Consider this a “do-over” sermon. I’ve preached on the Lord’s Prayer at least a few times before, yet I’ve never come to grips with Jesus’ difficult words about forgiveness in v. 12 or the “postscript” to his prayer in vv. 14-15. To put it bluntly, Jesus means exactly what he says: if we don’t forgive other people, we won’t be forgiven. What does that mean? This sermon explores that question.
Sermon Text: Matthew 6:5-15
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Malcolm Gladwell is the bestselling author of Tipping Point and Outliers. His most recent book, also a bestseller, examines the biblical story of David and Goliath. He identifies some principles that the overmatched shepherd boy used to vanquish his foe, and then looks at how those same principles work out in our world today.
While he was researching the book, he met a woman from Winnipeg named Wilma Derksen. Thirty years ago, the Derksens experienced every parent’s worst nightmare—their daughter, Candace, was abducted and murdered.
Gladwell was amazed by something that Wilma said at the time: “We would like to know who the person or persons (who murdered Candace) are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives.” She continued, “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person,” but as Gladwell noticed, “the stress was on the phrase at this point.” As he writes, “I wanted to know where the Derksens found the strength to say these things … Where do two people find the power to forgive in a moment like that?”
The answer, Gladwell discovered, was their Christian faith. And the experience helped Gladwell himself rediscover his own Christian faith.
But notice how important it was to Wilma Derksen, a Christian, to meet her daughter’s killer or killers, to “share… a love that seems to be missing” from their lives. Notice how important it was that she find a way to forgive them—even though she admitted that she hadn’t done so yet.
I think a lot of people—including many Christians—would give Mrs. Derksen a pass. A lot of us would say that she shouldn’t be expected to forgive her daughter’s killers. Any lack of forgiveness on her part would be completely understandable. And yet, as Derksen herself also understands too well, her lack of forgiveness would be a serious sin. Indeed, she rightly understands that failing to forgive, even her daughters’ own killers, could be a sign that her very soul was in jeopardy!
Brothers and sisters, as much as I may wish it were otherwise, there’s no denying that this is what Jesus is teaching us in today’s scripture. Notice verse 12, words that we pray by rote every week, perhaps every day: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Or, we might say, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Luke’s gospel puts it like that. Or, as in the traditional version of the payer that we recite each week, “Forgive us our trespasses…” Same difference: We’re asking God to forgive our spiritual debts, our spiritual failures, our sins—the wrong that we have done against God—just as we have forgiven—and are pledging to continue to forgive—the wrong that has been done against us.
Jesus says there’s a connection between our receiving forgiveness from God and our offering forgiveness toward others. In case we fail to see this connection, Jesus makes it abundantly clear in his postscript to the Lord’s Prayer in verses 14 and 15: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Yikes. That sounds like a conditional statement: If you want God’s forgiveness, you must forgive others.
To make matters worse, later in Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 18, Jesus tells a frightening parable about a king who forgives a massive debt—millions of dollars—that one of his servants owes. The servant pleaded for mercy, and the king forgave his debt. That same servant then went to a fellow servant, who owes him a very small amount of money, and demanded that he repay him. His fellow servant pleads for mercy—to no avail. The unmerciful servant has his fellow servant thrown in jail. And when the word gets back to the king, he tells the servant, “‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” So the king rescinded the canceling of the man’s debt and threw him in jail. Jesus said, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Friends, do you hear this warning? Jesus is saying that you and I can go to hell if we fail to forgive—even after we’ve accepted Christ as Savior and Lord. It’s possible that God’s saving or justifying grace could be withdrawn from us if we fail to forgive.
Listen to what John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist tradition, said about this passage. He wrote:
[I]f any malice or bitterness, if any taint of unkindness or anger remains, if we do not clearly, fully, and from the heart, forgive all men their trespasses, we far cut short the forgiveness of our own: God cannot clearly and fully forgive us: He may show us some degree of mercy; but we will not suffer him to blot out all our sins, and forgive all our iniquities.
