s057g11 Sunday 24 11/9/2011
On this, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York – may the victims rest in peace and those who mourn this day find some comfort.
‘have patience with me and I will pay you everything’ Matthew 18.26
We, as ‘christians’ are the people who know how much we owe God for our forgiveness. We ‘know’ the cost of our forgiveness, the death of Jesus. It is not something we can ever repay, and the good news is that God doesn’t even want us to try. As the Lord forgave the entire debt of this slave, so we too are forgiven and we are not meant to live our lives trying to repay the debt. Eternally groveling before the Almighty, or at the foot of the Cross is not what God would have us do. I confess I have great problems during Holy Week and on Good Friday, for this is often what I have thought the message is.
But so much of our church life is about sin and forgiveness. I recall one of those devotional posters which said: ‘Lord, make me remember all my sins to confess today, I might forget them tomorrow.’ How essentially self centered this is! If this is what ‘christianity’ is, I want no part of it. It sounds as if God is actually less forgiving than humanity, which is the ultimate blasphemy.
The parable tells us that the most important thing for the master is not the amount of the debt owed and forgiven, or the devotion the slave has to the forgiving master, but how the slave forgives others the debt of others to the forgiven one.
Again and again I hear 'christians' saying that the most important thing about 'christanity' is the cross of Jesus and the forgiveness and eternal life we (and only us 'christians' who believe) receive through this. THIS IS WRONG! The parable tells us the most important thing about Christianity is how we get on with others with whom we are at variance, even (dare I say) those for whom the doctrine of atonement is not the primary spiritual focus of their lives.
Now, for all I might be forgiving towards others, if the church as a corporate body doesn’t take this message to heart, your and my personal efforts are really not going to make a scrap of different to anyone else much at all. It will only be when the church takes this message to heart that something of the kingdom might come. So while we have 'christians' wandering around saying that the most important thing about 'christanity' is the cross of Jesus and the forgiveness and eternal life we receive through this, this is not going to make a scrap of difference to others, to the world.
So the church has to forgive others when the church perceives others as owing her something. It may be that others don’t live up to her standards, theologically, doctrinally, scripturally, morally, ethically. But the trouble is that the church wants to make ‘god’ less forgiving and invoke the name of the Almighty to invoke ‘god’s’ wrath on such miscreants. We want others to live lives of subservience, subservient to God, and subservient to us, his or her ordained ministers.
Suddenly we, those supposedly speaking and acting in the name of the forgiving ‘god’ are actually speaking and acting as if god is less than forgiving. And I am reminded of the word of Jesus: ‘I and the Father are one’ and ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father’. It is Jesus who shows us the real Parent, the forgiving Parent, the loving Parent, the real One who calls us out of ourselves and our holy huddles, even if our holy huddle consists of those who believe in the precious blood of the lamb which avails for their sins.
And when I think about the church speaking in the name of this unforgiving god, I realize that actually it doesn't matter much whether we call God 'Yahweh', 'Allah', 'the Lord', 'Krishna-Vasudeva', 'Vishnu', 'Hari' or 'Gaia'. For all 'christians' may believe that they use the right name for god, if they make god out to be less than forgiving, then the actual name we or others use is irrelevant – we misrepresent the one true God.
We in the church make 'god' more interested in people knowing, using and proclaiming his / her correct name and worshipping him / her in the correct manner. We in the church make 'god' less forgiving for anyone who deviates from these. We in the church hide what God is really interested in – that we are forgiving of others – and evade the message TO US.
It is significant that it is Peter who is commanded to forgive others, Peter the rock on which the church is built. The church is built on obedience to the command to forgive others who offend us, those who offend us by not living like us, not worshiping with us, and not abiding by our standards. We are called, not to criticize, challenge or condemn; but to forgive.
And this leads me on to evangelism. When I hear the church discussing evangelism, most often it seems to be in the context of an inevitable hostile reception by the world. And I wonder why this should be if the God we proclaim is essentially accepting of people as they are and forgiving. The problem is, of course, that people know, by bitter experience, that the 'god' of the church is demanding, exacting and unforgiving. This is the reason for the hostility – and if I was presented with such a 'god' I would be hostile too. I still get hostile when I see parts of the church marginalizing women and alienating gay and lesbian persons. I still get hostile when I think of the continuing poverty, illness and premature death of millions of people denied the use of condoms and effective contraception, and this done in the name of 'god'!
But what about the call to repentance – so central to the proclamation of Jesus? Well, Jesus was sent – to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – and the call was for THEM to repent – to include others. As we have seen in the past weeks, others, the crowds, the great unwashed, even demanding foreign women didn't need to be told to repent – they came rushing in unbidden – to the chagrin of the orthodox and the devout, indeed even the disciples were put out.
The call to repentance is the call to the community of faith to include the outsider, those who believe differently, worship differently, those who don't live like us, for instance the gay and lesbian person.
The 'gospel' finishes with the threat: 'in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should 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’. So if we as a church are unforgiving of difference – our sins, previously forgiven and forgotten will be remembered and we will have to make full and complete restitution. God will indeed give us what we have asked for. God will be eternally patient as we live our lives condemning ourselves to paying God back in full. And let me say, this is what many people in the real world think the church believes and is doing, and they rightly run a mile!
All the slave in the story had to do, all we as individuals have to do and more importantly all the church has to do is to turn to this ever forgiving God and welcome others who have perceived the real ever forgiving nature of God. And this is the kingdom, right here and right now, and what a difference the real world might be if we did this!