Forgive as God Forgave You
Topic: Biblical Verse: Colossians 3:12–3:13
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 6-7, 2019
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
“Go and Be Reconciled: Forgive as God Forgave You”
Steadily we are making our way to Easter, now only two weeks away. But before we get to the joy of Jesus’ resurrection at Easter, we must first grapple with the harsh reality of Jesus’ rejection, suffering, and death. Before there is Easter, there is first Good Friday. We get a foretaste of this in today’s Gospel lesson as Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants (Luke 20:9-20). We have to confront the ugly truth of tenants who come to see themselves as owners, and act as such. Jesus tells this parable in order to open our eyes that we might see ourselves in those tenants. If anything should convince us of our pressing need for God’s mercy and forgiveness, it should be today’s Gospel lesson. But this must lead us beyond ourselves, for we cannot be only receivers of this undeserved mercy and forgiveness. In receiving this gift from God, we are then called to become agents of forgiveness, forgiving others as God in Christ has forgiven us. As God’s baptized children who are called to walk in newness of life, we are called to become change agents in the world around us, beginning with the broken relationships in our own lives. How will the ugly cycle of blaming, retribution, fear, and isolation be short-circuited and redirected except through Christ at work in each one of us? Our Lenten preaching series, “Go and Be Reconciled,” continues this day under the theme “Forgive as God Forgave You.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
We think of vineyards as pleasant places we like to visit: peaceful, beautiful rolling countryside. Just west of here are numerous vineyards where you can spend a relaxing afternoon. But this is not what we encounter in today’s Gospel lesson. We live in a time of rapid urbanization as more and more people head toward cities where jobs are to be found. This isn’t just happening here in our own country; it’s happening all over the world (https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/world-urbanization-prospects-2014.html). But we’re not the first generation to experience this. Today’s parable is a by-product of ancient urbanization. Galilee and other parts of the Middle East experienced this in the first century as small land holdings gradually got incorporated into large estates owned by wealthy city dwellers. Peasants became tenants. Ancient documents contain reports of desperate tenants driven to ruthless behavior like what we hear about in today’s Gospel lesson (see Proclamation 5, Series C-Lent: Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year, Richard I. Pervo. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994; p. 57). But this is where the parable breaks down for us: what sort of owner would continue to send unprotected messengers, including his own son, when the tenants resort to violence?
Clearly, the tenants violate the crop-share agreement with the land owner. No word here about oppression or manipulation of the tenants by the landowner. No complaints about unfair labor practices or working conditions. The owner was just trying to collect what was his due. But the tenants beat up the owner’s servants, insulting them, thereby insulting the owner himself. And it only gets worse; the violence only escalates when the son shows up. The tenants throw him out the vineyard and kill him in order to get the inheritance for themselves. Unbelievable! How would we respond in such a situation? What would we do? We don’t have to go to school to learn revenge; it comes naturally to us. The challenge for us is can we learn a different way to respond? We would have every right to come down hard with law and justice. Would we be willing to give up that right? God is the Maker and Owner of heaven and earth; we are merely the tenants who occupy what belongs to God. But how we act as if it all belongs to us! Time and again, God sent his servants, the prophets, to call his people back to himself. Time again, as Scripture records, the tenants (read: God’s people) reject those messengers. In Scripture, God describes his chosen people as “stiff necked and hard hearted” (Exodus 32:9; 33:3, 5; 34:9; 2 Chronicles 30:8; Acts 7:51; et. al.). Over and over again, they stubbornly resist the Lord. Is it any different with us? God does something that is so counter-intuitive that it blows the mind: he sends his only Son into that sin-infested vineyard to suffer at the hands of those miserable tenants and be killed by them. Would you do this? I think not. I don’t think any of us would do this. But this is what God did. “They could take away Jesus’ clothing, they could take away his reputation, they could tear him away from his mother, they could take away his friends, they could even take away his life, they could strip him of everything, but they could not take away his power to forgive. Not the tenants in the story, not Herod, not Pilate, not Judas, not Peter and the other disciples, not the crowd, not even we can take away Christ’s power to forgive. It’s radical reversal, this forgiveness that comes from the cross” (“Perhaps Cain Is Right after All?, by Paul W.F. Harms. Augsburg Sermons 3: Gospels, Series C. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1994; pp. 86-87).
The power to forgive does not come from ourselves; it must come from outside ourselves. It must come from what God in Christ has done to forgive us at the cross. It is there at the cross, while he is being nailed to that cross, that the Son prays. And he prays not only for those hammering the nails into his flesh, but he prays for us all: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This is the mind-blowing, counter-intuitive, forgiving love of God seen most clearly here at the cross. It is here at the cross that God begins to build a new creation founded on this new cornerstone that is Jesus. One commentator writes that Golgotha, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion, may well have been an abandoned stone quarry; abandoned because of poor quality stone (Following the Way: The Setting of John’s Gospel, by Bruce E. Schein, 1980). “From the city walls above, people could see the crucifixion of this ‘outsider’ in the quarry below outside the city walls. They rejected Christ as they rejected the inferior stone from this quarry” (Ibid, p. 88). And yet, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Luke 20:17, quoting Psalm 118:22). And here is where God’s forgiveness kicks into high gear: Christ did not reject those who rejected him. He still doesn’t. This is the “new thing” that God in Christ is doing among us from today’s Old Testament lesson (Isaiah 43:16-21). Can we learn to do the same? By the power of Christ our Cornerstone, God calls us to forgive as God has forgiven us, including those nagging, thorny broken relationships in our lives. Who are we not to forgive if God has so richly forgiven us? By we begin to learn what Paul writes about in today’s Epistle lesson: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:4b-14).
Because of what God in Christ has done for us, you and I are now called to be his ambassadors of reconciliation. God calls us forgive as he has forgiven us. And so bit by bit, day by day, with God’s gracious help, we begin to live out those words printed in your worship bulletin: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:12-13). May God help us all to go and be reconciled, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven us. Amen.