I understand that you [Grace Mennonite Church] are taking four Sundays to consider the Lord’s Prayer as it appears in Luke’s Gospel. That means that my focus this morning is on Jesus’ words here, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” I will begin by setting the context of the prayer in Luke, comment briefly on the prayer and the saying on prayer that follows, and then consider the idea of forgiveness as we have it here.
Luke’s Gospel divides naturally into the following sections: the first four chapters, culminating in Jesus’ beginning sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4); Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (chapters 4-9), which has miracles interspersed with some teaching; Jesus on the road to Jerusalem (chapters 9-19), which consists mostly of teaching, with some dramatic action; and finally the climax in Jerusalem (chapters 19-24), with the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.
This passage, then, comes near the beginning of “the road to Jerusalem”. Luke structures the Gospel so as to present much of Jesus’ teaching as a walk to Jerusalem. I am reminded of an Anglican catechism class described by Tom Sine in Mustardseed vs. McWorld. The class chose to do their instruction, leading up to confirmation, as they walked from London to Canterbury—a distance of about 70 miles. As they walked, they learned the catechism and concluded their instruction with the confirmation ceremony in the Canterbury Cathedral. A Japanese theologian (Kosuke Koyama) uses the phrase, “the three-mile an hour God”, God who walks with us at the ordinary pace of daily life. This is the God to whom we pray in this prayer.
The Context of the Prayer
Luke reminds us that Jesus prayed regularly and gave his disciples a pattern for prayer. Since this prayer (which we call the Lord’s Prayer) is that pattern, we can expect that he told them more than once. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives the prayer as part of the Sermon on the Mount talking about how to pray. Here, Jesus gives the prayer as a response to one of the larger group of disciples who were walking with him from Galilee to Jerusalem.
In Matthew Jesus introduces the prayer thus: “This, then, is how you should pray.” Here he says, “When you pray, say.” The difference in wording is unimportant, reflecting Luke and Matthew’s memories as well as the different occasions on which Jesus taught them to pray. The disciple’s question reminds me of how often we have to say the same things before everyone hears them—which is not the point of this prayer, but a daily reality in community life.
The saying after the prayer has to do with praying for results, so that you might say the prayer focusses on spiritual power, where Matthew’s context focusses more on the relationship that the disciples have with God. In this context, then, Jesus tells his disciples—and us—to pray persistently and thus also to receive God’s blessing.
Luke’s version of the prayer is quite brief, compared to Matthew’s account: “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.” The prayer begins with acknowledgment that God is God, and that our lives depend on God. Then follow three simple requests: 1) Meet our physical needs; 2) Meet our spiritual needs; 3) Protect us in a dangerous world.” We focus on the spiritual need for forgiveness.
Forgive, for we also forgive
We are more familiar with the prayer in Matthew, where Jesus says, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” There God’s forgiveness appears to depend on our response of forgiving others. Here our attitude of forgiveness appears to be the grounds that somehow require God also to forgive us: “Forgive us, because we are people who forgive.” The difference is again unimportant. We are sometimes inclined to read a real difference where we have simply a way of expressing oneself. This morning I use both forms of the prayer interchangeably, as the prayer speaks about forgiveness.
A couple of rabbit trails:
1) You notice that Luke records the prayers as “forgive us our sins; we forgive others what they owe us.” The idea of debt (here and in Matthew) is of a moral obligation, but it is interesting that Jesus calls what we do against God “sin”, and what others do against us a failure to meet an obligation. Another sermon might explore the concept of sin more fully. Here I note only that the basic idea of “sin” is that it is rebellion against God. To pray “Your kingdom come” while insisting on being in charge of our own lives is the essence of rebellion.
2) Matthew records the prayer as, “Forgive us … as we forgive others.” Luke records the prayer as, “Forgive us … for we forgive others.” The difference is not to suggest that we earn forgiveness, but rather to remind us that the refusal to forgive others can become the obstacle to receiving God’s forgiveness. Alan Kreider has observed that the early church insisted that people wanting to become Christians had to show the “fruit of repentance” before they were allowed to hear the gospel. A curious fact! (See The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom.)
“Forgive us,” we pray: God extends mercy. “For we also forgive”: We in turn are to extend mercy. One might express more fully thus: God treats us with kindness and mercy, which leads to a new life flowing in us and through us—expressed by treating those around us also with kindness and mercy. To put it more bluntly: God will treat us the way that we treat each other. I find this thought to be somewhat disturbing, because we often do not treat each other well.
Consider the following examples. I wonder what our world would be like, following the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, if George Bush would have prayed this prayer before each strategy meeting determining the American response: “Forgive us our sins, because we forgive others their sins.” Could we have found a response to Al Qaeda that pursued justice (for example, through the World Court in Hague), but did not embrace vengeance? Treating even our enemies with kindness and mercy would lead to a very different world.
