A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on March 18, 2012.
O God, even though we do not need to tell you, we admit that we fail daily, but we do acknowledge and confess that each new day finds our commitments weakened and our will to do what is right has somehow diminished during the night. We trust in your grace to sustain and forgive us once again even though it is the hundredth time we have appealed to you about our sin. Forgive us still. May your grace take root in us in such a way that we are ready to forgive sins that have been committed against us. Even if family members take us for granted again in a way that pierces our hearts, even if co-workers or fellow students disrespect our abilities or our contributions again, may we forgive them as often as you forgive us. We acknowledge before you now what price it must cost you to forgive us so often for we know how dearly our hearts pay to forgive others. Change us, God. Change our hearts and our minds so that we don’t see forgiving others as our loss but as our gain. Help us to see it for what you have meant it to be—freedom from past hurts, a path to a new day and a new relationship with others, and an unexpected way to receive blessing beyond measure from your very hand. Forgive us and we pledge to forgive those who have sinned against us. In Christ’s name. Amen.
It is impossible to have at one time and the same time a relationship with God based on grace and a relationship with others based on law. You intend to insist on your own right over and against your neighbor? You may indeed do so; only God will then insist upon His right over you. Or you wish to share in God’s mercy? Then you must live with your neighbors, not according to the law, but according to mercy. That is the principle, the vital condition of the divine-human relationship.
— Emil Brunner in Sowing and Reaping
No matter what you thought of Hubert Humphrey as a politician, his theology was actually pretty good, at least on one point. On that point is a quote where he said, “I am convinced the way we treat other people is the way we treat God.” That means the way I treat you, the way you treat me, the way people on the floor treat people in the balcony or vice versa, the way we treat strangers, the way we treat our enemies, in some way informs us about how we are really treating God. I thought I was doing a better job with God than that. How about you? The way we treat other people is the way we treat God. This is actually repeated time and time again in scripture.
One of the most common passages that we use often in which we can easily see this is Matthew 25 where Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and goats. Jesus divides the people onto two sides: Those coming into glory and those not. When he tells them why they have been chosen for which side, he says, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”
People on both sides said, “When did we see you in that condition?”
The people who were admitted to glory said, “When did we ever do that?”
The other people said, “I missed that. When were you like that and I did not do something?”
Jesus says, “When you did (or did not) do it to the least of these my brethren. The way you treated the poor and the least is the way you have been treating me.”
Jesus validates that quote by Hubert Humphrey that the way we treat other people is the way we are treating God.
If that is not enough, there is another passage that is equally blunt. In the First Letter of John to the early church in chapter 4, he says this: “Those who say ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars. For those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.” The commandment we have from him is this: “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters.” The way we treat people that we encounter every day is a reflection of the way we are treating God.
This particular verse led Philip Yancey, a great Christian writer, to say that we love God only as much as we love the person we love the least. I usually don’t chase rabbits, but I am going to insert a parenthesis here. This may be a good word in an election year. With all the negative advertisements and the brutal e-mails that people want to forward to each other about their candidate or against another candidate, it might be good before we hit “send” to remember, I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least. The way I treat others is the way I treat God, like it or not.
The third passage is the parable of the unmerciful servant from Matthew 18. This really could be an extension on the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It is, indeed, an uncomfortable arrangement. When we pray for forgiveness, we are also committing to forgive each other. We would really like those to be separate so we could consider them individually and maybe choose one and leave the other one off. It is an uncomfortable arrangement that in the Lord’s Prayer, they are combined together, and this parable is a tremendously clear illustration of what Jesus is trying to teach us.
The first servant owes the king an extraordinary amount of money. A lot of times in our Bibles, there will be a footnote that tries to explain how much this is in our terms today. Let’s just say it is five million dollars. It is more than the vast majority of us could ever hope to pay back in a lifetime. He owes the king five million dollars. The king threatens to put him in prison, and he begs for mercy. Because the king has the heart that he does. He says, “OK. I’ll let it go.”
The first servant leaves the presence of the king and runs into someone who owes him $5.00—$5.00 vs. five million dollars. This fellow owes $5.00, and he says, “Pay it all back now.”
