Sunday, March 15, 2015

Forgiven is Forgiving: The Lord's Prayer, part V

Isaiah 1:14-20
Colossians 3:12-17
Mark 11:22-26

“To forgive is [for you] to set a prisoner free and [then] discover you yourself were the prisoner.”  Laurence Stern, 18th-century Anglican clergy

“Forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors.”  Matthew 6:12 NRSV

Christian theology is impossible to understand if taken in ‘sound bites’ (bumper sticker slogans and Bible verses removed from context).  Jesus’ statement in Mark’s Gospel is a case in point: “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.”  11:24 

Who has not prayed for things that have nothing to do with the Kingdom of Heaven or the Church?  Personal wealth?  A particular job?  A certain love?  Healthy children?  The sparing of a loved one’s life?  An argument can be made that the Kingdom could shine in such circumstances, but it is doubtful we would even care about the Kingdom or the Church since our initial prayer request was made for purely self-serving reasons; no evil purpose as we understand evil, but no Kingdom purpose, either.  Still, Jesus does not offer a caveat here.  In fact there seems to be no condition at all except to “believe you have received it”.

Socially- and self-aware Christians will pray often for forgiveness; because it truly can be said that at the end of any given day, if we are willing to be honest with ourselves, there is always something we need to be forgiven for – a harsh thought, a cross word, repeating gossip or unsubstantiated rumors, denying a stranger a charitable request.  Yet if we “have no doubt in [our] hearts … [our forgiveness] will be done.” 

Well, not exactly.  The one thing we Christians are pretty good at is embracing and talking about (but not necessarily sharing) The Lord’s “unconditional love” … for me.  My personal Savior is eager, waiting, and willing to forgive … ME … so much so that I don’t really even need to ask since The Lord’s love “for me” is unconditional.  And since Jesus’ blood is our Atonement, there is nothing we need to atone for.  Taking something that clearly is not mine?  No need to confess or return it since that may create more problems for “me”.  All is forgiven.

Well, not quite.  Jesus throws a curve: “If you stand praying, forgive if you have anything against anyone – so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (vs 25-26 NRSV).  In NKJV it is written: “If you do not forgive, neither will your Father forgive you.”

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus denies our offering of a gift to The Lord: “If you remember someone has something against you (knowing you’ve deliberately set out to hurt someone), leave your gift [at the altar], go make peace, and then come back to offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Either way, it seems clear that no matter how deeply we believe in and desire (or expect) our own forgiveness, Jesus does not let us off the hook so easily.  As with most other of the commandments of the Law, not only does Jesus not “do away with the Law” (Matthew 5:17) – He raises the bar on the standards of the Law! 

It is no longer simply “committing” adultery as a purely physical act that violates The Lord’s Moral Law; it is thinking lustful thoughts!  It is no longer simply murder as the literal taking of another life; it is having a genuine hatred in one’s heart for another.  We still have “enemies”, but we are now compelled to pray for and bless these potential friends!

It has been said: “If you find Christianity easy, you have not found Christ.”  Because if Jesus is the perfection and the example of what the Moral Law calls from us – and He must be – there can be nothing easy about it.  Wholly possible, but not easy.  And forgiving someone who has deeply hurt us – even when they have not apologized or made a move to make it right – is the single most difficult challenge we face as Christians, as humans! 

Can it be said, then, that The Lord finds it difficult to forgive us when we are acting unforgivably or unrepentantly?  Judging by Jesus’ words, it appears we create a barrier within ourselves that can actually prohibit Divine forgiveness – “forgive … so that your Father may also forgive you”.  So it may be our intentional and deliberate refusal to forgive others creates a less-than-fertile field in which no good seed can be planted, let alone grow.  Jesus says we have to do this thing for others so that another, much greater thing can be done for us.

Actually it IS said that if we will not forgive others, The Lord will not forgive us.  “Will”.  That small but powerful word which indicates not a capacity but an allowance.  We have it within us by the power of the Holy Spirit to do impossible things (our spiritual capacity) like “move a mountain” or even love an enemy; but a stubborn and closed mind, a willful pride, a heart of stone, an arrogant faith will not allow us to do what must be done.  We have the capacity, but we will (freely choose) not to exercise that capacity.  Thus in our deliberate refusal, we spiritually hobble ourselves by indicating we do not care for The Lord’s forgiveness since we do not care to forgive others.  We remain in our own self-imposed “prison”.

Yet we often have the gall to declare, “Christians are not perfect; only forgiven.”  This cheap “bumper sticker slogan” is a blatant denial of Jesus’ commandment to pursue “perfection” (Matthew 5:48), and is also a defiance of Jesus’ admonition that if it is truly forgiveness we seek, it is forgiveness we must offer.  “You shall be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”.

There are clearly spiritual enemies we must keep a safe distance from, those who have repeatedly by word and deed declared themselves to be enemies of the Gospel and the Church – even those “wolves in sheep’s clothing” who insist on their Christian faith in spite of their unholy vindictiveness.  So if there are those we are to keep a safe distance from due to their deliberate hostility to the Word of The Lord, how are we any less hostile to The Word if we defy that Word and deny its applicability to us?

In the end it must be said and acknowledged that to be a “forgiven” person, one must become a “forgiving” person - for these are two sides of the same coin.  At the risk of beating a dead horse, the depth of The Lord’s Prayer involves much more than merely saying the words.  This Prayer must become for us the deepest expression of our own inmost desire – in this case, not only to be forgiven but to also be given a heart willing to forgive that which we had previously declared unforgivable.  We must never bring that curse upon ourselves.

Before The Lord’s Prayer can mean anything to us at all, we must be able and willing to understand, embrace, and abide by its deepest meaning; and the only way to come to this level of spirituality is to dig deeply, ask constantly, seek fervently, and knock incessantly.  It is the assurance of our Lord that forgiveness can be found when we find it within us to forgive, no matter the harm or the depth of the wound.  There are far greater things being offered to us than whatever perverted satisfaction we may think we gain from holding a grudge.  Now is the time to find out what it is.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Let it be so, Lord.  Amen.

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