Forgiveness Unlimited…

This is the, now traditional, post sermon blog post with the “full script” – the actual sermon was slightly different at both services, but this was close.  Two books which have useful material on the subject of forgiveness are “Total Forgiveness” by RT Kendall, and “What’s so Amazing about Grace?” by Philip Yancey.

“How often must I forgive my brother?” Must I forgive that again? I’m sure that you can fill in the blanks from that sentence, and think of particular situations to which that applies.

We’ll see that Jesus answer is that his disciples must forgive without limits, because we have a compassionate and merciful God who forgives us without limits whose forgiveness in turn demands that we forgive others. Therefore, concludes Jesus, we must forgive each other from the heart, or else we do not live in the world of God’s forgiveness.

We’ll unpack Jesus’ answer a little more now. First
Jesus’ disciples must forgive without limits.
Peter’s question comes following Jesus teaching his disciples about how to deal with sin in a fellow member of the church – the local group of disciples seeking to follow Jesus.
So presumably this is in Peter’s mind. How many times should this happen? How many times should a sinner be forgiven? How many times should this process be gone through?

Peter’s answer of 7 is reasonably generous – the Jewish teachers around that time said 3 times. Jesus’ answer turns the question upside down. Not 7 times, but 70 7 times. It is possible to argue about whether this means 77 or 490. But that is rather missing the point. The point is that forgiveness is unlimited. 7 is a complete whole – 70 times more than that is beyond all limits. To have a check list of how many times we have been sinned against, to tick off 77 so that on number 78 we do not forgive is to miss the point.

This is not to say that forgiveness is easy. In this context we are talking about sin within the community of believers, and we are talking about forgiveness when someone has made some move towards apologising and seeking to put things right.

There is a whole other discussion based around what happens when someone sins against us and never seeks forgiveness. There I think, we must be ready somehow not to hold it against them, and to be ready to forgive if forgiveness is ever sought,
but I do not think we need to go round telling people we have forgiven them if they have never asked for that forgiveness.

Having said that, it is still very sadly the case, that even within the church there is room for massive injury to be done to us by others, and for us to do to others, and that there may well be times when we are called to forgive something that seems really hard to ever forgive. It does need to be remembered that personally forgiving someone who has committed a crime against us does not stop us playing our part in the judicial process which will convict and punish them of the crime, and take appropriate measures to protect others from their crime.

Think of the school teacher recently, in the news for amazing forgiveness – still important to testify. Does mean that we leave the outcome it in God’s hands, and his instrument – government and police, rather than personal vengeance and vendettas.

Also forgiveness is not to be used to cover up sin, but to deal with the personal impact of sin. And at that personal level Jesus disciples’ must forgive without limits however hard it is – and so Jesus tells the story to show us why and how.

The first part of the parable tells us to Forgive because God is a compassionate lord, who forgives beyond limits.
We forgive, because God is a compassionate Lord, who forgives beyond limits. This is another one of Jesus’ parable which tells us what life in his kingdom is like. As with last week we see a King who is settling the accounts, and this time there is a servant who owes him a lot of money.

10,000 bags of gold we heard. One bag of gold (talent in other versions), is worth something around 15-20 years wages for a working labourer in that day. So 10,000 of these is a lot of money. It is the highest numerical unit in that culture – 10,000 multiplied by the largest unit of money. If you work it out in equivalents today, assuming a talent is 15 years wages for an average working person you get £3 billion or so. It is an unimaginable debt that an individual can never hope to repay.
Think of the anger a few years ago when the scale of the banking crisis became apparent, and the scale of the mislending. To get this high into debt the servant had to have been that foolish somewhere along the way. There has been unimaginable folly to get into this situation.

And so on hearing his sentence, a standard punishment for debtors throughout history
he begs for time, he begs for patience. He begs to be allowed to repay.

And just like the Father in the prodigal son, the King in the story has compassion. He feels compassion deep within him – the word is not talking about feeling a little bit sorry or concerned for someone, nor is it talking about a patronising sense of superiority –
rather it is talking about the gut wrenching (the word is related to the internal organs) sense of sorrow over another’s pitiful state, a sense of sorrow that always leads to action. Look up the word in the gospels and see that it is compassion that motivates Jesus time and again. And then notice how the Lord forgives the debt – doesn’t just give more time, he gives a complete reprieve.

Jesus puts us in the position of this servant (we’ll see that at the end). We owe an unimaginable debt because of our sinful actions, thoughts and deeds. We place ourselves at the centre, and our self-centredness, our inward focus leads us to lives of sin. We deserve punishment. We do not deserve to be counted as God’s servants. And yet – we serve a God who has compassion and forgives without limits.

