth, when I look back I don’t think my apprehension had anything to do with being identified as Roman Catholic, but with the language of priesthood.

As a general rule, American Lutherans don’t use this term to describe their clergy. We prefer minister or pastor to priest, and though there may be some subtle anti-Catholic bias in that preference, I think it comes more from this uneasiness with the perceived theological import of the word. In our imaginations, I think we see priests as others, as overly concerned with holiness in all the wrong ways, as figures who wield power over us. It’s telling to me that other Lutheran churches don’t seem to have this problem.

How we define the concept of the priest is important, of course, not simply to avoid confusion, but to help us make sense of what the writer of Hebrews is trying to say about Jesus when he refers to him as our “great high priest”.  For our purposes, it would be good to unpack the duties of a priest so that we can appreciate the argument that Hebrews is advancing for us. Most broadly defined, priests are religious figures who intercede for others, who make prescribed offerings to the Divine, and who, in turn, pronounce reconciliation with the Divine. In simpler terms, priests pray, make sacrifices, and announce forgiveness. If that’s all it takes to be a priest, then our apprehension seems to be misplaced. As your pastor, I also fulfill the role of priest in offering prayers on behalf of our congregation, in leading us to make offerings of our time, talent, and treasure – or, in language often used by Martin Luther, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving – and in announcing words of grace and new life in the name of Jesus. Curiously enough, Luther also extended the concept of priesthood to all the baptized. That is, he believed that all of us act as priests for one another as we bring one another’s concerns before God, offer our lives in service to God and neighbor, and in announcing grace and renewal in word and deed.

So what does it mean to call Jesus our great high priest? It means that he carries out each of these responsibilities, but does so from a place of surpassing authority and power. Jesus the great high priest is the one who became one of us and suffered everything that we have suffered but did not succumb to our tendency to become curved in on ourselves. He was tested by experiencing what it means to be human, but – unlike Adam, the prototypical human from Genesis who failed the test – embodied true humanity and remained faithful to God’s will. Because he took on our nature and lot, he is able to intercede for us before God, and to bear our groaning and sighing and longing into God’s presence.

Jesus the great high priest is the one who offered a more perfect sacrifice – not the blood of lambs or goats, but his own – so that we might be cleansed from Sin and united with the Almighty. In giving his own life for our sake, he made a way for us to reconciled with God and with one another.

Jesus the great high priest is the one who not only declares God’s forgiveness and grace, but makes it possible by his obedient suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. Unlike other priests – myself included – he does not offer forgiveness by the authority of another, but by his own!

Because Jesus is our great high priest, we are invited to live boldly in relationship with God. Christ calls as and claims us as his own, and encourages us to bring all of our cares and concerns to God with confidence that God will regard our prayers as not as presumptions, but as motivated by God’s promises. That’s why, for example, we are able to recite the radical words of the Lord’s Prayer – not because we’re holy enough in ourselves or worthy enough on our own to imagine that God is impressed with us, but because our high priest invites us to pray this way:

9Our Father in the heavens, may your name be held in holy awe.
10Let your royal reign come.
Let your will be established – as it is in heaven, so may it be on earth.
11Give us the food we need for today, 12and release us from our debts, just as we release others from their debts.
13Do not bring us to a time of testing, but rescue us from the evil one.
For to you belongs power and might and glory throughout the ages.
Let it be so!
(Matthew 6:9-13, my translation)

Because Jesus is our great high priest, we are assured that even when our life’s offering is inadequate, the perfect offering of Christ will make a way for us to be freed from sin, death, and the devil, and to be presented before God as holy and righteous.

Because Jesus is our great high priest, we know that when we approach the throne of grace we will hear a word of comfort and peace and renewal so that we can go out into the world with courage and hope.

