The Martyrdom of the 5th Petition
The theme for tonight's look at the Lord's Prayer is "As not Because," but that theme doesn't expose how in particular we martyr "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." We martyr this petition by the twin sins of pride and despair.
Our pride won't let us have sins that need forgiving. I said sins, but you know in the Lord's Prayer we say trespasses following the 1526 Tyndale translation of the Bible into English. Others say "forgive us our debts" following Matthew 6. But regardless of whether you think of wrongdoing as trespasses, debts, or sins, we don't want to admit them. Though we confess on Sundays to being miserable sinners deserving of temporal and eternal punishment and though in our Catechism we say "we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment," that's not really us.
Have you ever forgotten to pay a debt you really owed? Remember that feeling? Have you ever had a debt hanging over your head that you couldn't wait to get out from under? So how come you don't feel that way about your sins against God or man? If you're a real Texan, you know that just about the worst thing you can do is trespass. Ever gotten caught on another person's land, fishing another man's tank? Yet you trespass against another person's spouse with your lusting and you trespass against God's reign and rule by worrying about things under His control and trusting your strength and wisdom rather than His.
Okay so we sin, but it's not that big of a deal to us. It's not big enough for most people to go to church every Sunday for forgiveness. Sin is not a big enough deal to feel like a debt or a trespass, and it's certainly not serious enough to make us unworthy or undeserving for what we pray for. In other words are sins aren't serious enough for God's kingdom not to come, His saving will not be done, or for God to take our daily bread from us. Oh, but they are; they are.
We don't think they are because we do our best like Peter. Rather than confessing the sin of deserting Him in Gethsemane, Peter boldly followed Jesus right into the enemy camp and plopped himself down in the middle of them. After denying Jesus once, Peter stayed and tried again. Even after denying Jesus twice, Peter was determined not to do that again, but he did. And so do you. You think you're not that big of a sinner because you try so hard not to be. You try and try again not to worry, to curse, to profane God's Word, not to lust, steal, lie or be greedy, and when you fall you get up and do it again because you're the great pretender, pretending not to be a sinner.
We martyr this petition not only by our unwillingness to be sinners but by our unwillingness to forgive others. I don't sincerely forgive others let alone gladly do good to those who sin against me; do you? Doesn't the "as" clause sometimes stick in your throat? John Cassian circa 400 A.D. spoke of how people would silently omit this petition when the Lord's Prayer was chanted for fear that their own prayer would condemn them rather than forgive them. He said they didn't understand it is useless to try to quibble with the Judge of all (NPNF, 11, 395). We do. We confess in the Large Catechism. "If, therefore, you do not forgive, then do not think that God forgives you" (III, 95).
Others think that not speaking about something is the same as forgiving it. Their spouse, friend, co-worker, sibling, parent, or child has wronged them, and when the wrongdoer brings it up to apologize, they say, "We're not going to speak about that." They're not forgiving; they're trying to forget, but as Steinbeck said, "When a man says he does not want to speak of something he usually means he can think of nothing else" (East of Eden, 300).
In practice, do you know how most of us martyr this petition? By praying, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who apologize" (Mark of a Man, 138). Yup, I heard Peter apologize before Jesus forgave him? I heard Paul apologize before Jesus forgave him for murdering Christians. And when the soldiers where nailing Jesus to the cross, I heard them saying, "Hey we're sorry for this." I heard no such thing. Did you? If you think you have a right to wait for an apology before forgiving someone you're sinfully mistaken. By failing to forgive you are, as an old Puritan saying has it, destroying the bridge across which God's forgiveness comes to you (Healing Life's Hurts, 101).
Our pride martyrs this petition because we won't be sinners and we won't forgive sins against us; our despair does the killing in 2 other ways. The first is when we think our forgiveness of others causes God to forgive us. Terrible things happen to people. You think child abuse, sexual abuse, but there are others that that are equally unimaginably unforgivable. And if such a horror rises before you every time you pray this prayer, you won't get past it and you'll go away in despair because you'll be carrying not only your sins but their sins against you.