No-one who casts themselves on God’s mercy is ever turned away. God is utterly and totally good. There is no shadow of turning with him. This can be relied on. We can always come back to God. Always cast ourselves on his mercy. “We do not presume…”
Forgiveness marks the King of God’s Kingdom – and so it must mark the citizens too.

That is fantastic news. That is unimaginable joy. My sin can be forgiven. All of it. In an instant. By the creator of the universe. But there is a sting in the tale of Jesus’ story.
That forgiveness with which I am forgiven is not about me being given a ticket to heaven,
an escape route from here and now.
No, the forgiveness with which I am forgiven is to transform my life here and now,
so that here and now I live as a citizen of that kingdom, marked by the forgiveness of that kingdom. Because Jesus goes on:

We must forgive from the heart because not forgiving makes God angry
This next section highlights the hypocrisy of the servant. He goes out and finds a fellow servant who owes 100 denarii, and launches himself on him – seizing and choking him –
now, 1 denarius is, according to the parable of the labourers a day’s wage, so, it is not a small amount of money. A few thousand pounds in today’s terms. So he wants it back – perhaps understandably.

Then look at v29 – this fellow servant repeats exactly the plea of the first servant – “be patient with me, and I will repay”. It should echo in the first servants ears. But his response is so different to that of the master. To throw the fellow servant into prison. That will teach him. Justice has to be done after all – he can’t go round running up debts… Except, coming from the man who has just been forgiven an unimaginable debt it doesn’t convince.

So with us, our forgiveness sometimes takes a vast amount of effort because we have been badly hurt in one way or another. But, in the story, compared to the amount of debt the servant has been forgiven it is tiny. In general terms that is how we are to think of forgiveness.

God has forgiven us so much, that surely we can forgive one who calls for mercy on us. If we have seen our own brokenness and need of forgiveness, and the generous compassion of God then we will forgive. If we cannot forgive, we must ask God to show us more clearly our need for forgiveness and his great compassion.

The fellow servants see. They are distressed. Their grief, the word is used for genuine sorrow in the rest of the NT. This isn’t a fake concern, this isn’t a scoring points issue.
This is a sorrow that reflects the compassion of the master. And so they take it to the master. They go to him.
In passing that’s pretty good advice for the first step in any conflict – go to Jesus, and tell him about it first. Here the master takes action. He is angry. First we saw his compassion, now we see his anger. Anger at someone else not being shown mercy.
Tells you a lot about someone – “what makes you angry?” His question to the servant is revealing – the master had mercy – he expects the servant to show mercy in response.
The behaviour of Jesus’ followers should reflect Jesus’ character. Truly receiving God’s forgiveness should lead us to forgive others.

Not forgiving others makes God angry. It brings exclusion from God’s kingdom. The punishment is worse than the original, demonstrating how angry God is at unmercy. And we could shrug this off as just part of the story except for what Jesus says next – v35. This is how God will deal with us, if we do not forgive from the heart.
Not forgiving invites God to not forgive us – you can count to 77, or 490 if you like – but only if you want God to do the same and I’m pretty sure I’ve reached 490.

Matthew’s gospel contains a number of warnings from Jesus’ lips about the dire consequences of looking like one of Jesus followers for a while, yet being shut out of Jesus’ kingdom. It is right to talk about Jesus’ acceptance of us. But that acceptance must lead us to change. Being forgiven by God should transform us. Knowing that we deserve nothing, but that he chooses to forgive freely should soften our hearts so that we are willing to forgive others.

God’s grace not only saves us from punishment, it transforms us in the here and now.

Therefore, Jesus emphasises, we are to forgive without limits, from the heart. We are to be a community of forgiveness and grace. So what does this mean for us in practice in church life. Be ready to say sorry, and to forgive. When we forgive say so. If someone apologises, then say “I forgive you”. There is wonderful power in that declaration. Roz and I want our children to learn that in their interactions. We try and practice it in our marriage – that when one of us needs to apologise the other needs to reach the point of being able to say “I forgive you”.

It should be that way in church too. We should be ready always to forgive from the heart. Is there someone here today you need to forgive? Is there someone you need to say sorry to.? Very often when we know someone has sinned against us, we have played our part too, and need to offer our apology – part of forgiveness is not waiting.
We are about to share the peace. Before we do that, why not take a minute two to see if there is anyone God would have you forgive today, someone you need to be reconcilled to this day.




speaking the goodness of God into the silence

Silence is something I treasure, especially now that I am a mum of three little ones. Silence lets me attend to my soul, to the world around me, to the mysterious workings of God. Being silenced is another matter altogether and I realised that was exactly what was happening to me this week. Not the best week for it to happen when one is preparing to preach twice on Sunday for the first time in a while.

