I’m not preaching in my own churches or even circuit tomorrow. We have a visiting minister at Knaphill, taking a missions Sunday, and I am filling one of his pulpits. Hence you may recognise the odd little bit of content here that you’ve seen previously from me.
Legend tells of Ian Paisley preaching ferociously about the ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ that we hear about in this and a couple of other parables in Matthew’s Gospel. As he described the torments awaiting the ungodly in Hell, one elderly woman spoke up:
“What about me? I’ve only got dentures!”
“Teeth,” replied Dr Paisley, “will be provided!”
For those of us who have a cosy image of Jesus and his parables, the ending to this one is a shock. We shall come to think about that shock in the final part of the sermon, but for now let me just say that we have become so used to the parables that we miss their shocking nature. The Good Samaritan is a shocking story. A Samaritan helps a Jew? Whatever next? A terrorist helping a wounded person in New York?
And the Prodigal Son? There’s nothing fluffy in that story. Jesus’ listeners would have been appalled when they heard that the father looked out for his errant son and then ran to meet him. Culturally, the father should have been waiting inside the house for the younger son to return crawling on his hands and knees, grovelling for all he was worth – which wasn’t much.
I would say it is a key to understanding many of the parables: look for the shock. With today’s parable, I venture to suggest that the ending is not the only scandalous part. And I think that in this parable of mission, Jesus needs to shock us into recognising key aspects of God’s mission, in which we share.
Consider, firstly, the initial invitation. This should be routine, shouldn’t it? The servants go out ‘to those who had been invited’ (verse 3). These people are expected to come. We might think with some justification that these are the people who would fall into the natural orbits of the two families about to be joined together. While social conventions are different today, we know that there are certain groups of people from whom we naturally draw the bulk of the numbers when we are issuing wedding invitations. Family – starting with the closest; friends – from school or university, from church or work or social circles related to our hobbies and pastimes. And so on. Most wedding couples don’t spring massive surprises with their guest lists, other than the usual difficulty of deciding where the cut-off point is.
And similarly, perhaps, with our strategies for mission. There are certain people whom it seems right to connect with first, if we hope to touch people with the love of God in Christ with our words and deeds. There are particular groups of people who we shall naturally invite to join us at church. There are those who once used to come, but then dropped out. They may be relatives of existing church members. There will be people associated with groups that hire our premises. Perhaps this list might include uniformed organisations. We might think of people who show a certain affinity with us, even if they do not yet share our commitment to Christ. If you have come across Back To Church Sunday in recent years, that is a strategy directly aimed at those who used to go to church, but who retain more of a sympathy for the church than we might commonly imagine.
Indeed, for a long time now, our mission strategy has been based on an appeal to ‘come’, and in generations when churchgoing was much more natural than it is today, that approach had certain degrees of success.
But there are a couple of dangers.
One is that the religiously sympathetic are not always the most likely to commit themselves to the radical step of following Jesus. Just as the natural invitees to the wedding banquet in the parable ignored, mistreated or killed the second wave of servants that was sent to summon them, so religious people can be those most inoculated against the Gospel. And could it be, given the way the king in the parable sends his army against those people who reject his invitation (verse 7), that God is less impressed with the religious and the respectable than we are?
The other danger is that the natural constituency for this approach is shrinking fast. If we do step out in mission, we want to be as comfortable as possible about it, so we only reach out to people we feel safe with, and furthermore we only do it in locations where we feel at ease – such as our own church buildings.
Secondly, let’s consider the second group that the king invites. The king sends his servants to invite ‘anyone [they can] find’ (verse 9), and this leads them ‘into the streets’ where they [gather] all the people they could find, both good and bad’ (verse 10).
What might this mean for us in terms of the call to Christian mission? Clearly in Jesus’ own day he is indicating a message that will ultimately go beyond the Jewish community to the unconscionable Gentiles. When those we might humanly expect to respond to God’s redeeming love do not do so, God has a way of pushing us out to the least and the last, to those least likely – at least in our eyes.
Before I studied Theology and candidated for the Methodist ministry, my prior work was as a civil servant, working in Social Security. As some people said, that was certainly one way of seeing life. During my first year in the civil service, I had my final family holiday with my parents. We went on a Methodist Guild Holiday. One devout Methodist we met on the holiday asked me what my work was. I explained that I worked in Social Security. Back came a response I have never forgotten: “At least you are on the right side of the counter.”
Obviously, I have never forgotten those words for all the wrong reasons. Apart from the fact that in my work I knew full well that the great majority of those claiming benefits were honest people who didn’t want to be in the situations they had found themselves in, there is also the fact that this parable shows us how the Gospel is for those who are ‘on the wrong side’.
Could we not do with a challenge in the church sometimes to this effect? Who are the people whom we would not naturally consider, but who are loved with an everlasting love by God through Jesus Christ? Are there those he is calling us to reach in word and deed with his love?
