April 9, 2018 Forgive and Be Forgiven- John 20:19-23, Luke 23:33-34, Matthew 11:25-30

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On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” John 20:19-23 (ESV)

So what could Jesus say to us today about forgiveness?

Most Protestant Christians, including Lutherans, don’t practice regular confession and absolution. Since every human alive is also a sinner, it might be a good practice for us to revisit. While Lutherans don’t view confession as a sacrament like Roman Catholics do, we are called to confess our sins and to hear the words of absolution proclaimed to us. When Pastor proclaims the forgiveness of our sins during corporate confession in worship, or in private confession, he is simply passing along the forgiveness and absolution that Jesus has already won for us.

It is not possible to go through life without being offended in some way or another. It is also not possible for us to go through life without offending others. We sin without thinking about it, all day long. We make comments, we forget to do things we should do, and we break the Law all day long whether we know it or not.  Other people do the same things to us that we do to them, because they are lawbreakers too.  We are iustus et peccator (saint and sinner at the same time) indeed.

Someone might cut us off while driving, or take the last donut that we really wanted. Those are fairly easy offenses to forgive.  Other offenses are not so easily forgiven.  Those of us who have suffered physical or emotional abuse, or have otherwise endured serious harm from another have a lot harder time forgiving.  If the petition of the Lord’s Prayer that affirms “Thy will be done” is the most difficult of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, the petition to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” is the second most difficult petition.  It’s not easy to let go of a grudge, even though it’s hard to see how hanging on to our angst against someone might somehow punish them in some way.  It’s like taking poison in the hopes of making one’s enemy ill.

Even though on examination we find holding a grudge doesn’t make rational sense, the pain of suffering from serious offenses is nothing to trivialize. Everyone who has spent much time on this planet in the company of other sinners is a member of the “walking wounded” to some degree.  Some of us suffer from unspeakable wounds both deep and profound.  How are we supposed to forgive the most evil of offenses?  Just ignoring things and failing to acknowledge our pain is not a valid answer. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or not feeling, rather it is a choice to let the offense go and to leave our pain and anger to God.  Sometimes we also have to seek other believers who can pray for and with us, and offer us spiritual and emotional care, as God ministers to us through the Body of Christ (as in other Jesus followers!)  We who have the same hope and the same Lord need to encourage each other and give each other strength. (1 Thessalonians 5:5-11)

We follow Jesus’ example when we forgive, Jesus who forgave His tormentors (as they were rolling the dice to divvy up His clothes,) even while He was enduring the unfathomable and unimaginable suffering of the Cross.

And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.  And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  And they cast lots to divide his garments. Luke 23:33-34 (ESV)

When we forgive as Jesus forgives us, not only are we forgiven, but He gives us His peace. Because He has taken the punishment that brings us peace, and bears the wounds that bring our healing (Isaiah 53:5) we can endure.  We can surrender the burden of our pain to Him.  We look to the Cross for our healing.

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:25-30 (ESV)

It may sound simplistic and silly to simply trust Jesus and surrender our sins, our burdens and our pain to Him. But it is only in Him- and in entrusting those who offend or “trespass against us” to Jesus. We look to the Author of our salvation to find forgiveness, healing and rest.

February 7, 2018- The Chief of Sinners, and the Only Savior- 1 Timothy 1:15-17, James 2:10, 1 John 1:9

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This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. 1 Timothy 1:15-17 (NKJV)

The apostle Paul has an interesting back story. Here was the Pharisee Saul, a guy with a reputation for killing Christians- who by the transforming power of God became the apostle Paul, who was arguably the most powerful and influential Christian thinker and writer of all time.

Paul ended up having to endure much for the sake of his faith in Jesus. He endured prison, persecution and according to historical tradition, (though not recorded in Scripture,) died as a martyr by beheading.

How many of us could claim to be Chief of Sinners? It’s a good bet all of us have some pretty long lists. Some translations of the verse above from 1 Timothy say, “Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” (NIV) or “of whom I am foremost.” (NRSV) It is the same message, just a bit less poetic.  If anyone is feeling sin-free (which is unlikely,) the apostle James reminds us that everyone who violates just one little teeny part of the Law violates all of it.

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. James 2:10 (NIV)

The title of Chief Sinner falls upon every one of us.

In the Lutheran tradition we tend not to be terribly overbearing on the sinner label, because we focus upon the grace of God in Christ, and that is a good thing.  If being a sinner were the end of it, then we would all be nothing more than the Chief of Sinners, just like Saul / Paul was, but without any hope of being transformed into saints of God.

Confession is indeed good for the soul, and it is for our own benefit to stay in conversation with God in prayer and meditation. Confession is one of the most difficult of the spiritual disciplines, but it is well worth the initial discomfort and squirminess. It is a good idea for us to confess to God and to a trusted believer who can pray for and with us, but it is God alone who forgives us.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 (NIV)

The interesting part of this is that God didn’t say, “I only forgive this, but not that.”  He says we are both forgiven and purified. Our God is far bigger than our sins and failures.  He can overcome anything.

Everyone who follows Jesus has the potential to transform the world around him or her. God can overcome our sorry back stories, our most tragic failures, and outright sins and work in and through us to encourage and inspire others.

Lent is coming soon. Lent is a season of penitence, but it isn’t about punishment. Lent should be seen as being cathartic- a time for getting rid of old garbage so we are free to take in what’s healthy and good and beneficial. Rather than seeing Lent just as a time of “giving up something,” why not see if the Holy Spirit would like us to take up something edifying for ourselves and others?   When we Chief Sinners confess our sins, and surrender ourselves to Jesus, we are forgiven and purified, set free for God’s purpose- so what does that mean in practical application?

