November 17, 2013

Much

Okay, so this morning finds us finally at an end to our series, Making Things Right.  The whole idea for this series has been that while we talk a lot about forgiveness, we’re not so good on the practice.  I mean, we can handle forgiveness for most of the little things—for instance, if I missed and got toothpaste on Lisa’s toothbrush instead of mine while feeling around in the dark in the mornings, I suspect she would forgive me for that.  But sometimes even for the little things we’re tempted to hold a grudge.  We don’t want forgiveness, we want vengeance.  When the rude driver cuts us off on the highway, we don’t forgive, we tail.  When the cashier at Target takes three hours to check out the person in front of us because she bought twelve basketfuls of stuff, half of which didn’t have UPCs, and for which she had a bagful of coupons that the cashier didn’t know how to handle necessitating calling over the busy manager to double check every third one…not that this has ever happened to me…we don’t forgive, we say mean things about them once we get back to the car.  And so if we struggle with forgiveness in these little things, imagine how much more we struggle with forgiveness in the big things.  When relationships are on the line, struggling with forgiveness is not where we want to be.  We want to be in a place where forgiveness comes naturally and easily allowing us to bring reconciliation and restoration to wounded relationships.  This serves the purpose of allowing us to focus our lives on living rather than keeping ourselves from dying.

To this end, throughout this series I have tried to lay a foundation for us on which we can stand when it comes time to forgive.  We began the whole series by establishing a baseline: if we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven.  We talked about the fact that in light of what God has done for us, not forgiving someone who has offended us doesn’t make any sense.  Unforgiveness is not a tortured decision we make because of the depth of our wound and our desire for justice.  It’s a ridiculously foolish choice we make because we don’t like the job God is doing and we think we could do it better.  Still though, this idea of unforgiveness keeping us from receiving God’s forgiveness of us somewhere down the line of history was a little abstract.  So the following couple of weeks we got more personal.  Unforgiveness separates us from our heavenly Father now.  It causes us to miss out on the blessings He desires to give us and forces us to perceive our lives through a bitter lens that badly skews our understanding of our past and our expectations for our future.  Furthermore, it also goes beyond us to impact our relational networks.  When we refuse to forgive, regardless of the offense, we attempt to force the people around us to peer through the same bitter lens that we’ve adopted.  We take an adversarial approach to life and force people to either be with us or against us.  This poison will eventually sicken and threaten the lives of all of our relationships.

After jumping up and down on the folly and danger of unforgiveness for three weeks, then, in part four of the series we made the turn to focus on forgiveness itself.  With some insights gained from the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers for the valley of death they made him walk we laid out a process forgiving someone who has hurt us.  We honestly acknowledge the offense, step down from God’s throne, remember that vengeance really does belong to God, work to see the offense from a God’s-eye perspective, and, finally, release the other person from the debt they owe us.

Then last week I took a bit of a different turn with you.  We didn’t talk about how or why we should be forgiving other people directly.  Instead, we talked about what God has done for us in forgiving us.  Through the words of an ancient document written to some Jewish background Jesus followers explaining who Jesus was and what He did that we call Hebrews, we saw a picture of what exactly God the Son did for us in purchasing our forgiveness from the sins we have committed.  And I don’t mean that in terms of “he-we” as if he had committed some sins too, but was gracious enough to take the hit for the rest of us.  Jesus didn’t commit any sins…ever.  This is more of a “you-and-me-we.”  Furthermore, He did all this while we were still actively sinning and knowing that we were going to keep sinning.  But the process for obtaining a covering for sin up to that point in history—the sacrificial system—wasn’t getting the job done.  Under that system sin was handled on a sin-by-sin basis and no one was ever really forgiven.  The consequence of the sin (death) was merely passed on to the animal.  And every time someone sinned again, another sacrifice became necessary.  So God said, “You know what?  I’m going to give these people a gift to end all gifts.  I’m going to send My Son into the world to become the sacrifice that they need which will take away all sin for all time such that they can be forgiven of their sins and be with Me once again.”  Christ’s self-sacrifice paid the price permanently.  If you count yourself a follower of Jesus you are enjoying this gift, but by understanding more fully what is behind it, now you can enjoy it even a little more.  And, one of the ways to enjoy this gift the best is to share it with others.  Thus, we forgive.

Well this morning I want to talk about kind of the same thing, but from a different angle.  The teaching in Hebrews, while good, is hard to wrap our minds around.  It’s a little abstract and it made the call to live a life consistent with the forgiveness we have been offered a bit hard to grasp.  So this morning I want to look at this idea from the perspective of a story in which we can watch the process unfold.  The story itself takes place during Jesus’ life and is told by Luke in his research notes on the life of Christ.  Now, Matthew, Mark, and John tell a similar story, but theirs is probably describing a different incident from a different time in Jesus’ life.  You can find the story in Luke 7 starting at v. 36.  While you find your way there in your Bible, let me set the scene for us.

