Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Opening comments, before prayer:
On behalf of my family (Christine, Marianne and Timothy), I want to begin by thanking you for the warm welcome you’ve given us. Moving across the country is a daunting task, but the support you’ve given us has helped us feel at home. We feel truly blessed to be here and to be part of such a warm and caring Christian community. A special thank you for the welcome basket that has helped us get set up in our new home. And of course, I have to mention all the home-made jams, the pie and the baked goods. Thanks very much! I also want to thank Bob and Dennis for working faithfully as your interim priests.
As your new priest I look forward to the ways that the Holy Spirit will shape us more and more in the image of Jesus. This shaping won’t always be easy; after all, the Lord calls us to be like him, and that’s hard work, because we don’t naturally or even willingly deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him down the road of sacrifice. Nevertheless, that’s what we’re called to do, as we live in this community as salt and light.
Let’s bow our heads in prayer: Gracious God, we bow our heads humbly before you. May your word in Scripture be our rule, your Holy Spirit our guide and teacher, and may your greater glory be our biggest concern. Amen.
Today’s gospel reading comes from Matthew chapter 18, which spends a lot of time talking about relationships. We can all agree that relationships are important. We were made to be in community, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Take Peter’s question to Jesus: “How many times shall I forgive?” His question is a normal one and one that many of us have asked. It’s really saying ‘what are the limits to this forgiveness?
Forgiveness sounds like the right thing to do, but exactly how far do I need to go with it? How much is enough?’ Two thousand years ago, the Rabbis said that you should forgive someone 3 times; three times was enough. So Peter in his generosity went further and figured that Jesus would be happy with 7 times. But, Jesus turned the whole forgiveness model on its head and said 77 times or 70 times 7. The point is that forgiveness is meant to be endless; there is no set number of times. Just when we think we’re being very generous with our forgiveness, Jesus says, ‘keep on going.’
Consider the parable Jesus told to make his point. It’s a parable meant to teach how forgiveness is radically different in the kingdom of God. In our own kingdoms we tend to put limits on forgiveness, which is what Peter was trying to do. Peter was really asking: “How much is enough?”
In the parable in Matthew 18, a man owed a huge amount of money to his master, so much that he’d never be able to repay it. As he asked for patience and time to pay it back, both he and his master knew that even if he worked 24/7 for the rest of his life, he’d never pay it all back. Despite this hard reality, the master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and set him free. Then the servant exercised his new found freedom not by celebrating with his family and friends, but by demanding a much smaller amount of repayment from another servant.
The text says he actually grabbed hold of the second servant and began to choke him, saying ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ You know what happened next. The master found out about it and threw the first servant into prison until his debt had been repaid, which we know would be for the rest of his life. Jesus ended the parable by saying that this is how God will treat each of us unless we ‘forgive a brother or sister from the heart,’ in other words, unless we really mean it.
There’s a story of a Spanish patriot and fighter lying on his deathbed, ready to give his confession to the priest. When the priest asked him whether he had forgiven all his enemies, the other man looked astonished and said, “Father, I have no enemies, I have shot them all.” This approach is too often the way of the world. Civilized people don’t kill their enemies, but they do often commit some sort of character assassination through their words, or they secretly harbour dark thoughts of revenge and justice.
It’s been said before that the health of any church can be measured by the health of the relationships between its members. How forgiving are we? Do we allow resentment to build, or do we consciously say in our hearts and with our words, “I forgive you.” And are we willing to keep saying it, long past the point of 7 times, or even 70 x 7 times.
The kind of kingdom forgiveness Jesus talked about is only possible when we put ourselves in the place of the first servant in the parable. In order to forgive others from the heart, we have to know how much God has already forgiven us. Whether we admit it or not, we are the first servant, with a mountain of debt that we can never pay back.
If we’re willing to fall on our knees in front of our merciful and patient Father, he’ll cancel the debt and allow us to live a new life of freedom in Christ, free from the power of sin and alive in the power of the Spirit. The New Testament calls this repentance and it’s the beginning of our journey as Christians.
But then the challenge comes: We then have to be as generous as Christ is, which means forgiving those who intentionally or unintentionally hurt us. If we truly put ourselves into the parable as we’re meant to, we won’t be able to hold grudges against others (will we?), because we’ll realize that through Christ our mountain of sin has been forgiven, and how can someone who’s been forgiven so much only forgive someone else a little? Well, the reality is that we can do what the servant in the parable did. We can cling to our grievances in the belief that we’re right and they’re wrong. But when we do this, the consequences are horrendous.
Matthew 18 is a good place for us to start our relationship as pastor and people and as the newly created parish of Central Saanich. As we walk together in Christ, we need to know that we will disappoint each other. (Yes, I will let you down!) If our relationship is going to be healthy and spiritually mature, we need to be slow to anger and quick to forgive, because we will step on each other’s toes. It won’t be intentional but it will happen.
I’ve come here at a time of fresh beginnings; a fresh beginning for me in my ministry and a fresh beginning for you as a new parish. This newly amalgamated parish relationship will be a challenge, but I’m confident that we’ve come to this point through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I’ve come here because I felt called by God to be part of his plan for this parish. I see lots of good things already happening here, and lots of potential, because I see people who are keen to follow Christ and that’s the most important quality a parish can have.
Over the next several months I’ll be getting to know you and this community, and I’ll try to listen carefully to your story. We’re here to serve Jesus together, as we listen for what God is up to in Central Saanich. He’s moving among his people in ways we don’t see yet. But in time, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with forgiveness in our hearts, we will.