Seventy Times Seven

Service for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last Sunday’s message by Vicar Brian is still ringing in my ears. What a strong affirmation of the central principles of the Gospel, the ‘Good News’ we celebrate as disciples of Jesus Christ. For the centre of the Gospel is the good news that we are a redeemed community in God’s love for us expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Indeed, Matthew’s Jesus recognizes that life together in community, in the ‘Kingdom of God’ isn’t without its challenges, difficulties and brokenness.  We do dwell together in broken relationships – even as members of the Body of Christ.  But in owning our brokenness we are  impelled toward the power of forgiveness that makes makes it possible for us to be the salt and light that bring about transformation and new life. In forgiving, we are forgiven. In choosing relationship with one another that involves truly listening to one another, we can renounce those things that easily divide us and hinder the work of the Holy Spirit among us. We break down barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’. As Brian put it, “listening is the attending to ourselves, recognizing that ‘other’ in ourselves, daring to forgive that ‘other’ as we’ve been the recipient of so much mercy and grace.”

The good news is that there is no exclusion – ever. Jesus’ instruction in the Gospel reading that precedes today’s reading is a key to human flourishing – an insight into life in the kingdom of God. Treating those outside the circle, those whom Jesus describes as ‘gentiles and tax collectors’, does not mean that we show them the door and give them the boot. It does not mean shunning and excluding, but rather the opposite as shown in the reality of Jesus’ earthly ministry. This is the reality of “the tax collectors and the prostitutes going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you” How? Through the healing power of forgiveness, the impact of which cannot be understated.

Yes, Jesus promises to be present where his motley inclusive assembly exercises his ministry of forgiving reconciliation. The dynamic of our life in Christ is the forgiveness we embrace and extend to those around us when we choose life, releasing ourselves from ‘hells’ of our own making brought about by holding onto resentments, prejudices, past wrongs and failure to embrace the fullness of life in Christ that can be ours. Again, not an easy journey, but one demanded of us as disciples of Jesus.

The story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers who had betrayed him, and literally sold him into slavery with its climax of forgiveness has been called by some ’the greatest Gospel’ in the Hebrew Scriptures. It certainly is one of my favourites -and its importance to our Jewish ancestors in faith is shown by the length and detail of the narrative itself. Imagine the moment. “Joseph wept”. Had his life prepared him for this moment? Probably not. But he exercises the kind of divine grace that can only come from a deep understanding of the nature of God. Of this, Joseph is aware. When his brothers fall down to worship him, and declare themselves his slaves, Joseph rejects any power over them. “Am I in the place of God”? he asks. Rather he is a conduit of what God is like – embracing the other – even when the other has created violence and alienation. They are now free, not slaves. Joseph’s brethren had made him a scapegoat – an object representing their own weakness, guilt and jealousy, yet he responds in a most unexpected way. Such is the Reign of God when we choose life and reject the common human cycles of violence and creation of trauma. 

As Brian Zahnd writes, “It is only because Joseph chose to forgive that the Bible has a future. Only because Joseph chose to absorb the injustice, forgive his brothers, and move forward by trusting God can God’s project of redemption through the seed of Abraham move forward. Without forgiveness, the Bible doesn’t get past Genesis. Without forgiveness there really is no future!”

He adds, “the world of paybacks and reciprocal revenge is a world where the strong intimidate the weak and where fear is both a means of manipulating your enemy and the spectre that haunts your own dark dreams. In the world of paybacks, the first order of business when gaining power is to exact revenge upon your enemies – to make them pay….The testimony of the wars and atrocities perpetrated under this system are what we blithely call ‘world history.’”

Indeed this is what Jesus points out in the parable of the unmerciful servant. Forgiveness, Jesus says, is so important to human relationship and the fullness or abundance of life that God has for us, that it is limitless in its application to our circumstances, “not seven times, but seventy -seven times”. Jesus shows us the one who had been forgiven – the one who should have paid it forward and continued to practice forgiveness and honouring of the other – creating his own personal hell of self-importance and greed, of blindness to his own need to ‘work out his salvation with fear and trembling’. He is offered the opportunity to live in a whole new world and he rejects it.  He fails to forgive, so the forgiveness he had is taken away. However, in the circumstances he created for himself, there is, of course, redemption. There is the option to choose life, even as the wasteful son who returns to the limited love and forgiveness of his father.”I will arise now, and go to my father….” That’s a moment of truth we all face. Do we live short of our promise of wholeness in our life and relationships – what the Scriptures call “salvation”, or do we embrace the sometimes difficult way of forgiveness and cease doing violence to one another?

“Do not have contempt for one another”, writes Paul in the midst of the brokenness of the fledgling church in Rome and in the midst of his daunting mission to bring Jews and Gentiles together in Jesus Christ – to dismantle walls of ‘otherness’ and create dynamic, inclusive communities of faith.  “God has accepted” those who differ;  so build diverse and loving community, humanly inclusive and forgiving. Do not get sidetracked. Let love win, to paraphrase the title of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.

And love will win. Paul’s assurance of that is expressed in lofty words,

“As surely as I live, says the Lord,

‘every knee will bow before me;

every tongue will acknowledge God’”.

In Romans 14: 11 he echoes Isaiah’s proclamation that lesser gods cannot bring about ‘salvation’ – human flourishing and wholeness. Perhaps we might say today, “Love will win, and God’s way of love and forgiveness exemplified for us in Jesus Christ will be seen for what it is – a way of choosing life over death, full humanity over being less than human, being forgiven and made whole by ourselves forgiving”; for in God, the arc of the universe may be long, but it bends toward justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. once reminded us.

May we hold that faith as we move forward in our discipleship in this place.


the Reverend Steve Bailey