When Jesus was at the height of His teaching ministry and nearing the pinnacle of His public acclaim, He was a pretty well-known guy.  Everybody in the region knew who Jesus was.  What more, even though His teachings were sometimes a little weird, there was something powerful about them that kept people coming back.  He hadn’t yet crossed some of the lines that John mentions at which point people decided they needed to kill Him to shut Him up.  Even more important than His teachings, though, for most folks were His miracles, especially His healings.  In fact, in pretty close proximity to this story Luke tells of a time in which Jesus heals the servant of a Roman centurion with a word and at a distance, as well as a time when He raised a Gentile woman’s dead son back to life.  These two cases were remarkable not simply because of the power they revealed Jesus to have—I mean, if a guy can heal with a word at a distance, all sick people needed to send was a representative to Jesus instead of worrying about how to get their themselves—but also because they were done on behalf of folks traditionally seen as the enemies of the people of Israel.

In any event, with Jesus’ growing fame came invitations to public social events like rich and famous people getting invited to high-profile parties today.  One of the groups who was pretty persistent in trying to spend time with Jesus in order to get a better handle on what to do with Him since He kept upsetting their preferred status quo was the Pharisees.  Well one night a Pharisee named Simon invited Jesus to dine at his house.  Now, when we normally think of a dinner party, we tend to think about a group of invited people meeting at someone’s house, out of the view of the public eye.  This wasn’t the case then.  The first century was a much more socially open culture than ours is.  The open courtyards in the homes of the wealthy where this party might have taken place were visible and accessible to anyone walking by.  Various down-and-outs of society would come gather around to watch the spectacle kind of like we watch TV shows about the lives of rich people.  When the party included a very high-profile guest known for miraculously healing the sick, this tendency increased many-fold.

Well, as this particular dinner party got underway with the guests lounging on their lefts sides around the low table with their right hand free for eating and their feet sticking out away from the table, a woman came out of the crowd of spectators and approached the table.  Luke describes it like this, starting at v. 37: “And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment…”  There are a couple of things worth observing here.  First, when someone is introduced we mention the most memorable facts about them first.  The first and only description Luke gives of this woman, though, was that she was a sinner.  That’s a pretty dubious recognition.  But, the Pharisees probably considered just about everyone gathered around the edges of the courtyard watching the party to be sinners.  Why does this woman get special mention?  This becomes clear in the second observation.  The woman wasn’t at the party.  Her sins were apparently socially problematic enough that she didn’t even bother to show up.  Perhaps because she knew she wouldn’t be welcomed even as a spectator.  Instead she somehow hears that Jesus is at the party after it had already started.  His presence is the whole reason she came and in all likelihood she wouldn’t have come otherwise.  Well, if her coming to the party itself was scandalous, what happened next blew everybody’s hair back.

Stay with me in the text at v. 38: “…and standing behind him [Jesus] at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.”  Just about every cultural norm and expectation for proper behavior was blown to pieces in this act.  A woman, known to be sinful, with unbound hair (in this culture women only unbound their hair for their husbands), touched a prophet, in a very intimate manner, in public!  I suspect it was all Simon could do to not starting screaming for someone to get her out of here because she was ruining his party.  As it is he had the self-control to merely think this to himself.  Verse 39: “Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.’”

Then Jesus, proving that He was in fact a prophet, answered Simon…who hadn’t said anything out loud.  The only way you can answer someone who hasn’t said anything out loud is if you can read their mind.  Jesus declared that He had something to say to Simon who quickly gave Him permission as He was the guest of honor.  So Jesus tells a story.  Verse 41: “A certain moneylender had two debtors.  One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both.  Now which of them will love him more?”  Well the answer to this question was obvious and so Simon, fearing some sort of a trick, gave it: “The one, I suppose for whom he cancelled the larger debt.”  And now that Simon is well within the blast zone, Jesus blows the charges.  He looks at the woman and speaks to Simon: “Do you see this woman?  [As if every single person in the courtyard weren’t already fixated on her.]  I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet [a basic cultural gesture of hospitality], but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss [a traditional greeting for friends], but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.”  Simon’s looking a little red-faced by now in embarrassment over Jesus pointing out the gaping holes in his hospitality toward his guest, made up for by this “sinner” woman, but Jesus isn’t quite done.  The final blast is the biggest: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.  But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Now, there are a lot of different ways that we could go with this story at this point.  Let me take you in one that rings relevant to what we’ve been talking about for the past month and a half.  First a couple of details and then the point.  Jesus isn’t saying that the fact that this woman loved much is the reason she was forgiven.  Rather, it is the evidence that she has been forgiven.  A slightly more interpretive translation brings this out: “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown.”  Somehow this woman understood that Jesus had the power to forgive sins and when she accepted this fact her sins were forgiven.  When don’t know when this happened or how exactly it happened, but all the same, this woman recognized in her heart that she was forgiven and as a result she lavished love on Jesus.  Second, Jesus’ statement about the person who has been forgiven little is not assuming the person only had a little for which to be forgiven.  More likely, the person has only sought a little bit of forgiveness, perhaps because he is deluded into thinking that’s all he needed when the reality is in fact a great deal bleaker.

