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05.13.12 Forgive Us Our Debts, John 21:1-19 Sermon Outline

by on May 15, 2012

When Jesus was arrested, Peter denied knowing him three times. Peter needed forgiveness, and in Christ’s resurrection, he found it. The Lord’s Prayer ensures that we will find it also.

Summary Points

  • Why we pray for what God has already given
  • What “as we forgive others” means
  • Is it debts, trespasses, or sins?
  • The problem with “debts”
  • A spiritually transformative interpretation of John 21

A common question people have when praying is, “Why do we ask God for things if God already knows we need them? Or, Why ask God for something God has already given? The answers to these questions are especially relevant and illustrated in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

For example, God has given us our daily bread. One of the reasons we ask for it is to make us more generous with our abundance. God’s will is done. One of the reasons we ask for it is to attune our will to God’s. God’s kingdom is coming and has come in Christ. One of the reasons we ask for it is to open our eyes to its presence. And God’s name is hallowed. One of the reasons we ask for it is because it hallows us as well. (See the earlier sermons in this series for details.)

And God has forgiven us in Christ. One of the reasons we ask for it is to remind ourselves of this fact. And we need to be reminded, for we keep plunging ourselves into debt to God. In other words, we keep creating our need for forgiveness. Because of this, Luther says, “our conscience becomes restless, it fears God’s wrath and displeasure, and so it loses the comfort and confidence of the gospel. Therefore it is necessary constantly to run to this petition and get the comfort that will restore our conscience.” (Large Catechism)

This petition ends with what appears to be a conditional statement: “Forgive us AS WE FORGIVE OTHERS.” This tag has troubled many pray-ers and interpreters. Will God NOT forgive me unless I forgive others? But what about the assurance of God’s forgiveness already secured for us in Christ? Can I forfeit God’s forgiveness?

Three other ways of interpreting this conditional statement help us to see it more positively, and probably more in keeping with what we know of God in Jesus Christ. First, it is an inducement to our own practice of forgiving others. In the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, we see that the master forgives the servant unconditionally, but we discover that the hope of the master is that the servant will extend that grace to others. So Jesus instructs to pray for God’s forgiveness “as we forgive others” to exhort us to give according to what we have received.

A second interpretation is that forgiving others provides an assurance of God’s forgiveness of us. The Parable of the Prodigal Son depicts a father’s pre-confessional unconditional forgiveness. At the end of the parable, another son is bitter because of this forgiveness, and the parable leaves us with an open scene: will the second son be reconciled with his brother and his father? The unconditional forgiveness of the father will be assured in both sons’ lives when they in turn forgive. Calvin refers to our forgiving others as a “seal to ratify” God’s forgiveness of us. This is highly sacramental language for Calvin. Luther says our forgiving others “strengthens and gladdens our conscience.” Again, the result of forgiving others is sacramental: it reminds and assures us of God’s faithfulness to his own promise to forgive.

As a side note, Calvin offers a helpful definition of what it means to forgive others. It is a, “willingness to cast from the mind wrath, hatred, desire for revenge, and willingly to banish to oblivion the remembrance of injustice.” (Calvin, Inst. 3.20.45) Imagine the confidence we can have before God if, through the Spirit and over whatever time it takes, we come to forgive others in this way and realize that in this way God has forgiven us!

A third interpretation focuses on the “our” of this petition, and points us to the reality of our inter-relatedness with others and all creation. Since it is “our” debts we’re asking about, and not must “my” debts, or “my family’s, or my nation’s” debts, it serves as a prayer for the entire world. We are praying that more servants would be as forgiving as the master, that more prodigal children would return to the father’s supreme delight.

Are we to pray for release from our debts, trespasses, or sins? Most of us have been in joint worship services for weddings or funerals and prayed as a congregation for God’s forgiveness of our “debtspasses.” Which is it?

As the Lord’s Prayer appears in Matthew, it is very clearly “debts and debtors.” The Greek words are (in transliteration) opheilemata and opheiletais. In Luke, the words are “sins and indebted ones”: hamartias and opheilonti. You can see how it gets confusing. But it gets worse, for at the end of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, Jesus says we must forgive others their “trespasses” (paraptomata) or God will not forgive us ours!

