RECEIVING AND GIVING FORGIVENESS

Sunday the 17th of September

Matthew 18: 21-35

If there is one thing that is difficult to talk about within the Christian church it is the word ‘forgiveness’. When it comes to forgiving others, it is often deeply personal, and because the hurts we receive from others’ sin can affect us so deeply, it can be hard to speak about. We know that we should forgive; in fact, we know that Jesus tells us to, but that does not mean that it is easy to do.

In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 18, Peter asks this question of Jesus: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Have you ever wondered why Peter asked this question of Jesus? It strikes me that Peter was asking Jesus here for a boundary line. So that, when someone sinned against him for the eighth time, he would be justified in not forgiving them. In Peter’s mind, and perhaps in ours too, there has to be a limit to how many times we should forgive someone who sins against us.

Jesus’ response to Peter, I suspect, does not give him, or us, a satisfactory answer to the question. The parable that Jesus gives, however, points to the real issue: the problem is not about numbers, it is not about how many times or how often we should forgive. The real issue is that there is never a time in our lives and in our relationships, where forgiveness is not required. This is the point. Forgiveness comes with being disciples of Jesus. It is a constant. It is not an option. It is not a choice. And this is what makes it so difficult because we want it to be a choice. I believe that this is at the heart of Peter’s question to Jesus.

When we talk about forgiveness it usually brings to mind those who we know who have hurt us and our reluctance to forgive them. It also can bring about questions like: what about those wrongs which are unforgivable? And there are many. Or perhaps it causes us to be unsure what to do with these situations. But the purpose of the parable of the unforgiving servant is not so much to get us to think about the sins of others, but rather to see that forgiveness begins with us. Jesus is challenging us to think again about the purpose of forgiveness, not in others’ lives, but in my life – to see when I need it, when I give it, when I hold back; to ask myself the hard questions.

God has forgiven us so much, he has poured out his grace on us through Jesus, in a way that is incomprehensible, by taking all our sins upon himself. How then are we going to respond to those who sin against us? This is a very difficult question to answer at times, but the point is that it is hard, almost impossible at times.

Forgiveness challenges us. We live in a society that likes to have its boundaries. It likes to have things in their right places, likes to know where the limits are. And too often we are like this in our relationships with each other as well. We like knowing how much we have to give and what we will get in return. In other words, we want to know what’s in it for me. And forgiveness can at times be no different. Why should I forgive this person? What’s in it for me? Often when we are hurt we may look for controls and limitations when it comes to forgiveness. And yet somewhere here, it seems to me anyway, there is a deep sense of irony. Because in most of life we want freedom, choice, autonomy to do as we please, we don’t always like having limitations. Yet why is it different when it comes to forgiveness?

By telling the parable of the unjust servant, Jesus makes the point to Peter, and to us, that firstly forgiveness starts with our relationship with our Heavenly Father. It starts with his forgiveness of us and what that means. As much as we place controls over when and where and why we forgive others, we first must recognise and receive our own forgiveness from the Lord.

In one of Martin Luther’s sermons on this reading, he applies it to the church. He said, “In this Christian church, he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” Notice what Luther was saying here. Our Lord forgives my sins, but also the sins of all believers. Luther goes on to challenge people in how they see themselves. Do we see ourselves as a Christian community of forgiven sinners?

In ourselves, we know that we are sinful people. Often our sins can even burden our consciences. We know all too well and have felt all too often the weight of our own unworthiness of forgiveness; many times I believe this is what keeps people away from the church. They are aware of their own sins and struggle to believe that God would forgive them. If this is true then how can we possibly declare it for others?

But this is why we need to hear and speak about it. As a Christian community, we are all called here to this place because we have the freedom that comes from being forgiven freely through Jesus. This is the Gospel, the good news. This is something that most Christians know, but I wonder if it is spoken about. The world around us has this image of Christians as being those who preach about morals and law and doing the right thing. Preaching about how sinful we all are and that we need to stop sinning against God. This is all true, but if we do this without the gospel it becomes a barrier.

In order for Peter to understand how misguided his question was he had to understand the gospel. In other words, Peter needed to identify himself as the unjust servant, the one who had been forgiven so much and got what he did not deserve, which was mercy and grace from his Heavenly Father. We too need to identify ourselves with him and think about how we will respond.