“I can’t pay it back now.”
He says, “Off to prison with you.”
The forgiver is unforgiving, and the way he treats his debtor is the way he is treating the king. Don’t you see it? When he refuses to carry out the forgiveness like he has received, he is disrespectful of the king’s heart. Isn’t he turning his back on the way the king expressed his own heart? He is showing a lack of appreciation for the king’s gift to him. Isn’t he rejecting the very principle that the king is living his life by?
The king is saying, “I’m generous. I’m benevolent. Yes, my heart can be touched. Yes, I forgive you.” When the forgiven servant refuses to offer forgiveness, he is rejecting the king’s way of life. At least the king thinks so because when he finds out, he reissues the order. “Prison for you because you would not do for others what I did for you.” We find through these various passages of scripture that the way we relate to other people is the way we are relating to God. It is a mystery of the Gospel. Somehow we are bound up in the way each of us treats one another and it is a reflection of what is going on in our relationship to God.
Most of the examples are negative. We find ourselves thinking, I wish I had been more forgiving. I wish I loved my brother or sister whom I can see because I would really like to love God more. We find ourselves weary that perhaps we, too, have failed but there really is a positive side to this. This is good news. Think of it this way: If our relationship to God can be renewed and restored, then isn’t it possible that our relationship to one another can be renewed and restored as well? If we can take what we have received from God and take it to our hearts in receiving mercy, it can change our lives. It can change the way we relate to everyone.
Isn’t this why we pray, “Forgive us our sins (our debts, our trespasses) as we forgive those who trespass against us”? We are praying in the hope that what God has done for us will become so much a part of us that it changes the way we relate to one another. It changes our attitudes toward one another. It changes what we say about each other. It changes the way we treat each other.
For this sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, I have had four or five different books that I have used. Each week, I read the chapter on the particular phrase we are looking through, and the book that has been the most helpful to me is called, Lord, Teach Us to Pray. It is written by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. They have a very interesting point that I cannot get away from. They say that when we recite the Lord’s Prayer any time—individually, as a body of believers, as a Sunday school class, Bible study group or wherever we may say it—in that moment, we are being made into the kind of person that can say the prayer. That sounds redundant but what they are saying is, every time we say it, we allow God to move us an inch, a foot, or a centimeter closer to being the kind of person who really means “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Every time we say it, we are opening our lives to the power of the spirit, to the power of God’s word, to move us to be the kind of person who can pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Stop and think about times when we have said this prayer. Of all the phrases that have a shaping power, perhaps it is this one that has the power to move us and for God to answer our prayer as we are actually asking it. When we come to this place and whenever we say the Lord’s Prayer as a congregation, can you say, Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and a face not come to your mind or a name not slip into your memory? Is there not some challenge that comes when we say that phrase that will not leave us alone? Does it not move us forward just a millimeter to what we are actually praying for? In that moment when we say the prayer, we are being changed into the kind of people who can say that prayer.
We invite the grace principle to come into our lives. We invite God to deal with us on grace and not on judgment. If we were to pray, “God, let your judgment be plain in my life?” which one of us could stand? We invite the grace principle in, and when it comes in, it wants to invade every corner so that we can know that whatever it is that we have done, God forgives us but God will not let it alone there. The grace principle begins to pervade and to go out from us so that whatever it is that someone has done against us, we can forgive that as well. When grace comes into every crack and crevice of our lives, that is an unexpected, perhaps even unintended, but wonderful blessing. When we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we are inviting that in and becoming what God wants us to be.
The way we treat others says a tremendous amount about the way we treat God. Our willingness to forgive others says a great deal about whether or not we recognize in our own lives the need to be forgiven or whether we have truly asked for God’s forgiveness in our own lives.
Are we where we want to be in this process? Are we where we want to be in becoming the kind of person who says the Lord’s Prayer and then lives what we have asked for? Maybe it would be good if we could move another inch or another foot today. If we could say the prayer together, and on this phrase, when a person’s name or face comes to mind and will not leave us alone, we can recognize that God is trying to invade our whole life with grace. I guess we will never know if we don’t pray it, so would you join with me and pray it now.
Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
And so we are changed.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.