I remember as a child being somewhat confused by the number of times in the Sunday worship service we asked for forgiveness.
We always began the service with a general confession and declaration of forgiveness. But then we would hear that “this cup is the new testament in my blood, shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.” And a few minutes later, in the Lord’s Prayer, we would ask again, “Forgive us our sins and we forgive those who sin against us.” I remember being puzzled whether the forgiveness declared at the beginning of the service couldn’t last through the whole hour. Why did we need to keep asking?
I didn’t try to solve the problem then; I just thought it was odd.
Kids do actually hear what’s going on around them. Besides being shushed and told not to bother your sister, and besides being curious about the number of dots in the ceiling tiles, and besides being fascinated by the number of ‘s’ sounds you could hear bouncing of the tile floor (count them: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There’s nine in just that one phrase. And when you’re small, and keeping your head down as you are supposed to in prayer, all those ‘s’ sounds bounce right into your ears from the hard flooring underneath all the pews.) Besides all of these, children are still listening. And wondering. Trying to piece together the significance of all they are hearing.
So why do we keep praying for forgiveness when it has already been declared? Have we sinned in the 30 minutes that has passed between the confession and absolution and the Holy Communion? Probably. It’s not hard to stick your tongue out at your sibling. Though that hardly seems worthy of a whole ‘nother prayer.
Or is it that we have trouble holding on to the assurance of forgiveness for a full 30 minutes? Probably, this, too. It’s one thing to be told you are forgiven; it’s another to inhabit that realm of true and unmerited grace.
Or is it that we really aren’t paying attention to these wondrous words that are being spoken? This, too, I suspect. There is always that danger of speaking and hearing words without really speaking and hearing. Jesus did have a habit of saying “Let whoever has ears to hear, hear.” There’s more to hearing than letting sounds enter our ears.
Jesus has entrusted to us the authority – and the task – of declaring to the whole world that our debt to God has been erased. Forgiven. Blotted out. Washed away. “Though your sins are as scarlet they shall be white as snow.” “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
The full significance of these simple words is hard to comprehend, so they have to be repeated. The confession and absolution at the beginning of worship reminds us that God has welcomed us into his presence. Getting through the front door is never taken for granted when we have betrayed or shamed a friend or family member. It is important to start right off with the message that lightening isn’t going to strike. We are given permission to come into God’s presence. (Remember Esther? It was punishable by death to come into the Persian King’s presence unbidden.) So our first words are a kind of “I don’t deserve to be here” followed by God’s response: “I’m glad you came.” It’s an important beginning.
The prayer for forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer that comes later is tied to the declaration that we, in turn, hereby release all others from their offenses against us. It is one step to be welcomed in the door where the conversation begins; it’s a second giant step to inhabit this realm of grace by living grace to others.
And then there is the meal, the bread in the hand, that is both a promise of the banquet to come and a remembrance of the price that was paid. We who have been forgiven and have forgiven others now share the table of an eternal reconciliation. Reconciled families always end with a meal where the recent past is left behind, the old stories are retold and the shared bread creates a future.
All this is a lot more than a young boy understands. But he hears and remembers the words, and knows there is a great and wondrous thing going on above and beyond what sounds like the hissing of a hundred snakes beneath the pews.