October 30, 2022 Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors
The title of one of Bishop Tutu’s books says it all: “No Future Without Forgiveness”. As you perhaps know after apartheid, Pres. Nelson Mandela appointed Bishop Tutu as chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. The commission exposed past atrocities of the regime and of the liberation movement. Its primary goal was reconciliation and healing to a nation who had lived in hate and fear for centuries. There was only one way to bring about reconciliation and healing: a willingness to forgive.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was never intended to be religious in nature, but the presence of Bishop Tutu and the way perpetrators confessed their atrocities and received amnesty made it a distinct religious undertaking.
The undisputed fact is that, in the words of Adam Hamilton, without forgiveness our world is left with vengeance and retribution and our future is bleak.
The sermon on this petition, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” was Helmut Thielicke’s last sermon in the Third Reich. The Allies liberated Stuttgart shortly thereafter. He was very much aware that his world, against the backdrop of the Second World War was arranged in this manner: “Men are always looking for the guilt in others, not only in our personal life but also in the life of nations, and that, for example, after the great wars, the peace treaties are always based upon the guilt of the other side, and that therefore they always have the character of peace of revenge and thus evoke a fresh desire for revenge. This is the avalanche of guilt that keeps swelling and growing in the history of nations and individuals. The principle of retaliation goes into operation: you hit me and I hit you, and the petty offense swells and condenses into a poisonous atmosphere that can settle down upon a house, upon whole clans and whole continents. So, the endless screw of guilt goes on turning, generating retaliation that leaps from one pole to the other and back again. Our world will never find peace, neither nations, nor individuals in their private and vocational lives as long as only the cry for vengeance is heard among us and as long as we are not ready for reconciliation”.
The Heidelberg Catechism answers the question, what is the sixth petition as follows: “Forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors” means: Because of Christ’s blood, do not hold against us, poor sinners that we are, any of the sins we do or the evil that constantly clings to us. Forgive us just as we are fully determined, as evidence of your grace in us, to forgive our neighbors”.
This petition strikes at the heart of the Gospel. The Bible shows that from the very beginning there was resistance to the goodness of God’s creation – we encounter fratricide in the early chapters of Genesis when Cain kills his brother Abel. Cain says in 4:14: “I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth and anyone who meets me may kill me”. And in verse 24 we read: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold Lamech is avenged seventy-seven-fold.” The vicious cycle started. Blood feuds, revenge and retaliation soon became accepted way.
Human story goes exactly as we all know it – violence and vengeance, retribution and retaliation, rivalry and revenge, anger and aggression, grievance, and axes to grind – escalating without any limitation.
How would this cycle ever be broken? The natural and trusted way of trying to break this vicious cycle is to react harsher and crueler, with bitterness, acrimony, and animosity.
Conventional wisdom is that the way to peace is through the barrel of a gun. Our military spending is $800 billion per year. In 2021, global military spending reached $2.1 trillion. To see this in perspective: According to the Borgen-Project it would cost $45 billion per year until 2030 to eradicate global hunger. Add another $150 billion a year and everyone would have access to clean water. But, let us face it and let us admit it: It will not happen, we cannot break the cycle!
We don’t have it in us to start anew and establish a better cycle. We are trapped and we are prisoners of our own nature. We are guilty, we are indebted, enslaved by sins. We constantly miss the target (the Greek word for sin literally means to miss the mark or the target), and as a species, we keep doing the same over and over. We have become slaves of this cycle.
So, what then are we to say? Is this our destiny? Are we like the proverbial rats running on the never-ending treadmill of revenge and retaliation? Is it possible to escape this dire situation, this prison of sin and debt, the cycle of revenge, retaliation, and reprisal?
The short answer is: We can’t do it ourselves! We need a new beginning, we need a convincing example, a substitute, a gentle and generous benefactor to step and break the cycle, pay the debt, and correct the wrong. And this is where forgiveness comes in.
The meaning of the Greek word for forgiveness is fascinating: It literally means “release” “surrender” or “leave in peace.” There are instances when it means “amnesty”. At times the word means “liberation.” As the word evolves, the meaning in the NT applies to God who forgives us in Jesus Christ. We receive God’s peace, we receive “amnesty”, and we are “liberated” from powers and burdens that enslave us. In his person and actions, Jesus shows that God is indeed merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. In Matthew 1:21 we read: “She will bear a son, and you are name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”. And the Word that became flesh, who is one with the Father, teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our debts!” He teaches us to approach the holy God as our Parent and ask for forgiveness for he knows that it is through forgiveness that the terrible cycle can be broken. It is through the act of forgiveness that God starts new with us. It is the divine act of forgiveness that reconciles human beings with God. God’s forgiveness lifts the the heavy, intolerable burden of debt and sins, and liberates people. By the wonderous and marvelous act of liberation, God lifted Israel’s yoke of slavery in Egypt. Now God does so again, liberating us from the yoke of sins.
