How to be the Church with so Many Broken Vessels

Sermon delivered on Trinity 13A, Sunday, September 14, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 14.19-31; Psalm 114.1-8; Romans 14.1-12; Matthew 18.21-35.

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

Last week we looked briefly at Jesus’ model for handling conflict within the Church and imposing discipline when necessary. It’s not for the faint of heart because it requires that we confront each other when we offend each other. That’s hard because we would much rather talk about the offender behind his/her back instead of dealing with the problem at hand. But confront the offender we must, as much for his sake as ours. Jesus also told us what to do in the case of an unrepentant offender. Cast the person out in the hope that he repents. But what do we do with a repentant offender? Jesus tells us what to do about that person too. Forgive him. Now in today’s lesson Peter asks our Lord about how often we should forgive one who offends us. After all, if we keep forgiving those who offend us, don’t we open up the door for continued offenses and/or abuse? Jesus’ answer to Peter is shocking to say the least and this is what I want us to look at this morning because in his answer, his body, the Church is defined.

At first blush, Jesus’ answer to Peter is pretty straightforward. He tells Peter and us that we can’t just forgive a limited number of times. There’s no limit to how often we must forgive! But if we listen carefully to the parable Jesus told Peter right after he said that, we, like Peter, will discover that Jesus’ answer is not at all about bean-counting, about how many times we must forgive someone who wrongs us. Instead, the parable makes us look at who and what we are. It shifts us from the safe and comfortable position as outsider and judge who must decide whether to forgive the offender to the very uncomfortable and vulnerable position of being the one who is judged, but who has received mercy beyond all possible deserving.

The parable itself is straightforward enough. One of the king’s slaves has amassed an enormous debt, owing his king over 10,000 talents. In Jesus’ day, a talent was worth about 6000 denarii and a laborer was paid a denarius a day. So to earn 10,000 talents a person would have had to work 60,000,000 days or approximately 193,000 years. Since this is even longer than most of my sermons it is safe to say that the picture Jesus wants us to see is a man who cannot possibly repay his debt to the king. For the slave to plead for the king to be patient and give him time to pay off his debt exemplifies the unrealistic thinking that often accompanies desperation. Simply put, without the king’s mercy, this slave was toast.

Thankfully for the slave, he did receive mercy from the king because the king forgave his  entire debt (Lord’s Prayer anyone?) unconditionally. But then Jesus shows us the breathtaking hardness of the human heart that prevents us from seeing that the needs, motives, and circumstances of others are fundamentally like our own. Instead, we tend to see ourselves as being different and superior to others and our own needs and circumstances as being somehow fundamentally more deserving than those of others so that we needn’t be merciful to them.

We see this illustrated in the parable when this slave who had his impossible debt forgiven turned around and refused to forgive a fellow slave who owed him money. Unlike the debt of 10,000 talents, this second slave only owed the first slave 100 denarii, or about four months work for a laborer, a debt that was easily manageable. But the first slave with the impossible debt to repay refused to forgive his fellow slave who owed him a much smaller debt and here we see the the fundamental ugliness of the human condition in all its awful glory.

When the king caught wind of the whole sordid affair, retribution was swift and terrible for the wicked slave, and it takes our breath away when we stop and think that Jesus himself was  suggesting there is everlasting torment for those who fail to forgive. The slave was handed over to be tortured until he paid his entire debt, i.e., for an eternity, because the debt was impossible to repay. As we look at this story and start to apply it to ourselves, we cannot help but become increasingly uncomfortable because all of us at one time or another have been the unforgiving slave. And this is the point of the parable. Jesus doesn’t want us to focus on forgiveness as something to be dispensed on demand. Seeing forgiveness like that essentially puts us in the position of being a judge over others while ignoring the fact that we need to forgive the smaller sins of others against us because God has forgiven the impossibly high debt of our own sins. The God who rescued his people from the evil and darkness of their slavery in Egypt in our OT lesson this morning is the same God who has rescued us from the evil and darkness of our slavery to sin by judging and condemning it (instead of us) on the cross of Jesus. So when we refuse to forgive others for the wrongs they do, like the wicked slave in Jesus’ parable, we are effectively bringing judgment on ourselves because no one is sinless and all desperately need the forgiveness of God if we wish to live in his presence. Those who don’t believe in the seriousness of sin will scoff at this. But if we believe Jesus is the embodiment of God and therefore authorized to speak for God, we’d best pay attention to what he’s telling us here in this parable.

It is only when we truly understand the enormity of our own sins in the eyes of God and how costly it was for him to forgive us on the cross that we will learn to develop the needed humility and wisdom to forgive others because we realize what a massive gift we have been given. This also helps us abandon all our delusional thinking that we can somehow earn favor in God’s eyes by how we act. To be sure, we are called to act in ways that are pleasing to God. But this is fundamentally different than trying to earn God’s forgiveness for the impossible debt of our sins.

Like the wicked slave, none of us deserve the King’s unconditional pardon. But it is ours by the grace of God if we have eyes to see and hearts and minds open to his Spirit so that we accept the gift offered us. This is why a rock-solid theology of the cross is so critical for our lives as Christians. If we do not understand the seriousness of our sins in God’s eyes and that we’ve been relieved of an impossible debt and burden, we will likely remain hard-hearted and unforgiving, not to mention guilt-ridden and anxious if we care at all about our relationship with God.