Now to the point.  There are many folks out there in the place of Simon who think that, really, they don’t have much that needs to be forgiven.  They feel like they’ve lived pretty wholesome lives.  They haven’t killed anybody.  They’re mostly nice to other people.  They’ve been faithful to their spouse.  They don’t want things they don’t have.  They let their parents move in with them when they got old.  They go to church most of the time and pray pretty regularly—at least before their meals.  They don’t lie.  They’re doing okay.  They serve God because, well, you’re not supposed to admit this out loud, but He needs people like them.  He needs some people who pretty much have it all put together.  Trying to run the church with a bunch of societal rejects and recovering sin-addicts doesn’t seem like a very good idea.  And so, yeah, they need some forgiveness.  They’ve done a few things wrong, I mean, we all have, haven’t we?  They just don’t need very much…because they haven’t done very much.  Their Ten Commandments checklist is covered and they’re okay.  Now if we could just get the rest of these poor slobs to straighten up and get their act together this place would really be rocking.  Not a lot of love there.  Because there’s not a lot of forgiveness there.

The truth, friends, is that whether we know it or not, we fall much more in line with this “woman of the city.”  The only question is: where along her story are we sitting?  Are we on the far side, sitting with our eyes and ears closed, ululating to keep out the threat of judgment, meanwhile condemning all the people around us to don’t live up to our standards—rooted in the Word of God, of course—because it provides a nice barrier to having to deal with our own junk?  Or, are we on the far side but in another place, broken and devastated because we’re sitting amid the ruined shell of our life after the bomb has gone off aware that recovery is so far beyond our ability that we might as well indulge away the pain, angry at the world for doing this to us?  Or, are we on this side: broken, but having humbly received the extravagant forgiveness that covers all—which means all—of our sins from the one who died to make it available?  Can we say what Susan sang just a minute ago?  “I am the one who’s been forgiven much.”  You know how you can tell when we’ve crossed the line and reached this last place?  Because we love much.  It’s not simply, “I’m the one who’s been forgiven much.”  The second line of the chorus is absolutely necessary: “I’m the one who loves much.”  The one who’s been forgiven much is the one who loves much.  The one who’s been forgiven much is the one who loves much.

Let’s make the turn, then, and bring all of this home.  When we forgive someone else, we are performing an expression of love.  The reason for this is wrapped up in the Biblical definition of love and a proper understanding of what forgiveness is.  Love is an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God designed them to be.  Forgiveness is a releasing of another person from the debt they owe us because of some offense.  When we don’t forgiven, we are actively trying to prevent someone from living fully, or at all, in Christ.  Christ died so we can be free from every debt of offense.  When we refuse to free someone else, we’re trying to prevent that from happening.  We are trying to deny them life in Christ by holding them down in their sin.  This is insane, of course, because Christ is the one who forgives and while our unforgiveness hurts more than just us we cannot actually keep someone whom Christ deigns to forgive from being forgiven.  What more, this is not love.  When we forgive, on the other hand, we are actively seeking to move a person in the direction of Christ.  By releasing them from this burden because we have been released from our own burden of sin against God we are pointing them in the direction of living the life of Christ.  This is indisputably an act of love.  That’s why when we make our boys apologize for something they’ve done wrong and offer them forgiveness, we try to make sure we tell them that we are forgiving them because of what God has done in forgiving us.  It’s not that we’re the final authority whom they’ve offended—a lot of people forgive from this place, by the way.  As long as think like that we either won’t forgive, or we’ll make the gesture of forgiveness, but we’ll still be sitting on God’s throne and so will still remain separated from God.  No, no, no.  We forgive only because God has forgiven us.  And, our love for them is not impacted by their behavior.  The one who’s been forgiven much is the one who loves much.

 

In the end, then, we find ourselves standing again where we stood seven weeks ago.  This is the foundation of forgiveness.  The one who’s been forgiven much is the one who loves much.  One of the key ways that love is expressed is by forgiving eagerly and actively those who have hurt us.  And so we stand again on our foundation as we prepare to walk from here and live as a forgiving people.  But, there’s a little difference this time.  When we started I told you that the foundation was this: If we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven.  And that’s true.  If we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven.  Thus we forgive so that we can dwell fully with our God.  But this time around the mindset has changed.  That was the negative case for forgiveness.  Now we have made the positive one: we forgive because we’ve been forgiven.  If you have experienced the life-changing forgiveness of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, this is going to be demonstrated by paying that forgiveness forward.  The one who’s been forgiven much is the one who loves much.  We forgive because we’ve been forgiven.  Go then from here today and show the love you’ve been shown.  Offer the forgiveness you’ve been offered.  You know why you should do it.  You know how to do it.  It’s time to go and make it happen.  The one who’s been forgiven much is the one who loves much.  Be that person.