Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost 
(Proper 18)

Text: Matthew 18:15, 21-23
"If your brother sins against you, go to him and show him his faultÖ.
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?"  "No, not seven times," answered Jesus, "but seventy times seven, because the Kingdom of heaven is like this.

Forgiving one another

Eighty-nine relatives of Simon Wiesenthal had been murdered by the Nazis. He became a Nazi hunter after the war and wrote a book that began with a true experience he had while he himself was a concentration camp prisoner. One day he was yanked out of a work detail and taken up a back stairway to a dark hospital room. A nurse led him into the room, then left him alone with a figure wrapped in white, lying on a bed. The figure was a badly wounded German soldier, whose entire face was covered with bandages.

With a trembling voice, the German made a kind of confession to Wiesenthal. He told about the brutal measures his S.S. unit had taken against Jews. And then he told of the terrible atrocities that he himself had committed against the Jews.

Several times Wiesenthal tried to leave the room, but each time the ghost-like figure would reach out and beg him to stay. Finally, after 2 hours, the soldier told Wiesenthal why he had been summoned. He then said, "I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you. But without your answer I cannot die in peace." He asked for forgiveness for all the Jews he had killed.

Wiesenthal sat in silence for some time. He stared at the manís bandaged face. At last, he stood up and left the room without saying a word. He left the soldier in torment, unforgiven.

This true story about Wiesenthal might be considered by some to be an extreme case, however, I believe this scenario is not unfamiliar to us. To forgive someone the hurt they have caused us, can be one of the toughest things that a Christian is called to do. There are people who have fallen out with family members, who are no longer talking to one-time-friends or who have dropped their connection with a congregation because they have found it impossible to forgive. Like Simon Wiesenthal, the hurt is so enormous. It would mean giving up too much to go to those who have hurt them and seek a way to be reconciled to that person. It is just too hard to forgive and put the hurt behind them and settle the differences between them.

Forgiveness is counter-culture. What I mean by that is that forgiveness goes against what is practiced in our society. Remember the spate of attacks on Moslems 12 months ago, and how mosques in the USA and here were destroyed by fire because of what had happened on September 11. Revenge, an eye for an eye, racism and prejudice are the ways our culture deals with hurt and those who offend us.
Recall the time when the Pope was wounded in an assassination attempt. Pope John Paul recovered from his wound, and he shocked the world when, on Christmas day, he made a visit to Romeís Rabbibia Prison to see the man who had attempted to assassinate him. The white-robed Pope and jean-clad terrorist huddled in the prison cell for 20 minutes, talking in low voices that could not be heard. When he emerged John Paul explained, "I spoke to a brother whom I have pardoned."

The headline the next week of Time Magazine was "Why forgive?" It was as if the world could not come to terms with the prospect that it is possible to forgive someone like this assassin.

Forgiveness goes against the grain of our human nature. If someone offends us or causes us hurt in some way, itís natural for us to want to break off our relationship with that person. And so we see people dropping out of congregations and clubs, children no longer talking to parents, neighbours ignoring their neighbours and so on. For these people there is no question about who should take steps to restore friendship Ė the person who has caused the offence. Thatís the natural human way we deal with disagreements.

But Jesus says that Christians have a special responsibility when their is a falling out. It is the duty of the one who has been offended to renew the relationship that has been damaged. And this is where it gets hard. It is illogical and unfair to expect the one who has been hurt to make the first move to restore their friendship. After all that person is the one who has offended me, he/she should come to me and own up to what they have done and ask me to forgive them. What is more, it is difficult to go and speak to someone when I am upset and hurt by what that person has done.

If there was a passage of Scripture that we would like tear out of our Bibles, it is Jesusí words about forgiveness. They are just too hard to carry out. What Jesus had to say on this subject cuts us deeply because all of us at some time find ourselves in a situation where we are at loggerheads with another person. Jesus said, "If someone sins against you, go and point out what out what he/she has done to hurt you and be friends again."
Peter is concerned about how many times he should keep on forgiving someone. He is inferring that there must be a limit to the number of times he should have to forgive someone who repeatedly hurts and offends him. Jesus tells Peter that there is no end to the number of times we should seek a renewal of friendship - reconciliation
Then Jesus tells the parable about the man who had just been forgiven a huge debt by the king, but refused to forgive his fellow servant for a small insignificant amount. The King was angry and punished the man severely. And Jesus concluded, "That is how my Father in heaven will treat you, if you don't forgive each of my followers with all your heart". (Matt 18:35 CEV).