He went on to say that if we pray the Lord’s Prayer without forgiving “from our hearts” those who have wronged us, it’s as if we’re “daring God to do his worst”—as if we’re really praying, “Do not thou forgive us at all; we desire no favour at thy hands. We pray that thou wilt keep our sins in remembrance, and that thy wrath may abide upon us.” One ancient Christian saint, John Chrystostam, put it like this: “To ask forgiveness from God as a great benefit, and [then] to deny the same to others, is to mock God.”
Of course, if we’ve read the Sermon on the Mount up to this point, we shouldn’t be surprised by these challenging words. Jesus has already emphasized the urgency with which we should reconcile with other people. He’s already emphasized the priority we should place on reconciliation and forgiveness.
For example, in Matthew 5, when Jesus was warning against anger, he said, “[I]f you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Now let’s think about this: If you are offering your gift on the altar. He’s literally referring to a Jewish pilgrim who is going to the Temple in Jerusalem. There were three festivals per year when Jews were required to go to the Temple to worship, and this was likely one of those trips. The “gift” that the pilgrim is offering is possibly a bull or a goat or a bird—some kind of livestock—and possibly one for which the pilgrim spent a lot of money. Moreover, Jesus is preaching this sermon in Galilee, which was a three-day journey from Jerusalem. So Jesus is asking his audience to imagine that they’ve made a three-day journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they’ve gone to the trouble and expense of either transporting their livestock for the sacrifice—or purchased it once they got there—and they’re ready to offer the animal to the priest to be sacrificed.
“But wait a minute,” Jesus says. “Before that sacrifice takes place, suppose you remember that someone you know is angry with you—has something against you; feels as if you’ve wronged them in some way. That person may be justified in feeling that way, or maybe not. Maybe you didn’t do anything wrong at all, but they believe you did. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. You know that that person has something against you right now. Do you know what you’re supposed to do before you offer your sacrifice? You’re supposed to leave your sacrifice at the altar and make that three-day journey back to Galilee; do everything you can to reconcile with that person; and then… and then… make that three-day journey back to Jerusalem, back to the Temple, and then offer your sacrifice.” So that six-day round-trip to Jerusalem and back has now cost you twelve days—all because Jesus says that reconciling with your brother or sister is more important than worshiping in the Temple—even offering a sacrifice for your sins—or giving money to the Temple—or giving a tithe to the Temple.
To say the least, Jesus is telling us to go to a lot of trouble, when necessary, to be reconciled with one another! For the sake of our souls, he says, forgiveness and reconciliation should be our top priority.
It should be a top priority at Hampton United Methodist Church.
You know how we have a greeting time every Sunday morning in our service? Now, don’t get me wrong: I like the greeting time. But it’s a watered down version of an ancient church liturgy. Originally, it was referred to as “the passing of the peace”? As our Book of Worship says, the pastor is supposed to say, “Let us offer one another signs of reconciliation and love.” And this is a time when we are to forgive and be forgiven—and through outward signs like hugs and handshakes—or in the ancient church, offer a “holy kiss”—to demonstrate that we are reconciled with one another.we are now holding no grudges against anyone. And we’re supposed to do this before we come to the altar for the Lord’s Supper. Because forgiveness and reconciliation with one another should take priority even over Holy Communion.
In the spirit of today’s scripture, we need to recover that meaning in our church services.
In last week’s sermon, I mentioned someone—a clergy colleague—with whom I needed to be reconciled. He had received some recognition from the bishop, and I resented it. I was angry about his success. And I told you that the Lord got hold of me last week and convicted me of this sin. I told you how, in the past, I had always excused my anger—I told myself that it wasn’t really a problem. Or that I was righteously angry, that somehow my anger was good. I now see how wrong I was.
As I explained to my Bible study class on Wednesday night, I sent this man a card on Tuesday. When he saw the card was from me, I wouldn’t blame him for being reluctant to open it and read it. But in the card I congratulated him. And then I said, “I also want to say I’m sorry.” I explained that for a host of interesting reasons—for which I have sought professional help—I tend to be an angry person. And my sinful anger has given rise to some uncharitable things I’ve said—and thought—about him over the years. And I concluded my note by saying, “While we have some important theological differences between us, I lost sight of the fact that you’re my brother. I’m sorry. If possible, please forgive me.”
