Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 14 2017

Genesis 50:15-21
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Today’s gospel reading follows on from last week’s, which was about what to do when there is sin in the church community. Jesus’ instruction was to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and not to escalate the problem.
But having heard this Peter wants to know more about the forgiveness aspect. How far do we have to go with that, exactly? If a member of the church sins against me, do I have to forgive them as often as seven times?
Peter clearly thinks this would be something extraordinary. But as is often the case in the gospels he hasn’t really grasped what Jesus is about. So Jesus says to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’.
These are not just numbers that Jesus has plucked out of the air. The sequence, “not seven, but seventy-seven”, occurs in one other place in the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, chapter 4. Four generations after Cain murdered his brother Abel, we meet Lamech, a violent hoodlum, who swears:
“I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold”
The early stories in Genesis, from creation to the flood, tell us the deep truth about ourselves. In the symbolic language of myth we encounter both the exalted dignity of human beings made in the image of God, and the deep flaw that runs sight to the heart of our human nature, which the Church calls original sin.
Deep in our origin as human beings there lies this escalation of violence. Not seven but seventy seven times: revenge increases exponentially, out of control, causing more havoc in every generation.
So when Jesus repeats those numbers, and says we must forgive, ‘not seven times, but seventy-seven times’, he is going right to the heart of the problem, right back to human origins. He is reversing that ancient escalation of vengeance into an escalation of forgiveness. But forgiveness is nothing trivial. It entails going right back to the beginning and starting again.
But if the original sin has been with us from the beginning, so too has been the hope of forgiveness. Genesis tells us about that as well, as we heard in the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers who had betrayed him and sold him into slavery. For the Church, this moving scene foreshadows the risen Christ appearing to his disciples who had deserted him, and forgiving them.
Forgiveness is not a one-off decision that you make, that you can count up, as many as seven times or even seventy-seven. It is a new reality made possible in Christ. By ourselves, we cannot go back to the beginning of humanity and start again. But Jesus does. He is the new Adam, human nature restored and united with the divine nature of the Son of God. God is love and mercy, and that love and mercy have come among us in Jesus.
He is the first of many brothers and sisters. All those who believe in him are adopted in him by grace, children of God, and so start to live in the new reality of mercy and forgiveness that he makes possible.
The parable Jesus tells today shows how radically different that new reality is. A slave has a ridiculously large debt – billions of pounds in today’s money. But when the slave pleads for time to pay – as if he ever could – the king cancels the entire debt. It’s a sudden revelation of astonishing generosity, beyond anything the slave could have imagined.
It is in fact a revelation of the new reality of mercy and forgiveness. And therefore an invitation to enter into that reality, to begin to live like that, forgiving everything. But the slave fails to do so. He is himself owed a debt of 100 denarii. That’s around four or five thousand pounds today, not a trivial amount. But the new reality of forgiveness is all about letting go, accepting loss, because love and mercy are so much better, and you can’t receive those gifts with closed hands. The slave is shown the new reality of forgiveness, but in the end he fails to enter in and make it his own.
Forgiveness isn’t cheap. Even for quite trivial offenses we know how our sense of injured pride can get in the way. We have to give up our claim to get our own back, and that isn’t easy. But if we don’t, the lack of forgiveness becomes hardened, the desire for revenge escalates. Families and friends can be tragically divided, sometimes for decades, over little things that really shouldn’t matter.
Some sins of course are very grievous. Some sins might leave wounds that stay with us for the rest of our lives. How can we forgive then?
One of the curates of this church in the 1930s was Father Eric Cordingly. In the war, as an army chaplain, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and held for three years, for one of them forced to work on the infamous Burma railway. The cruelty and abuses suffered by the prisoners were unimaginable. Many died. Father Cordingly found that after the war he had no hatred or bitterness in his heart.  But for many of those who survived, and who had a Christian faith, forgiveness was often very difficult. For some it seems to have been a challenge never resolved in their lifetimes.
Sometimes of course there is a need for justice, or a need to protect others. But that is not the same as revenge, and seeking justice or protection does not mean that we cannot forgive. But when forgiveness is a huge challenge, we need to remember that it is not so much something that we do, as a new reality, given to us by God, that we are invited to enter.
Jesus Christ is the new Adam, human nature remade, the new head of a new humanity. In that new reality, forgiveness is escalated in place of revenge, not seven times but seventy-seven. And all those who have faith in Jesus are adopted in him as children of God and share in that redeemed human nature. Jesus is the one who forgives, and in him we become people who both receive and give forgiveness.
The depth of that forgiveness is shown to us on the cross. “Father, forgive them”, said Jesus. The wounds of Christ, that he received on the cross, never healed. He showed them to his disciples as proof of his resurrection. They mark his ascended body still, on the throne of glory in heaven. But Divine grace transformed those wounds that never healed. They have become, not a reproach calling for vengeance, but a fresh pledge and assurance of forgiveness, a new demonstration of love that would not have been possible had those wounds not been inflicted.
Perhaps this is what Julian of Norwich means when she says that in heaven our sins will be glorious. Those wounds of sin that go so deep they will not heal, somehow by grace will be transformed into signs of forgiveness, proofs of love, that would not have been possible without our woundedness.  

How often should we forgive? Not seven times, but seventy-seven. And this is possible because this is what God does in Jesus, and we are called to be in Jesus too.

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