by AmyJo Mattheis
Sin is the source of our wounds, and forgiveness is the balm that heals. As a Christian raised in the Lutheran tradition, I believe that our baptism is at the center of how we interact with the violence and brokenness of sin.
Baptism changes the way we see the world because baptism gives us all the forgiveness we will ever need, the very moment we are touched by the water. That’s a profound statement for Lutherans who are baptized as infants. God pours out unending grace and forgiveness before we have chosen wrong, and without our knowing what we will choose to do over the course of our lives. We are cleansed with the waters of forgiveness that promise we need not purify ourselves again. “We are born children of a fallen humanity; in baptism we are reborn children of God and inheritors of eternal life.” Baptism does not mean we live outside the reality of sin. Baptism means we live as already forgiven sinners.
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ” This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)
I completed four months of my seminary internship in the holy city of Jerusalem. My husband and I left eight months early due to an experience of severe pain and brokenness we encountered there. Anger raged inside me for what seemed like endless weeks and months. I knew intellectually I needed to forgive those who had wronged me, but my heart was overshadowed with hate.
As a baptized child of God, I had all the forgiveness I would need for my own wrongdoings. I was now confronted with living as a person of forgiveness in the middle of the gritty reality of sin. How does a baptized disciple of Christ live forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a leading characteristic of a follower of Christ. We are given this gift in our baptism, and we are called to work at exercising it throughout our journey as a Christian. Engaging the hurt was the work I needed to do to learn that the One who gave me my freedom from sin was also the One who would give forgiveness to those who had hurt me. God could, would, and did forgive the actions that led to my pain. Where I could not forgive, I came to the epiphany that God already had. I let go of the guilt I carried for not wanting to forgive them myself, and was released to live fully in my own baptismal promise of worth, validity, and love. It was a gift that gave me time to heal and to rediscover God’s action within me.
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28)
My heart is touched each time I sing the “Now the Feast” liturgy. The third stanza in the Hymn of Praise is most compelling: “For God has come to dwell with us, to make us people of God. To make all things new!”
Worship leads to the table of life, where we receive the body and blood of Christ that gives us the power to forgive and keep going. God will make all things new! From the cross of death we are given the food of life!
During my time of healing I participated in worship and received communion regularly. I was being filled with the bread and wine of forgiveness. We come to the table of Jesus as we are, in all of our humanity and sin. We are not asked to dress up our souls, to look good before we eat. Rather, we come as sinners to the table of Christ, believing Jesus sees all of who we are, and still wants to give us his life.
“The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus Answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:30-32)
Followers of Christ washed with forgiveness and fed with forgiveness, even as we are sinners, cannot and will not refuse it to another. No one was denied Christ’s table. He had a reputation for eating with sinners and prostitutes. We take our cues about who is welcome at Christ’s table of forgiveness from the One who is the host. Jesus consistently moved his table beyond the boundaries and lines of purity, righteousness, and acceptability. We who eat at that same table, who kneel to receive strength for our own personal forgiveness, are called to rise and look honestly at the sin of our corporate life, of the system of “how things are.” We are connected to the larger world at the table of Christ.
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Cor. 5:17)
The forgiveness we receive compels us beyond our own hurts and fears into significant realities of the world’s pain, injustice, and sin. Christ’s gift of freedom means that our sin does not define us. Sin does not have the last word!
Forgiven followers of Jesus go where Jesus went. Regularly practicing our sacraments of baptism and eating at the table of life gives us the power to forgive. When we find that source, we move beyond the walls the world erects and break them down through our acts of genuine, hard, gritty forgiveness. We become freed people who free the world!
The Rev. AmyJo Mattheis is currently an ELCA pastor serving in Stockton, California. Her first call was in the New York Metropolitan Synod, where she served with her husband, the Rev. Peter Holmquist. They work together both as pastors and parents; their three children are Elias, Zoe, and Quinn.
This article first appeared in the 2004 issue of Cafe.