Tag Archives: forgiveness

Forgive – again, and again

(The passage Matthew 18:21-25 is featured in the “Giving in Grace” programme: see http://www.givingingrace.org/Preach-Matthew! and the preaching notes http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/preaching_notes_matthew.pdf as well as Dr Jane Williams Sermon Reflections at http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/reflections_matthew.pdf )

Peter is a good man; in Matthew 18:21-35 he has listened to Jesus, he is committed to him as his disciple, and he realises that forgiveness is important. But he wants to get it right, so he asks a question – a good idea!  He doesn’t ask “Do I have to?”, but he knows its difficult and – he wonders “How many times?” Jesus would be generous about things like that – make a suggestion – make it big. Seven? bit much, but a perfect number – surely that’s enough?

“Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?”
“No, not seven times,” answered Jesus, “but seventy times seven,”
but don’t get this wrong, Peter, you’ve got to see it like this. And so Jesus tells the story. The story is about a man who owes millions, and his helpless plight draws the pity of his creditor, who lets him off. [Note, by the way, that this is not pretending he wasn’t in debt – he admits it]

What about you – do you have anything that needs forgiving?
Let me see – I did lose my temper last week, and I was late taking my library book back, and I was a bit greedy ..
Get real!
I asked if you had anything that needed forgiving, and that’s not it!
You’re selfish. The one thing you’ll protect at all costs – is you. You’re cruel – maybe you wouldn’t hurt a fly, but what you’ve said about people, what you imagined doing to the bully, the way you’ve treated your rivals.
God made you, gave you life, – and you feel good if you give him a thought for an hour or two a month; you’re not even that fit.

OK, enough, this isn’t meant to make you feel bad – and you need to provide your own answers. But take it from me, you have plenty that needs forgiving, and it isn’t the trivia, it’s the real things you prefer not to think about – great scars of anger, resentment, and refusal to serve & obey.

Where were we? Oh yes, “Do I have to forgive?”
Jesus story makes us annoyed with the man, forgiven so much, who can’t pass on the blessing. Perhaps he’s shaken by the experience, perhaps he want’s to pretend it didn’t really happen.
Do you know people like that? “I know I’m not perfect, of course, but (BUT), compared with them, or them, or the people you read about . .

Get real! Don’t ever go there!
What Jesus explains to Peter is that forgiveness is not about the irritation of people who annoy us, rather it is about seeing other people as God sees us. We’re hopeless, but he won’t give up.  We’re stuck in a selfish, violent, self-pitying hell, until he opens the way to heaven and helps us on the way.  We are foul (if disguised) until he starts cleaning.  We depend on a God who knows all this, and loves and acts to help.

OK! Peter, Andrew, anyone else listening – how should a person like that deal with other people they find less than perfect? Don’t count to 491 and let them have it.  Count to heaven, and let them have that.

Creation

Today we think about Creation, reading Genesis (1:1 – 2:3), and then from the sermon on the Mount Matthew 6:25-34.  Creation is an idea many of us have grown up with, so much that we find it hard to imagine alternatives.  Christians see God as one who is responsible for the (original and undamaged) Universe, who made things and declared them good.  That means we cannot see the world and ourselves as mere accidents, nor can we see material things as somehow “unspiritual” or an obstacle to deeper understanding.  Wasn’t it CS Lewis who said (roughly) “God likes things, He made them”, and went on to remind us that the use of bread and wine in the eucharist, and water in baptism, shows something of the importance of the physical.

So Christians enjoy what God made, and feel that the world deserves the respect due to its status as God’s work.  “Green” concerns, and respect for animals as well as humans, come from this.  What more is there for Jesus to add in the gospel?  He talks about the pointlessness of worry.  We need to think more deeply about Creation, and see that a God like that – a God who made things well, and enjoyed them – can and should be trusted.  Trust will stand against fruitless worry.  We may not understand everything, but here is an answer to “what if” disaster imaginings.  God cares, and while his Creation is now less than perfect (that’s the bit in Romans 8:18-25 about creation groaning), God hasn’t changed.