Sent it on Tuesday. He called me on Wednesday. He said it brought him to tears. He forgave me. I forgave him. And friends, I’m not exaggerating when I say that I felt as if a burden had been lifted off of my shoulders. I realized I had been carrying that load of anger and unforgiveness for years now. My step feels a little lighter today than it did a week ago! Isn’t that amazing? This forgiveness and reconciliation stuff really works! Praise God!
And you know what I felt for my colleague for the first time in years? Love… genuine, warm-hearted affection. All that to say, learn from my example, please!
O.K., I want to change gears. It is not our job to find wiggle room for Jesus’ difficult teachings. But today’s scripture is one of them, so we need to interpret it in light of everything else that Jesus teaches—and everything else we know about the gospel in the New Testament. Alongside most Protestant theologians and Bible scholars, I don’t believe that we forgive in order to be forgiven. Forgiveness of sins is an unconditional gift of God, offered without price. Rather, I believe that Jesus is telling us that our forgiveness of others is a consequence of our receiving God’s forgiveness. The unmerciful servant in that parable from Matthew 18 didn’t really appreciate the gift that had been given him by the merciful king—it didn’t soften his heart; he was unmoved; unchanged.
In other words, although the king offered him mercy, the unmerciful servant failed to receive the gift. And so, I believe, Jesus is teaching us that if we have truly received the gift of forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, then one consequence of that is that we will want to forgive others. If we don’t want to forgive—if instead we want to hold onto a grudge and make no effort to be reconciled with our enemies—then it’s possible, Jesus says, that we are not genuine Christians at all. Or if we were at one time, we no longer are! It’s that serious!
As the apostle Paul says, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” Whether or not we are willing and able to forgive is a pretty good test of the genuineness of our faith.
On my blog yesterday, someone asked a good question: “Can we forgive someone who won’t repent and receive our forgiveness?” I said:
When Jesus prays from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” I don’t interpret that to mean that all the people who put Jesus on the cross—Judas, Pilate, Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin, the Roman soldiers, and others—immediately had their sins forgiven—not without repenting! By no means! They didn’t receive Jesus’ gift of forgiveness.
But the important point is that Jesus had done his part to make forgiveness possible. They still needed to do theirs. Offering forgiveness is all Jesus could do. Sometimes that’s all we can do, too. But that’s enough.
In Romans, Paul says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
Think about the father in the prodigal son parable. The father isn’t sitting around nursing a grudge until the very moment the younger son repents and comes home. No, he’s waiting with love in heart for the son to return; he’s hoping for it; he desires reconciliation with his son, not any lingering animosity. That should be our attitude. And of course we should keep on praying for the person, that he or she would repent.
And speaking of prayer, that’s the best way to heal your emotions. Some of you might say, “I can’t forgive this person”—and what you really mean is, I can’t change my feelings toward this person who hurt me. I suspect that’s what Wilma Derksen meant when she said she hadn’t forgiven her daughter’s killers “at this point.” Her feelings hadn’t changed. But notice she was doing something about it. She wanted to meet with this person or these people. And I’m sure she was praying for them.
So the question isn’t necessarily, “Am I able to forgive?” The question is, “Am I willing?” God wants your willingness; he can miraculously transform that into the ability.
Finally, if you’re still unable to forgive someone, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lost and going to hell; but it does mean this is a serious spiritual problem for which you need to ask for mercy and forgiveness. Your lack of forgiveness is a sin. But here the good news: like any sin, it can be forgiven. The atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross is more powerful than any sin. What does the apostle John tell us? “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sings and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
2. See Matthew 18:23-35.
3. John Wesley, Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2014), 130.
4. From Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 310.
5. Matthew 5:23-4 ESV
6. Romans 12:18
7. 1 John 1:9