top of page

Sermon for 15th Sunday after Trinity

Sunday 17th September 2023, St Anne’s Lewes

Genesis 50: 15-21, Romans 14. 1-12, Matthew 18.21-35

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer.

To begin with today I'm going to ask you to imagine yourself as Peter in today's reading from Matthew. St Ignatius of Loyola calls this 'contemplation', placing ourselves in a Gospel story in such a way that we can explore what God may be saying to us personally through what we hear and see and feel. I think Peter had someone in mind when he asks, 'how often should I forgive?' Maybe it was a fellow disciple who was irritating him somehow- we know from our reading from Paul that 2000 years ago, just as now, there was 'quarrelling over opinions', and we know from our own experience how quickly those quarrels become full of personal animosity, how quickly we can take against people because they do or say something we disapprove of. You can sense something of this in Peter's question….

But, to return to our Ignatian contemplation, who would you be thinking of if it was you and not Peter asking Jesus that question- 'Lord. How often should I forgive?' How many times should I forgive that difficult neighbour, that impossible colleague at work, that person who dented my car in the car park and drove off? Like Peter, we might think that there should be a limit to our duty to forgive. Peter thinks seven times is plenty. Seven very British 'Oh that's OK, I'll forgive you this time' and then we can get down to the really satisfying business of nursing grudges which sometimes last a lifetime. Putting a limit on our forgiveness like Peter does is immensely human. Jesus's reply then seems so random. Don't just forgive them seven times, says Jesus, but seventy-seven'. So why not seventy-eight? Or any other enormous number? This seems to me to be Jesus's way of telling Peter, and us, as our contemplation of the moment develops, how ridiculous it is to put a limit on our forgiveness.

Jesus knows the damage our unforgiving natures do to us and our communities. As we continue to imagine ourselves in Peter's place, we might think of the human cost of our own personal failure to forgive. Jesus makes this real for us as he tells the story of the unforgiving servant. What stands out for me is the anger and the violence that the inability to forgive brings about in this story. Families risk being sold, there is anger, and cruelty, seizing of throats, throwing into prison and torture. Contemplating this story imaginatively might take us to a place where we understand the harm our own lack of forgiveness may have. But that's not the whole picture – as our contemplation develops, we begin to see a way forward……a way out of the counting of grievances that Peter has expressed, and a way of countering the pain and suffering caused by the unforgiving servant.

Last week Ben asked us to think of the Cross as an image of how God intersects with our earthly world and values- If we think of forgiveness on the vertical plane of the everyday then we stay with Peter, counting the wrongs done to us, and with the unforgiving servant, harming ourselves and others through the violence of our unforgiving words and actions. The slights and injustices which we find ourselves feeling so angry and unforgiving about just get counted and up until we reach some absurd and meaningless total, our own personal 'seventy-seven'. We ourselves get lost in the counting up of grudges and getting angry over our mistreatment by others. Our readings show us what can happen when we allow God to intervene in the pain our reluctance to forgive can cause and heal everyone involved. Joseph's forgiveness for his brothers and the tears that follow show us a forgiveness grounded in love and acceptance. 'Am I in the place of God?' he asks, before telling them they have nothing to be afraid of, because he has forgiven them.

This is where Paul and Joseph echo one another. 'Who are you to pass judgement?' Paul asks. For Paul forgiveness comes through experiencing life as a constant encounter with God; so that we're constantly reminding ourselves that 'Whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord's'. Constantly listening and watching for God in the everyday business of our relationships with one another, and especially with the people we find so hard to like and hard to forgive, actually makes forgiveness possible. When Paul says 'if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die , we die to the Lord' I think he's calling us as Christians to move beyond the selfish immersion in our own unforgiving natures we see in Peter's counting of injustices and in the harm done by the unforgiving servant and into a closer and more trusting relationship with God, who knows how hard we find forgiveness but who offers us the grace to both forgive others and be forgiven ourselves. Paul tells us that forgiveness was at the heart of Christ's death and resurrection, reminding us that 'for this end Christ died and lived again.' I think it's helpful to remember, when we acknowledge to ourselves how very difficult real forgiveness is, that, now, at the moment of his greatest suffering, Jesus calls on God to help him forgive his torturers. The words 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do' help us understand that God is there for us and for those we find so hard to forgive, and that we too can call on God to help us forgive.

Forgiveness is hard, and the greater the injustice the harder it is. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a brilliant sermon on forgiveness once said that 'all forgiveness is suffering.' Genuine forgiveness, the forgiveness which Jesus teaches Peter, involves suffering the letting go of our ego driven desire for retribution and justice and our grievances against others in search of the grace and freedom which comes from acknowledging that we need God 's help if we're really going to forgive. And so, to close, as we move to a moment or two of quiet reflection, let's take time to reflect on those times and situations we've experienced when we've felt wronged or hurt, or wronged and hurt others, and ask for God's grace in discovering how to forgive others just as He forgives us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, amen.


bottom of page