If you want to worry about something, then what God is doing and wants to see done is a much better concern that tomorrow’s meal.  Putting ourselves in line with God’s agenda brings purpose, joins us with other Christians, and puts our problems in perspective.  This is what we are meant to be about, part of our “re-creation”.  It helps with anxiety, loneliness, frustration, and the wrong search for celebrity.  Perhaps that is what Jesus means by “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  If what matters in your life is what matters to the Creator, you may well find purpose and peace, friends and forgiveness.  Of course, you may also find trouble – but you won’t face it alone.

Is that better?

“Nice people don’t do things like that”.  I wonder how many of us were brought up to avoid the bad manners of childhood with such words – and grew to apply them to adult crimes.  Murder, adultery, lying for advantage are often spoken against.  Most religions forbid such things in one way or another, and the ten commandments of the Old Testament are no exception.  (See Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21)

In today’s gospel (Matthew 5:21-37) Jesus seems to want more.  He is not content that we should avoid the action, but reaches further for the underlying motive.  Anger, lust, and self-centredness are the problem, whether or not the opportunity for action is present.  The idea that these (and other) attitudes might be replaced by the love, justice and mercy of God is wonderful, and very demanding.

In other places, Jesus will speak words of hope that murder, adultery, fraud and bitterness (as well as their underlying attitudes) are forgivable.  But he will not suggest that the sins can be combined with the holiness of character which is important to God, and to the life of God’s people.  The disciples he gathers will not all be exemplary characters, but cannot be content with their failures. We find hope in the fact that they continue to need grace and forgiveness, if the patience needed by the community is more difficult.

So how do we hear Jesus words?  We need to deal with our anger and disrespect of other people.  It doesn’t only become offensive if we are able to hurt them physically – the attitude is already a falling short of God’s standard – a sin.  Similarly with dishonorable relationships, whether unfaithful, or simply manipulative; and words which do not tell the truth in love (as in Ephesians 4:14-16).  This is something we shall fail constantly.  Yet this standard helps us remember the difference for those of different family background and life experience.  Christians are not called to be “nice”, but to become like God in our attitudes to all sorts of people and situations.

War and Disaster (Kingdom 3c)

The Christian gospel is good news – that is the literal translation of the word also translated “gospel”.  But sometimes you read a passage like Luke 21:5-19, and see reference to the destruction of fine buildings, war, disasters, persecution and betrayal, and think, “Good news”?

But the gospel is indeed good news, because these evils are recognised.  It is so easy to reduce Christian faith to a parody: “Be nice to people, enjoy the countryside, help those less fortunate.”  There is nothing wrong in any of those, of course – but without a strong reason to motivate a life of service and sacrifice, it is only platitude – so much hot air.

The reason comes as Jesus speaks of the sometimes painful reality of human life.  And it is the fact that he not only speaks of evil, but faces it himself, that gives weight to the way he leads.  Jesus faced a plot to kill him, was slandered and betrayed.  It is after he has been flogged and during his crucifixion that he forgives (as he had taught others).  By facing the evil of the real world, he overcomes it and offers us freedom.

The good news is about a kingdom where peace and justice rule, and healing and truth are found – a kingdom open to all who will admit their need of forgiveness and follow the one who leads the way through death to life.  Without the reference to the hard realities, it might seem just another bit of wishful thinking – a tale for children, to be left behind with childish things.  But a gospel which depends on one who lived this, went to his death by torture forgiving, and returned to encourage those who, despite their failures, wanted to be his followers; – that is a gospel for the real world, and for people who have grown to know some of how hard it can be.

Thank you (Pentecost 21c, Proper 23c)

Why does saying “thank you” matter?  Is it anything more than manners (of the sort children have to do, and adults think they have grown out of)?  Perhaps so.  The story of 10 healed lepers, of whom only one returns to Jesus to offer thanks, is interesting.  (Luke 17:11-19).