I think of another situation. During his undergraduate work at a school I won’t name, one of my students at Providence rented rooms in the basement of a house owned by a professor of “peace and conflict studies”. There were three rooms in the basement, which shared a common eating and sitting area. He told me how he and the other two students renting the basement would sit there listening to the professor and his wife fighting upstairs. The irony: that someone who could teach others how to move towards peace could not live at peace himself in his own house.
Please note: the fact of strong disagreements is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we must speak up, wherever or whatever the situation. But one can fight well, in ways that move towards peace and in ways that reflect the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.
I think of other situations that most people here are fully familiar with. Following the gathering of MC Canada in Saskatoon, we know of strong disagreements across the conference to which we belong. Again, as with the peace and conflict professor and his wife, it is not bad that we disagree—even disagree strongly. But the principle stated in the Lord’s Prayer holds true: God will treat us the way that we treat each other.
Our forebears knew this truth well. Some years ago I sang in a choir with Rudy Schellenburg directing. Our concert consisted of Low German folk songs, including one, “Mein Noba Klassen.” The basic idea of the song was a complaint about my neighbour, Klassen, who kept borrowing things from me and breaking them. We sang fervently that we could never forgive this thoughtless, careless neighbour.
“Our neighbor is angry at me because I did not lend him my new ax.
He borrows all kinds of things from me, there doesn't seem to be any purpose in it.
The other day he borrowed my wagon,
Then immediately broke the axle in two.”
The sting in the song came in the tune, a well-known hymn tune. The hymn appears in our own Mennonite Hymnal as #524, “What mercy and divine compassion has God in Christ revealed to me.” We sang our bitterness and unforgiveness to a tune that reminded us of God’s undeserved mercy. And the principle holds true: God will treat us the way that we treat each other.
Judgment and Grace
I find this truth to be more than a little disconcerting. If God treats me the way that I treat my brothers and sisters, I may be in trouble. I pray the Lord’s Prayer every morning as a part of preparing to live each day. I have focussed on different aspects of the prayer at different times—sometimes the beginning formula, “Your name, Your reign, Your will.” Sometimes I focus on this morning’s verse: “Forgive us (me) as we (I) forgive.” I have tried to live faithfully by this principle, not holding others’ faults against them and lifting them up to God for God’s blessing. But of course I fail sometimes, as I suspect all of us do. A critical spirit creeps in. I begin to judge others and I get angry with them for their blindness. Perhaps the most obvious place I experience this spirit is when I argue with my American friends who inexplicably (to me) support Donald Trump. I can understand supporting some, even many, of his policies; but to support the man himself? And as I argue, I hear the Spirit quietly reminding me, “The way you treat these friends is the way God will treat you.”
Such a difficult standard then stands in judgment on us. We all fail to extend forgiveness freely, to extend mercy and kindness to each other. If God judges us as we judge others (Matthew 7:1), we are in trouble! At that point the prayer becomes a plea for God to remake us and show greater grace than we have any right to ask for—grace that not only pardons and cleanses, but grace that transforms and remakes us as God’s children.
Some Closing Thoughts
As we continue to learn the path of forgiveness, a path we can walk only by God’s great grace, I offer a few closing thoughts about how we might act in times of conflict:
1. There are times we do disagree. This is not bad. We should practice a basic honesty that honours our own integrity as well as respects those around us. Nothing in the practice of forgiveness says that we should avoid conflict.
2. How we disagree is critical. We should not fight dirty. We should not tear the other person down. We seek the other person’s good, even as we disagree. The disagreement may be so strong as to say that we must separate, but even in the hardest times, we fight fair and act in love and respect.
3. To disagree well and treat the other person kindly, we assume the best about the person. I have heard people speak clearly in arguments—and then move on to judge the other person’s motives. Assume the best of the other person. Assume they also are seeking to follow Christ faithfully. If we assume the worst about others, we invite God to find the worst in us.
4. Act in good faith and in love for the other at all times—even when separating. I think of a congregation I know who divided down the middle over whether they wanted a pastor-led congregation, or a lay-led congregation. It was hard. Such separations are bitter, and there were many broken relationships. Those people who acted in love and good faith throughout found it easiest to forgive at the end. Those who were convinced that the others were trying to destroy the church and spoke most strongly found it hardest to forgive.
Remember, God will treat us the way that we treat each other. In this prayer, we not only recognize this truth, we go further and ask God to make this truth alive in our hearts and minds.
What Mercy and divine compassion has God in Christ revealed to me!
My haughty spirit would not ask it, yet he bestowed it full and free.
In God my heart does now rejoice. I praise his grace with grateful voice,
I praise his grace with grateful voice.
Your bounteous grace is my assurance, the blood of Christ my only plea,
Your heart of love my consolation until your glorious face I see.
My theme, through never-ending days, shall be your great redeeming grace,
Shall be your great redeeming grace.
Text, Luke 11: 1-11 (Jesus’ teaching on prayer)
11 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’
5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need. 9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
28 August 2016
Grace Mennonite Church