Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 18)

Text: Philemon 15-17
It may be that Onesimus was away from you for a short time so that you might have him back for all time. And now he is not just a slave, but much more than a slave: he is a dear brother in Christ. How much he means to me! And how much more he will mean to you, both as a slave and as a brother in the Lord! So, if you think of me as your partner, welcome him back just as you would welcome me.


Do I really have to forgive?

Rudyard Kipling built a beautiful home for his wife Caroline. Both believed that they would spend the rest of their lives there.

Kipling became best friends with his wife’s brother and the two of them got on like a house on fire. As a result of their friendship Kipling bought some land from his brother-in-law on the understanding that his brother-in-law would be allowed to harvest the hay each season from that field.

One day, the brother-in-law found Kipling laying out a flower garden on this hayfield. And he blew his top. Kipling gave back as good as he got. A few days later - when Kipling was out riding his bike - his brother-in-law drove a wagon and team of horses so close to Kipling that he fell off his bike.

He charged his brother-in-law with assault and a sensational trial followed. Reporters from all the big cities poured into town. The news flashed around the world. Nothing however was settled. And as a result of the quarrel Kipling and his wife had to abandon their beautiful home for the rest of their lives.

All that bitterness over a field of hay!

As you look back over your life, even considering your present circumstances, what is the worst time anyone has wronged or hurt you? It would be crazy to ask whether you have ever been hurt because none of us lives in a vacuum. To be alive and interact with other people who are sinners just like us means that at some time we all experience the pain that broken relationships cause. We add to that pain by refusing to seek ways to resolve differences, forgive the other person involved and so be reconciled to that person again.

Deep wounds come from many places. Maybe your spouse has wounded you so deeply to the point that you’re not sure you can ever forgive.

Some of you may be carrying wounds caused by abusive parents that to this day you carry around, adversely affecting all your relationships. Perhaps even to this day the memories of what it was like to never live up to your parents’ expectations still echo in your mind and you still feel the pain of harsh and unkind criticism.

More and more people are expressing hurt from children or grandchildren who have rejected their upbringing. You have poured out your love as best you know how, passed on your Christian values and beliefs, agonized in prayer and wept frequently, only to be rejected again and again.

The ways we can be hurt,
the number of times we can be hurt,
the depth of our hurt will vary,
but the fact is that at some time we experience pain and feel disappointment because something has happened to a relationship.
When a rift happens between people all kinds of things, many of them tied into our emotions, we are in danger of forgetting that forgiveness and reconciliation are an essential part of our Christian faith and prefer to harden our hearts and turn our backs on what had once been a special relationship in our lives.

I don’t need to go on and explain any further how an unforgiving spirit can affect us, our health and the people in our lives.

The little book of Philemon provides an interesting insight into the way forgiveness is at the centre of the Christian’s way of life. Really Philemon isn’t a book at all. Instead it is a very personal letter written from one Christian to another, making an appeal for forgiveness and restitution. It is a test case if you like to determine whether Christianity, our faith in Christ, really makes any difference in our personal relationships. If our faith in Christ can’t help us here, then it can’t help us anywhere.

There is an assumption behind this letter that forgiveness is not an easy thing to do. The more natural thing to do is to harbour our hurt, hold grudges, speak badly to others about the person with whom we have fallen out, and have nothing to do with the other person. After all, we say, we are the ones who have been hurt and it’s up to the other person to apologise. Even then we’re not sure if we can let bygones be bygones.

Jesus knows how hard it is for his followers to get it right when it comes to our relationships with other people.
Jesus knows how hard it is even for Christians, members of his body, the Church, to let go of their grievances.
He knows that we get it wrong when it comes to letting our faith and our relationship with Jesus, dictate to us how we ought to behave.

In the gospel reading today he lays it out fairly and squarely that being a disciple is serious and hard work. I use the word ‘work’ here because discipleship requires real effort, perseverance, a lot of prayer, and heaps of listening to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus talks about taking up our cross and following him. Carrying a cross is hard work because it involves acceptance, determination, commitment, humility and pain. There is no Christianity that does not involve carrying a cross. It is an essential part of our Christian journey through life. One of those crosses that we carry as his disciples is caring for and treasuring our relationship with others. The easiest thing to do is to walk away – the more difficult thing is to seek reconciliation.

