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Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity

“I say not unto thee, until seven times; but until seventy times seven.”

There is something quite wonderful in the way in which Jesus teaches one of the great and most distinctive Christian ideas, the idea of forgiveness. He takes Peter’s argument about number, about how many times do you forgive someone who has offended you, to open us out to the infinite nature and quality of forgiveness. It is not merely a matter of substituting a greater number for a lesser number, 490 in place of 7, as if forgiveness could be quantified. No. Forgiveness is a divine quality given to us so as to be lived in us. Not to forgive is to deny the forgiveness that has been given to us. It can only result in cutting ourselves off from God because we have cut ourselves off from one another. Love is dead in us.

This is the point of the parable that Jesus tells. “And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.” The servant who has been brought to account owes a great debt to his king and is forgiven his debt only to refuse to forgive the paltry debt that another owes him. With the words of forgiveness still ringing in his ears, he refuses to forgive his fellow-servant. We sense the outrage, the wrong, the violation of the ethical idea that you should do as others have done to you. Forgiveness received requires forgiveness to be shown towards others; and if it isn’t, then we are in a mess. There seems to be about this a certain quid pro quo, a kind of justice.

True enough but I think this hides the much more radical nature of forgiveness, its divine nature, as it were, and the seriousness of forgiveness. Forgiveness returns us to the will of God for our humanity. It is really about nothing less than the life of Christ in us. It is Paul’s prayer “that [our] love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgement”. Forgiveness is nothing less than the love of God ruling in our hearts.

It requires that we look at one another in another way. To see one another as God sees us in Jesus Christ, as his beloved. “How greatly I long after you all in the mercies of Jesus Christ,” Paul writes to the Philippians. What he is saying speaks to the nature of our life in Christ. It is about longing after one another not to possess and control one another but to know one another in Christ. To put it simply, it is to know one another, with all our faults and failings, warts and wrinkles, as forgiven by Christ and, if forgiven by Christ, then forgiven by us too.

How utterly radical an idea. It requires us to look beyond all of the many, many things that annoy us about one another to contemplate each other in Christ Jesus. To know each other as the beloved of Christ. To know one another as those whom Jesus prays to the Father, “forgive them for they know not what they do.” It means to throw away all the treasured hoards of remembered slights and injuries, words of criticism and disdain, the whole hideous packet of hurts and hatreds to which we cling and fling at one another Not easy is it? And yet, that is what the Gospel calls us to do. To forgive even as we have been forgiven.

Well, you are probably thinking. Nothing new here, same old message, boring and commonplace. Oh yeah, forgiveness. Big deal. But it really is. When we can’t let go of our real or imagined hurts and injuries, our bitterness and despair, then we are dead to God, dead to one another, and dead to ourselves. Love is not alive in us. We are, in T.S. Eliot’s telling phrase, “the walking dead,” a veritable community of zombies, and it is not even Halloween yet!

You can’t be complacent about forgiveness. In a way, it is never cheap grace for it is always about “the burning love of the crucified” alive in us, to use a lovely phrase from St. Bonaventure. God’s burning love for our good is given to be the fire that burns in us in our care and concern for one another.

We may ask how this is to be done. We may even want a manual to tell us how. There isn’t one. It suffices to contemplate the mystery of Christ crucified which is what we do every Sunday. To contemplate the crucified Christ is to become what we contemplate. That means our life-long struggle to let Christ’s life rule in our hearts. Forgiveness is more than merely a concept, a pleasing thought. No. It is given to be the defining force in our lives. Forgiveness cannot be constrained or limited; it is simply beyond measure. It is the love of God in us. It is never easy, to be sure.

Yet, somehow that is the great challenge wonderfully illustrated in the Gospel for today. The one who is forgiven fails to forgive in return. He is dead to what has been given to him. The master who has forgiven him saw him not simply as a debtor but as something more. But he, in turn, refused to see his fellow-servant as anything other than one who owes him an hundred pence. You see the problem and the challenge.

The problem is what is present in Peter’s question, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” This means to look at one another in merely quantitative terms, in terms of being commodities, as defined simply by debts and obligations about our usefulness to one another. This ignores the challenge to see each and every one as human beings, as children of God, as made in the image of Christ, and not simply as beings to be used and manipulated to our own ends and purposes.

Such is the radical nature of this Gospel. It recalls us to who we are in the sight of God, the God who loves us beyond calculation. You can’t put a price on the Crucified. It shows us simply the infinite love of God for us. That love is given and we are forgiven so that it can live and move in us. Nothing could be more radical. Nothing could be more lovely. And yet, nothing could be more sad than when we fail to act upon what we ourselves have been given.

When we forget the forgiveness of Christ, we fail as a church and people to show “the burning love of the crucified” for a sad, desparate and despairing world. Instead we too often “confound [ourselves] with dismal stories,” as Bunyan’s poem and hymn puts it. To the contrary, our challenge is to reclaim the wonder of forgiveness. In the mercies of Christ, it shall be our joy and delight, all numbers great or less notwithstanding.

“I say not unto thee, until seven times; but until seventy times seven.”

Fr. David Curry,
Trinity XXII, HC 2013