Brothers and sisters, we may not like the language of priesthood, but we can all be grateful this day that God sent Jesus Christ to be our great high priest, so that our prayers, our offerings, and our very lives might be acceptable to God through him. As we live in him, may we also find the strength to be priests for others, so that God’s grace and mercy might be made known to a world in need. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Words of Institution (Maundy Thursday) – April 2, 2015

Thursday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Psalm 116:12-15
Preaching Text: Matthew 26:17-30

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

This Friday night, our Jewish brothers and sisters will begin the celebration of Passover, one of the most important festivals in the life of their community. In homes all over the world, people will gather to tell the story of Israel’s salvation and eat the traditional meal – including matzo, vegetables, bitter herbs, and cups of wine. One of the most poignant parts of the evening is during the section of the meal called the Maggid, or “story”, when the youngest person present asks the first in a series of questions: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” As the story is told, the answer to that question becomes clear: this night is different because it is a night to celebrate God’s power in bringing Israel out of slavery and into freedom.

As we gather on this Maundy Thursday, we might ask that same question ourselves: Why is this night different from all other nights? The answer might seem obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth asking. The reading before us tonight recounts the story of Jesus gathering with his disciples for the first meal of Passover. We don’t know how similar the Seder of today is to the meal that Jesus shared with his followers, but the basic shape of the meal likely hasn’t changed much. They would have remembered the same story and eaten the same unleavened bread in obedience to God’s command. They would have passed around cups of wine, blessing God for delivering their people with a mighty hand. But this meal would also be different from all the other Passover meals shared in Jerusalem that night and the next. This meal would become the model for a new kind of supper shared by those who would one day bear the name of Christ.

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and give it to the disciples, saying, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Then, taking a cup of wine and blessing it, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is being poured out for all in order to effect the forgiveness of sins. I’m telling you, from this point forward I will never drink from this fruit of the grapevine until the day I drink new wine with you under my Father’s Reign.” (Matthew 26:26-29, my translation)

The apostle Paul referred to this meal as one of the most important aspects of the tradition that he received from those who had known Jesus, and in First Corinthians 11, he sets down that tradition for generations to follow:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed down to you, that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was handed over, took bread and, after giving thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is given for your sake. Keep doing this in my memory.” In the same way he took the cup after the meal, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Keep doing this, as often as you drink it, in my memory.” For as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (First Corinthians 11:23-26, my translation)

What makes this night different than all other nights? It is the night our Lord Jesus instituted his supper, a meal that continues to give life to the church every time we gather to receive it. It is a tangible sign of the love of God, expressed in gifts of bread and wine, broken and poured for us and for all people to grant us forgiveness and grace and new life in him. It is also, of course, the night of his betrayal and arrest, and we can’t separate this meal from the events that follow it, because they give meaning to one another. There is something incredible, for example, about the fact that in Matthew’s telling of this story, Judas – the one who was actively planning to betray him – was a full participant in that meal. He heard the words of promise as the bread and wine were passed around the table. He received the gift of fellowship with Jesus and his fellow disciples, even as the schemes he had set in motion continued to unfold outside that room. Though his own actions would later lead to his removal from the Twelve, that evening he was treated in the same manner as the other eleven. That fact should be a great comfort to each of us as we approach this meal tonight. The invitation of our Lord is not altered by our faults and failings, because this meal is given to us so that our faults might be healed.

In the end, this meal points us to the larger reality of Christ’s suffering and death, and that is perhaps the most important thing for us to remember this night. One writer, reflecting on the meaning of Holy Communion, put it this way:

To know Christ sacramentally only in the terms of bread and wine is to know him only partially, in the dining room as host and guest. It is a valid enough knowledge, but its ultimate weakness when isolated is that it is perhaps too civil… However elegant the knowledge of the dining room may be, it begins in the soil, in the barnyard, in the slaughterhouse; amid the quiet violence of the garden, strangled cries, and fat spitting in the pan. Table manners depend on something’s having been grabbed by the throat. A knowledge that ignores these dark and murderous human acts is losing its grip on the human condition. [Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (Pueblo: 1978)]

Tonight, we receive the gift of a meal. That meal comes to us at a price, and so we approach it with awe and gratitude. By giving up his life for us once, Christ has given us his life forever. Take and eat, brothers. Take and drink, sisters. This is Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for you. As often as you eat it, but especially on this night, do this in remembrance of him and all that he has done for us and for our broken world. Amen.