(Year A) Matthew 18: 21-35
Grace and peace this morning. Still officially summer, but a taste of fall in the air, for sure.
Today I want to pause in our worship with attention to this reading from St. Matthew, in the 18th Chapter. Not a long reading, but it has two distinct sections. The first this dialogue between Jesus and Peter over the question of forgiveness in the life of the Christian family. “What are the rules?” Peter asks. Need some minimum guidelines. And of course Jesus replying with this phrase that is translated variously as “seventy-seven times” or even “seventy times seven.” His point obviously being to push back at Peter’s fixation on a rule, a limit. And then in the second section, Jesus moves on to what is sometimes called the “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.” The moral of the story as a kind of ironic, eyebrow-raised reply to Peter’s question. “How could someone who has been forgiven for so much, who has received such a generous and extravagant gift of mercy himself, turn right around and be so stingy, so harsh and unforgiving with another?”
And this whole section following immediately the reading from the first part of Matthew 18 last Sunday, which perhaps you’ll remember—a long and somewhat complicated procedure that Jesus outlines for the resolution of disputes in the congregation. First (not blind copy e-mails, not back channel gossip, not secretive chatter in the parking lot): First: go to the person who has been causing you a problem privately, and try to work it out. If that doesn’t work, bring in a couple of respected elders, so that they can listen to both sides and give mature and thoughtful Christian perspective and help you reach a conclusion. And if even that doesn’t work, then open the situation to the whole church. Let the sunshine in, with full public accountability. No triangulation. None of the pathology of secret conversation in the shadows. Accountability and clarity. And if after that time things can’t be resolved, make a clean break. Nothing worse than a festering wound. A rotten apple in the barrel. Maybe the congregation as a whole will need to decide who has to leave, but you and your alternate should probably be able actually to figure that on your own--and then everyone will need to respect that decision. No backward-gazing, in any case, no telephone calls in the middle of the night to a remnant of secret allies. Sometimes there needs to be that space, Jesus says, and you go your separate ways, and don’t look back. Start over fresh someplace else. A better option than the poison of ongoing unresolved murmuring. St. Benedict uses a surgical metaphor when he talks about the situation when a member of the monastic community is the toxic source of division and conflict, murmuring and jealousy and resentment. Sometimes he says, amputation is the only remaining life-saving measure.
In that context, specifically looking at the life of the church. In this section of St. Matthew Jesus and his disciples have come down from the Mount of Transfiguration and turned in the general direction of Jerusalem, and we can hear so vividly in the words and stories of Jesus this deep desire that he has to give his disciples the tools, the perspectives, the deeper understanding that will be necessary for them to have to survive and to be effective and to flourish in the mission that they will have in the days and years and centuries after Easter morning.
There is something so precious to Jesus about the peace of the church. If there's a feeling for us to have after that reading last week and then this morning, I hope it is just simply to know deep, deep down, how much he loves us. It’s the way he continues to feel when he looks at this little congregation of St. Andrew’s. And as he looks at each one of us, in our homes and families. So precious to him. The saying sometimes attributed to St. Francis, “preach often, when necessary use words.” How the potential of this little band of Jesus is deeply rooted not in sermons and mission statements and church programs and campaigns, but in the transformed heart.
Thinking here about the familiar passage of scripture, from St. Paul, First Corinthians 13. It has been read in a couple of the weddings we’ve had at St. Andrew’s this summer and it was one of the readings this past Friday afternoon at the Memorial Service for Professor Jannie Swart in the Chapel of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
In any event, the famous chapter about Christian love, which was of course written to a church community full of strife. Love is patient and kind, not jealous, boastful, arrogant, or rude. Such familiar words for us. Division between the well-off and the poor, between the well-educated and highly cultured and the poorly educated, between those who feel that they have achieved spiritual maturity and those who are new to Christian faith and life, between old families and newcomers. And it’s the fifth verse of the 13th chapter that just leaps out at me every time I read that text. “Love does not insist on its own way.”
It seems to me that those simple words could have been the words inscribed by Pilate over the Cross on Good Friday. Love does not insist on its own way.
It’s the relational and theological principle that lies under both last week’s reading about resolving disputes and this week’s about forgiveness and mercy. And of course it is just about as counter-intuitive and counter-cultural as anything we could imagine. It doesn’t mean don’t have an opinion, don’t be an advocate, don’t find all wholesome and appropriate ways to contribute as you truly feel is appropriate, as you feel God has equipped you to contribute. Doesn't mean we don't have differences.
But you can just see Jesus in what I suppose was an intensity of compassion. He knows this is hard to get. Know when “insisting” begins to bring harm to the Body. He’s not going to be with them much longer, and he needs for them to have this way of understanding what they are about to witness on the hill of Calvary. Understanding it and incorporating it for themselves, so that the Body stretched out on the Cross will become mystically and sacramentally and in reality his Body the Church.
In any event. The really hard time to forgive the bad behavior of someone else is when you know that the behavior really was bad, that you were right and they were wrong, and especially when they still don’t seem to understand that they were wrong, and when there’s nothing to look at in terms of repentance or any commitment to amendment of life. When things aren’t going to get any better. When you breathe in and breathe out and let it go, simply because unforgiveness is toxic to the Body. Because the unworthiness of the one we would forgive pales in comparison to our unworthiness before the one who has forgiven us and blessed us with grace and mercy beyond anything we ever could have hoped for.
How many times do I need to forgive. What is the minimum passing score on the test of love? What is the rule about how joyful I need to be? How much gratitude am I required to feel?
It’s a great lesson to hear again, from Matthew 18, the week after Renaissance Sunday. A reminder that if the mission and ministry of this body of Christian people is going to flourish in the days and years ahead, it will be not because we have elevators and restrooms and meeting space and a great acoustic, but because we would seek to live lives faithful to Jesus, allowing ourselves to be occupied by him. Of course don’t get me wrong. Those things are important and great. But they aren’t essential. This is the way that the mission can happen with grace and beauty and wholesome life. What is essential: These Christians, how they love one another. Think how that message plays in this sad and broken world of ours. The promise of renaissance, the Holy Spirit, Jesus dwelling in our hearts and in our lives, and right here in these wonderful buildings! That this would be a place and that we would be a people so deeply patterned in his presence, in Word and Sacrament, that we would be ourselves so filled with him, deeply breathing in what he has given us, that his grace and mercy and love and forgiveness, his gentleness and his generous, generous compassion, that his peace would be the banner over us day and night.