Lack of forgiveness can and does destroy the bridge by which God's forgiveness comes to you, but your forgiveness doesn't, can't build it. Start here. Don't start with what you're unable to forgive. Start with what God forgives. Start with the bridge God built while you and I we're still ungodly, enemies of His. Start with this Passion reading.
In the Passion reading is the only One who has ever forgiven perfectly. Though He is true God, He is also true Man, and He was stabbed by every lie told against Him. He was hurt when Peter denied Him. His cheek really stung when slapped and His face really felt the spit and His tongue really tasted the sweat and blood. And yet Jesus forgave all that. Forgave them while they were still ungodly, enemies of His as Romans 5 says. "While we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly." "While we were enemies we were made God's friends."
You have to see this text from both sides now. Jesus is actively obedient in place of all people by forgiving the unforgivable, but He is also passively obedient by suffering what we deserve to suffer for our failure to forgive. Before God's judgment throne not only is the person who sinned against us guilty, but so are we for our sins. But on Jesus all sins were laid, put, piled, and heaped. And every indignity, shame, pain, every judgment for your trespasses, every payment for your debts or anyone else's was paid by Jesus.
I have this note in my files. It's labeled anonymous. "A man comes to his pastor and says, I can never forgive my wife.' Well of course not,' [the pastor replies]. But that is not what matters. What matters is that Jesus has forgiven her, that He went through Calvary for her. And now your struggle is to let His forgiveness for her matter for you.'"
I think that's a good way of putting it. The suffering, sighing, sweating, and bleeding I see Jesus going through tonight was for that friend who denied me, was for that person who abused me, was for that co-worker who betrayed me, that parent who hurt me, that child who spit in my face. I can't deny it. Jesus suffered and died for all. Jesus has forgiven them no less than the church leaders who beat him and the disciples who forsook Him. Does Jesus forgiveness of them matter for me?
Don't answer that yet. We martyr this petition when we despair because we think our forgiveness causes God's forgiveness, and we martyr it when we despair because we can only think of sins we have a hard time forgiving and can't ever imagine being able to. Well, no disciple ever imagined he could walk on water, heal the sick, cast out demons, or raise the dead until Jesus gave him the miraculous power to do so.
And how does the Lord give us the miraculous power to forgive the unforgivable so as to free us from the sins of others that bind us probably more than they do the persons who sinned against us? Not by the Law telling us what we are to do, how we are to think, or what steps we are to take to get rid of this hurt. What frees is the Truth says Jesus and the Truth is the Gospel, and the Lord's Prayer is Gospel.
Jesus teaches us to forgive AS we have forgiven others, so cease and desist from thinking of that person who abused you, hurt you, bedeviled you. No, no, you are to think of the sins that you easily forgive, that are no big deal that you have no problem letting go of. Think of the toddler who was horrified at the broken vase and you forgave and actually felt bad that he continued to feel bad. That's how God forgives all your sins; that's how easily and completely God for Jesus' sake lets them go. Let your worse sin ever float up before your eyes in all its ugliness, wretchedness, baseness, and vileness and then hear Jesus saying, "O that; I forgive you; you are free."
Go from the sins and sinners you easily forgive to seeing that is how easily and completely Jesus has sent all your sins away. And then note how we explain this petition. We begin saying that our heavenly Father does not look at our sins or deny our prayer because of them. We end saying, "So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us." Don't put at the beginning what belongs at the end. Don't put sanctification before justification. Don't put your forgiving others before being completely forgiven. Based on the oceanful of forgiveness that God has for you in Jesus' name you certainly have more than a cup or two for others.
Both Peter and Judas murdered this petition which Jesus had taught them both to pray. Peter did so with pride. Pride that if he kept on trying he wouldn't be a sinner; pride that those other good for nothing disciples who hadn't followed him and John into the high priest's courtyard sure didn't deserve to be forgiven. Judas killed this petition out of despair. Despair that he could never be forgiven for such a devilish, satanic, demonic act as betraying his Lord and Savior. Rather than bury the martyred petition of forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, let the Law bury our pride and the Gospel resurrect us from despair, so that we go forth from here with far more forgiveness than we have sins. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek III (20140319); Passion Reading 3, Lord's Prayer 5th Petition