It seems all 10 are healed, and stay healed – we have to assume the cure was “certified” by the priest, allowing them to return from isolation to normal life.  Perhaps it was the urgency of getting that official all clear that led them to hurry off.  But the tenth stops to give thanks, and we see how thanksgiving recognises a gift.  Recognising a gift means also recognising the giver.  Knowing that the most important things we have (life, health, intelligence, opportunity . .) are a gift from God is an understanding that changes our view of the universe.

Of course thanksgiving is a large part of worship – and making that a public statement is important in our witness to what God has done for us, that is our faith.  We don’t do a lot of thanksgiving or praise in our western culture.  Politicians, celebrities and others known to many are more likely to be gossiped about or criticised, to the extent that public thanks or praise sound strange, if not strained.

So, what benefit does this leper get from his return to thank Jesus?  He is reminded of, and acknowledges, the gift of healing.  He opens a relationship with the one who gave him his cure.  More than this, Jesus says “your faith has made you well” – not fit, or un-leprous, but well.  Being well covers far more.  We might imagine that some of the 9 healed lepers remain angry at their treatment, fearful of further illness, keen to settle old scores . .  To be well is to be freed of so much more than physical illness.

 

Peace -? (Proper 15, Pentecost 13)

Peace seems a long way off. Terrorist violence, superpower shuffling, unstable governments. We want peace, but not at any price.

Then we read Luke 12:49-56 and wonder what hope there is.

Jesus has come to a crisis point in his ministry.  Jesus who never welcomed conflict, nor compromised with evil, is aware of growing conflict. He is the “Prince of Peace” of whom Isaiah spoke (9:6f), yet knows his ministry is causing division, and will cause violence – which he will take on himself, rather than inflict it on others. That certainly is peacemaking! But it is a long way from the “gung ho” ideas of popular Jewish Messianic expectation: a military hero, to throw out the Romans and bring an age of peace and plenty for all Jews.

So let’s ask: What peace can we expect now, and what not? We already have:

  • reconciliation – forgiveness, sorting out relationships
    with God, and with ourselves (if God can forgive, I must try also)
    and with other people (even if some will not accept it)
  • a sense of purpose, knowing our place as God’s children, with his service to keep us busy, and his people as family to whom we belong
  • an answer to war and violence in common service. We don’t seek the surrender of A to B, or B to A, nor the survival of strongest, but the need for all to submit and answer to God, and work as servants of one master.

We do already have a great deal of peace to be thankful for. BUT this isn’t heaven, and we have not yet “arrived”. There are some aspects of peace for which we are still waiting:

  • an end to temptation. (If temptation doesn’t disturb your peace, check to make sure you haven’t given in totally!) There is a fight on here, with no thought of a truce!
  • we know that Jesus has won the victory, but we await the disarming of those who will not choose to serve him. Our peace will be disturbed by those who are deliberately evil, and those who are careless and unaware of their need to repent and serve the King

For the moment, we have reason to look forward to a time when justice happens for everybody, when there is love – and peace. We have a good deal already, and there is some “not yet” to wait and pray for.

Prayer (Proper 12, Pentecost 10)

Jesus prayed, and what his disciples saw made them want to pray, too.  (Was it the effect on Jesus, or the renewal of his power or creativity, or just so much part of his life?  We aren’t told.)

The instructions he gives in Luke 11:1-13 are short.  This is no “formula”, but teaching to be pondered and understood.  (Compare the account in Matthew 6, and you will find rather more words, but the same impression of an outline).

The familiarity of the words to many of us can blunt their impact.  They start, not with us, but with God.  That is important. We might be happy to dive into our problems, requests, worries – but we are told to begin with God.  (God as “Father” may cause problems to those whose parent was not much loved – but we know of good parents.  A parent remains one with power, perhaps to direct our behaviour, always to know what we are, and have been.  It is not an equal relationship).

