Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over the transgression
of the remnant of your possession?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in showing clemency.
He will again have compassion upon us;
he will tread our iniquities under foot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
Colossians 3:1-2, 7-15
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. …
You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
The Apostles’ Creed is short, really. It really only covers a few topics. And so, as Pastor Adam Hamilton says, it is a “witness to the centrality of forgiveness to the Christian gospel that, despite the brevity of the Apostles’ Creed, the statement “I believe in . . . the forgiveness of sins” made the cut.”
Forgiveness wasn’t part of the original creed, created in the second century as a set of questions and answers about who God was. But two hundred years later, the church found it needed to make a stand about forgiveness.
Before the fourth century, as we all know, Christians suffered periodic persecutions. Some Christians stood boldly against these persecutions and were tortured and killed for it, and we love to trot out the stories of these martyrs. But others made compromises, and still others submitted entirely. And so the world was full of these people who had wanted to follow Christ but had also wanted to save their lives—and the lives of their families. Some saw them as weak. Some saw them as wise.
And then, suddenly, in 313, the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, and persecution ceased, and the church was left with a conundrum. They were people of love and mercy, so they should welcome back those who had faltered under persecution. Yet they were also people of holiness and loyalty, so they should not let in folks who had made it clear they would give up on faith when the going got tough. Who belonged in the church?
The loudest group became known as the Donatists, and this is what they said to those who buckled under persecution: “You have messed up too badly to come back here.” So they formed their own church, a pure church without all those pesky sinners. And the Catholic church, the one with the Apostles’ Creed, said no. We do believe in the forgiveness of sins. Even the worst ones. We believe that the church can be holy, that it can be a communion of saints, not despite the fact that we forgive sinners, but because of it.
And they’ve left us to wrestle with that belief ever since.
To say “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” is radical. It is an extraordinary act of welcome—not to those poor pitiful folks who have been excluded for no good reason, but to all manner of people who have been pushed away for very, very good reasons. To say “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” is to say “I will risk something in order to give others a second chance.”
I will admit that there are days I would rather not believe in the forgiveness of sins. I would rather everybody suffer the consequences of their choices and actions, and let the chips fall where they may. I would rather the church only need to welcome perfect, lovely, shiny people—people who will never annoy me or anger me or disappoint me.
But then I remember the wise words of the philosopher Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
And if I want to shut the doors of the church to everyone who is a sinner, I’ll pretty quickly find myself locked out, too.
To quote the Apostle Paul, all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Full stop. No exceptions. Calvin called that total depravity—not that we are unredeemable, but that there is no part of us that couldn’t use a little bit of redemption.
Rev. Hamilton reminds us that “Paul speaks of sin as a force, drive, or power that is at work in us, something that is broken or marred in us that lures us, or seeks to compel us to do the things we should not do, and to fail in doing the things we should… We pretend that sin has no power over us and that we’re not really sinners, but maintaining this illusion shows a lack of self-awareness—and self-awareness is the very thing we need in order to turn away from sin and resist its power.”
And so whenever we recite the Apostles’ Creed, those sins stare us square in the face. We say “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” admitting that sins are real and powerful and part of us, but also proclaiming boldly that they have a powerful conqueror in forgiveness.
When we recite the Apostle’s Creed, we claim to be part of the holy catholic church, not because we are so perfect that we don’t need forgiveness, but because we are already forgiven. We wouldn’t be here, part of this communion of saints, if God’s forgiveness hadn’t welcomed us in. The church, we proclaim, are people who know how bad it can get, and rejoice in how good we have it.
I have to admit, with a bit of embarrassment, that my whole life reciting the creed, I had always assumed that “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” meant “I believe that God forgives my sins.” And that is true. Scripture overflows with examples of God’s great mercy—from the prophets who proclaim that God will “throw our sins into the sea” to the very person of Jesus Christ, who came to save us from our sins. Yet forgiveness is an open door, a two-way street. To say I believe in the forgiveness of sins is to say both “I believe my sins are forgiven” and “I believe in forgiving other people’s sins.”
And oh, that’s hard.
We have talked about the process of forgiveness on other days, in other sermons, and if that’s something you’re struggling with particularly right now I’d love to chat—but I’ll warn you, I struggle with it too. In fact, I’m suspicious of anyone who says forgiveness is an easy process. I don’t think the Bible would harp on it so much if it were easy.
But friends, we need to believe in the forgiveness of sins… and to practice what we preach.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it seems lately like everyone is mad at each other.
Or at least, reading the news, scrolling through Facebook, listening to friends vent—it seems that way. We’ve lived too long with crisis, fear, anxiety, frustration—and we’re hitting a wall. We’re mad, and it’s bubbling over everywhere I look. And forgiveness is in real short supply.
And the thing is, I really believe most of us are doing our best. Trying hard to be calm and reasonable. Working overtime to maintain relationships despite how the stress and strain. Clinging desperately to hope and peace and love and light while the world burns around us.
But even with all of us doing our best, the pain is still just mounting. And so I find myself looking for an out, a breath of fresh air, an open door. And this week God hands me a sermon on the forgiveness of sins.
Forgiveness heals. I believe that. But sometimes it has the bitter taste of medicine. Sometimes I don’t want to give up my self-righteousness, to admit that I’m messed up too. Sometimes I don’t want to give up my resentment, my anger. Sometimes I don’t want to welcome back people who hurt me, who hurt others. Sometimes I want to draw the line in the sand and say with the Donatists, “You messed up too bad to come back here.”
But the problem is, as soon as I draw that line, I find myself on the other side.
So I take a deep breath, and swallow down the wisdom of the scriptures: “as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Forgive as the Lord forgave you. It’s bitter medicine, and it’s the only thing that will heal us.
So this week, I want you to sit with these two questions:
- What do you need to forgive in others?
- And what do you need to accept God’s forgiveness for in yourself?
I believe in the forgiveness of sins. Because I know I have been forgiven.
 Hamilton, Adam. Creed: What Christians Believe and Why: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed., 2016. Kindle edition.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn , quoted in Hamilton, Adam. Creed: What Christians Believe and Why: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed., 2016. Kindle edition.