Over the years of being a counsellor and now a pastor, I have seen many times when forgiveness is extremely difficult for people. And many people feel very condemned by Jesus’ words: 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” If forgiving someone is hard for you, I offer you the following encouragement.

Firstly, Jesus is the one who forgives, and he is the only one who forgives all sins. There are times when it is okay to say to him, “I can’t do this; I need you to help me forgive.” The reality is that there are times when our Lord has to help us, but in order for him to help, we have to have willing hearts. Forgiveness is about letting go, and sometimes we need to let go so the Lord can help us do as he commands.

Secondly, I encourage you to come to the Lord’s Table. It is here that he gives us himself. He gives us his body and his blood to strengthen us. When we come to the altar we don’t come to give, but we come to receive. In my pastoral visits where I take out my home communion set, I have often had the chance to speak of how in Holy Communion it’s not just our own sins that are healed, but we also receive healing from the effects of sin that others have caused us. This is the one place where Jesus promises to give us healing in body and soul. If you have trouble forgiving, rely on the one who forgives you to help you.

Forgiveness is something that is hard to talk about, but we need to encourage each other with. Because as Jesus’ disciples, forgiveness is not an optional extra, it is something that he commands us to do. I would encourage you all to see yourselves as belonging to this church community of forgiven sinners because that is what we all are. I also encourage you to extend this forgiveness that we have so greatly received from our Heavenly Father to each other.

The Promise of Jesus’ Presence

Sunday the 10th of September 2017

Matthew 18: 15-20

As I was thinking about today’s Gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 18 during the week, the first thing I thought about was the word ‘conflict’. If you look at the world around us, it is everywhere. Turn on the news, it’s there: people in arguments with one another, taking each other to court; people strongly expressing their views on the marriage plebiscite; people making death threats and bullying others to get their own way; the international conflicts with North Korea over its behaviour; conflicts within the US over Donald Trump; the list could go on and on.

We are surrounded by conflict and yet you would think that in the church, among those who follow Jesus, there would be less conflict, but think again. There is lots of conflict within the LCA at the moment, over various issues. And of course to get closer to home there have been and there still are serious issues of conflict between people in our parish.

The fact is that sin runs rampant in the world, but also in the church.

Matthew 18 tells us as Christians how to handle conflict. It outlines for us how Jesus tells us to handle the sin of others against us. But this morning I want to take a look at this reading from a different perspective. And I am going to start by looking at verse 20 which says this: 20 “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

The significance of Jesus’ statement here cannot be underestimated. Jesus’ promise is that when we gather together as Christians in his name he is with us. We need this promise regularly, because it is so easy for us to be discouraged by the things that happen in our lives and in the world around us.

We need to hear this Gospel promise of Jesus. He is with us. This is good news, isn’t it? Well, it is dependent on where you are with Jesus. The promise of Jesus’ presence, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”, is very comforting, but only if you want Jesus to be that close to you. Jesus is with us, but I suspect that some of us, if we are honest, don’t always want Jesus in such immediate proximity to us.

It’s fine to have Jesus’ presence with us when we need him, but what about when Jesus challenges us? What about when he points out our sin? What about when we simply don’t want to hear what he has to say to us?

One of the things about living in our world, and the way of our society, is that we don’t always take time to think about what we are doing. Life is busy with so many things to do, so many distractions. We don’t think about things as much as we should, and this can affect our walk with Jesus. How much of what we do individually, but also as a church, do we do without giving these words of Jesus any thought? Perhaps we just don’t want to for whatever reason, or perhaps we are too involved in our own worlds to not give them thought. I believe that we can hear this promise of Jesus that he is with us, and take this promise of his for granted.

So I would like to challenge you. What difference does it make that Jesus is with us and present in everything we do as a community of faith? He is present with each of us in everything we talk about. Does this make a difference in the way we speak to each other? What about the decisions that we make together? Does his presence make a difference?

