Sunday 13th September 2020
Rev Dr John McCulloch
Genesis 15: 15-20
Psalm 103: 1-13
Romans 14: 1-12
St Matthew 18: 21-35
Grace mercy and peace are yours in Jesus Christ.
I’m John McCulloch, the minister of St Andrew’s Jerusalem & Tiberias Church of Scotland, and its great to be with you today on this 14th Sunday after Pentecost.
Let us pray
May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you o Lord, my rock and my redeemer, Amen.
Julia de Beausobre was a Russian Christian woman who was persecuted for her faith in the in the Soviet Union when Stalin was in power. After suffering torture in the concentration camps of the gulag (where her husband had died), she was asked how she managed to survive it., she responded with these words:
‘It was simple really. I tried to love my torturers, because if I loved them I would not be adding to the evil in the world, and they would not have succeeded in adding to the evil in the world by making me hate them.
But if I loved, it could just be that it might have some effect on them and even reduce the evil in the world. At its simplest level Christ’s way of love and trust and forgiveness seemed to be the only way’.
Julia de Beausobre embodied what Christ was like when he faced crucifixion, by responding in love and forgiveness to the very people who were torturing her.
She followed in her master’s footsteps.
But if we are honest with ourselves, forgiveness, and the command to love our enemies, does not come easy to us. Forgiveness does not come easy to us, and neither does reaching out to our enemies in love rather than retaliation. It is all too easy to harbour bitterness and unforgiveness, which not only keeps the person who has offended us imprisoned, but it also imprisons us. When we hold onto unforgiveness in our hearts it leads to bitterness.
Both our lectionary OT and gospel readings are about forgiveness. In Genesis 50: 15-21 we read of how Joseph forgave his brothers who had sold him into slavery. In our gospel reading from Matthew 18: 21-35, Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive someone who has wronged him, is 7 times enough. Jesus responds in verse 22 ‘not seven times, but I tell you, seventy times seven’.
I have heard many sermons where they have tried to work out the exact number, whether it is 77 times, or 7 to the power of 70 or whatever, but I am not interested in the maths. What Jesus is saying is that forgiveness is a hallmark of what it means to follow him. There are seven days in a week, and we are to be willing to forgive daily, again and again, for have we not been forgiven much by our Saviour? Do we not make mistakes, harbour bitterness and unforgiveness in our hearts, long after the things that bring harm to ourselves and the created order? Just as we are forgiven, we in turn need to forgive.
Forgiveness, loving our enemies, reaching out to those who we would rather avoid, are all hallmarks of what it means to be a follower of Christ. None of this comes naturally to us. We can only do so by God’s grace and with his help. Christ’s command for forgive, to love our enemies, to bless those who revile and persecute us is how the world is to be renewed, transformed and healed. Dostoevsky once said that To love someone means to see them as God intended.
This does not mean that we don’t stand up for what is right and against that which is wrong. I have been challenged by reading on the subject of non violence, the message that Christ embodied and is so central to the gospel, and I came across these words from the late writer and activist Barbara Deming. She wrote about the two hands of nonviolence in her book-length essay, Revolution and Equilibrium:
‘With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play, I refuse to obey you, I refuse to cooperate with your demands, I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised outstretched — maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not — but always outstretched . . . With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’ “
In God’s counter-cultural kingdom, there are no outsiders; for God yearns to draw all to himself, to heal both oppressor and oppressed. His healing extends beyond the boundaries and conditions that we often put in the way.
And when our Saviour was cast out, and sent to the place of death to die as a criminal on a Roman cross; his last act was to reach out and heal a soldier, who was part of those who were about to crucify him.
And in responding in forgiving love to his enemies, he teaches us a better way, and stretches out his arms to embrace the whole of suffering humanity; standing with those who we cast out and exclude, standing with the whole sighing and suffering humanity who down through the ages have been crucified outside of the city walls.
Through his death and resurrection, he calls on us, the community of the baptised, to embody a new way of being in the world. We are to be his hands and feet to our hurting world.
― Mahatma Gandhi understood this. He understood it better than most of us Christians did. In his book All Men are Brothers he wrote:
‘The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong’
The Kingdom of God Christ embodied was a kingdom built on the transformative power of forgiveness.
So let us, by the grace of God, be renewed in forgiveness. Forgiveness towards those who have wronged us, forgiveness from God for our part in the systems of injustice we see all around us, that our world may be transformed.
As the community of the forgiven, go into the world at the beginning of this new week, extending grace and forgiveness to those who have wronged you. Reaching out in love to those who are against you; seeing your enemies through the eyes of Christ.
And the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with you, and remain with you, now, and forever more. Amen.