Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There was good news in the American press this past week According to the latest study by the Pew Research Center released on August 31st, “US Catholics and Protestants agree: 500 years after the Reformation, they have more in common than not.” That’s quite an achievement, though I am not sure that we have moved beyond playful Lutheran-Catholic musings yet. There are still those who would joke that, “Catholics glorify Mary, and Lutherans glorify rice.” And others would say, how many Lutherans does it take to light a fire? Depends on what they are burning. Even Pope Francis enjoyed this gentle bantering. Last year when a delegation from the Lutheran Church in Germany visited the Vatican, one theology student asked the Pope what he liked and did not like about the Lutheran Church. Pope Francis replied, “I really like the good Lutherans, the Lutherans who follow the true faith of Jesus Christ.” Then he added, “However, I do not like lukewarm Catholics, nor do I like lukewarm Lutherans.”
Yes, half a millennium after the fundamental disagreement over the means of salvation and forgiveness sparked a series of bloody wars in Europe, most American Protestants now say that the two Christian traditions are more similar than different. In fact in 1999, the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity issued the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” that said, “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.”
Unfortunately, what people believe and what they practice are two different things. You see, in spite of what the two churches profess, more Protestants in America, 52% were reported to believe that salvation comes through a mixture of faith and good works rather than by “by faith in God’s grace alone.” This was actually the medieval Roman Catholic Church teaching, which sparked the Protestant Reformation. So this morning, as we near the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Thesis, I would like us to turn to the second of the five principles of the Reformation. Sola gratia- we are saved by God’s grace alone.
In this morning’s gospel the apostle Peter raises the age old question, “How many times must I forgive my neighbor?” This was not the first time that the disciple had been challenged by Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. It first happened on the northern regions of the Holy Land. A group of religious leaders dragged a prostitute out in front of the Jesus and demanded that he pass judgment on her. Jesus knew the Law of Moses which prescribed that she be “stoned to death.” But Jesus confronted his disciples and the religious leaders by saying, “Whoever is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” They looked at each other, opened their clenched hands, and dropped their rocks. As they walked away, Peter watched Jesus turn to the woman and say to her, “I forgive you. Go and sin no more.”
It happened again as Jesus was seated with his disciples sitting on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee together with thousands of other listeners. It was the occasion that would be known as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus quoted from the Torah and said, “It is written, Love your neighbor and hate your enemies.” Peter nodded with all the others in affirming agreement, but then Jesus went on to say, “But I say unto you, love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. And then you will be children of your Father in heaven.” After Jesus had finished and the crowds had disbursed, Peter did not rush up to his master and congratulate him on a noble sermon. He did not begin to ask the deep theological questions which were churning inside him. Instead, he simply thought to himself. “Does this mean that I am to love the Samaritan, or the Roman soldier? Am I supposed to love the Gentile nation which has enslaved my land? Or worse yet, am I to love and forgive the neighbor down the street who has said such terrible things about me? No doubt these and many other incidents echoed in Peter’s mind when he finally dared to speak to Jesus about forgiveness.
Frankly, it’s the way we all approach the topic. Forgiveness is rarely a one-time event. The same people, often the ones we love, disappoint us over and over again. They beg for forgiveness, but it doesn’t seem authentic. We want to see some deed, some act, some changed behavior to merit the gift of forgiveness. Ever since the beginning of time, men and women have asked, “But really when is enough, enough?’ When do we move to the next stage, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth?”
And so Peter came to Jesus asking. “How many times shall I forgive my brother?” Peter, however, didn’t wait for an answer. He already had one. He said, “Seven times?” He knew what the Rabbis taught. You had to forgive a man three times and then you could retaliate. So Peter thought to himself, “Well, I’ll just double that and add one.” And Jesus answered Peter, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy seven times.” Peter couldn’t believe it. Did Jesus truly mean that forgiveness was to be unlimited?
