Genesis 50 : Matthew 18 : Sermon

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1 Genesis 50 : Matthew 18 : Sermon I feel that I may have to apologise for this sermon, even though it isn t actually my fault. You will know that I try to be careful in my use of language, and to be most careful of all when I am leading worship, but today I fear I am going to have to make an exception. It is our bible texts which force me to do it. I m going to have to use the F word. I m going to have to talk about that most awkward subject forgiveness. Well why on earth should I imagine this is an uncomfortable word. Surely it is a beautiful thing. Surely the offer of forgiveness that was demonstrated and symbolized on the cross is one of the most profound pieces of good news that we could ever utter. Surely it is the very heart of our faith and the cause for the gratitude which should energise our every action. And in this complex world in which we live, this world of conquest and empire, with its memories of genocide and slave trading, this world which today especially is still very much in the ten year old shadow of the attacks on the twin towers, is forgiveness not that one thing that can touch the very core of our human need? Indeed it is. but we also know there is more to it than that. We could avoid the most uncomfortable sense of the word by speaking of forgiveness merely as a matter of ethics, a question of moral theology, a subject for debate. After all the disciples did that. They were happy to ask Jesus about the theory of forgiveness, about the principles that should apply and what they might mean and how far they might extend. Jesus, however, was far more direct and demanding. Jesus in his reply, did not say merely that forgiveness is a good thing. He gave a personal instruction, you must forgive your brother or sister from your heart. or you will face the consequences! So I m afraid there is no avoiding the cutting edge of our gospel this morning even if we do fear being wounded

2 by it. This is a difficult text, not because it is complicated or obscure, but because it is simple and personal. It does help to look at the broader context of Jesus words - but only a little. The chapter begins with the disciples arguing about who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven (verses 1-6). Jesus points to a child, and says, "Whoever becomes like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." Then he goes on to say that it would be better for us to drown than to do anything to harm one of these little ones. It continues with the Parable of the Lost Sheep (verses 10-14). The Shepherd here has ninety-nine safe sheep, and yet risks everything to save the one which had got lost. In the eyes of the parable teller no one, however statistically insignificant, can be ignored and everything must be left behind in order to find it. We are then given detailed guidance about how to handle conflict in the church (verses 15-20). The object is reconciliation, and we are called to go to great lengths in search of it. All of these illustrations invite us, as it were, to give up measuring how far we should be expected to go for the sake of one another. It is not about acting in a calculating way, working out what action might be appropriate, deciding where we will draw our limits. Rather it is about acting with a frightening degree of compassion and generosity. The message has been that no amount of care can be too much when we are dealing with vulnerable people. No amount of risk can be too much when we hear of one who is lost. No amount of effort is too much when we are trying to restore peace in the relationships. And so we get today s message about how we ought to practice forgiveness, and it is not too difficult to guess where it is going. We told that when it comes to forgiveness, we should forget about measuring appropriateness, we should stop bothering with keeping count, we should be ready to act with a reckless generosity. And before I go on to say what that might mean let me point out that this instruction comes with a dark side. It comes with a hint of warning. It comes with a reminder that this is not some petty matter but something which is essential. Having concluded his story with the brutal ending for

3 the servant who was not able or not willing to forgive, Jesus adds: So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart. He is repeating the warning he gave in his Sermon on the Mount, "If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you " (6:15). Suddenly this is no longer about theory, no longer about an imaginary king. Jesus is telling his disciples what they need to do, how they need to live. Jesus is telling us what we need to do, how we need to live. And I doubt if they enjoyed hearing it any more than we do. So I have to come back to the difficult conclusion that if we want to move forward in the spiritual life, if we want to dig a little deeper into want lies beneath the surface of life, if we want to connect our lives with what heaven is all about, then forgiving people is one of the essential steps that we need to take. Not just to consider it or to contemplate it, but to actually do it. Now I don t doubt that many of you will already be thinking of particular people and what they have done to you. You will wonder if I would really make that statement if I knew what you had been through. I expect a few people will later tell me of things that people have done to them and ask me if I really expect them to forgive that. And I won t have any clever answers to offer or at least I hope I won t, because your private pain is your private pain and it is certainly not my place to suggest that you should not have it, or that the anger you direct towards someone is not deserved. All I can say, and what I have to say, is that our scriptures clearly teach that we should forgive, that our master instructs us to forgive, and that in my experience we have a deep need to forgive. When you go home and perhaps struggle with the implications of this message during this week, there is one thing at least that I want you to remember. When you forgive someone you are not setting that person free from whatever grip you feel you have on them. You are setting yourself free from the grip which your bitterness has of you. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has had to work through a great deal around issues of forgiveness is very clear about that. To forgive is the best form of selfinterest. It is a process that does not exclude hatred and anger.

4 These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: However, when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Perhaps Jesus is so strong about our need to forgive, not because his father threatens to withhold our forgiveness if we do not obey, but because he knows that we need to forgive. Perhaps he understands that we need to let go of the burning bitterness to which we cling, if we are ever to be in a position to be able to accept the far greater forgiveness that we are so freely offered. Our bitterness and resentment and anger and hatred and vengefulness hold us back, not the person we direct them towards. They will always do more harm to us than to anyone else. They will leave our emotions so full of bitterness that we have little room for the love which is freely offered to us. We should be clear what is meant here. To forgive someone does not mean that we somehow say that what they have done was OK. It is not saying that what they have done doesn t really matter. It is not denying the hurt that was caused or the damage that was done. It is not pretending that we no longer care or that it no longer affects us. To forgive someone means that we give up our right to revenge. We consciously and deliberately give up our grievance, we stop using it as a license to lash out with our words, as an excuse for cruel thoughts, as a justification of our desire to run down and demean, and get our own back a thousand small blows at a time. To forgive means to let go of our right to take revenge. That is illustrated beautifully in Joseph s story. For all sorts of reasons he did have a right to take revenge on his family. Legally and morally no one would have complained if he had. They even come offering themselves as his slaves. But he gives up what he is entitled to. He gives them their freedom, speaking kindly to them. In doing so, what peace must he have found himself. The bible story certainly implies that, telling us that he went on to live to be 110 years old and die peacefully with a large family.

5 We may feel entitled to hold on to our anger. We may feel entitled to take revenge. We may be right. But Jesus invites us to let go, to surrender that entitlement, and to trust that we will in turn receive far more. Our reluctance to forgive is actually saying that our feelings of bitterness are more precious to us than the blessing of God, and perhaps in truth they are. This is a message which will provoke all sorts of objections and excuses from voices within ourselves. How often should I forgive? How much should I forgive? What level of apology should I accept before I forgive? Jesus invites us to throw the calculators away, to forgive even when forgiveness is not deserved, to forgive even as we hope and trust God will forgive us. That is a deeply personal message which runs deeply through the whole of the New Testament. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32) Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Colossians 3:13) It is a message of liberation. It is a message which leads to spiritual growth. It is a message which frees our hearts from many chains. It is a message which can transform our experience of life. It is a message, ultimately, which can transform how we live together in a world terrorized by fear and hatred. Our gospel today is difficult because it is about us and letting go, something we humans never find easy. Our gospel today is vital because it is about us and about letting, something we humans always need to practice.

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