The Forgiveness of Sin

During study for my message on Sunday I ran across this short message from Dartmouth University's chapel service. It's more than worth your time to read.

Rollins Chapel Richard R. Crocker, Chaplain November 18, 2004 Luke 5:17-26

We believe in the forgiveness of sin.

Forgiveness is a hard thing to understand. It's a hard thing to give, and perhaps even harder to receive. In our day and place, we may not think much about the subject. For many of us us, the subject does not come up. That is because we do not believe that we have ever done anything that was really wrong, or because no one has done anything really wrong to us. Such people, those of us who have lived so preciously, are apt to confuse forgiveness with indifference. That is, when we think about things we have done, or things done to us, we can perhaps say and mean, "It doesn't matter. Forget about it. No harm done."

This is not what forgiveness means. Forgiveness is not required when something doesn't matter. When we bump into someone unintentionally and say, "sorry" or "forgive me", we are simply being polite. And being polite is a good thing. But bumping into someone unintentionally is really not a matter that requires forgiveness.

No, forgiveness has to do with real harm, real pain, real loss, either suffered or inflicted, by an act of carelessness of malevolence. It has to do with an act of will - of failure to do what we ought to have done, or doing what we ought not to have done. And we are not talking here about the failure to write thank you notes for Christmas gifts. Politeness requires that we do so. But when we take something that someone has given us, something that has cost them time and effort and love and care - when we take such a gift and despise it or cast it aside or destroy it - then we require forgiveness.

You see, we can not really understand that forgiveness is required unless we believe in sin. Sin is not impoliteness; it is not forgetfulness. It is something else. And many of us, reacting, perhaps, to simplistic lists of sins so easily parodied - watching movies, dancing, using lipstick or whatever, ridicule the notion of sin altogether. At our peril. Sin is real. It is brokenness that can not be healed. It is besmirching the reputation of your friend by saying things, out of jealousy, that are not true. It is passing by our neighbors in need because we do not want to pay attention to them. It is going along with evil - not speaking up, not protesting what we know to be wrong. It is committing acts of violence and disregard, directly or indirectly, against people whom we somehow consider less deserving or less precious than ourselves. It is taking for granted privileges that we have not earned. It is despising the poor and rationalizing the suffering of the weak. It is making fun of others to protect ourselves. Such actions are not simple impoliteness. Rather, they reveal the deep brokenness of life, in which we are inextricably involved. And many of us are blind to it. Not knowing pain, because we are deceived or oblivious or willfully stupid, how then can seek forgiveness?

But if we do know pain, inflicted or suffered, how are we to believe in forgiveness If we have, through negligence or willfulness, caused another person to die, or to be maimed, what remedy is there? How can we ever make up for that? If someone has violated our trust in a deep and hurtful way, in a way that causes us to lie on our beds and cry, how can we ever again enter into relationship with that person? Sin. Irreparable harm. Something that can not be simply dismissed, or covered over. Something that breaks a relationship. Something that must be acknowledged, if it is ever to be healed - and yet something too horrible to acknowledge.

If you do not know the pain of having been harmed, of having lost something indescribably precious through your own act or someone else's; if you truly do not believe that you have ever actively or passively contributed to the suffering of the world, then these words will mean nothing to you. But if you do know such pain, you know that nothing, apparently, will heal you. You, like the man in today's lesson, are paralyzed. And what you need can not even be named.

Except that it can be named. It is forgiveness. Not casual - "oh that's alright." Rather, it is costly acceptance - acceptance that does not deny the pain of what has happened, that admits it and that allows us to be free from paralysis - to get up and move and continue being human.

The people who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania inflicted incalculable harm on thousands of people - not just the ones who died, but their loved ones who lived. What can heal that hurt? Can simply saying it doesn't matter? That's preposterous. Can killing ten or twenty or a hundred times more people in Afghanistan and Iraq? Of course not. How will the families of those thousands ever forgive us? Not just the soldiers who did it, not just the politicians who planned it, but us - the citizens who do not care? And so the cycle of hurt continues, with no possible remedy, except …… forgiveness.

Christianity teaches the forgiveness of sin - not as a psychological trick or a careless indifference. It teaches that forgiveness is very costly. It can not be done casually, as if the offense does not matter. Rather, it always involves suffering, at the very deepest level of being, suffering by God.

Those who criticized Jesus for daring to say to he paralyzed man, "Your sins are forgiven." are right. Such words can never be spoken lightly. Only God can forgive sin. But Christians believe that God has spoken that word to us, in Christ Jesus. We are shown how to forgive, because we have been forgiven by God. And we know what that forgiveness costs. It means that God takes upon himself the pain of our sin, so that we may forgive and be forgiven. And then, as we forgive, our sins, when they are deeply and truly faced, are met not with condemnation, but with forgiveness.

All of this may sound very abstract. Try to make it concrete. Try to think of a hurt that you have received. It is no use denying it. It is no use just excusing it. It is no use saying it doesn't matter. But you can not remain paralyzed. You have to get up and walk. And you can only do that if you take an attitude that says: it is what happened. It is wrong. It really and truly hurts. But, in order to get on with the business of being human, I am not going to be paralyzed. I am going to forgive the one who has harmed me, because I know that I have been forgiven. To be able to say such a thing is to know the power of God, because only God can forgive sin. Amen.

Sermon © 2004 Richard R. Crocker. All rights reserved.