Believe: Faith and Grace to Forgive

 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all[a] sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:5-10, New International Version).

Leon was one of the more interesting men I have known in my life. He passed away a few years ago and like so many who served in various ways during World War II, we all owe him and so many more who served then and now a great deal.

 Leon lied about his age after the war began so he could join the merchant marines. If there was a job more dangerous than being in the military during the war it was being a merchant mariner. Despite having lived all his childhood on the coast he had no idea he was prone to seasickness. He told me he was seasick the entire time he was in the merchant marines.

That didn’t stop him from learning his lessons as a merchant marine, both the good ones and the not so good, more stereotypical lessons. Leon had a mouth and you can take that in just about every way imaginable. He was, what we in the navy called, a crusty old salt. I heard some people refer to Leon as a banty rooster. If you didn’t know, a banty rooster, when talking about a person, is a short or small, often aggressive person. That definition fit Leon to a tee.

Still, most people knew Leon to be a good man. A man who would do just about anything for you, though he would gripe about it the whole time he was doing it. He really wasn’t mad about it. That was just Leon.

 One day I had the opportunity to sit and have a long conversation with Leon. I really don’t remember the subject of the whole conversation nor do I remember how we got onto the subject of confession and forgiveness. Nevertheless, we did end up on that topic. I do remember Leon’s words in this particular conversation, “Preacher, if you knew all the things I have done you would know there is no way God can forgive me and I’ve seen to much to ever ask for it.” They are words that still send chills down my spine.

Leon was right in that I don’t know everything he has seen or done but I think he was absolutely wrong that God can’t forgive him. If there is anything I know about God, it is that God is in the forgiveness business and thankfully, there is more grace in God than there is sin in us. Friends, if that isn’t true, there isn’t much reason for any of us to have hope and joy is worthless. But I also do know, we have plenty of reason to hope and to have joy.

This is the fifth of six posts on “The Apostle’s Creed.” Over the previous posts we have looked at most of the creed beginning with, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” We talked in that post about how God created everything we can see in the universe as well as everything we can’t see. None of this happened by accident.

We moved on to “I believe… in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord… and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall judge the quick and the dead.” As Trinitarian Christians we believe Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. God the Father being the first person and God the Son being the second person. Being the second person of the Trinity Jesus is fully divine but as one who was born, lived and died as a human Jesus is also fully human.

Our third post looked at the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. We saw how the Holy Spirit is God at work in our lives today. The Holy Spirit is the presence of Jesus on earth. Without the influence of the Holy Spirit our lives will fall short.

Yesterday’s post moved us forward and showed us the United Methodist understanding of the holy catholic church and the communion of saints. We understand the word catholic (with a lower-case “c”) is universal and that church is not a building but all people who profess the name of Jesus Christ. Just as we all are also the church, we are also all saints by our belief in Jesus. The communion of saints is the body of believers, both past and present.

Today’s post has us getting near the end of the creed as we talk about, “the forgiveness of sin.” As a lifelong sinner, and no, I am not proud of it, oh, and by the way, you too are a lifelong sinner, as a lifelong sinner I am grateful for this line of the creed. I believe in the forgiveness of sin. I believe, unlike Leon, there is very little that God cannot or will not forgive. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is the one unforgiveable sin but to be really honest, I am not all together sure what that is. So, I went and asked Mr. Wesley. In his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament John Wesley writes, “How much stir has been made about this! How many sermons, yea, volumes, have been written concerning it! And yet there is nothing plainer in all the Bible [since I didn’t get this Mr. Wesley isn’t helping my ego much]. It is neither more nor less than the ascribing those miracles to the power of the devil which Christ wrought by the power of the Holy Ghost.” I think I can safely say I haven’t heard anyone in my life, including Leon say Jesus’ miracles were the work of the devil. So, it seems to me, we are probably pretty safe on this one. Few, if any of us, at least by Wesley’s definition, have committed an unforgiveable sin. So, let’s move off that one, shall we?

Our lesson today is all about sin, confession and forgiveness. I believe, when we read these words from John’s first letter we can see that there are two keys to forgiveness. First, we have to acknowledge that we have sin in our lives.  There are people around us who believe, because of their faith, they are no longer sinners. I have talked to them and they think once they accept Jesus Christ they no longer sin. Folks, nothing could be further from the truth. John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us….  If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

 The Huntington River Gorge, near Richmond, Vermont, is beautiful but deadly. In the last forty years, twenty persons (mostly young adults in their twenties and thirties) have lost their lives in the gorge. Hundreds of gorge swimmers have been injured.

On the surface the water of the gorge looks calm and placid, but beneath it are strong currents that run swiftly over treacherous waterfalls and whirlpools. Public safety officials have designated the gorge “the single most deadly place in the state.” Warning signs have been posted on a side of the gorge, reading, “When the water is high due to rain or snowmelt, especially powerful currents can easily sweep you over the falls and trap you underneath the water.”