These are very confronting questions but they need to be asked. It is easy to just get on with life without thinking about this. We all know that Jesus is present with us in worship—that is a given, but what about when we gather together as Christians, whether it be friends visiting each other; whether it be church council meetings, Bible studies, men’s shed, women’s breakfast, prayer group, or whatever else we do together as Christians as a part of this church? Do we believe that Jesus is with us and do we act accordingly?

I would suspect that a lot of the time, we don’t give Jesus a thought.

When it comes to dealing with conflict and the sin that underlies the conflict that happens between Christians, Jesus is present. All too often we get carried away by our own thoughts, justifications of our actions; our own pride gets in the way; our refusal to admit that we are wrong, because the other person is always to blame. But what difference would it make believing that Jesus is with us in those times? Does it affect how we see others, knowing that they belong to Jesus and that he is with them as he is with us? That these are our brothers and sisters in Christ and not our enemies.

Jesus’ promise is comforting to us, but it is also very confronting at times. Sometimes Jesus’ presence with us is not what we want. We don’t want a Jesus who insists on staying close, persists in being in the middle of what we do and say, especially when it comes to those things we do and say in the name of Christ. But that is exactly where he said he would be.

If you and I were left on our own to deal with our sins, we would not be here. But the fact is that Jesus has taken our sins, he brings forgiveness and healing to us, where we cannot. This is the good news of the Gospel. We are all here in this church because we have been called by our God to be his children, through his son Jesus Christ. Jesus is the head of the church—that means he is the head of this church, and he is present with us in this life, even outside the doors of this church building. He is present with us to give us peace, forgiveness, healing, community. I do not believe that any of us are here by random chance. God has called each and every one of you here because he has a purpose for you and because he is giving each of you his word and his sacrament to strengthen you in faith.

When we gather together, by the fact of who we are as his baptised children, we carry his name. We don’t come to worship in our name, this would be considered outrageous. But we also don’t meet together outside worship in our name. Jesus is not just with us in this building on Sunday and then not with us when we leave.

The process of dealing with sins and conflict is laid out by Jesus in this reading today. I would encourage you all to re-read it and see what God is saying to you specifically through this word. However, the fact is it actually takes courage to follow through with what he says to do, but this is why it is important for us to realise that we do this in Jesus’ name, therefore he is present and leading us. We don’t do it alone.

I would encourage each of you to stop for a while and to consider what it means for you that Jesus is present when you are around your brothers and sisters in Christ. This doesn’t just have to be among us, but any Christians. I had the privilege of hosting the ecumenical ministers’ meeting here at Burnie last week, and I read this Gospel reading out and we talked about it together and Jesus was with us, because we were gathered as Christians. Knowing this was something special on that day, and we had great prayer time with and for each other.

I encourage you in those times where it is hard to trust Jesus to reach out to him, because he is the only one who has your best interest in his heart; he is the only one who gives you what you need. I encourage you not to ignore him, but to follow him even when things are difficult, because he will lead you on the right path.

And finally I encourage you to give thanks that Jesus is true to his promise of being with us, because we all need him in our lives.

 

God’s promise in the midst of unfairness

Sunday the 3rd of September 2017

Jeremiah 15: 15-21

I remember a time when I was in my first year of high school that I was in my maths class. Now I disliked maths and found this subject difficult. On this particular day, my maths teacher was trying hard to teach me and I was trying very hard to do as she was telling me. I worked really hard and concentrated the whole lesson; as far as I was concerned I was doing my best. However, in my class that day were a number of boys who were playing up, mucking around, and being disruptive. So my teacher in her wisdom decided that the whole class be kept in after school for 15 minutes.

To make matters worse this particular day I had been asked by the PE teacher to try out for the cricket team for the school. The cut off was this particular day. If you did not turn up you did not make the team. By the time I got out of the maths class the team had already gotten on the bus and had gone. As you might imagine I was not happy. I was so angry with my teacher all the way home.

When I got home my parents asked why I was not at cricket and I told them that the class had to stay in. They then assumed that I had done something wrong and, without giving me a chance to explain, got stuck into me about behaving better at school. By the time I got to my bedroom laying on my bed I was really angry. All I had done was try hard to do the right thing and I was being punished for something that I did not deserve to be punished for. I remember lying there and saying to God, “Life is so unfair”.

