Forgive Us Our Trespasses
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Fifth Petition of the Lord's Prayer
"Forgive Us Our Trespasses"
This past week I met a woman who shared a personal and painful story about her own life. She is not a member of this congregation, and does not live in this area. This individual grew up in a household where there was an incredible amount of abuse on the part of her father, who would curse and swear at his daughter, calling her names that no child should ever be called. She would be awakened in the night by loud noises that shook the whole house, coming from her parents' bedroom which was next to her own room. The sounds were her mother's body being hurled across the room by her father. As a child, this woman's greatest fear was that she would see her mother killed, or come home and find her mother dead. An elderly neighbor whose name was Martha opened her heart to this young girl and her siblings. Her home became a place of refuge, and through her this abused young child learned love and grace and forgiveness. Forgiveness is what today's message is all about as we focus on the Fifth Petition of the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." May God's rich blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word, for Jesus' sake.
This is the longest of any of the petitions of the Lord's Prayer, so it goes without saying that what Jesus is teaching us to pray here - to live here - must be pretty important. Forgiveness is pretty important. In the back of your worship bulletin is a take-away sheet with some notes for reflection. I encourage you to take this home and make use of it in the week ahead. Let's read together Luther's explanation of the Fifth Petition: "And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." What does this mean? "We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us." It's that last sentence that moves this petition from the theoretical to the practical; from head knowledge to heart-felt: "So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us."
There is a vertical dimension of forgiveness, and this concerns our relationship with God. There is also a horizontal dimension of forgiveness, and this concerns our relationship with one another. First, let's look at the vertical dimension of forgiveness. In this Fifth Petition, some translations use the word "debts" instead of "trespasses." That word "debts" is probably closer to what Jesus was getting at here. At some point in life, we all have debts - school loans, credit cards, car loans, mortgages, etc. These are dollar amounts of money we owe. Can you imagine the finance company or the mortgage company cancelling that debt, simply because we were unable to pay it? That would be a great day, but I don't think I'll live to see that day, and I doubt you will either. Jesus assumes that we do, in fact, have debts - the debt of sin, what we owe to God because of the penalty of our sin, the evil we have done and the good we have failed to do. And what we owe God is more than just money; it's our very lives - body, mind, and spirit. The truth of the matter is that we have run up a debt with God so huge that we can never hope to repay it. And if we think we don't owe God anything, here what Scripture says: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). I have never been to bankruptcy court, nor do I ever hope to. I am told that as the court begins, before the case is to be heard, the bailiff cries out: "All debtors rise." That's us. We are all debtors. But wait! The Judge has stamped something on that bill of sin, on that debt we owe but can never repay. Stamped in red - blood red - are the words "Paid in full." The debt is erased; the bill is paid; we are set free, not because of anything we have done, but because of what Christ has done for us: "The blood of Jesus, God's Son, cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7).
The vertical dimension of God's forgiveness of all our sin for Jesus' sake leads to the horizontal dimension of God's call for us to forgive one another. In this prayer there is laid upon us the duty of forgiving the sins of others. If God's forgiveness of us does not flow out from us in our forgiving one another, then we are hypocrites and liars, and we should not pray this Fifth Petition of the Lord's Prayer. We would do better to omit it than pray it and not mean it. John Wesley, the great English reformer of the eighteenth century, traveled to the American colonies to preach the Gospel, and while here visited what is now the state of Georgia. Georgia, as you may know, was founded in large part by General James Oglethorpe, who brought indentured servants over to work off their debt. In conversation one day, Oglethorpe said to John Wesley, "I never forgive," to which Wesley replied, "Then, sir, I hope you never sin" (The Lord's Prayer: Selected Passages from William Barclay, p. 53). If God's forgiveness toward us does not flow out from us to others then we become like the Dead Sea, a body of water into which a great number of rivers and streams drain. But nothing flows out of the Dead Sea, and because nothing flows out of it, nothing can live in it. It is a body of dead and stagnant water. As pastor and author Ray Pritchard points out, there can be a kind of "spiritual schizophrenia" going on in our lives if we ask God to give us what we ourselves are unwilling to give to others. "The fifth petition of the Lord's Prayer tells us that you cannot have it both ways. Do you want to be forgiven? You must forgive others. Unless you forgive, you will not be forgiven" (And When You Pray: The Deeper Meaning of the Lord's Prayer, p. 149).
When all is said and done, forgiveness is not natural. Revenge is natural. That is why we need to pray continually "Forgive us our debts, our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Doing what comes natural will only increase the cycle of retribution and vengeance that has been mankind's tragic legacy. In Christ, there is a different path - the path that leads to healing and new life. This is our calling: by the power of the Holy Spirit to live out in our lives what we pray with our lips. Jesus did not say that forgiveness would be easy or quick. Sometimes it may take years, as with the woman I met last week who grew up in an abusive home. The One who taught us to pray "Forgive us our debts, our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us," is also the One who prayed when he was crucified, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:24). Christ in us enables us to do what we could never do on our own: forgiving others as we ourselves have been forgiven. Amen.