But in the silence of my evening strolls walking our youngest to sleep I have had time to see how God is at work in a painful reawakening of a season of my life through a quick comment made in all innocence on facebook with no awareness of the writer (a friend) to the very different words I would have used to describe the situation he was describing.

There are not many things I am more passionate about than the faithful teaching of God’s incredible living word and as I began to perpare for this coming Sunday on the passage of Matthew 20:1-16 I prayed as I do in preparation of teaching that God would first make His word alive and real in my heart before I share it. And He did, as I considered the question that is at then end of the parable where the landowner asks the grumbling workers if they are envious because he is generous. We were in the process of wondering where we would live and I had a deep longing to move but God was at work and we are staying in our home for the next year while we draw breathe and I can honestly say I am at peace with it. Mark might be getting slightly concerned at this level of peace and its implications for our bank balance as I appear home every so often with something new from our wonderful charity shop in the village to make it fill more like home and have plans for the garden. And once I came to this place of peace I thanked God that he had answered my prayer even if I had wrestled with him in the process wondering at times when I saw the way things were going to work out why I had offered that prayer at all and made mental notes not to in future.

But God was not done with bringing his word alive in my soul, but this week it has taken on a whole new level. I had enjoyed preparing the passage and was feeling confident about the way the sermons (same passage but two very different styled services with two different time allocations for preaching) were coming together. Then on Monday I read the aforementioned friend’s facebook comment and it immediately unsettled me and stirred up many painful memories. I tried to bat it off, it was not a comment directed at me in any way, it was simply a passing statement but their experience and mine of the same place are poles apart and the silencing came back in torrents as there was no way to respond. I also have found myself battling with my sermon preparation feeling the silence creeping into that two. That preaching was not something I could do, which has been in contradition to many other voices in my life but they too have been silenced.

Matthew 20, the parable of the workers in the vineyard speakings about God’s generous and lavish grace which he distrubutes as he chooses and the challenge to us to celebrate with others rather than begrudge them God’s blessing. But this week as I have continued to sit with this passage I have been struck by the need to trust in the goodness of God, in order to celebrate his grace, which Jesus speaks to in the proceeding passage when speaking to the rich young man who is trying to do good acts and Jesus reminds him that there is only One who is good, not because God does good things but because it is who he is.

God has been drawing me into that truth this week as I have found myself back through memories in a season of my life I would rather not remember. God has been asking me to trust that he is good alongside the reality of what took place within his church and what was supposedly done in his name and for the gospel. What happend was the work of church leaders not God. God was and is good, those men like me mess up, get things seriously wrong, need the cross, need forgiveness and need his grace. That is where the parable in Matthew 20 takes me after the statement Jesus makes to the rich young man that there is only One who is good. I need to let God be at work in those men too redeeming their stories and extending them grace.

God has been asking me to trust him and his goodness in all this this week.  That has not been easy and will not be sorted and dealt with over night but healing can come for all of us if we enter into silence rather than being silenced. And God is not asking me to sort it out over night thankfully. And as I think about it God was planting the seed for this work a few weeks back when a friend on hearing my story said that I was not responsible for the way things happened. Others have said it in the past but I think this was a seed sown for this work as it has got in under my skin. Church and I have never got along well and there have been more tearing apart as I have left. I felt those times must have been my fault as I was the common denominator but Mark and this friend would not accept that as my response. The actions of others is not my responsibility and in the moments my response to walk was always the right one. Remaining in a place of harm is not an option, sadly I found myself there more times than I care, thankfully only once to the extremes I journeyed through in one church. Wrestling with passages like the one I am preaching this weekend is my responsibility and listening to God as he works His word out first also is and responding to his word is.

I would rather that spiritual abuse was not part of my journey, a litter of agonising church endings is not something I take delight in as I look back over my past. But spiritual abuse is part of my story, one that has been silenced but I am not alone and I want to be a voice for those who are still being silenced. It has taken me more than 10 years to reach this place where I can separate the actions of church leaders from the nature of the One who is good.

ps; to the church leaders I have known who are being faithful servants sorry for the mistrust I have had. It has never been my intention to mistrust or question or doubt but those of us who walk this road can often do little else if we are going to enter the doors of church at all. We come with our mistrust or we don’t come at all.