A sermon offered on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 [Isaiah 12:2-6]; Philippians 4:4-7; and Luke 3:7-18. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)
John the Baptizer came, Luke tells us, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Lk. 3:3) In today’s Gospel lesson, John tells the crowds who came to him, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (v. 8) Our catechism teaches us that repentance is required of us to receive the Sacraments. With regard to baptism, the catechetical requirement is that we “renounce Satan, repent of our sins, and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior;” with regard to the Holy Eucharist, that we “examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people.” (BCP 858, 860) But John’s admonition and the Catechism’s requirements leave us wondering, “What exactly is ‘repentance’?”
It is something more than mere acknowledgment of transgression or wrong-doing, more than saying I’m sorry. The biblical and theological word for repentance is metanoia, which means a “turning around” or a changing of direction. We get a hint of this meaning in the invitation to confession used in earlier Anglican prayer books and still found in Rite One in our current Book of Common Prayer:
Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith . . . . (BCP 330)
To repent is to turn from our path onto God’s “holy ways” and “lead a new life.”
John’s audience clearly knew that some amendment of life was part of what he was calling them to, for “the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?'” (Lk 3:10) His answers probably seem to us pretty common-sensical: share what you have, don’t take more than you deserve, don’t extort money, don’t make false accusations, be satisfied with your wages. That’s pretty much what the old prayer book invitation to confession said, too: follow the commandments, follow God’s ways, be on good terms with your neighbors. It’s common sense; it’s hard to do!
That’s why Jesus taught us to seek forgiveness, to repent every time we pray: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Which brings us to this, the next petition in our consideration of the Lord’s Prayer.
Now the truth is that hundreds if not thousands of books of several hundred pages each have been written about the Lord’s Prayer, and hundreds of those books are specifically about this petition, and only this petition. Perhaps that is because sin, the subject of this part of the prayer, is so fascinating. Perhaps it is because of the difference in terminology used by Luke and Matthew; Luke uses the Greek word hamartia, usually translated as “sin” although it actually means something else, while Matthew uses opheilemata, usually translated as “debt” which is pretty accurate, and neither uses the word which means “trespass,” which is paraptoma, a word found in Matthew’s follow-up commentary on the prayer, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Mt. 6:14) “Trespass” made its way into the older liturgical version of the prayer because of the early English translation work of John Wycliffe and William Tyndale in the 15th Century.
So what do these two words tell us about sin? By the way, the English word “sin” comes from an old Germanic word meaning a failure to obey a rule and carries an inference of moral guilt; neither of the Greek words derives from anything like that. Hamartia comes from the sport of archery and means “to miss the mark”; opheilemata comes from business accounting and means a monetary debt. (The word meaning “forgive,” aphes, also comes from accounting and means cancelation of a debt.)
Bible commentator William Barclay, in his book The Lord’s Prayer (Westminster John Knox, Louisville:1998) explains hamartia this way:
Harmartia was not originally an ethical word; originally it meant quite simply a missing of the mark, as when a javelin, or an arrow, or a blow misses its mark. In this sense, sin is a failure to hit the mark, a failure to realize the true aim of life, a failure to be and to do that which we ought to have done, and which we could have been and could have done. (p. 86)
And of opheilemata he writes that Matthew was directly translating an accounting metaphor used by Aramaic speaking rabbis of Jesus’ time, probably the very word that Jesus used in his original teaching:
Now in the time of Jesus in Palestine the rabbis thought of sin almost exclusively as a failure in obedience to God. To them goodness was obedience, sin was disobedience. This is to say that man’s first obligation is to give God obedience; not to give obedience to God is to be in debt to God; and therefore their commonest word for sins was choba’, which in fact means debt. (p. 86)
Neither of the Greek terms necessarily carries a connotation of moral culpability. Certainly there are times when a person commits an intentional act which misses the mark of moral or ethical behavior, but there are many more times when we miss the mark because, like a trained archer, we aim carefully to do the right thing and then miss. Certainly there are times when a person intentionally fails to pay a debt, an unethical and perhaps even criminal thing to do, but there are many more times when we incur indebtedness because we have blundered or slipped through inadvertence.
These Greek words remind us that sinfulness is not about breaking rules; sinfulness is about harming relationships. This is why the great existentialist theologian Paul Tillich insisted that “sin does not mean an immoral act;” he suggested “that ‘sin’ should never be used in the plural, and that not our sins, but rather our sin is the great, all-pervading problem of our life.” (Quoted in Killen, R. Allan, The Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich, J. H. Kok, Kampen:1956, p. 185) That problem, he said, is separation: “To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation.” (Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:46)
Thus the state of our whole life is estrangement from others and ourselves, because we are estranged from the Ground of our being, because we are estranged from the origin and aim of our life. And we do not know where we have come from, or where we are going. We are separated from the mystery, the depth, and the greatness of our existence. We hear the voice of that depth; but our ears are closed. We feel that something radical, total, and unconditioned is demanded of us; but we rebel against it, try to escape its urgency, and will not accept its promise. (Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, Chapter 19: You Are Accepted.)
In trying to make that urgent escape, we stumble. We say the wrong thing, or perhaps the right thing in a wrong way, or we hear what another says differently than that other intended, and we both incur the debt of explanation. We do something we shouldn’t do or fail to do something we should; we miss the mark. We blunder off the path, transgress a boundary, and put things out of balance. We may not break any rule, but we hurt feelings and damage relationships. We exacerbate the sin of separation and increase our estrangement from ourselves, from others, and from God. Sin is not about breaking rules; sin is about harming relationships. Sin is separation.
God’s forgiveness, aphes, the cancellation of any debt, balances the books, moves the arrow from wherever it went astray and counts it a bull’s-eye. This is the promise of God set out by Zephaniah in today’s Old Testament lesson: “I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. . . . . I will change [your] shame into praise . . . .” (Zeph. 3:18-19) God’s forgiveness sets the pattern for our own; we are able to forgive others because we know that we are forgiven. So Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” in our liturgical version. “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Lk 11:4) is how Luke renders it; “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12) is Matthew’s version.
Mark, of course, does not tell us about Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer, but he does tell us that on the day after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he instructed his disciples about the power of prayer and in that teaching said, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mk 11:25) In March of 2014, Pope Francis preached a homily on the feeding of the 5,000 in which he said this: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” It’s an insight that applies to this petition of the Lord’s Prayer, as well: “You pray for forgiveness. Then you forgive. That’s how prayer works.”
Last week, on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Facebook page, he posted a picture of a statue erected in Derry, Northern Ireland, of two men reaching across a wide gap and reaching for each other’s hand. The Archbishop’s caption for the photograph said,
Reconciliation is about our relationship with God and with each other. It’s people, communities and nations learning to live together with deeply-held differences in a spirit of love and respect. It’s working for justice and seeking truth in the light of God’s mercy and peace. It’s the very heart of the gospel.
Forgiveness is the first step of reconciliation; together, forgiveness and reconciliation are chief among the fruits of repentance John the Baptizer admonished his hearers, and us, to bear.
There is so much more that could be said about this petition! Hundreds of books of hundreds of pages have been written about it. Please forgive me for only scratching the surface.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Amen.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.