The chosen hymns for this week, Lord you have come to the seashore, Ye Gates lift up your heads on high and Brother, sister, let me serve you can be found below along with a transcription of the sermon for those who prefer to read.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?”
How well known this saying is! It’s one of those fragments from the Bible that has entered our cultural heritage – as has Jesus’ reply, No, not seven times,” answered Jesus, “but seventy times seven.
Sometimes you’ll hear people expounding on what this means, insisting that forgiveness is infinite. At other times you’ll hear people arguing it is limited to 490 times and then it’s OK to do…whatever.
But people often don’t examine the saying and forget, or ignore the rest of the teaching and the context it is set in.
Let’s look at the setting of it.
Last week’s passage dealt with creating an environment where Christ’s presence continues to bring forgiveness, healing, and joy. It was about living in community, where we were assured that wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, he is in our midst.
Peter ignores that promise and immediately gets down to what he sees are the practicalities.
He’s got the idea that it’s about living in community – he talks about a brother or fellow believer. He’s talking about someone who is part of his circle, someone known.
He knows he has to forgive – Jesus has already taught the disciples how to pray, especially the bit about “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”, so forgiveness is a given.
He knows a bit about the old testament – he does not choose the number seven by accident. He knows that the number seven is often used to signify perfection, completeness, wholeness: for example, the seven days in the first story of creation, the seven pillars of Wisdom’s house and so on.
So Peter thinks he has got it.
Yet when it comes to forgiveness, seven is not complete enough for Jesus. “Not seven times,” he says to Peter, “but, I tell you, seventy times seven times.”
So what is going on here?
I think we are back to the question – rules or relationship?
How do we live in community with each other?
Are we to live in community by keeping the law, or by the quality of our relationships?
Jesus is not magnifying perfection to an impossible number. Jesus wants Peter to stop counting at all. Jesus is pointing out that Peter has got it wrong.
Forgiveness is like love. Forgiveness, like love is relational – it cannot be counted.
How many times should I love my neighbour? It sounds ridiculous.
It sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous. Love cannot be quantified. Love cannot be counted.
So it is with forgiveness. Forgiveness cannot be counted.
We may think it can, but that is because we see it as a response to law.
If someone offends, then our choice seems to be either to punish them or let them off.
The law regulates behaviour – it can tell us that this behaviour is wrong or right, but it does not and cannot govern actual relationship.
It can tell us that we must not hurt another person, or to help someone in need, but it cannot make us love someone or like them or be friends with them.
Forgiveness is not about regulating behaviour, but is about nurturing our relationships. It is about maintaining relationship in community.
Law is important for regulating community, but the deeper, relational part of our lives is about being.
It is about being children of God, valued and loved.
Forgiveness lies at the heart of our faith in God and our love of one another.
Forgiveness, which we receive from God in the person of Jesus is what God expects from his children in their dealings with each other.
Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors; as a prayer this puts the emphasis on what we will receive in turn for the forgiveness we have offered.
At the end of the parable, where the King was very angry and sent the ungrateful servant to jail for punishment until he paid back the whole amount Jesus concluded, “That is how my Father in heaven will treat every one of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
Forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
Remember that we have been first forgiven.
This, then, encourages us to forgive in turn.
Forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
This is the essence of Godliness. It is the essence of being.
How we treat others defines us. There is no “them”, only “us”.
Taken together, this is a picture of the kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom we practice, both of which are driven by love.
Following you, Jesus, is a hard thing to do;
So many seek to tell us the “right” way,
and too many of these paths are filled
with violence and hatred and judgement and revenge.
These roads are easy,
they make us feel strong and vindicated,
and they give us the shallow pleasure
of watching our enemies hurt.
But, when the dust settles, we realise
that we have lost some our humanity,
and we have lost our connection with you and with our neighbours.
In the end we cannot deny that you are a God of peace,
a God of the cross,
and of forgiveness spoken with your dying breath.
And for this we are grateful,
for if it were not so we would have no hope
because we too have offended you.
We praise you, God, for peace;
for your compassion and grace and forgiveness
that refuse to allow our worst selves
to define our relationship with you;
for the quiet, inexorable silencing of nastiness
that grows among us
as we seek to follow your peace-making ways. Amen