Rev. Todd Peperkorn
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Pentecost 13 (Proper 19A)
September 11, 2011
TITLE: “Forgiveness is the Life of the Church”
Joseph and his brothers had history. They were jealous of Joseph because their father, Isaac, seemed to love him more. Isaac showered gifts upon Joseph. So, out of envy, Joseph’s brothers plotted to murder him. At the last minute, in a moment of “pity”, they decided to sell him into slavery. How generous.
Joseph’s life kind of went downhill from there. He thrived as a slave in the house of Potiphar, until Potiphar’s wife put her eye on him. He refused to give in to her advances, and was then falsely accused of attacking her. Then in prison, Joseph continued to thrive by serving his fellow prisoners. Eventually, by God’s mercy, Joseph gained Pharaoh’s favor, and came to the point of being the viceroy of Egypt. He was the number two man in all the land, and Joseph’s planning saved Egypt from drought.
But Joseph’s father still thought him dead. When the drought brought Joseph’s brother’s down to Egypt, Joseph eventually revealed himself to his brothers. He forgave them of their sins against him. You can almost hear the echoes of our Lord on the cross in this story, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
So now we come to our Old Testament text for the day. Joseph’s father is now dead, and Joseph’s brothers are afraid. Will he get his revenge now? What will he do now that he is really in a position of power and doesn’t have to worry about dad? Would he exact the revenge that was his right?
They needn’t have worried. When Joseph saw how fearful and desperate they were, Joseph wept. Sin is a trap, and those caught in the net of sin are to be pitied and forgiven, not stomped on. Joseph wept, and then said, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As you for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.”
The evil that happens to each one of us is indeed evil. Have you been hurt by others? Have you been betrayed by those you love? Have you sinned against your brothers and sisters? And I don’t just mean your physical brothers and sisters. I mean those here, in the family of faith. I mean your neighbor, your co-worker, or anyone whom God has put in your path. If you are a son or daughter of Adam, then you have been crushed by the weight of sin upon you.
We all by nature want our pound of flesh. We want to exact revenge. I remember the mindset of our country ten years ago today during the terrorist attacks and the days and weeks which followed. We as a nation wanted revenge. It was not simply about justice, although that was part of it. We wanted to hurt those who hurt us. That is our nature. We all want to give others what is fair, as long as the “fair” means that they are the ones on the receiving end of our so-called justice. Joseph, in a beautiful Christ image, forgives those who have harmed him. He doesn’t give them what they deserve. He gives them mercy. He loves them.
So fast forward to Peter in our Gospel. He comes to Jesus with a reasonable question. “How often should I forgive my brother? Up to seven times?” Peter was being generous. Seven times was considered a lot in his day. But our Lord is not about measuring forgiveness. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Now Jesus doesn’t mean 490 times and then WHACK, you give them what they deserve. Jesus’ point here is that if you’re measuring forgiveness and doling it out like a ration during a war, then you have missed the point.
But why, you might ask, is it so hard to forgive those who sin against us? That really is the question, isn’t it? We don’t want to forgive those who sin against us because we don’t by nature trust that God will work out all things for our good, as St. Paul confesses in Romans 8. I am afraid that if I forgive the one who sins against me, they will be getting away with something. I am afraid that if I forgive them their sins and let go of my anger and hatred, that they will come back and hurt me again. Because truth be told, I don’t want everything to work out for THEIR good. I want everything to work out for MY good.
When you forgive someone their sins against you, they aren’t getting away with something. What you are saying when you forgive someone their sins is that Jesus paid the price for their sins on the cross. You have no right to cling to them, to hold those sins against them, and to strut about as the self-righteous one that has been wronged. When you refuse to forgive someone their sins, you are saying that Jesus didn’t die for them. You are denying them the Gospel.
That’s the problem, though, isn’t it? In Church, at home, at work, at school or at play, we want things to be fair, as long as fair means the other guy gets what he deserves.
This is why the heartbeat of the Christian Church is the forgiveness of sins. It is what makes us tick, because that is the very heart of God for you and for me. Dr. Luther put it this way:
Everything, therefore, in the Christian Church is ordered toward this goal: we shall daily receive in the Church nothing but the forgiveness of sin through the Word and signs, to comfort and encourage our consciences as long as we live here. So even though we have sins, the ‹grace of the› Holy Spirit does not allow them to harm us. For we are in the Christian Church, where there is nothing but ‹continuous, uninterrupted› forgiveness of sin. This is because God forgives us and because we forgive, bear with, and help one another [Galatians 6:1–2].1
But what happens when we don’t forgive? What happens when we are more like the unmerciful servant in our Gospel than we are like the master of the house? Truth be told, it takes a lifetime to learn to forgive others as God has forgiven you. But guess what? You have a lifetime and more. Each day begins anew in God’s sight. That is why we pray every day, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
God is the merciful Lord who forgives your sins, a debt far greater than you could ever repay on your own. He loves you with an everlasting love. Jesus is the greater Joseph, who forgives your sins, even though your sins are grievous and have hurt him deeply. He puts Himself in your place, takes your sorrows and hurts, and gives you life in His name.
What’s more, like Joseph fed His brothers in the desert, He feeds you this day with more than simply grain and water. He feeds you with His own body and blood, so that you now eat and drink forgiveness, life and salvation. The forgiving master calls you to His Table. Come, take your place in the Church of the Forgiveness of Sins. Believe it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
1 Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (405). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.