Sixteenth-century pastor and theologian John Calvin once wrote that the forgiveness of sins was the most important part of prayer. While this statement was kind of a sixteenth-century equivalent of click bait, he wasn’t wrong. And even if we were to argue that it is not necessarily the most important part of prayer, we can be assured that it is still an important and necessary (and ongoing) aspect of prayer and communion with God – if we take Jesus’ instruction on the matter seriously.
But do you notice that the line in Luke 11:4 and Matthew 6:12 is not ‘forgive me my sins’? It is ‘forgive us our sins’.
I remember talking with a friend from Africa one day about how individualistic Christianity in Western cultures has become. One of the specific things that had struck them about Australian faith is the lack of communal responsibility in our prayer and actions. We barely mourn, lament, or rejoice communally, much less repent communally for the sins of our communities or of those that came before us.
1 Peter 2:9 reminds us that as Christians, we continue the mission that God had initially bestowed upon Israel. We are a nation of priests in this world.
A priest is someone who mediates between two parties. They represent God to the people and they represent the people to God. As Christians, we are God’s chosen people – a priesthood. As priests we not only represent God to the world, but we are commissioned to represent the world to God.
The story in Mark 2:1-13 reminds us that, actually, the forgiveness of our sins is more important than any other aspect of our lives. This is not saying that God is vindictive (in fact, while we were still sinners, God loved us enough to send His only begotten son to die for us). It is saying that reconciliation with God is the most important thing that Jesus did for us – not healing, or casting out demons, or changing societal prejudices.
While this particular story deals with an individual’s reconciliation and healing, it can be applied to larger communities. Before we pray that God would intervene in society, have we (we) repented of society’s sins?
For so long Western society has lusted after individual autonomy, individual responsibility, and, ultimately, individual truth. Before the wave breaks and God gives our nation over to the lusts of its heart, we must repent – communally – for the sins of individualism, materialism, and the pursuit of pleasure. Not just because, as a royal priesthood, it’s out duty, but because the Western church has not been immune to the sins of its community. Often, it has perpetuated them, if not at least excused them.
I pray that the church would hear this message. We are starting to see the effects of secular individualism on the freedom of how Christians can minister according to true faith and doctrine. But if we pray that God would change these events without repenting on behalf of our wider communities and our own involvement in these sins, we have fallen into the immature ideology of a vending-machine-God.