Trinity 22 – Forgiving love

Dear brothers and sisters,

It is a beautiful thing that we may call each other brother and sister. We are not here by accident. We are not here as strangers, nor as colleagues, compatriots, comrades, or even as friends. We are here, bound together, as children of one Father, who has called us to him and to each other. It is our calling, as we repeat every service right at the beginning, that “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The teachings of Jesus and the apostles are nothing if not a continual expansion and celebration of this truth: that God is love, and that life consists of loving one another.  

To love one another: it is Jesus’ direct commandment in John 15: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Or in the first letter of John chapter 3: “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Or, more simple, in the first letter of Peter chapter 2: “Honour all. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.” Or who can forget Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13? We ought and we want to love one another, dear brothers and sisters, no question about it. But what does this love involve? What form should it take in our lives? Jesus says that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” But surely that is not a daily recurrence? 

Love has many shapes and many forms. In the Old Testament, it took the form of Law, given to Israel through Moses. Through all the “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not”, love was the recurrent theme. The poet of Psalms 19 and 119 sings of the Law as the proof that God loved his people, and the people loved God because of the Law. Jesus’ words on the greatest and first commandment, and the second which is like it, are quotations from Deutronomy 6 and Leviticus 19. Those words point us towards the fact that the regulations were not the fulness of love. If you want to capture love in regulations, you may read the Ten Commandments. Four commandments on how to love God, and six on how to love your neighbour. Read as they are, one may discover that there is one aspect of love that remains unnamed: and that is forgiveness. 

If we could follow the Law perfectly, there would be no need for forgiveness. But we cannot, and by the Law we know our sin. But the Law also provided a way back into one another’s good graces: the way of retribution. You would offer a sacrificial animal for forgiveness from God, or an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, and a hand for a hand if you failed to love your neighbour. The principle is that of paying back what you owe, in so doing restoring the brotherhood. But it is clear that this is not enough: the result of an eye for an eye is two broken eyes, and not two healthy ones. Likewise, the price to be paid if your ox killed someone’s slave was 30 shekels of silver, and while that may buy a new slave, it will not restore the old to life. Jesus has shown us a lovelier way: through forgiveness, and that is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. He took our burden of sin and shame; he took our illness and brokenness; he took them from us and took them to the grave. By his wounds we are healed, and through his death we gain life.

What Jesus has done is something none of us could do. This much is obvious. We can and should, however, be like him. This is clear from the first chapter of Genesis, where God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;” and it is affirmed throughout the rest of the Bible. So in the Law of Moses, Leviticus 19 again,  where God says to his people that “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” So in the New Testament, where Jesus calls us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5), and to love one another as he has loved us (John 15). 

It is Jesus also who recounts the parable of the unforgiving servant [Matthew 18:21-35]. The story is simple. The day of the king’s reckoning has come, and one slave who cannot pay his debts receives the king’s forgiveness. That slave fails to forgive his debtor in turn, and in the end has to pay his whole debt to the king. The slave has a debt of ten thousand talents, probably of silver. Only one talent of silver is about 30kg, and was worth about 15 years of a labourer’s wages. It is, frankly, a ridiculous debt. It boggles the mind how he accrued such a debt, or what he spent it on. When called upon to repay his debt, he cannot repay, and the king plans on selling him, his family, and all his belongings to get at least a little bit of money back. The slave cries out, not for mercy, but for patience, as he will pay everything back. Again, it defies explanation of how he was planning to do that. Probably, he had no plan. “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.” By rights everything the slave owns, is the king’s property. But he is forgiven, and he is as free as a slave can be. Outside he encounters his own debtor, who owed him a hundred denarii, which is about a hundred days of a labourer’s wages. It is a debt that unlike his own could realistically be paid off in time. It is a debt about half a millionth of his own forgiven debt. It is nothing, really. That is Jesus’ picture of our debt to God, and our neighbours’ debt to us. It is a powerful image. It is not the only image. There are other ways to talk of Gods sacrifice in Jesus than in economic terms. But already on the economic level, it is gratingly obvious how we stand before God, and how that should affect our behaviour towards our neighbour. 

Yet the slave did not understand, and he does not forgive his debtors debt, though he used the same words to plead with as the slave had done. Everyone who sees it is greatly distressed, and reports back to the king. The king retracts his forgiveness, and the slave is to repay everything he owes. And Jesus says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” These are harsh words. They are also a repetition of what Jesus had said in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7): “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Or, in the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Or, right after the Lord’s Prayer: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” We are called to be like God. But it appears as if, if we do not answer that calling, God will become like us. Or in the words of C.S. Lewis (in The Great Divorce pp.66-7): “There only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” We cannot have our cake and eat it too. That is abundantly clear. 

God’s forgiveness is right there for the taking. We only have to forgive one another to claim it. It is quite simple to say, “I forgive you for what you have done to me.” It is rather more difficult to truly forgive our brother or sister from the heart. And that not just one time, not two times, but every time. We have to take our hurt, and bear it as Christ has taken and born our hurts. We have to die to our pride every time we forgive. Indeed, to lay down our life for our friends, depending on how often they trespass against us, may be a daily recurrence. But we may take comfort in that we do not stand alone: Christ has gone before us, and we follow Christ. We may also take comfort in that to forgive one another, means to be reconciled to one another and to restore the unity of the brotherhood. 

Today, we heard the example of Joseph and his brothers [Genesis 45:1-15]. Sold into Egypt by his brothers as a slave, he had every right for recompense. When Joseph made himself known, they were dismayed, or afraid. Joseph was lord of Egypt, he could have made them pay. He could have said that they broke the brother-bond and that there was no way to restore it. Indeed, for the brothers there was no way to restore the unity of the brotherhood. For Joseph there was. And he took it. He said, “Come closer to me; do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves.” He kissed them and wept upon them. Quite literally, he gave them life, for they would have died of hunger without his help. He was like Christ, a type of Christ if you will, for he was humbled as a slave, and through his suffering came to save those whom he loved. At first there was love in the family of Jacob. Then it was broken. Josephs forgiveness made it whole again. He urged his brothers to accept his forgiveness, as God urges us to accept his forgiveness. So we, too, have to urge those who trespassed against us to accept our forgiveness. It is not enough to say that the transgressor should make the first move. That is not the way of Christ. If God thought like that, where would we be? Christ says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5). 

We love God, for he loved us first. It is written in the first letter of John (chapter 3 & 4) that if we love God truly, we love our brothers and sisters. If we do not, we are murderers, and do not have eternal life. But if we do love one another, and thus forgive one another, then we give life, we are united with and in Christ and with each other, and we share in his eternal life. Thus it is that we may sing with the Psalmist, 

How very good and pleasant it is
     when kindred live together in unity!
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
     life forevermore.

Psalm 133:1,4

Amen.

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