Now let me be clear: Forgiveness is not a unique Christian concept. Non-Christians understand the power of forgiveness. They are sometimes more able and willing to forgive than Christians. However, forgiveness as a Christian concept and practice are unique in so far as the source of forgiveness is rooted in God and God’s willingness to forgive us. God is willing to forgive because God is moved by God’s divine love of humankind! “God’s love is revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). Through Jesus we receive the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation. Through him the terrible burden of sin and guilt is lifted. Jesus not only shows us a way to break this violent cycle of retaliation and revenge, he, by giving himself, by sacrificing himself, becomes the new way, the gate through which we can go to be part of this novel life. Life, that is new is frankly a bit strange: One is now willing to turn the other cheek instead of hitting back. It is a life that does not abide by the long-practiced philosophy of an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth. It is a life that is guided by love and not hate. The forgiveness of sin and the removal of life-sapping guilt, and debts, restore harmony between God and creature. It is in Christ’s name that we can find peace for our souls, purpose in our lives, and joy in our relationship with others.
Immanuel did the devotional at our staff meeting on Thursday morning. He referred to Wolfgang Dietrich who said that Suende is Spielvergessenheit, sin makes us forget how to play. Dietrich also said: Suende is das Groesste Spielverderben, Sin is the greatest spoiler of our play. I think it is in order to build on Dietrich’s idea: Sin spoils relationships. Sin robs us from joy and the ability to play and to be light-hearted. Sin changes a play-friend into an enemy.
God’s forgiveness in Christ restores and reconciles. Through God’s forgiveness we are reconciled with God, we are God’s friends, siblings of Christ We now can play with friends, we find joy in life, we are able to laugh, leap, play, and prosper.
Forgiveness is the metaphorical spiritual stem-cells that regenerate, restore, and heal. As the Apostle Paul says: “Even when we were dead through our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ -by grace you have been saved-and raised us up with him …. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God… we are what he has made us, created in Christ for good works….” (from Eph. 2:5-10). God did this and that is why we pray “Forgive us our debts.” Forgiveness reconciles us with God, transforms us, raises us as new beings, reshape our worldview, and restores us. The prayer of redemption, Forgive us our debts” causes us, in the words of Helmut Thielicke, “to open our innermost hearts and commit to the gracious hands of God every dreadful thing within them. But when it does that it also burst open the doors to the innermost chambers and secrets of our whole world and everything. God comes to meet us and clasps us to God’s breast because we come with our brother Jesus Christ. Jesus’ cross falls like a bridge across the chasm”.
The questions then is: “What now?” Helmut Thielicke says it best: “In the Christian faith nothing remains shut up in the ghetto of inner life. Everything in it immediately thrusts out and seeks to become an action. At the next moment God always puts us to work. In other words, what we ourselves have experienced in forgiveness immediately demands to become effective in our relationship with our neighbor. When God is generous and forgives us ten thousand talents, we cannot be petty unforgiving servants and raise a fuss about a few dollars our neighbor owes us”. This is what Matthew 18:21-35 teaches us. Peter approaches Jesus. How many times do we have to forgive? 7 times? That seems like a fair number, does it not? But then Jesus says: 77 times or most likely 70 X 7. The main focus point is that Jesus is referring to Genesis 4:24: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold Lamech is avenged seventy-seven-fold”. In Genesis it is about unlimited and out-of-control revenge. Jesus provides here an alternative. How many times ought we forgive? Neither seventy-seven times, nor 70 times 7, that is 539 times. No, the meaning is clear: There is, there should be no limits on forgiveness. It is by and through forgiveness that the world is reset to be what God wants it to be. The following parable underlines this truth. And to this day, the reader feels the perverse nature of the unforgiving servant. He who was forgiven so much, how is possible that he is not willing to forgive? It is through forgiveness that the world is liberated from the constant and vicious circle of revenge, guilt, sin, retaliation, and violence. It is through forgiveness that new life starts. The willingness to forgive reveals the goodness of God. How can we, who have been forgiven not extend forgiveness to others? “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Amen.