And this is where we turn to Paul in our epistle lesson because if you have followed this line of thinking, you will immediately recognize why Paul says what he does. Whenever we are dealing with things adiaphora, with things that are not essential to the faith, we are guilty of putting ourselves in unjust judgment over our brothers and sisters in Christ when we look down our noses at their beliefs and practices with which we do not agree. Paul is adamant that things must be different because our very existence is intricately and forever tied to the Lord because of what he has done to rescue us from evil, sin, and death. Only in God do we find life because only God is our Creator. We die because we have sinned. But we as Christians live because we believe that in Jesus God has overcome sin and death and promised us a new creation that will be free of evil, sin, and death. God has rescued us so that we can work toward building the kingdom on earth as in heaven, a kingdom whose foundation is established on the saving death and life-giving resurrection of Jesus, unbelievable and incomprehensible as that seems to us at times. But this is the same God who has always acted in unbelievable ways to rescue us from evil and death. Just ask the Israelites as they faced the Red Sea on one side of them and an impossibly strong enemy on the other. Or just ask the apostles after Easter.

And so Paul would have us act toward each other as people who are yoked to Christ and grateful in their knowledge that our impossibly high debt has been forgiven so that we in turn treat each other in a similar manner. This is the secret of being part of Christ’s Church with all of its broken vessels because we realize that we are one of those vessels, and so we learn to cut each other a lot of slack in non-essential things. And let’s be clear about this. Paul is talking about non-essential things like diet and other habits, not essentials of the faith. Think for example how he exhorted the Corinthian church to expel the man who was having sex with his step-mother (1 Corinthians 5.1-5). There was no live-and-let-live attitude there because sexual fidelity is not open for debate. But even then, Paul’s hope was that in punishing the offender, the offender would be brought to repentance so that he could be restored to the community of saints in Corinth and therefore to his relationship with Jesus who is Lord of both the living and the dead.

And think how radically different this lifestyle is from the world’s. How we treat each other within the Church is a powerful witness of our love of Jesus and the power of his Spirit working in us. Take, for example, Ray Rice, and the firestorm surrounding his actions. There are voices out there clamoring for his head with no hope of forgiveness and/or restoration. Nobody can condone the violence he committed. But shine the light of Jesus’ parable on this sad story. What if Rice were to repent? The world would still say to hell with him, there is no forgiveness for the evil he perpetrated against his then fiancee. And Rice did indeed perpetrate evil. But our Lord would remind us that those who are clamoring loudest for his condemnation with no hope of mercy are forgetting that they have an even greater basis for condemnation in God’s eyes because no one is sinless and they are unwilling to extend his love to others. And lest we get all self-righteous and say of Rice’s enemies that we are better than they are because we would forgive Rice if he repents, let us remember that we would be acting just like the wicked slave.

Or consider this radical act of forgiveness that was posted on Archbishop Cranmer’s blog:

Over 100 [Boko Haram] militants dressed in military uniforms swarmed the predominantly Christian village just as Sunday church services were beginning on June 1….After decimating the village and sending residents fleeing, Boko Haram returned two days later in a second series of attacks on several other villages in the Gwoza district. The back to back attacks left an estimated 200 people, including small children, dead. John Yakubu and his family were among those who fled across the border into neighboring Cameroon.

With his family facing starvation in the refugee camp, John decided to make a quick trip back to Attagara to retrieve some of his animals hoping he could sell them to support his family. Though it was dangerous, there seemed to be no other choice. At home, he decided to pick up some of the family’s other belong-ings, including the family Bible.

Boko Haram insurgents spotted him entering the house, and quickly captured him. “We know you’re John,” the militants said to him. “You must convert to Islam or else you will die a painful death.”

When John refused, the men tied him to a tree binding his arms and legs. The men hacked both of John’s hands with a heavy knife and mocked him. “Can you become a Muslim now?”

“You can kill my body, but not my soul,” John shouted in pain.

Using a machete as well as the knife, the men continued to torture John. They repeatedly cut into his feet and his back, stopping only to ask him if he would give up his faith in Christ and follow Allah. John refused. “We will show you,” they told him. The insurgents used an axe to cut so deeply into his knee that it reached the bone. His head was slashed with a knife.

Eventually, John lost consciousness. At some point, the terrorists left, and John was left bleeding and tied to the tree for three days before someone rescued him and he was taken to a hospital in a coma.

In the hospital, a [Voice of the Martyrs]  worker met John. When the worker asked John how he felt about his attackers, he replied, “I have forgiven the Islamic militants, because they did not know what they are doing.” Please do read the whole blog post.

Cranmer remarks, “The words are liberating; they tell of an appalling horror over which love triumphs.” This is the kind of radical forgiveness Christ demands of us because this the kind of radical forgiveness extended to us on the cross. This is also how Christ uses us to help bring in the kingdom on earth as in heaven. It would be easy to react to this kind of hatred and violence by responding in kind. And in doing so the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence will continue unabated. But when we are willing to forgive even the most vile acts as John did, we are making a statement that we believe there is a better way of doing things than the ways of the world. Of course, our belief in a sovereign God is an essential part of offering forgiveness because we never know how God will use the forgiveness we offer others to change hearts and the world, even the hearts of our most vicious enemies. And Scripture is adamant that God does do exactly that, even when it is not obvious to us. Are you capable of this kind of forgiveness?

As we have seen, this forgiveness business is hard work and I have only touched briefly on what real forgiveness entails. Given the hardness of our hearts and the extremely difficult nature of the acts of forgiving and accepting forgiveness, we certainly cannot do any of it on our own. But fear not. We do not have to learn to love and forgive on our own because we believe we have God’s Holy Spirit living in us to transform us to become like our crucified Lord so that we can learn to forgive and accept forgiveness. Who or what are you struggling with in terms of forgiveness? Whatever it is, bring it to God in prayer and come to our intercessions station to seek Christ’s power to heal and transform you so that you can forgive. To help you with this, consider that you have had the terrible burden of your own sins forgiven by Jesus the Son so that you are now fully reconciled to God the Father in the power of the Spirit. Give thanks for that because you know you have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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