Forgiveness. Matthew 18.21-35
What do Christians have in common?
It is certainly not language (although obviously at St Andrew’s that is quite important!), or culture or education
It is not politics. Christians can seriously disagree about politics. One person was telling me that their Christian organisation now struggles to hold joint Ukrainian – Russian conferences. There is too much tension and conflict. Both sides see the world in completely different ways.
It is not our views on sexuality and gender, on political activism, on climate change, on multi faith worship – if anything those are the sort of things which tear us apart.
It is not whether we like ‘religion’. There are Christians who do cherish the ritual and rites of the Church, and there are Christians who would do away with everything and focus exclusively on the word.
And it is certainly not that we are a gathering of good people. If we are, then I should not be here.
The thing that we have in common can be summed up in one word – forgiveness.
As Christians we may radically disagree with each other about almost everything, but we know that we need forgiveness, and that we have received abundant forgiveness in Jesus.
We are each the servant in this story from Matthew 18, who has received astonishing forgiveness.
And look how much he has been forgiven: 10000 talents. That is a huge sum. One talent was a monetary unit worth about 15 – 20 years wages for a labourer. In other words, to pay off 10000 talents it would take a labourer, at the best, 150 000 years!
Perhaps we might think, but I’m not such a dreadful sinner. I do the occasional bad thing, but most of the time I’m quite good.
We’re like the little boy who wrote a letter to Fr Christmas or to Ded Moroz. He wrote, “Dear Santa, in our house there are three boys. Phil is the the oldest and he is never good. Tom is in the middle and he is good some of the time. Michael is the youngest and he is good most of the time. I am Michael.”
We are Michael. We are good most of the time. We don’t need to be forgiven such a massive debt.
We were talking in the zoom Bible study [as an aside, we are beginning a new study on Tuesday on the prophets – looking at Amos – and you would be welcome to join us]; we were thinking about who is going to get into heaven. And Revelation talks about how those whose names are not written in the book of life will be thrown into the lake of eternal fire.
And some were saying that it depends on how good you are. If you are good. then your name will be put in the book of life, and you’ll get to heaven.
I pray to God that that is not the case. Because if it is, then most of us should be having nightmares. How can you even know whether you are good enough?
I flicked through this week the autobiography of John Bunyan, Grace abounding to the Chief of Sinners. In the first half of the book, he was tearing himself up with this question. He was certainly not a bad person (in the sense that we might describe someone as bad), but he certainly was very self-reflective and possibly quite intense and over-sensitive. And he not only questioned his actions, but his motives, his heart, his religious commitment, and where it was that he was putting his trust.
But he is right. If it is about being good, who defines what it is to be good (over the past few years we have seen a radical changing of what people think it means to be good: people who society honoured 100 years ago are now shamed)?; how good do you need to be?; and is it about just what we do or don’t do, or is it also about what we think?
If it is about being good, then how good do you need to be to go to heaven?
This is an important question.
When I was a vicar in Bury St Edmunds, across the road from our house was the hospice where people went to die. The chaplain there told me that it was often the people who were nominally religious who were more fearful as they died, than those who had never believed in God. They had this sense of morality, they had some sense of God, and they were terrified that they had not been good enough.
I remember Chloe. She was a 35 year old who was dying in some pain from cancer. Her family were around her bed. They said to her, ‘Don’t worry Chloe you are going to a better place’.. She said, ‘No I am not, I am going to the other place.’ And they said to her, ‘but you have been so good’. And she said, ‘No I have not’. And they were going to argue with her about how good she was, but I stepped in at that point because they were going to lose the argument. I don’t know what I said, but I hope that what she heard was something like this: Chloe it doesn’t matter how good or bad you have been. What matters now is that Jesus offers forgiveness to sinners – however bad they have been, and all you to do is to receive his forgiveness as a gift and trust his love.
That is the answer which brought peace to the soul of John Bunyan – and which gave him the courage to stand for his convictions even though he spent 12 years in prison.
It is not to do with us being good.
None of us is good – none of us is good enough for God.
It is about God and his love and the forgiveness that he offers us.
This servant who stands pleading for his master to forgive the debt of 10000 talents is you and me.
The Bible has several different descriptions for sin: yes, it is about doing bad things and not doing good things, but at a deeper level sin is rebellion against God – it is lack of trust in God – it is about idolatry, putting something in the place of God. It is about trusting ourselves, maybe even our goodness, rather than the promises or mercy of God. It is about closing our eyes to God and living for the things of this world – it is about being controlled by fear of things here – it is about self-centredness.
St Augustine tells the story (this is my version of it) of the lover who gives their beloved an astonishing gift. It is unique, it is personal – it brings out everything about them, it is beautiful and it is precious. It is worth about $56m dollars. But the beloved so falls in love with the necklace that she forgets the lover. She ignores him. And then, because slowly things seem to be emptier without the forgotten lover, she looks to other things to satisfy her. She sells the necklace and spends the money on plastic imitation necklaces and on lovers who she can buy.
Now multiply that story many times, because the lover is not only our lover, but our creator, the one who has given us everything, who is also our Lord – although that doesn’t matter because he loves us and only wants the best for us. He is the one in whom is our joy. He has given us something that is worth far far more than $56m. He has given us something priceless: life, this world, all the gifts of this world, everything.
But we have forgotten him and ignored him and turned his precious gift into tat.
How much do we owe him?
10000 talents is a pretty conservative guess. 150000 years of work?
But when we are prepared to open our eyes and see what we have done, when we recognise our debt and when we cry out to him for mercy – he hears and he forgives.
It costs to forgive. If you don’t know that, then you haven’t forgiven. First of all there is the hurt of the offence, of what the other person has done to you; and then there is the pain of forgiveness – when, if you like, you relive the hurt, the rejection and as you let it go.
It cost God to forgive you and me. It cost him far than 10000 talents. If you want to know how much hurt it cost God, look at his only Son Jesus, who had been with him from eternity, Look at him hanging on the cross. Listen to his cry, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me’.
BUT – and this is the absolute truth – if we turn to him to ask him for mercy, because of what Jesus did on the cross we have been forgiven.
I have on my table in my study these two nails.
They remind me of the nails that were hammered into the hands of Jesus. They remind me of the love of God in giving me his Son, of the love of Jesus in dying for me.
And they remind me that Jesus did die for me, that the price has been paid.
They remind me that I am forgiven
And if I have been forgiven so much, how can I not forgive others. What has anybody done to me that even begins to compare with what I have done to God? My life depends on forgiveness? The kingdom of God is the world in which the currency is forgiveness and mercy.
If he has so freely forgiven me, then who am I not to forgive you.
We will – because we are human – at times do some very bad things.
We will hurt each other badly, sometimes deliberately, sometimes without thinking.
But the Church has to be the community of forgiveness.
It is what we have in common. A merciful loving God – who hears us when we cry to him – and who offers us full and free forgiveness.