23 Pentecost: 4 November 2007
(Amos 5:18-24/Psalm 103/1 Thessalonians 5:12-28/Luke 18:9-14)
I believe…in the forgiveness of sins.
Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,
set up your kingdom in our midst.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God,
have mercy on me a sinner.
Holy Spirit, breath of the living God,
renew me and all the world. Amen.
By the grace of God I am a Christian man, by my actions a great sinner, and by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth who roams from place to place. My worldly goods are a knapsack with some dried bread in it on my back, and in my breast-pocket a Bible. And that is all.
On the 24th Sunday after Pentecost I went to church to say my prayers there during the Liturgy. The first Epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians was being read, and among other words I heard these – “Pray without ceasing.” It was this text, more than any other, which forced itself upon my mind, and I began to think how it as possible to pray without ceasing, since a man has to concern himself with other things also in order to make a living. I looked at my Bible, and with my own eyes read the words which I had heard, i.e., that we ought always, at all times and in all places, to pray with uplifted hands. I thought and thought, but knew not what to make of it. “What ought I to do?” I thought. “Where shall I find someone to explain it to me? I shall go to the churches where famous preachers are to be heard; perhaps there I shall hear something which will throw light on it for me.”
So begins The Way of the Pilgrim, the spiritual autobiography of an anonymous 19th century Russian peasant who wanders across Russia searching for a way to obey St Paul’s charge to pray without ceasing. He looks for the secret first in the churches but finds no answers there. Next he travels from village to village looking for holy men – spiritual guides – who might instruct him.
For a long time I wandered through many places. I read my Bible always, and everywhere I asked whether there was not in the neighborhood a spiritual teacher, a devout and experienced guide, to be found…At last toward evening [one day] I was overtaken by an old man who looked like a cleric of some sort. In answer to my question he told me that he was a monk belonging to a monastery some six miles off the main road. He asked me to go there with him. “We take in pilgrims,” said he, “and give them rest and food with devout persons in the guest house.” I did not feel like going. So in reply I said that my peace of mind in no way depended upon my finding a resting-place, but upon finding spiritual teaching. Neither was I running after food, for I had plenty of dried bread in my knapsack. “What sort of spiritual teaching are you wanting to get?” he asked me. “What is it puzzling you?”
The Pilgrim relates the nature of his quest to the old monk, who then crosses himself and gives thanks to God. This monk is the one for whom the Pilgrim has been searching, the one who can reveal the secret of unceasing prayer. Over the next several days he instructs the Pilgrim in the use of the prayer of the heart – the Jesus Prayer – developed by the first generations of desert monks in the 4th century. Based upon the prayer of the tax collector in the gospel reading, one calls upon the name of Jesus in the words “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” or, in its fuller form, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This prayer is repeated frequently throughout the day – “in all occupations, at all times, in all places,” until the prayer is internalized in the heart and begins to pray itself.
The Jesus Prayer is a prayer of relationship and supplication. Jesus, the son of God, is Lord, I am sinner; that’s the relationship. Have mercy on me – that’s the supplication. Precisely because of the relationship – because Jesus is Lord – we can approach confidently seeking mercy: precisely because we believe in the forgiveness of sins as we proclaim in the creed.
Tom Wright has expanded on the Jesus Prayer a bit in what he calls the Trinity Prayer.
Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, set up your kingdom in our midst.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Holy Spirit, breath of the living God, renew me and all the world.
This prayer captures an enormous amount of theology in very few words and takes some unpacking.
The God to whom we pray is the Almighty maker of heaven and earth; and, he is our Father. Because we are still sitting and not lying prostrate on the floor or kneeling crying “Thanks be to God!” I suspect we have heard this astounding truth so often that it’s lost it impact. The creator of heaven and earth, the one who speaks worlds into being, the almighty and eternal one, has condescended to become my father and yours. Further, he has a plan to restore his fallen creation, to put it to rights again, to heal it and us. The shorthand for that plan is the kingdom. So we pray for God himself, our Father, to set up his kingdom in our midst: right here, right now. Justice, righteousness, mercy, grace, love, peace, life: that’s the kingdom. Evil, abuse, hatred, war, sorrow, sickness, death, sin: all gone when the kingdom appears in our midst. “Let grace come and this world pass away,” says the post-Communion prayer of the Didache.
Kingdom-come depends completely on the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ, the unique son of the living God, the son who is one in essence with the Father. “Have mercy on us sinners,” we pray because we know ourselves to be as much part of the problem with creation as we are part of the solution for creation. We are sinners in the broadest sense of the term – decent people, maybe, but sinners definitely. And this prayer helps us understand that by expanding our notion of sin. If we call upon God to set up his kingdom in our midst then anything that opposes kingdom-come is sin. In this sense there really are no neutral acts. What opposes God’s kingdom – even more, what does not promote God’s kingdom – is sin. The problem goes far beyond intentional, personal evil; it is failure to actively promote the coming of the kingdom of God. So, we very rightly pray: Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.
The mercy and forgiveness that we pray for are also clarified and expanded by this prayer. The forgiveness that I seek – that I need – is far more than just a forensic (legal) declaration of not guilty. Of course I want to be declared by God not guilty. Who doesn’t? Of course I want to stand before him in Christ and hear him say that, for the sake of his only-begotten son, he will not count my sins against me. Who doesn’t? But I need more than just a declaration that still leaves me mired in sin and only relieves me of its penalty. I need to be relieved of sin itself. Sin is a disease for which I need a cure. I need the Holy Spirit to re-create me, to renew me in the image of God so that sin ceases to dominate me. I need forgiveness that is health and renewal and recreation. I need forgiveness that empowers me to conquer sin in the name of Jesus. So I pray: Holy Spirit, breath of the living God, renew me and all the world.