October 24, 2017: The Office of the Keys: The Power of Intercession – 2 Chronicles 30:9, 17-20, Matthew 16:19, Luke 11:5-8

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For as you return to the Lord, your kindred and your children will find compassion with their captors, and return to this land. For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.” 2 Chronicles 30:9 (NRSV)

For there were many in the assembly who had not sanctified themselves; therefore the Levites had to slaughter the Passover lamb for everyone who was not clean, to make it holy to the Lord.  For a multitude of the people, many of them from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover otherwise than as prescribed. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “The good Lord pardon all who set their hearts to seek God, the Lord the God of their ancestors, even though not in accordance with the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.” The Lord heard Hezekiah, and healed the people. 2 Chronicles 30:17-20 (NRSV)

(Jesus, speaking to Simon Peter and a group of disciples): “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:19 (NRSV)

And he (Jesus) said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’  And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’  I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” Luke 11:5-8 (NRSV)

The Office of the Keys– which is the authority of average believers to forgive others and intercede for others- is probably one of the least understood concepts in Lutheran theology, but it is a radical twist from the traditional teaching of the church of Luther’s day.  While the church hierarchy taught that forgiveness had to be earned- or bought- and that forgiveness could only be granted by an ordained priest, according to the Bible, Jesus taught that the authority to forgive and to pray for others (binding and loosing) belongs to every believer.

Jesus also taught that we have the authority in Him to go directly to Him in prayer concerning our own needs. We can and should pray for each other as well, but we are welcome and invited to approach Him with anything and everything.

In prayer, God has a dialogue with us- He changes our hearts and minds to be in agreement with His will.

The idea that Jesus followers have the authority (not just ordained clergy, but everyday garden variety believers) to intercede for others is not a new idea. In the Old Testament, the prophets (such as Moses) and sometimes the kings (such as Hezekiah) stepped in for the people and asked God for mercy on the people’s behalf.  Today Jesus has expanded that authority to everyone- a concept known as the Priesthood of Believers.

Jesus encourages us to step in for others in prayer. He tells us to be persistent and not give up when we pray.  He tells us we have the power to forgive others which is another reason why confession is good for the soul, as it allows others to pray for us and intercede on our behalf.

Sometimes in the confusion and hopelessness in this world we find it hard to pray. We don’t know who to pray for or what their needs might be. We wonder if God hears our prayers at times.  Yet intercessory prayer is one of the most powerful ways that every Jesus follower can work to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.

“You must learn to call on the Lord. Don’t sit all alone or lie on the couch, shaking your head and letting your thoughts torture you. Don’t worry about how to get out of your situation or brood about your terrible life, how miserable you feel, and what a bad person you are. Instead, say, “Get a grip on yourself, you lazy bum! Fall on your knees, and raise your hands and eyes toward heaven. Read a psalm. Say the Lord’s Prayer, and tearfully tell God what you need.” – Martin Luther from Faith Alone, A Daily Devotional

Prayer is for all Jesus followers at all times, in all things. We are encouraged to come to Him no matter what troubles our hearts and minds.  We are encouraged to pray for others because our persistence in prayer may be the difference between God-life or hopelessness and despair for them.

The other part of this is that prayer and coming before God is more about one’s heart and motive than about following the rules. Anyone who has read the Ten Commandments knows it’s not possible to Follow the Rules one hundred percent.  Following the rules doesn’t make us fit to come before God- the fact that Jesus told us to come to Him as we are, in our fallibility and humanity and to trust Him does.

Jesus, Who first interceded on our behalf, asks us to pray for others and to forgive the way He forgives us. We were put here on this earth for a reason, which just might include being the difference for someone else.

March 17, 2017 – Light and Dark, Saint and Sinner – 1 John 1:5-10

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This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.  If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;   but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.   If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.   If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.   If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.  1 John 1:5-10 (NRSV)

While we as Jesus followers walk this earth we are Simul Iustus et Peccator – as Martin Luther put it in Latin. We are justified (Iustus) in Christ, but sinners (Peccator) at the same time (Simul) because we are still human, and we are still living in the “here now, but not yet.”

We live with one foot in the tangible earthly kingdom and one foot in the Kingdom of God. Paradox is not easy but it is part of our journey on this earth.

Time and time again in Scripture God is portrayed as being light, without darkness. Yet in our lives we see darkness all the time, all around us. We live in the darkness, and sometimes it’s hard for us to find a way out of the darkness.  When we live through illness or strained relationships or other difficulties it can be hard to see the light.

In our thought lives and actions we often have to choose to embrace the light and let the darkness go.  This is why we need to make time for prayer, for study, and for encouraging other believers.  We should seek to “put on our Baptism as daily wear.”  The gift of confession should be seen not as something scary or shameful, or even formal, but as a sanctuary, a blessing and a release.  In Christ we have the privilege to come to Him and let that darkness go, and let Him fill us with the light of the Holy Spirit.

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The good news of this teaching is that in knowing we are sinners and our only justification is in Christ alone, is that we are reminded of our reliance on God. We can’t walk in the light apart from Him. We look to Him – the true Light- to keep us from walking in the darkness.

Jesus is indeed the Light of the world, the Light that no darkness can overcome.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. – John 1:5 (NRSV)

And that is the Good News that a dark world needs to hear.