Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sermon: 18 Pentecost (14 Sept 2008)

Sermon: 18 Pentecost (14 September 2008)
(Exodus 14:19-31/ The Song of Moses/ Romans 14:1-12/Matthew 18:21-35)
Forgive our sins, as we forgive

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11saying, ‘Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches (Rev 1:9-20, NRSV).

The Revelation opens with a vision of Jesus walking abroad, to-and-fro amongst his churches, speaking to each a word – now of encouragement, now of reproof, now of correction, always of promise to those who conquer. Jesus’ message to John and John’s message to the church is clear: Jesus is present with and central to the church, and the church is central to the epic battle for the redemption of the cosmos, a battle waged across the pages of the Revelation and the stage of this world, a battle both seen and unseen.

Paul, dead in Christ for many years before John penned these words, shared his vision of the centrality of the church.

17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph 1:17-23, NRSV).

It is all for the church: all the agony of the cross, all the power of the resurrection, all the glory of the ascension, all the promise of his coming again – all for the church, which is his body.

So it is surprising that Jesus, as recorded in the gospels, has almost nothing to say about the church: two brief passages in one gospel, and nothing more. In economics, scarcity produces value; perhaps here, too. These few words about the church may be all the more precious precisely because they are so few.

Jesus first mentions the church in response to Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi: “You are the Christ [the Messiah], the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [Gk. petros, rock] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Mat 16:17-19, NRSV).

Whatever the theological implications of this passage, Jesus calls Peter the rock on whom the church is to be built, and then promises that His church will be victorious against the gates of Hades; not even death itself will be a match for the church. Then he gives Peter keys for loosing and binding within His church. “Loosing and binding” what, Jesus doesn’t yet say.

Now, just two chapters on – and likely only weeks or months in real time – Jesus mentions the church for the second and final time in the gospel accounts. Back at Capernaum now – home territory – the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” It’s not a bad question really: How do we achieve greatness in God’s eyes? Well, Jesus says, you must become childlike – give up the concept of achieving greatness at all and just accept the gift of God’s grace present in the one who now speaks to you. And, do not cause these with childlike faith to sin; that would be a bad thing – better not to be born at all than to cause one of these children of God to sin. While we’re on this topic, be careful not to sin against these little ones yourself. If your hand is the culprit, cut it off. If your eye, gouge it out. Better to be maimed and blind than to sin against these children of God and incur God’s wrath.

Of course, try as we might, in any community – even in a community of disciples – sin will manifest; one will injure and one will be injured. What then? How do we deal with the reality of sin in the community of the faithful? What if we, ourselves, are the victims of sin? Jesus lays out the steps for us. First, approach the offending brother (or sister) and confront him with his sin. (By confront I do not mean to be confrontational in the usual, argumentative and hostile sense of the word. I mean to speak the truth about another’s sinful actions and the effect of those actions. I mean to express the necessity for repentance and reconciliation.) If the brother recognizes his sin and repents, then we must forgive and be reconciled to our brother. If, however, he is unresponsive or if he hardens his heart, we are to return to him with witnesses – two or three will do – and confront him in their presence. If this fails to bring our brother to repentance, then – and here it is, that final mention of the church – we are to bring our brother before the church and confront him with his sin before all. “If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Mt 18:17, NIV). Treat him as an “outsider” who has yet to hear and respond to the gospel message: Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. And Jesus follows with these words, making clear what was left hanging at Caesarea Philippi:

18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, 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. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Mt 18:18-20, NRSV).

The church is a place for the loosing and binding of sins, and the decision of the church on earth is ratified by the Father in heaven. If the entire church – be it as few as two or three – agree that a brother’s repentance is genuine and grants that brother forgiveness and absolution of sin, his sin is forgiven. That is why a priest or minister – anyone appointed by the church to speak for the church words of absolution – can say without fear or hesitation in the words of the Book of Common Prayer,

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

These words are powerful and effective if the minister truly speaks the mind of the church and if it is truly the church that speaks its mind. No minister speaking on his/her own authority has the power to forgive sin; nor does any group that is not a legitimate expression of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. The president of the Rotary Club – as good as he may be and as fine as that organization is – has no authority to forgive sin; nor does any group which calls itself a church but which has abandoned the apostolic faith.