Might it be that we just have a problem in the church with being that little bit too comfortable that we need reminding God sends to ‘anyone [we can] find’? Might this be to do with the same fear we hinted at in the first point that leads us just to operate our mission in places where we feel at home? We base our concepts of mission on attracting people to where we are already. However, while we want to bring people into the Christian community, could it be that in a day when – as I said – the number of people for whom it is natural to come onto church premises is shrinking so fast – that we might need to change our primary verb from ‘come’ to ‘go’?
Indeed, might Jesus be saying to us, look at how I embraced the Father’s mission? I am the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among you. I did not wait for you to come to me, I took the initiative and brought the Father’s love to you. And since at my Resurrection I said I sent you as the Father sent me, then do you not hear? Your call in mission is not to say, “Come to us”, but to go to the world, to anyone you can find.
Thirdly and finally, let us consider the intruder at the wedding.
Our own royal family knows all about intruders. Whether it’s Michael Fagan getting into the Queen’s bedroom, a comedian dressing up as Osama bin Laden or protestors from Fathers For Justice landing inside Buckingham Palace, they tend to suffer spectacular intrusions every few years.
I’m not sure whether the word ‘intruder’ is the right one here, but it will have to do. What I’m concerned with is the shocking end to the parable where the king finds a man who has managed to get into the wedding banquet without wearing wedding clothes. He suffers a cruel fate as the king orders him to be bound and thrown out. What could explain such an apparently harsh reaction?
When you attend a wedding today you normally dress up. I remember conducting a wedding in my first appointment and wearing my customary suit and clerical shirt only for a guest to complain that the minister ‘had no sense of occasion’. He was expecting a robed Anglican and got me!
They dressed up for weddings in the ancient world, too. Although a wedding feast could begin at almost any time, there was the tacit understanding that you had time in between receiving your invitation and the wedding beginning for you to find appropriate attire and put it on. There was also a tradition where a king would provide guests with festal clothing. Either way there was no excuse: if you come to the wedding, you will be dressed appropriately. To do otherwise was to bestow a grave insult upon your host.
Now we can understand what was so wrong about the man who was not in wedding clothes. He has insulted the king. Either he had the chance to dress properly and he didn’t bother or the king offered him clothes and he had the temerity to turn him down. The man has enjoyed the invitation but he has not accepted the responsibility that came with it.
Hence this is a powerful picture to challenge the way we respond to God. We may not be like the religious people who refuse the need for grace – indeed we may know only too well that we are entirely dependent upon grace in order to enter God’s presence.
But some of us stop there. We know that Jesus accepts us as we are, but we then coast along complacently. We do not accept the obligation to change – to be clothed differently.
The old saying is that Jesus loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are. In other words, he provides new spiritual clothes. He expects us to be different. The dirt must go and a clean, holy lifestyle replace it. What else is appropriate as a thankful response to the King for inviting us to his Son’s wedding banquet?
Tragically, some of us are just not serious about living a holy life. God offers us the new clothes – that is, he himself makes it possible for us to be transformed. He does this by the power of his Holy Spirit whose work is to make us more like Jesus. Think of the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – is that not a description of Jesus’ character? This is what God offers us.
But some of us are happy just to wear the same old dirty clothes. I have to admit that too often my wife has to remind me when my suits need to be dry cleaned. I don’t notice the marks on them. Part of my function as a minister is to hold before us all the need for a spiritual dry-clean. We need the reminder that we have got dirty again and we need to be cleaned up.
What does this have to do with mission? Quite a lot, to be honest. The Gospel is the Gospel of the kingdom. God’s kingdom is one of free grace that accepts us as we are. However, God is calling us to be community that is a sign of the kingdom, a sign of what is to come, and that means transformed lives. This too is part of our witness. Our call to mission is not only to go into the streets and gather anyone we can find, it is also to be dressed in our wedding clothes.
Are we playing our part in getting ready for the great wedding?
How many people have you come across who seem to have a one-track mind? At secondary school, plenty of the boys had one-track minds: they only thought about girls!
And there are preachers with one-track minds, too. Whatever passage they take, their sermons keep coming back to the same subject. Somebody once parodied them by rewriting the hymn ‘Come, let us join our cheerful songs’. When it came to the lines, ‘Ten thousand thousand are their songs but all their joys are one’, he said, ‘Ten thousand thousand are their texts, but all their sermons one.’
Jesus has a one-track mind.
At least, he has when you read Matthew, Mark and Luke. He has a one-track mind for the kingdom of God. You certainly get that here in Mark 4. It is Mark’s great ‘parables of the kingdom’ chapter. We have heard extensively about the Parable of the Sower, along with Jesus’ philosophy of parables. Here, we have the Parable of the Growing Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed – two more that use agricultural images from his day to speak about God’s kingdom. He only speaks in this elusive way to the crowds – all they get is enigma. Only the disciples receive explanations.