We are to communicate, understanding that God is somehow personal, contactable, and involved with us. Luckily, as with a good Father, we are known and understood. Still, there is the effort of seeing another person’s point of view, and what plans and directions we may need to hear, and then obey.  We have to listen, as well as speak.  (Though many Psalms suggest that we can expect a sympathetic hearing when words pour out in pain or anger, with little hearing.)

After beginning with this mysterious and wonderful other, we are encouraged to ask for what we need.  The following verses (5-13) underline this.  Ask – the Father wants to give us what is good.  Good, not necessarily indulgent.  Good, for life in service of the Kingdom, and life which finds its real purpose.  The parable is about finding the means to be hospitable, not about living comfortably.

That brings us to forgiveness.  We ask for it, with a strong reminder, not only of our need for being forgiven but also of our need to forgive others, reflecting the grace we receive!  It is a demanding line, but one close to the heart of Christian living.  How can we, who hope for heaven only by being forgiven, criticise or look down on others who need forgiveness too?

Let’s not forget the last line, that we are not lead into the time of trial – or temptation.  No, of course our heavenly Father is not making trouble for us.  Remember Jesus words to the sleepy disciples in Gethsemane – Luke 22:39-47.  Twice Jesus uses this phrase (v40,46), and the meaning is clear.  Temptation may come in many forms, all dangerous.  We ask the Father’s help to come through the hard times with faith.

So, what’s the problem?  It is not that prayer is complicated, rather that we all find good relationships hard, and honest communication demanding.  God is as close as a good parent, but the stakes are high, the distractions pressing.  But the disciples wanted to learn; it must have been something important for Jesus, and for them.

Jesus (Proper 11, Pentecost 9)

Turkey is in the news – an attempted military coup. Nearly 2000 years ago, Paul wrote a letter to Colossae a small town in what is now Turkey. There was a problem in the Church in Colossae; they were getting their faith wrong, in a way which mattered. We won’t worry too much about how they wanted to improve on the gospel, but let’s look at what Paul said:

First, Colossians 1:15-20 Its all about Jesus. Jesus is how we see what God is like – is God remote, severe, judgemental, or is God a pushover, a sugar – daddy? Well, the answer (to those and lots of other ideas) is – look at Jesus. Get to know the stories about him. He’s friendly (to all sorts of people), very human, but also powerful, and has deep understanding and sympathy.

For the Colossians, he might have been the start, but they wanted to “improve” this faith in one way or another. Paul isn’t having that. Jesus continues in charge, superior to the powers of heaven.  It is Jesus who died to set us free, it is Jesus who is head of the Church, the source of its unity.  These are things you may only have found that out recently – or some of you may have been in Christian things for years. Either way, you don’t get away from needing Jesus, and the forgiveness he gives!
Then, Colossians 1:21-23  talks about how that affects the Colossians. Their past had been one of alienation – led astray by the false values of a corrupt society (does that sound familiar?). But Jesus (yes, focus on him again) had intervened to set them free by his death. They are not being allowed to get away from the physical – because of their delight in the metaphysical and “spiritual” – very ” in quotes “, Paul ties them down to the actual, bodily death of Jesus. Their future depends on their holding on to their initial commitment to the gospel they once heard and accepted.
After the central and continuing importance of Jesus, and God’s purpose for the Colossians, Paul talks about his own role. He sees himself as entrusted with a message – not some secret knowledge to be passed on to initiates, but the gospel taught to believers openly. That is our message, too. If you know what Jesus did and does, don’t keep quiet about it. The glory is not some religious experience, but the presence of Christ among believers – the new life they share, and in which they grow in holiness and service.

There are lots of people who need to know these things:

  • Jesus has to come first – in Church, in my life, in the way I do faith.
  • There are many round us who forget, or don’t know, that without Jesus’ death for us, we are lost in the false values of a corrupt society.
  • And there are those, even in religion, who do not remember the responsibility we have of sharing the gospel message, and living and working for it – even when that means suffering.

Deserving? (Pentecost 2c)

 

As I get older, I am reminded of the need to know what I am doing. It is too easy to “lose the plot” – a theme which comes up in this week’s readings. Paul (Galatians 1:6-7) seems to think the Church in Galatia may have forgotten the basis of the gospel, and coincidentally Luke seems to record a similar contrast (Luke 7:1-10).

