This morning our Gospel asks us to grapple with one of the most difficult and complex concepts in Christian tradition, that of forgiveness. As I attempt to broach this topic, I am not sure any of us fully understand what it means to forgive someone else. Yes, we understand what it means to forgive the little things in life, or how to forgive our children when they disobey or betray our trust. But what about the big things, like in the case of the Steenkemp family, should they have immediately forgiven Oscar Pistorus for killing their daughter and moved on.I am not sure that type of pastoral advice would have been well received by the Steenkemps.
Sadly, however, this passage has been used by pastors and well-meaning Christians to push people towards forgiveness before they are ready and before it is time. So in order to understand the forgiveness Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel, we have to first understand what forgiveness is and is not.
Forgiveness is letting go of the anger and the hurt someone else has caused. Forgiveness is coming to accept the brokenness of the other and finding compassion for the hurt and the pain they have experienced in their lives. Forgiveness is not about forgetting or condoning someone’s bad behavior. Forgiveness is being open to restoring relationship with the other if the situation merits such action. Forgiveness is not about allowing yourself to be re-offended against by the other. Forgiveness is not absolution, only the church, with the authority of God can absolve sin.
But today’s Gospel has little to do with the individual and forgiveness. This morning’s Gospel, when read within the full context of Matthew’s Gospel is actually about the institutional church’s ability to forgive sin. Last week, we heard the first part of this chapter. We heard Jesus tell the disciples when anyone offends against the community they are to be confronted privately, if they do not repent, then they are to be confronted by three others, if they are still unwilling or unable to repent then the matter is to be brought before the whole congregation. If the person is still unrepentant, they are to be treated as an outsider.
It is in the context of this conversation that Peter asks this morning’s question. “How many times should we forgive, seven times?” To this Jesus answers, “no, seventy times seven.” As we look at this passage as a whole, the message which emerges, is Jesus’ recognition that human beings are fallible, and so they will also be fallible in the context of their community. Accountability is necessary for the ongoing health and functioning of the community, but no matter what the offense, a pathway has to be left open for repentance and restoration.
In the early church, as our Ash Wednesday liturgy tells us, Lent was the period of time the church carved out each year for those who had committed heinous crimes against the community to repent and to seek absolution so they could be readmitted into the community of faith on Easter Eve.
I have to say, I am thankful the days of excommunication and banishment are well behind us as Episcopalians. Over the centuries, history has shown power corrupts and all we need to do is look at the early history of this country and to the Puritans to find examples of how communities of faith have abused their authority over individuals. However, in more recent years the pendulum had swung in quite the opposite direction. For years, as numbers have declined and many parishes have found themselves struggling to survive as communities of faith we have failed to hold each other accountable. Often times these parishes refuse to adopt basic safe church policies. They often argue that such policies are too corporate or not needed because they are a small parish where everyone knows everyone else.
With no clear policies or written expectations many of our parishes have fallen into a sense of anarchy, with many too afraid to hold those, who have now become known as church bullies, accountable for their behavior.
One of our greatest accomplishments together these past years is how, we as a community of faith, have grown to accept structure and accountability. We have established safe church policies which clearly spell out what we can expect from each other in terms of child safety. We have come to a common understanding of the sacraments, especially that of Baptism. We have established informal codes of conduct which have allowed us to more fully live into what it means to respect the dignity of every human being. What has been more impressive is how we have worked together to hold each other accountable. In our recent history, some have been unable to accept the progress we have made as a congregation or our change in understanding. You have received their issues and concerns with love and wise counsel. Some have accepted our counsel, have adapted and remain part of our community. Others have found it easier to leave St. Luke’s rather than change. And they have all left with the same message, “when you are ready, you are welcome to return.”
Every community is filled with missing sheep and prodigal children. Often, they are the ones we find ourselves praying for the hardest, hoping that they will return. And, like the father of the prodigal son we willingly wait with the open arms of forgiveness.
In the course of these past two weeks, we have heard Jesus counsel the fledgling church as to how to guide its growing fold deeper into faith. He has taught us how to hold each other accountable with love. But more importantly, he has reminded us, as a community, no matter what the issue, we must always be willing to guide each other towards repentance by keeping the path to forgiveness open.