The Twenty Second Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| October 19, 2008| Matthew 18:21-22
Matthew 18, 21-22 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
The central teaching of the Christian faith is that God freely forgives us all our sins for the sake of the obedience and suffering of Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son. Since we are corrupted by sin and cannot by nature do what it pleasing to God, we do not deserve this forgiveness nor can we earn it. We deserve God’s punishment because of our sins. God forgives us freely. We receive his forgiveness through faith alone. We simply trust in the gospel that promises that God forgives us all of our sins for Christ’s sake. This is the truth upon which the Church stands. If this gospel is not preached and believed there is no Church. When and where it is preached and believed the Church of Jesus Christ rests secure.
What is true of the Church is true of you and me. If we are trusting in the obedience, suffering and death of Jesus for the full forgiveness of our sins then we have the forgiveness of sins. If we are trusting in our own goodness or piety or deeds for the forgiveness of our sins then we do not have the forgiveness of sins. If we are trusting in Jesus for forgiveness we may rightly regard ourselves as being forgiven by God. Heaven is our true home. If we are trusting in a mythical god who winks at sin and surely wouldn’t condemn anyone for it we do not have the true faith and we do not have the forgiveness of sins. Heaven is not our home.
This is why is it vital for the Church to confess the truth that our good needs do not gain forgiveness and eternal life for us and that Jesus Christ does. He alone does. He is the only Savior. All other paths to heaven are roads to hell. When the Church fails to teach this she denies her Lord and herself. When we fail to confess this we deny our Lord and our Christian faith.
How do we confess this faith? We come to church. We confess the Creed. We listen to the Scriptures, the preaching, and the word of God that is taught throughout the liturgy. We pay close attention. We eat and drink Christ’s body and blood. We sing and pray and confess before one another what we believe. We confess our faith by what we do in church every Sunday.
We confess our faith to those outside of the church whenever we have the opportunity to do so. We tell people who ask us what we believe and why we believe it. We don’t change the subject when religion comes up. We refuse to submit to social rules that forbid us from doing what our Lord would have us do. We welcome the opportunity to confess what we believe. Jesus said,
Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven. Matthew 10, 32-33
We also confess what we believe by what we do. To say we believe one thing while doing another is to deny what we say we believe. Thomas Kingo hit the nail on the head with these words from his hymn, “How Fair the Church of Christ Shall Stand”:
’Tis all in vain that you profess
The doctrines of the Church, unless
You live according to your creed,
And show your faith by word and deed.
The very heart of our creed is that God forgives us freely by his grace for Christ’s sake. This means that the very heart of our lives is forgiving those who sin against us. How can we confess one thing and do another?
When Christians confess their faith in the forgiveness of sins and then refuse to forgive they deny their own confession. This is no minor matter. We say we believe that God forgives us our sins freely for Christ’s sake. We confess this. We go to the Lord’s Supper to eat and to drink the body and blood that were once and for all given and shed for us. We receive forgiveness of sin through faith. And then we turn around and refuse to forgive those who sin against us.
This cannot be. Jesus told us this parable so that we would know that this cannot be. As children of God we forgive. We do not consider whether the person who sinned against us deserves our forgiveness. In fact, forgiveness is for those who do not deserve it and cannot possibly earn it.
That’s the point of Jesus’ parable about the unmerciful servant. The king forgave him an impossible debt. Jesus deliberately chose a sum of money that would be impossible to repay. Ten thousand talents are several millions of dollars. It was an absurd sum of money. The servant could not possibly repay. The king forgave him the entire debt. Then this same servant went to a fellow servant who owed him a sum of money equal to a hundred days work. When his fellow servant was unable to repay the unmerciful servant refused to forgive. He required his fellow servant to pay what he owed. The king, when he learned of this, responded by throwing the unmerciful servant in prison to be tormented until he paid what he owned. Jesus concludes this parable with the stern warning:
So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.
In the Bible hell is described as prison. There is no escape. There is no mercy. There is no forgiveness. There is no hope. The pain and misery in hell have no end.
The love of God in Christ has no end. This is why Jesus told Peter that forgiving his brother seven times was not enough. Seventy times seven times is another way of saying that we never stop forgiving. We never refuse forgiveness to those who confess their sins to us and ask us for forgiveness.
Now one could argue, I suppose, that this doesn’t mean we have to forgive those who don’t confess their sins to us. Clearly, you don’t go to people who haven’t confessed to doing you any wrong and say to them, “I forgive you for the wrong you did.” No, we don’t. But we forgive them. God himself does not tell the impenitent sinner that his sins are forgiven. The forgiveness of sins is not for those who are not sorry. To offer God’s forgiveness to sinners who are secure in their sins is to throw pearls before swine. The gospel is for sinners who confess their sins and want to avoid them in the future.
On the other hand, when Jesus suffered and died for all sinners God washed away the sin of the whole world by his blood. This is what we sing every time we go to the Lord’s Supper: “O Christ, thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” God did not wait for a fallen sinful humanity to ask him for his forgiveness before sending his Son into this world. He gave his Son of his own choosing out of his own love because God is love.
And this is what marks his children. Love does not keep a record of wrongs. It does not rejoice in evil. It does not relish in the battle against the neighbor. Love forgives. It forgives and forgives and forgives not a mere seven times – though undoubtedly Peter thought he was being generous – but seventy times seven times.
It seems impossible. If we are wronged there must be a right. Who will right the wrong? Who will bring us justice? If God insists that we simply forgive, then how can God bring about justice? Should those who do wrong be permitted to get away with it? Should evil be forgiven after doing harm to innocent people? Should there not be justice from a just God?
We Christians understand the conflict. It surely does seem impossible to forgive and forgive and forgive without ever withholding forgiveness. But we know that forgiveness does not deny justice. Indeed, it was precisely as Jesus met all of the demands of justice that he won forgiveness for us all.
And so we must forgive for Jesus’ sake. It is for his sake that we are forgiven. Since he has paid our debt God can with perfect justice forgive us all of our sins. And since he has paid the debt of those who sin against us we can forgive them without losing anything thereby.
We see the sin in our brothers and sisters. We see it because it hurts us. We remember the hurt. We see the wrong with crystal clarity. What do we do about it? Can we forgive? Yes, we can. We can forgive those who sin against us because Jesus died for them. Jesus paid for their sins. There is no need for them to be punished when Jesus has already suffered their punishment. We can forgive those who sin against us.
You may think you cannot. You may think that God will surely bind your sins against you because of your unforgiving heart. Then confess to him that you have an unforgiving heart. He forgives all kinds of sin. Then, when he has forgiven you he will enable you to forgive those who have done you wrong, not once or twice, but seventy times seven times. Amen