The Big 'As'
Sunday, 28 July 2019 08:30
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us (Luke 11:4)
When I started training for Readership one of the first things I did was take the readings in church. Back in those days, in Dryfesdale, we were still using the King James Version and it was tricky enough finding my way round all the thees and thous, but there was one reading I dreaded getting. The reading for Pentecost. It’s filled with the names of different peoples - Cappadocians, Phrygians, Pamphylians - and getting them all right is tricky; especially if, like me, you tend to talk quickly. The Bible is full of words and names like that. Mind you, it’s a great source of passwords for your computer.
Then I went on to study theology during my training and I found a whole new set of big, scary words like soteriology, theodicy, eschatology. I used to put them in essays fearing that I was going to mix them up. Big scary words. Do you want to know what I think is the biggest, scariest word in all of Christianity? ‘As’.
There it is, at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer. We say it every week. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” To an extent the modern form of the Lord’s Prayer is beginning to grow on me because he word ‘debts’ has a much more limited meaning in English than, perhaps, it used to. We tend to think about debt as owing someone money. The word in the Greek, though, means ‘sins’. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
I want take a minute to think how big the word ‘as’ is here. Look at the rest of the Lord’s Prayer and it’s probably pretty standard stuff for the time - pretty standard as to how, sometimes, we still think of prayer: praise God and ask him for stuff - hallowed be your name; give us, this day, our daily bread. Forgive us our sins - and then the kicker: “as we forgive those who sin against us.” With that simple word Jesus is suggesting to us that we have no business, no right, to ask more forgiveness from God than we are prepared to offer to folk who have hurt us, caused us hardship or grief. But that’s the sense of ‘as’ that comes from Matthew’s rendition of the prayer
It’s a pretty big ‘as'. But it’s actually even more striking than that in Luke’s version which we heard today. The word translated as ‘as’ is, in Greek, “gar” and that means ‘as’ in the sense of ‘for’ or ‘because’. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are asking God to forgive our sins and claiming that we forgive those who sin against us. Do we? Do we forgive those who hurt us, cause us hardship and grief, as fully as God forgives us?
That’s a big ‘as'. None of us is perfect. None of us gets through this life without messing up. We, all of us, we all say things, think things, do things that are wrong and we know, deep down, that they’re wrong. We lie to protect ourselves sometimes. We lash out at someone when we’re tired or stressed or feeling bitter. We cast our vote in the secrecy of the polling station in a way that benefits ourselves but will make other people’s lives harder. We harden our hearts to those who threaten our status, our living standards or who may make demands on our consciences.
Yet all of that, God forgives through the Cross of Jesus Christ if we just accept that we aren’t perfect - that we need that forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus is asking us to pass that forgiveness on to those who have hurt us to the same degree as God forgives us. That’s a pretty big ‘ s' there. It’s maybe intimidating. Maybe we think we’re too imperfect. Maybe we’ve got total depravity and we can’t do that. But maybe, too, if we try and fail God forgives those failures. Isn’t that the Gospel?
Maybe that’s why Jesus starts this prayer with the words ‘Our Father’. This is about relationships - family relationships. I’ve been a Dad now for twenty-five years now. There have been times when Christopher has absolutely done my nut in. There have been times when I have been so angry with him, but there is nothing I haven’t forgiven him. Sue and I have been married for a little longer. I doubt there’s a long-lasting marriage in the world where one partner hasn’t caused the other pain and hurt and grief even. Yet, somehow, we forgive and let go of it.
How? The other big and scary word in Christianity: love. The capacity we have as human beings to care for one another, to feel that we belong with one another, to insist that someone else aside from ourselves matters - maybe more than we do. There, right there, is what the Cross of Jesus Christ is all about. What the big ‘as' in the Lord’s Prayer is all about is widening the circle of family - about seeing that all humanity are children of one Father and learning to forgive one another as freely as God forgives us.
Maybe more than that. According to Paul we are meant to live our lives rooted in Christ. Christ in who God came into the world as a human being - a human being that knew all the weaknesses you and I experience, that knew all the temptations you and I feel drawn to succumb to, that knew fear and hurt and want and loss and grief to exactly the degree you and I know them. Jesus is God’s promise and God’s challenge to humanity.
He is God’s challenge to be his children, made in his image as surely as he made himself in our image in Christ. If we believe that God is just, then the challenge is to insist on justice in the world we live in - to insist that the poor and the homeless and the refugee have a place in the communities we live in: that they have a right to shelter and food and a welcome that recognises that they belong as our brothers and sisters
If we believe that God is truth then we should be ready to face down the easy lies of a society that peddles the idea that we are nothing more than consumers of products or biological machines and that we should be ready to hate when we’re told to hate and march to the beat of the drums of war without question. We should be ready to insist that we are children of God and precious beyond measure - and so are those we are told to call our enemies.
If we believe the first words of the Lord’s Prayer then we are children of God. We are called to live as children of God in the world. To be as forgiving as God. To be as just as God. To be as truthful as God. That’s the big as. Yes it’s daunting. Yes it’s scary. But it’s the biggest challenge in the world. Know why? Because we’re going to fail. We all are - that’s the point of the Cross.
You and I, we have nothing to fear. If we’ve tried to be as forgiving as God and not managed we can bring that failure to God and find forgiveness. If we’ve tried to be as just as God and not managed we can bring that failure to God and find forgiveness. If we’ve tried to exemplify God’s truth and not managed we can bring that failure to God and find forgiveness.
But that forgiveness comes with a challenge. The challenge to leave those failures behind and to grasp what that simple word, ‘as’, is getting at: to see that, deep down, we are made in the image of God, meant to live in this world as children of God
Father, forgive us when we are less than we are meant to be. Forgive us when we fail to see the challenge you set us in in your Son. Forgive us and re-inspire us to live as your children
Preached at Gretna: St Andrew's