In his letter to Philemon Paul outlines how important forgiveness and reconciliation are to the Christian. Sometime during Paul’s ministry in Ephesus he met Philemon. He was a wealthy slave owner who had been converted by the apostle Paul. For some unknown reason one of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had run away. This was a crime punishable by death. He ended up in Rome in Paul’s company where he too became a Christian.

Onesimus helped Paul for a while, but became convinced that he needed to return to his master Philemon and put his past life in order. Philemon was under no obligation to forgive him. It could have easily been a matter of right and wrong. Philemon was right and Onesimus was wrong. Philemon is the master; Onesimus is the slave. Paul wrote a letter of encouragement to Philemon to forgive Onesimus. Paul says, "He is not just a slave, but much more than a slave: he is a dear brother in Christ" (v 16). Onesimus was no longer ‘just a slave’ he was also a brother to Philemon and Paul. All three were joined together in Christ.

The hurts and wounds you’ve experienced, or the way someone has taken advantage of you may look absolutely different from Philemon’s situation, but what is required of you is the same. As a Christian, as a child of God, as a person who has been richly forgiven by Christ, your one goal should always be to love and forgive. Paul says, "You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own. … So then … you must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you" (Col 3:12,13). 

Now that doesn’t sound like an option – forgive if feel like it, or forgive if the other person apologises first. Paul is stating that forgiveness comes out of our relationship with God.
We are dearly loved by him;
Jesus gave his life for us to give us forgiveness and a renewed relationship with God;
through baptism we are placed in a special relationship with God – we are his people especially chosen and loved;
and everyday God renews his relationship with us as he forgives us for the many ways we find of ignoring what God wants of us as his people and going off and doing our own thing.

As much as we might look for loopholes or for reasons not to forgive those who hurt us, Jesus leaves no room for doubt that just as God has forgiven us for our persistent and blatant wrong against him so also we are to forgive one another even though we think the other person doesn’t deserve it. Even though we feel deeply hurt by the words and actions of a family or congregational member, and even though we might feel justified in saying ‘I am right and he/she is wrong’, nevertheless an essential part of our Christian faith still holds true - that just as God forgives us so we must forgive one another.

What could be plainer than that? Regardless of how badly you’ve been hurt, and regardless of who has inflicted that hurt, forgive them and love them. C S Lewis states, "To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you".

Jesus was right when he said being a disciple is not easy. It’s not easy to initiate reconciliation.
It’s a hard thing to swallow our pride and in love and concern for the other person,
seek them out,
sit down with them,
talk through what has affected your relationship
and pray with them.
It’s especially hard when we think that we are the ones who have been wronged.

Now, let’s talk about you for a moment.
Who is it that has hurt you?
Have you ever extended a hand of friendship to that person?
Have you ever really forgiven that person to the point where you no longer hold any grievance?
Have you forgiven those who refuse to accept your offer of forgiveness and friendship?
Sometimes it happens that even though you have been reconciled to a person things are never the same again – sin has done its damage but have you reached out to that person to the point where there is no longer any ongoing ill will and resentment?
Have you ever taken that person to God in prayer?

I probably know how many of you are feeling at this moment. You and I know full well that there have been too many times when we have been unforgiving, hard hearted and uncaring toward those with whom we have had a falling out. We have found it too hard to let go of the hurt and seek out understanding and forgiveness from the other person. Maybe you are thinking of a situation right now in your life that is a running sore caused by a broken relationship.

The apostle Paul urges us to turn away from an unforgiving spirit and turn toward our Saviour. He said on the cross to those who hated him, "Father, forgive them". He is saying the same thing as we gather around the communion table today. He gives forgiveness and reconciliation between us and God. Even though at times we find it hard to be reconciled to those who have hurt us, Jesus’ only response is his undeserved love and forgiveness. Through the knowledge and power that the Holy Spirit gives us, may we learn how to forgive with generosity and love.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
9th September 2007

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