Jesus then told the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. A servant owed his master, the king the equivalent of the $10 million dollars. It was a debt impossible for either the man or his family to pay. Surprisingly, when the servant pleaded with the king to have patience, the king was moved and stunningly forgave the debt, and allowed the servant to go free. Moments later that very same servant, who had experienced such a grand gesture of grace and mercy, came upon a fellow servant who owed him the sum of just two days wages. He grabbed him by the neck and demanded he pay his debt. When he begged him to have mercy, the first servant threw him to prison. Needless to say, the other servants were shocked, and they reported this act of disrespect and pettiness to the king. Though the servant had once been freed from his debt, he suddenly discovered that the king has changed his sentence, and he was now imprisoned and tortured.
The parable teaches us that we can only forgive others to the extent that we grasp the magnitude of how much we believe that we have been forgiven. Those who have been forgiven little, will forgive little in others. Your willingness to forgive is in direct proportion to your remembrance of how much you have been forgiven. And as long as you feel entitled to God’s salvation by your own works, you will not seek his mercy, not for yourself- nor for others. And most surprising, as you count your own good deeds, it will be impossible for you to accept that God has forgiven you, not because you deserve it or your tried harder, or that you earned it, but it will be hard for you to accept God’s grace and forgiveness simply because that is his nature. As Martin Luther said on his death bed, “We are beggars. This is true.” Indeed, we must discover that we are all great sinners greatly forgiven.
Now you may be wondering: So where do you begin to experience God’s power of grace and forgiveness? I would say it begins in confession and prayer. Simply said, you must discover God’ grace by counting our own failings, your causes of sorrow and pain. You begin by stating what is heavy on your heart. Is there a broken relationship in which you have blamed “irreconcilable differences?” How did a lack of forgiveness play a part in the collapse of the relationship? What hurt from the past still causes you pain? How can forgiveness help you move forward? Sometimes we want to hold on to an idea, a place, a particular sin, or a bad relationship, simply because it ours and it’s all we know. Asking God for his forgiveness is about letting go of the pettiness which is keeping your hands closed.
And then you must walk that well-worn path to the place beneath the cross of Jesus on Calvary. Only a handful of Jesus’ followers heard his voice that long, Friday afternoon. They watched as he was crucified, and suffered on the cross. They saw Jesus’ lips begin to tremble. Suddenly, the crowd was silent. They were trying to hear what he was mumbling. “Is he cursing us?” shouted the High Priest. “Is he begging for mercy?” laughed one of the Roman soldiers. “Maybe he is calling on his heavenly Father to send down lightning bolts from heaven to strike us all dead,” sneered one of the Pharisees. But they were all mistaken. For Jesus was neither cursing, begging nor threatening. What he was saying was, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Forgiveness is the ultimate new beginning, and it is it by God’s mercy alone that you can begin. For when you glimpse in Jesus’ death upon the cross his great love for you, and his decision to pay the price to make you free, your resistance to offering forgiveness to others seems rather petty.
As Lutherans, even after 500 years, we may not always get our theology right. A Pastor was teaching his confirmation class about the sacraments of the church when he noticed that Johnny was not paying attention in the back. He decided he would call the boy out in order to get him to start paying attention. “Johnny,” he cried. Johnny looked up. “Pay attention, the sacraments are very important to the church.” Johnny said. “I know.” The pastor asked, “Then how many sacraments are there in the Lutheran church?” Johnny panicked and thought of what his parents considered very important in church. Then he took a breath and replied, “Two.” The pastor was impressed, he could not believe he got it right. “And what are those two sacraments?” he asked. Confident now that he had it right, Johnny replied, “Coffee and potlucks.”
Saved by God’s grace and made holy by his love, may be difficult to grasp. Forgiveness is not easy. But God’s grace allows us to begin anew on the path rich in blessing, and when we learn to forgive others we allow them to become our companions on that road together. As Luther wrote, “We too, truly want to forgive heartily and to do good gladly to those who have sinned against us.” Forgiveness, in turn, leads to a life of good deeds for the sake of your neighbor. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.