Jesus is in Galilee, in Peter’s home town near the fisherman’s lake. There is a delegation of synagogue leaders, who ask him to heal the slave of a Roman soldier. This is odd. The soldier is not part of the Jewish community, and he works for the occupying army! But it seems that he has built their synagogue. To the Jewish leaders, he deserves Jesus attention and favour.

That’s not too hard to understand. There are still people in Church, and outside the congregation, who think God owes them a favour or two. That is wrong – because God owes nobody. And it has missed the point, which is a great pity.

Now look at the attitude of the Centurion:

  • there is faith. He trusts Jesus, to be able to heal, and to want to heal. He explains that he knows about authority – and recognises that Jesus has it, in a rather different way to the military.
  • But there is also humility, especially, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof;” Luke 7:6 Unlike the synagogue leaders, this man knows he does not deserve Jesus favour. He has not “bought” anything with his gifts, except that he now knows where to look for help, and his own real status. And what is his status? He is a child of God, asking the Father’s help and love.

This is the importance of remembering the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus. What is that Good News? That God will give us what we deserve? – No, for nobody is good enough, or up to God’s standard. Nobody (including retired Vicars!) The Good News is that God does not give us what we deserve, but offers love, forgiveness and life for free – because that is the sort of God he is! The centurion had it right. He understood that Jesus might be embarrassed – or criticised – for going to the house of a foreigner, a Pagan, so he does not ask him to come in. He understood that he needed to ask, knowing he depended not on his reputation, but on Jesus’ grace. He understood that trusting Jesus was the way to get what he needed, and more. Some people still like to use his words as a prayer: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Jesus was amazed how well he understood, and Luke records the comment, along with the fact that the slave was healed.

That is the gospel: because of Jesus, God’s love is offered to us, as freedom, forgiveness, healing, new life – all the things we need, (though not always what we think we want!). The synagogue leaders, and some people in Galatia, got that wrong, which was dangerous. It risked losing the benefit – or perhaps even worse, stopping other people enjoying it. It is still important to know what Jesus offered, and how to help people get it!

 

Explosion (Pentecost)

You might be forgiven for not realising that this Sunday is the third great feast of the Christian year – Pentecost. The story is told in Acts 2, read today.

During his ministry, Jesus had assembled a group – 12 men, and others including women. At first they listened and watched, then they were sent on mission, to practice and learn how God could use them.  More learning followed, especially at the  Passion, with some shock as God’s plan worked out, and they all failed rather badly – which was part of learning to trust God, not least his forgiveness. Jesus is raised from the dead. It takes a while to sink in, but they come to terms with the new reality.

But then comes the Ascension – the Son of God returns to heaven, and they are told to wait.  50 days after Easter, on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, there comes an EXPLOSIVE change. A violent wind – fire. The group which had hidden away in fear bursts out; Peter preaches a public sermon through which 3000 people are converted and baptised.  The Holy Spirit, known before as a welcome occasional visitor, has come to stay with believers. In time they would learn the full wonder of his character, including a gentler, transforming side. But the first impact, causing the birth of the Church, can rightly be called dramatic, powerful, even violent.

Now, as then, Christians have to learn to live with the Holy Spirit. In some ways it is a continuation of having Jesus close by – he still directs operations and gives authority – but it is different. The Holy Spirit is everywhere, but not quite like a person. The Spirit guides and makes Jesus known, but, as the gospel (John 14:15-17 + 25-27) says, he can only be received or consulted or drawn on by Christians – because others don’t see or recognise him.

At Pentecost, some of the crowd thought the excitement was drunkenness, but others heard in their own languages the praise of God’s deeds of power.  That is where we start. Not in a private party, giving rise to sneers about how we have celebrated, but in making known the God who is good, and sharing what we know of his plans for our community and our time.  Maybe it still needs an explosion -?