If Jesus taught in Aramaic, which most scholars believe he did, then the underlying word to Matthew’s “debts” and Luke’s “sins” is the Aramaic word for “debt.” Matthew presents the literal rendering of the word, while Luke offers the metaphorical and more specifically theological rendition. And both are worthwhile considerations going back to the Garden of Eden.

In the Garden, Adam and Eve “trespass” or “sin” by breaking a behavioral norm: God told them NOT to eat of a particular tree and they did so anyway. But as creatures to the Creator, they had an obligation to fulfill—they were indebted—and when they ran from God they failed to fulfill this obligation.

In the Reformed theological community, of which Presbyterians are a part, we prefer to use “debts and debtors” in the Lord’s Prayer. What do we mean by using this language?

First, debts must be taken literally as actual financial debts. This is how Jesus’ first audience would have heard it, not just because they were mostly indentured servants, but because they were Jews following Rabbi Jesus, all of whom knew about the “year of Jubilee.” During Jubilee, all debts were forgiven and land returned to its original owners. This kept God’s people from exploiting each other.

This year of Jubilee was also seen as an indication of God’s kingdom come. So when Jesus tells us to pray for the relief of debts, he’s paraphrasing the petition for God’s kingdom to come. And his followers understood this to be the case, as from the example of Acts, in which those disciples of Christ who had means sold their possessions to provide for those disciples who did not.

We also say “debts” as a metaphor for sin, just as Luke gave it to us. It is an appropriate metaphor, for as Thomas Aquinas writes, “We owe God what we take away from his right, and God’s right is that we do his will in preference to our own. Hence we deprive God of his right when we prefer our own will to his, and this is sin.”

However powerful using “debts” in the Lord’s Prayer is, there are some problems. First, we too easily limit our understanding to the literal, financial aspect. On one hand, in our culture, debt has become a way of life. We believe debt is necessary and so we just assume debt is normal. This makes it impossible to ask God to forgive us our debts.

Plus, how many people are financially indebted to us? This makes it easy to pray for God’s forgiveness of our debts “we we forgive our debtors,” because we don’t have any debtors.

Finally, most of us hold to an individualist approach to debt and obligation. We believe we have no obligation except the ones we personally and willfully enter into. Therefore we don’t recognize or acknowledge any debt we might owe to humanity in general, a needy person in particular, or to the creation as a whole. Unless we enter into and then break a contract with someone, we don’t feel particularly indebted to anyone. But God calls us into a covenant community that makes us debtors to everyone, including God. (See the interpretation of “our” above.)

Peter was clearly indebted to Jesus, having denied knowing him three times. In the Gospel of John, we are told that in Jesus’ third appearance to the disciples, he “reinstates” Peter three times. It happens after Peter and some others are fishing without success all night when Jesus, unbeknownst to them, appears on the lake side and suggests they cast their net one more time. Of course, they have a miraculous catch of fish and this signals to them that it is Jesus speaking to them.

Imagine Peter’s mood when they arrive at shore. Now the third time Jesus appears to them, and nothing has been said about his denial of Jesus. He needs restoration, reconciliation, and to experience Jesus’ forgiveness. When they arrive on the shore, they discover that Jesus already has fish frying and bread ready to serve, but he asks them for some of the fish they have caught also.

I think this is a powerful image of our bringing to God what we have—whether our achievements or more likely, our guilt, shame, and sin—only to discover that God already knows about them, and has accounted for them. It is a story inviting us to bring our guilt (our “fish”) to God. It is a story that also powerfully illumines our practice of the Lord’s Table. Here we bring our sins, and remember God’s accounting of them in Christ. Here we remember that God has already forgiven us.

Calvin says that “the whole of the gospel is contained under these two headings, repentance and forgiveness of sins.”(Institutes 3.3.19) In our Reformed tradition, we believe absolution comes through the preaching of the gospel. And at the Table, Paul reminds us, “we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again,” that is, we proclaim his death and resurrection and promised return. At the Table of the Lord, like Peter, we confess our sins and receive our absolution.

And when Jesus reinstates Peter, he commands him to “feed my sheep.” What Peter has received, he is to give. Like Peter, we are to pay our debt to God with faith in God’s forgiveness. And then in thanksgiving we are to pay it forward by forgiving others.

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