Itís tough to forgive, isnít it? And yet, thatís exactly what Jesus commands us to do here. We are not told to do it if we feel like it. We are told to take the initiative and attempt to work out reconciliation with the person who has offended us.

And then thereís the other hard part about forgiveness. To forgive means to put the hurt behind you, never to drag it up again. We may not be able to forget what happened, but we will no longer hold it against the person we have forgiven.
Itís like the man who was telling his friend about an argument heíd had with his wife. He said, "Oh, how I hate it, every time we have an argument; she gets historical."
The friend replied, "You mean hysterical."
"No," he insisted. "I mean historical. Every time we argue she drags up everything from the past and holds it against me!"

Forgiveness means letting go of our hurt pride, our need to get back Ė to take revenge, and do what is illogical and ever so hard. It means making our relationship with that other person the most important thing in our lives. Jesus rates reconciliation as one of the most important things we can do. He said, "If you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God" (Matt 5:23-24).

How can we get the kind of forgiving attitude that Jesus is talking about? As I said it goes against our human nature. We are often more interested in nursing our hurt and hurting the other person in return. How can we become forgiving and reconciling people?

Firstly, we need to get to know God and his marvellous ability to forgive. God forgave King David for his sins of murder and adultery. Jesus forgave the adulterous woman and the thief on the cross. He forgives you and me. His Son died on a cross and took on himself our sin. When we were baptised we were washed clean of all our sin. Daily as we repent the forgiveness of God is poured on us richly and generously. And when we stand before God on the day of judgement, God wonít drag up our old sins and demand that we please explain. As far as God is concerned, a forgiven sin is a forgotten sin and will not come between God and us ever again. Thatís why Jesus died. He died to restore the relationship between God and us.

Secondly, the forgiveness of Jesus has brought us into God's family. We have been born anew as people who belong to God. We have been joined to Christ and filled with the Spirit in our baptism. Paul says, "Let the Spirit change your way of thinking and make you into a new person. You were created to be like God, and so you must please him and be truly holy Ö. Stop being bitter and angry and mad at others Ö. Instead, be kind and merciful, and forgive others, just as God forgave you because of Christ" (Eph 4:23,24, 31,32 CEV). 

Thirdly, listen to the guiding of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is telling us to do something here that is outside of normal rational thinking. Eye for an eye is our natural inclination.
Let the Holy Spirit fill you with love, patience, gentleness and spirit of reconciliation and turn away from everything that smacks of revenge and stubborn pride.
Let the Spirit speak to you through texts like todayís, and lead you to go to the person who has caused you some offence and seek reconciliation.
Let the Spirit help you to realise that your relationship with that person is more important than anything else.

Fourthly, forgiveness doesnít come easy. It is hard work. Itís easy to make excuses, blame the other person, and justify our actions and attitudes. Itís easy to say itís all his/her fault. Iíll just avoid him until he comes and apologises to me. Itís much harder to take the first step toward reconciliation, especially when you feel that you are in the right.

Itís even harder to go to someone and seek reconciliation when you have offended someone unintentionally and they are upset over something you are completely unaware of. Itís easy to say Ė thatís his/her problem. This is where we really need the Spiritís help so that we can let the light of Christís forgiveness shine through us and make a difference to the lives of others.

And because forgiveness can be so hard, this is a matter for prayer.
We need to enlist God's help to overcome our sinful attitudes and to be more like Christ.
We need to pray that we would have a greater concern for the welfare of others.
We need Godís forgiveness for the many times when we let our sinful nature take control and we let the pain and the hurt continue.
When Jesus tells us to go to the person who has offended us, this puts us in a unique position. The responsibility is placed upon us to take to that person the healing redemptive Word of God, and in love, without gossiping, without malice, or any other hidden motives, cover the sin of the other with love and forgiveness.

God grant that we may forgive one another just as God has generously forgiven us.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
8th September
, 2002
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com 

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