These prayers – the Jesus Prayer, the Trinity Prayer, even the Lord’s Prayer – make sense only if, as the creed says, we believe in the forgiveness of sins. We believe that sin is anything that opposes or fails to promote the coming of God’s kingdom in our midst. We believe that the forgiveness that is ours in Christ is more than a legal fiction; it is the restoration to health and wholeness and relationship with God and man – a renewal by the Holy Spirit. We believe in the forgiveness of sins.
As grand as all this is, it is still too small a notion of forgiveness – much too narrowly focused. In fact, it’s focused laser-like on me and on you. But to say in the creed that we believe in the forgiveness of sins means more; it means that we believe in forgiveness, that we accept forgiveness, not just as a gift to us but also as a vocation for us. We believe in forgiveness both personally and instrumentally. We believe that as God’s forgiven people we are to be God’s instruments of forgiveness in the world. In his biography of St Francis, G. K. Chesterton captured the essence of this instrumentality:
St. Francis walked the world like the Pardon of God. I mean that his appearance marked the moment when men could be reconciled not only to God but to nature and, most difficult of all, to themselves.
Having received forgiveness, Francis was compelled to proclaim forgiveness to the world, to be a troubadour for the Lord singing songs of pardon and mercy. That, too, is our calling, our vocation. And note the expansive view of forgiveness – not merely a crossing-off of debts owed, but healing and reconciliation. This is what we have received and what we are to offer.
What does this look like? It looks like Jubilee. You know about the Jubilee, the Hebrew celebration of the kingdom of God made manifest in the midst of his people. In a real way the Jubilee was God’s answer to the first part of Wright’s Trinity Prayer: Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, set up your kingdom in our midst. God declared every fiftieth year a year of Jubilee when all debts were canceled and all family property returned, when slaves were set free, and when the land lay fallow. Do you see it? The Jubilee is forgiveness writ large: pardon of debts, reconciliation of slaves, healing of the land and the nation: kingdom-come, God’s kingdom set up in our midst. That’s how we are to live our belief in the forgiveness of sins, by declaring Jubilee in Jesus’s name, by being the Jubilee people of God.
Right now much of the third world staggers under the burden of foreign debt. Having received loans from the member nations of the International Monetary Fund – money which was often stolen and squandered by corrupt third world leaders – these nations are now saddled with enormous interest payments which cripple their economies. Health care, education, sanitation, infrastructure – all these suffer because the very limited available funds must be used to service foreign debt. People suffer. In many cases our Christian brothers and sisters suffer. In all cases God’s people suffer. What does it mean to these people when Christians in the developed world stand shoulder to shoulder each Sunday and say, “We believe in the forgiveness of sins”? What would Jubilee look like for these people?
Thousands in our own country lack health care, quality education, adequate housing, and sufficient nutrition. What does it mean to these people when their Christian neighbors stand shoulder to shoulder each Sunday and say, “We believe in the forgiveness of sins”? What would Jubilee look like for these people?
Families lie in shambles all around us: in our communities, among our friends, in our churches – the victims of selfishness, abuse, neglect. What does it mean to these people when those who ignore or even cause their suffering stand shoulder to shoulder each Sunday and say, “We believe in the forgiveness of sins”? What would Jubilee look like for these people?
AIDS ravages Africa and Haiti. Wars rage in Iraq and Afghanistan. Genocide proceeds unabated in Darfur. Inhumane treatment is common in the Palestinian territories and bombings are not infrequent in Israel. Teachers and priests prey sexually on the most vulnerable among us. Video games, films, and music celebrate murder and torture. Consumerism is rampant as are hunger and homelessness. “We believe in the forgiveness of sins. We believe in grace and mercy and pardon and reconciliation and healing.” What does it mean when we stand shoulder to should each Sunday morning and proclaim this? Where is Jubilee? What would it look like for God to set up his kingdom in our midst – set it up using you and me as his instruments? It would look like Jubilee. I don’t know what to do about this, at least not on the large scale where the problems seem too massive for me even to dent. But I do know that I am part of the problem: that I benefit from structures that damage others, that I use resources in unsustainable ways, that I squander goods that might provide necessities for others, that I turn blind eyes and deaf ears to the sins of my world. I am ready to accept God’s forgiveness, but much less willing to bring it to others – to work for their pardon, healing, and reconciliation. And so I pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” because I desperately need his mercy and because I believe in the forgiveness of sins.
The weight of the sin of the world is too heavy for me to bear. Thanks be to God I don’t have to bear it. Jesus did that when he bore the weight of the cross. He is the source of forgiveness. But, he did tell me to take up my cross daily and follow him – to be his instrument of forgiveness in my small piece of the world. Yes, there is crushing poverty in the third world, but there are also homeless and hungry people on many street corners and under many bridges right here in our community who need a declaration of Jubilee. There are children in Knoxville with lousy parents, with absent parents, with no significant adult presence in their lives who need a declaration of Jubilee. There are widows and orphans and prisoners who need a declaration of Jubilee. There are the old, the sick, the lonely, the frightened, the forgotten in hospitals and nursing homes who need a declaration of Jubilee. There are the addicted, the prostitutes, the abused and the abusers who need a declaration of Jubilee. All right here in our midst. All waiting for the kingdom of God to be set up in our midst. All waiting for Jubilee. All waiting for the forgiveness of sins. So the creed poses us some questions. Do we really believe in the forgiveness of sins? Are we really willing to be God’s instruments of forgiveness? Will we really pray for and work for the establishment of God’s kingdom in our midst? Will we declare Jubilee to our small piece of the world?
21 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?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart’ (Mt 18:21-35, NRSV).
The word of the Lord.