Though Jesus mentions the church only twice, the little he says is vast in scope. He defines the church as the apostolic community founded upon the fundamental truth of his identity as the Christ – the Messiah – the Son of the living God. He says this community is a place where the truth is spoken: where sin is confronted, where repentance is required, where forgiveness is offered, and where absolution is granted. And, he says, God will honor and ratify what this community does here on earth; our earthly, temporal decisions have heavenly, eternal implications.

Amidst this breathtaking vision of the church, two stark realities emerge: the church has no right to offer forgiveness where there is no genuine repentance, and the church has no right to refuse forgiveness where genuine repentance is evident. It’s this latter point that seems to trouble Peter. What if someone sins against me repeatedly? he wants to know. How many times do I have to forgive him?

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:21-22, NRSV with Greek alternate reading).

This is one of the hard sayings of Jesus. I’m not certain I can do this; I’m not certain any individual can. Many sins – many of the most hurtful and damaging sins – are often serial. A man who has one affair is likely to have multiple affairs. If he confesses and repents of each, is his wife really supposed to forgive time and time again? A woman with an addiction – alcohol, drugs – is likely to relapse repeatedly. If she confesses and repents each time, are her husband and children really expected to forgive the damage she has done to the family relationships? And there are perhaps worse sins that we hesitate even to mention – physical or sexual abuse among them. How do we forgive these things? It is all too much for any one of us; that’s why Jesus placed the burden and responsibility on the whole church. The church must decide – with prayer and fasting and spiritual discernment, in shared sorrow with the one injured, with the fear of God ever before their eyes – whether repentance is genuine, whether the guilty brother will submit himself to church discipline and accountability and strive mightily for amendment of life. The church must decide how effectively to safeguard and support the one who has been hurt. And, when all this is done, then yes, the church must forgive in the name of Jesus, and on behalf of the injured one who might not yet be able to muster personal forgiveness. Hard. We begin, right here, to understand just a bit of what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to take up the cross and follow him. How hard was it as the hammer fell time after time, sin upon sin, for Jesus to pray, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”? That is our model.

Jesus closes this forgiveness discourse – as he often closes a discourse – with a parable. Perhaps only a story is large enough, powerful enough, to do.

It’s like this Peter. A king was settling accounts and found that a slave owed him a small fortune. He ordered that slave and his family and possessions sold to erase at least a small portion of the debt. But when the slave begged for the mercy of patience, for the gift of time in which he might try to pay back the debt, the king relented and fully forgave the debt – wrote it off completely, freeing the slave from all obligations.

Then this same slave remembered that a fellow slave owed him a few dollars – not much in the scheme of things. He violently accosted the debtor and demanded payment. When his fellow slave begged for a little time in which to get the money – begged in the same words the forgiven slave had earlier used with the king – no mercy was forthcoming. Instead, the forgiven slave had him thrown into debtors’ prison until every last cent should be repaid.

When this was reported to the king, he was indignant and had the forgiven slave brought before him.

“You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you/” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

We might view this as a threat: forgive or suffer the consequences, the heavenly Father’s refusal to forgive our sins. Or, we might better view this as a poignant reminder that the true basis for our forgiveness of others is the vast mercy the Father has shown us in his forgiveness of our sins. Perhaps this will break our hearts and let forgiveness pour forth. Well do we sing the great hymn Forgive Us Lord As We Forgive.

"Forgive our sins as we forgive" you taught us, Lord, to pray;but you alone can grant us grace to live the words we say.

How can your pardon reach and bless the unforgiving heartthat broods on wrongs and will not let old bitterness depart?

In blazing light your cross reveals the truth we dimly knew,what trivial debts are owed to us, how great our debt to you.

Lord, cleanse the depths within our souls and bid resentment cease.Then, bound to all in bonds of love, our lives will spread your peace.
-Rosamond E. Herklots


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