Sermons That Work

Forgiveness, the Heart of the Christian Gospel, Proper 6 (C) – 2001

June 17, 2001

The Old Testament lesson (2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15) reminds us that there are consequences to our actions. King David desires Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his officers. After committing adultery with her, David plots to have Uriah killed in action against the Ammonites.

God is displeased and sends the prophet Nathan to confront David with a story that stirs David’s conscience and prompts a confession. Because of God’s mercy, David is forgiven, his life is spared, but there are still consequences. The child born of the relationship of David and Bathsheba dies. And there is also trouble within David’s household with his other sons as a result of his actions.

As a further reminder of forgiveness, Psalm 32 is an eloquent thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness of human sin. Acknowledging our sin brings freedom and the gift of forgiveness.

But can this be so? We struggle with the idea of earning our own way into God’s grace, God’s forgiveness and God’s Kingdom. For the Jews this was done by keeping the food regulations and by maintaining personal righteousness through good works and by keeping the Law. The reading from Galatians 2:11-21 reminds us, through Paul’s words to Peter, that it is through faith in God and God’s Son, Jesus, that forgiveness and salvation are provided, and that if forgiveness and salvation were just a result of keeping the Law, then Jesus would have died in vain (for nothing).

Forgiveness, as the heart of the Christian Gospel, is well illustrated in our reading from Luke 7:36-50. Simon invites the rabbi, Jesus, to his home for a meal. Simon was not a disciple, but a Pharisee, one of the “separated ones,” dedicated to keeping the Law (to the letter) and looking with contempt on those who failed to do likewise. Why did Simon invite Jesus to dinner? He probably did not invite Jesus because he admired him or wanted to honor him — or even because he wanted to entrap him. The invitation may have been made out of curiosity on Simon’s part because Jesus was a celebrity.

Now it was the custom in those days for a visiting rabbi to preach a sermon. So Jesus preached to the invited guests on the inside and to others who had gathered outside the wall of the house and who had come to listen. Jesus probably preached on the forgiving love of God that goes out unconditionally to all people – no matter what they have done – without earning it through good works or keeping the Law. Simon was impressed, but not especially affected. There was, however, a woman who had been listening on the other side of the wall who was moved to tears. She ran and knelt at Jesus’ feet and washed them with her tears. For a woman to unbind her hair in public was considered, in those days, the trademark of a harlot. But this woman was so touched by the words of Jesus that she lost all self-consciousness. She no longer cared what people thought of her, and she wiped her tears from his feet with her long hair. Around her neck she wore a little vial of perfume, as most Jewish women did. This was valuable and the most precious thing she owned. But she broke it open and poured it over Jesus’ feet and kept kissing his feet in gratitude for the message of forgiveness that she had heard. Simon was shocked at her behavior and that, knowing that she was such a sinful woman, Jesus had allowed this to happen.

Jesus then told Simon a story about forgiveness and gratitude, and reminded him that the woman had done for him all the things that Simon had failed to do for him as his guest.

Jesus interpreted the woman’s acts as evidence of gratitude for forgiveness already received, even as Simon’s lack of appreciation was evidence of little forgiveness received. So the story does not teach that those who love much are forgiven much, but that those who are forgiven much will love much, or will show much appreciation. This is the heart of the Gospel: God comes to us on God’s own initiative with free forgiveness, and when we realize this and accept it, gratitude overflows in extravagant deeds of devotion.

Be careful when you listen to the message from the Gospel because the same story can invoke opposite responses. It thrilled the woman and moved her to self-forgetful love, but it offended Simon and stirred him to self-righteous contempt.

“Furthermore, it is not so much the Gospel in words that offends as the Gospel in action. When Jesus preached on God’s unlimited forgiveness, Simon listened politely without realizing its broad implications; but when Jesus demonstrated God’s mercy in accepting this woman completely, then all of Simon’s legalistic learning and Pharisaic prejudices rose up in protest. It is one thing to hear a person talking like Christ, but quite another to see the person acting like him. The latter can bring out the worst in us.” (quoted from the Rev. Dr. Marshall Mauney)

The woman knew what forgiveness meant in her life-what deliverance it would offer. Simon, armored in self-assuredness, was not conscious that he needed saving from anything. The difference was that she knew that she needed forgiveness; Simon did not.

We all stand as sinners before our Lord and thank God that God’s love and grace are freely given to us without our earning or deserving them. It is so easy to be like Simon, or the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son. It is easy to put ourselves above others because we consider our “actions” to be better than those of others.

Now about Simon. Have you ever met someone like him; come across him at church or at work; sat beside him at a meeting — or even seen him in a mirror? Have you ever wondered why there are so many complacent Christians? They enjoy having their names in the parish register, but just go through the motions of church membership.

When we become grateful for the wonderful gift given to us by Jesus on the cross, then we seek to serve our Lord as our devotion and commitment grow.

So in our liturgy this morning, may we offer our General Confession, not just as words, but with our sincere desire to amend our lives and seek forgiveness, and, with heartfelt gratitude, realize that we are forgiven and accepted as we are.

“Humanity is never so beautiful as when praying for forgiveness, or else forgiving another.” (Jean Paul Richter) As good stewards of all we are and have, let us always be willing to forgive as we are forgiven and out of gratitude offer ourselves to the work of our Lord through his church.

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Christopher Sikkema


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