24 March 2019 The Forgiveness Challenge Martin Baker
15 "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." 21 Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, "Pay what you owe.' 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, "You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
Let us pray
We hear these words spoken today by Peter. "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
These scriptures sound very detailed. Almost as if someone from the IRD might have written them. All about processes, about numbers, even about threats of what happens if we do or do not forgive.
Biblical scholars tell us that it is likely that these details come from quite specific challenges in the earliest church. Where Jesus’ parables and teaching needed to be applied to problems of conflict and disagreement.
The most important lesson is that the Gospel, that Jesus is all about forgiveness. We have strong language to emphasise two basic points. The central importance of forgiveness, and the terrible consequences if forgiveness is not given.
Behind our reading today there is a very practical question. In a situation of conflict within our church, within our communities, within our lives, how do we apply Jesus’ teachings? And it may not be a matter of telling someone off, or telling them to just sort it out, or saying just get over it. Or working out who should say sorry to whom. Or who is to blame. It may not be a matter of saying just forgive and forget. But that is not the direction we are hearing today.
There is a different kind of challenge. Given what has happened, how do we follow Jesus and seek a way of restoring this broken relationship?
Quite often we might just leave a relationship, a group, a church. Sometimes that might be the best option, especially in situations of violence or abuse. But sometimes we just might leave because it is the easiest thing to do. And when we leave the residue of hurt and anger can remain for a lifetime. And it gets quite personal. For many of us the stories of deepest hurt and sadness that we carry relate in some way to a story of a broken relationship of some sort.
What would restoration look like?
For people of faith, we are challenged to call to mind the claims of the Gospel as the starting point in our thinking about conflict.
First of all about God’s gift in Jesus, restoring a broken relationship between us and God.
The basic point is that forgiveness and the power to forgive is a gift. A gift of immeasurable value and cost.
Jesus speaks God’s words of forgiveness from the cross. Forgive them for they do not know what they do.
The Gospel is clear on this. The restoration of broken relationships is never cheap or easy or without a cost.
And though some of the detail in the reading today is difficult to listen to, the whole point in giving this detail is to say that forgiveness has to be about real things. Not abstract things.
How we open ourselves to God’s grace. How we really see others especially at times of conflict and disagreement. How we speak to them. Think about them. How as a community we witness to our faith especially in the times we are in right now.
A while ago I talked on a Sunday morning about what my children would probably call a losing it story.
Just too briefly summarise, quite a few years ago now, in fact over 25 years ago, Sandy, my wife and I bought a small property on Great Barrier Island. It was then and continues to be, a little piece of paradise for us.
The island population is not big and people are always interested in who buys and sells property. And for some reason people knew, around us, that I was a Presbyterian Minister. Before we got there for the first time.
We arrived with our very young children and set up the little house. And about a day after we arrived, the previous owner a very able and popular guy, turned up and started removing stuff from around the house. Things he had stored underneath the house. Pot plants, things like that. And as I watched him some terrible feeling overcame me. And finally he started to dismantle the irrigation water pump sitting on the front lawn. And at that point I kind of lost it. And we had this huge altercation on the front lawn. Bad and loud and sufficiently colourful let’s say for a number of neighbours to hear. It was not a great moment.
On the boat back, I remember a complete stranger coming up to me, someone who lived elsewhere on the island, saying I heard you had a bit of an issue with the water pump.
So, two things they knew about me. 1 that I was a Presbyterian minister and 2 that I had a really terrible argument with the well liked previous owner of the house.
Has anyone else got a water pump story? Fences, trees, driveways. Carparks, water access. Jobs.
What consumed us at that time?
Especially when it comes to property and ownership and that overwhelming sense of righteousness, anger. Why is it so hard sometimes to take advice from my children who would say just chill out?
The reason I am repeating this story is that after I told this story Andrew McCormack spoke to me about a phenomena called an amygdala hijack. The amygdala is the part of our brain that causes our fight or flight response when we feel threatened. It is an immediate, overwhelming emotional response. And often it is only later that we realise that our response was totally inappropriate and unhelpful in resolving the given situation. Apparently though we all have these triggers.
Being aware of what makes us angry, what triggers lead us to say things that are damaging or hurtful. We are taught elsewhere by Paul that self-control is one of the fruits of the spirit. For good reason I think.
I would like to think that If I saw the person in the story I’ve just told you today, I think it quite likely that he would have completely forgotten about it and we would have an amicable conversation about the changes on the section or with the house or on Island since he left. In those kind of conversations there is an unspoken element of restoration.
That perhaps is a trivial example but we learn today that the consequences in our reading today of not forgiving are terrible.
CS Lewis had an interesting image of hell.
In his book The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis, draws a stark picture of hell. Hell is like a great, vast city, a city inhabited only at its outer edges, with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle. These houses in the middle are empty because everyone who once lived there has quarrelled with the neighbours and moved. Then, they quarrelled with the new neighbours and moved again, leaving the streets and the houses of their old neighbourhoods empty and barren.
That, Lewis says, is how hell has gotten so large. It is empty at its centre and inhabited only at the outer edges, because everyone chose distance instead of honest confrontation and restoration when it came to dealing with their relationships.
Our reading today finishes with some horrible words. 34 And in anger his Lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
These words at the end can be called, in technical language, eschatological words. Words that are meant to shock. To shock us in a way so that we stand back and think about the ultimate consequences of our actions.
Churches that have been torn up by matters that started off as small differences. Words that we spoke to someone we loved in anger, when our amygdala took control, when our emotions were triggered for some reason that led to so much more pain and hurt that we could have ever imagined.
The first death in the name of religion. The chat rooms and social media and false news which builds on people fears and paranoia and leads them to terrible acts of violence.
We hear of community’s, religious groups, nations even, that have come to realise that the only way to break the cycle of reprisal and counter reprisal that had characterised their histories, was to move to quite deliberate and difficult processes of restorative justice and forgiveness.
Jesus spent his life healing and welcoming tax collectors, gentile’s, sinners of all shapes and forms. His message was so subversive to those in power that he we was tortured and died on the cross.
At great costs God acts. Forgives and offers us salvation. The restoration of a right relationship with God. But it is a messy business.
Having armed police guard our peace and memorial service on Wednesday night. Providing the leader of the local mosque an opportunity to speak about Islam. Taking action to break down walls and bridge distances. On a personal level how many of us find it hard to honesty admit our role in conflict and the times we have denied the gift of forgiveness that we could bring to broken relationship? What do we have to put aside to seek genuine restoration? That cross that Jesus called us to carry in our reading from last week?
Forgiveness is a costly and precious gift given to us by Jesus. Its purpose is not first to make us feel bad or guilty but to celebrate a new creation, a new restored and redeemed relationship with God.
And the warning here too. We see the terrible consequences at a personal and global level of us not doing the hard and difficult work, the cross carrying work, of seeking to forgive and restore broken relationships.
Jesus speaks a word so important at these times. To bring good news. To seek to offer forgiveness and to work as God’s people to restore all that is broken in our world. AMEN
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