In today’s reading from Jeremiah chapter 15, Jeremiah was in a similar position. Except that his complaint of unfairness was not against another human, it was against God. Jeremiah had been faithfully proclaiming to God’s people what God had told him to say. He had been courageous, he had tried his best. He had put up with an enormous amount of abuse because he was following God. And he had reached a point where he reached his limit and he was freely letting God know about it. Letting him know that, according to Jeremiah, this was unfair and he bitterly complained. He was one angry young man. And he gets to the point after outlining for God all that he had done for him (as if God did not know this!), where he says: 18 “Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? You are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails.” In other words, he is accusing God here of making promises to Jeremiah and giving him hope, but every time he reaches out to trust God it’s like his promises vanish. And Jeremiah is questioning God on whether his promises are real, because if they were, why was he being treated this way?

As Christians, it is very easy for us to fall into the same temptation that Jeremiah did. It is easy to become disillusioned with God, because when we try to follow him, when we try to do the right thing, when we stand up for what is right, what happens? Jeremiah was speaking God’s Word to a people who did not want to hear. We live in the world where people around us do not want to hear what we as God’s people have to say.

Just look at those Christians who stand up and speak and see the persecution that they receive. Just look at the way they are treated with such disrespect and in some cases with outright hatred. It is very easy for us, isn’t it, to look around and see that here we are trying our best to follow God and we are treated unjustly. It is simply not fair. Even in our own personal lives, it can be like this; every time we try to do what is right by God, the evil one is there to push us two steps backwards. And at times if feels like we are trying our best, but we do not seem to be getting anywhere. We can complain just as Jeremiah did: ‘Why are you not keeping your promises, God?’

God’s response to Jeremiah tells us something of how God looks at things. God’s first response to Jeremiah was to say: “If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me;…” You see Jeremiah had become so fixated on his problems, on the things that were happening to him, that he failed to look to the Lord. The Lord was in control, but Jeremiah had taken his focus off him. Therefore the Lord told Jeremiah to repent; to turn back to him. The temptation is there for all of us, to take the focus off God. To see the problems that we face, the things going on in society and the world around us, as being hopeless. To start thinking to ourselves: “Well God’s not going to do anything anyway so why bother”. It is easy to become disillusioned with God because our focus is on the things in front of us and not on him. And he calls us just as he did Jeremiah to turn back to him, to repent.

The Lord says to Jeremiah: 20 “I will make you a wall to this people, a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but will not overcome you, for I am with you to rescue and save you,” declares the Lord. 21 “I will save you from the hands of the wicked and deliver you from the grasp of the cruel.”

As Christians living in this world, the reality is that we will face opposition. It comes with following our Lord. People will not listen to us. Decisions will be made that cause us to grieve. Things will happen that will cause us to be discouraged. But the point is that the Lord and His Word stands firm. His promise is that he will act, in his way, in his own time. In his response to Jeremiah, he says the word “I …” five times. He reassures Jeremiah that he will strengthen him, be with him, help him. These same promises are for us also. In fact through his son Jesus Christ he has redeemed us and forgiven us for our lack of faith and our doubts. He has given us his Holy Spirit to help us where we are weak and struggle.

Life is not fair sometimes, and we often can’t see from our perspective why God lets things happen. But he urges us to trust him, to keep our focus on him in the midst of all the unfairness, knowing that he has things in his hands.

As I was putting this sermon together it struck me that sometimes in life we can make the Christian faith more complicated than it is. God calls us to trust him. Keeping our eyes on him, trusting that he has things in hand is important to our faith.

My encouragement to you all is to focus on God’s words of promise that he gives in this reading, that he will act, rescue, save, deliver us from the evil ones around us. The world can be difficult at times, but we have the assurance and the promise that our God is with us.

In our Bible study that was held in Launceston this week, it was spoken about how it is important for us to be positive. To look for what God is doing in us and around us; to give thanks to him for simple things; and in doing this it helps us to shift our focus from things in front of us to having a different perspective on life and lifting our eyes to see God working in us and around us.

Focusing on the Lord and what he is doing is what he asks us as his children. So I encourage you to do just this, to focus on the Lord, and to see what he is doing.