“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

I was struck again last Sunday by those words. Their familiarity masks their radical call. As James Mulholland says in his book, Praying Like Jesus, “You can’t pray those words without examining your life.” When they asked him to pray, it would have been enough for Jesus to say, “Forgive us our sins.” But then Jesus added the word “as.”

The most common sense we get from the plain reading of the words, and the lessons and sermons we listen to, is that God’s own forgiveness is dependent on our forgiveness for others. That is, that God’s forgiveness is limited in some sense, and it’s flow controlled by our actions. In essence, we might most commonly understand it something like this: “Teach us to forgive others, so that we might also be forgiven.” And of course we would love to conceive of ourselves first as forgivers. This would leave us in control. From our own great store of righteousness, we can with initiative reach out and forgive those who have injured or wronged us. And that would be a mis-reading, an example of why our plain reading that comes through often in translation can lead us to some crazy theological ideas and assumptions. Our forgiveness of others is no precondition for divine forgiveness.

No, first the prayer asks us to ask to be forgiven. Suddenly we are at the mercy of God, completely. And the greek verb language of what comes after is present/imperative, pointing to the immediate future….“Forgive us our sins, as we (now, moving forward) forgive those who sin against us.” That is, having received the mercy of God that sets us free from our sins, we can, as Will Willimon says, “turn the world around, and throw a monkey wrench in the eternal wheel of retribution and vengeance.” We have power to forgive, but that power comes from our experience with God’s forgiveness.

It is this, that when we pray “as we forgive those who sin against us”, we are reminded of the work we have to do, what John Austin calls “a performative utterance.” Our human words of forgiveness for one another are in fact the clearest reflection and experience of Divine forgiveness that can be seen in the world.

To hold stubbornly onto control of the hurt and pain does not diminish God’s capacity to forgive us, but likely is a clear sign that we ourselves need an experience of mercy for ourselves. St. John Chrysostom wrote in the late fourth century: “God can forgive our offenses without our forgiving others, but God wills for us a great benefit, namely, ‘Cementing’ us to others who are fellow members of the body of Christ by means of love, casting out what is brutish in us, and quenching wrath. In the end, our human forgiveness can and must be understood simply as a reflection of the divine forgiveness.”

Wrestle with the “as”! And I’ll see you soon, when we’ll worship and say those words again. In the meantime, I bet it’s not hard for you to locate those whom you need to forgive, and those you need to ask forgiveness from. This is holy work. Don’t hold back from it — and if you find yourself unable, open up your own soul and let the mercy of God wash over you. This is what will bring you to your neighbor’s door to do the work of love.

Peter Hawkinson

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