People have debated what to do about the gorge for years. Some argue for more public information about the gorge’s risks. Others want to ban anyone from visiting the place. Meanwhile, the gorge continues to attract swimmers to the scene. One college student attending the University of Vermont — just fourteen miles from the gorge — said she had heard about the beauty of Huntington River Gorge and wanted to see it. She said people already know about the dangers and try their best to be careful. “You can’t change the water, and you can’t stop people from going in,” she said.

Sin is like that. Something can look so beautiful, on the surface, but underneath the surface is where we find the difficulty. And, try as we might, we can’t stop one another from doing it. Sin is going to happen. The key is in knowing, realizing there is sin in all our lives. We cannot, we will not escape it.

Once we acknowledge the sinfulness in our lives, the second key, according to John, is confession. “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin…. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Did you hear that? “If we confess our sins…” If we want to find forgiveness from God, that forgiveness is rooted in confession. I don’t mean confession as in going to confession as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters find meaningful and important. And, I would interject they have a point too. While we don’t understand it to be necessary to confess to a priest, confessing to God is the real standard, there is something about confessing to another person that can be very valuable as that person can be an accountability partner who helps keep us away from the sin that brings us down again and again. There is also something about hearing our own voice saying our sins out loud to God. But, we have to confess and I mean really confess.

When Roger Barrier left home for college, his mother — who had always done his laundry — made a canvas duffel bag for him. “Put your dirty clothes in this every night,” she said. “At the end of the week, wash them at the Laundromat.”

Seven days later, he took his dirty clothes to the Laundromat. To save time, he thought, he threw the duffel bag into the washer, put in some laundry powder, inserted the proper change, and turned on the machine. Moments later, a loud thump, thump, thump, thump echoed through the Laundromat. A pretty coed approached him with a grin. “I watched you load your washer. I think the clothes would get cleaner if you took them out of the bag.”

One day, when his relationship with God was hurting, he remembered his laundry episode. He realized the way he confessed sins — “Dear God, please forgive me for all the sins I’ve committed today” — was about as effective as his first attempt at washing clothes. Each sin needs individual attention.

But, when we faithfully confess our sin, we will find forgiveness. I seriously doubt there is anything in your life God will not forgive.

A South African woman stood in an emotionally charged courtroom listening to white police officers acknowledge the atrocities they had perpetrated in the name of apartheid. Officer van de Broek acknowledged his responsibility in the death of her son. Along with others, he had shot her eighteen-year-old son at point-blank range. He and the others partied while they burned his body, turning it over on the fire until it was ashes.

Eight years later, van de Broek and others arrived to seize her husband. Hours later, van de Broek came to fetch the woman. He took her to a woodpile where her husband lay bound. She was forced to watch as they poured gasoline over his body and ignited the flames that consumed his body. The last words her husband said were “Forgive them.”

Now van de Broek stood awaiting judgment. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked the woman what she wanted. “Three things,” she said. “I want Mr. van de Broek to take me to the place where they burned my husband’s body. I would like to gather up the dust and give him a decent burial.

“Second, Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him.

“Third, I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God and that I forgive him, too. I would like someone to lead me to where he is seated so I can embrace him and he can know my forgiveness is real.”

As the elderly woman was led across the courtroom, van de Broek fainted. Someone began singing “Amazing Grace.” Gradually everyone joined in.

If this woman, a finite creature, can find it in her heart to love and forgive after crimes against her and her family as heinous as those, how much more can God, an infinite in power and love and forgiveness, forgive us, God’s children.

You see friends. Really, it isn’t about us at all. This isn’t about our sin, not really anyway. This is about the infinite love and forgiveness of God.

There is one more thing I want to say about God’s forgiveness. When you or I forgive, we might forgive but it is really hard to forget. The event, regardless of how hard we might try, remains locked into our minds. But when we confess our sin and ask for God to forgive, it is gone.

A couple of weeks ago I ran across a story on The Upper Room’s website about a boy who had kicked a ball and broken a window in a neighbor’s home. When confronted the boy admitted what he had done, and the neighbor forgave the boy. It was a great story.

But it got me to thinking. Not long ago I had to go to one of those people who fix the chips in your windshield. I had had a rock hit mine and I had a small crack. The guy who worked on it did a good job. I am happy with his work. But you can still see the chip just a little bit. The cracks are still visible if you look closely.

When that boy confessed his sin, he confessed breaking the window, it is like God taking a cloth and wiping the window clean. Those cracks that we can’t fix, no matter how hard we might try, for God, they are wiped clean. No more crack. No more chip. No more break.

That is forgiveness. For God, when we confess and God forgives, the slate is wiped clean. What good news that is for you and for me.  No matter how many times I say it as part of a creed, I believe in the forgiveness of sin. I believe the grace of God is at work in my life and in your life to wipe that window clean of all the cracks I put in it. I am thankful for that grace. I am thankful for divine forgives. I need, we all need, the forgiveness of sin.

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