For this morning, I’m just going to concentrate on the first parable in our reading, the Parable of the Growing Seed. It moves in three phases: sowing, growing and – this doesn’t rhyme – harvest. What do these tell us about Jesus’ one-track mind subject, the kingdom of God?
‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground’ (verse 26).
In my last appointment, I used to belong to a group of ministers that met monthly to support one another. When we worshipped together, one of our favourite songs was Paul Oakley’s ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’. One reason that song was important to us was these words:
It’s all about You, Jesus
And all this is for You,
For Your glory and Your fame
It’s not about me
As if You should do things my way
You alone are God,
And I surrender to Your ways
It’s all about you, Jesus. Not about us. A sin church leaders fall into all too readily!
And the sowing of God’s kingdom is all about Jesus, too. The Old Testament often speaks about God as king of his people, but when Jesus comes he announces that the kingdom of God is near. The kingdom is among people, because he has come. The sowing of the kingdom is the sowing of Jesus’ life. The sowing is his incarnation, obedience, teaching, death, resurrection and ascension. In all these, we see close at hand that God reigns.
Yes, when the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary to bring about her miraculous pregnancy, that is the reign of God. When Jesus follows the will of the Father, that is the kingdom. When Jesus proclaims the message and demonstrates it in works of power, that is God’s kingdom at work. When he dies for the sins of the world, that is not the victory of evil but the kingdom conquest of sin. When he is raised from the dead, God’s kingdom triumphs over death. When Jesus ascends to the Father’s right hand, he is reigning on high – it’s the kingdom.
What does this mean for us? The primary sowing has been done. We get to do a secondary sowing of God’s kingdom. Whenever we obey the will of God, we sow the kingdom. Whenever we share the love of God in Christ for people by our words or our deeds, again we sow God’s kingdom in the world. Anything we say or do to point people in the direction of God’s reign over creation is a sowing of the kingdom. Any action that is in harmony with God’s purposes does the same thing.
In other words, Jesus calls us to spend our lives intentionally sowing the kingdom of God. It is not simply when we sing of his kingship on Sunday morning. It is tomorrow morning at work or in the community, when we are the people known to be those who care for the hurting, and who by sacrificial service earn the right to speak about Jesus to people. Tomorrow, we spend time sowing the kingdom as we seek the power of the Holy Spirit to live like Jesus.
‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.’ (Verses 26-28, italics verses 27-28 mine)
It grows, and the sower doesn’t know how! I find that very helpful for interpreting some of my own experiences in the life of faith.
A few years ago, I had to take charge of a church temporarily when its minister was removed for disciplinary reasons and look after them until a new permanent minister arrived. Within days, I was called to visit a couple. It was Good Friday, and the husband was dying. As far as I am concerned, I simply visited, stayed with them, listened to what the wife had to say and led a prayer before leaving. On Easter Monday, the husband died. I visited again, took the funeral, and so on.
It was nothing remarkable in my eyes. In fact, I looked back and thought I could have done more. But not in the eyes of the widow. Cynthia told others in the church that I had greatly helped her through her bereavement. I can’t understand why she thought that.
Similarly, it has often been the sermons I have thought to be my weakest, or certainly the ones I have found to be the biggest struggle in preparing, that have had the most positive responses from congregations. It doesn’t make sense to me.
Well – it doesn’t make sense to me unless Jesus is onto something here. The sower in the parable sows the seed, but the growth happens without any fancy strategies. Off goes the sower to bed, and the seed gets on with growing from the earth. Jesus doesn’t need our cleverness. He doesn’t need our fancy programmes of action. Nor does he need our techniques. And he certainly doesn’t need us to manipulate people if the kingdom of God is to grow.
How does the growth happen, then? We simply get on with our obedience, however quiet and unflashy, and we depend on the Holy Spirit to bring growth. We obey, the Spirit grows the kingdom, not us.
The Apostle Paul said something very similar, when he was discouraging the immature Christians at Corinth from pursuing a personality cult:
‘What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.’ (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)
We plant (that is, we sow – as already described). And we water (that is, we find out what God is doing and join in with it). The growth comes from God, not us.
If that’s the case, then we know both the extent and the limit of our responsibilities in the kingdom of God. The extent of our responsibility is that we are called to faithful obedience to Jesus Christ. We are junior partners in co-operation with the Holy Spirit.
But we are junior partners only. We are responsible for our obedience, but the Holy Spirit is responsible for the kingdom of God’s growth. So let’s get on with obeying Christ, calling on the Holy Spirit to make the kingdom grow.
Here’s how the parable concludes:
‘But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’ (Verse 29)
What happens at a harvest? Why would the harvester use a sickle? When the growing season has come to a conclusion at the end of the summer, the farmer needs to bring the crop that has grown into the barns, separating it from other things that are burned. No longer do wheat and chaff mingle: they go to different destinations.
The harvest of God’s kingdom, then, involves both blessing and judgment. For all that is good, all that have grown in grace and in the knowledge and love of God and Christ, there is blessing. But for those who have sought to strangle the work of the kingdom, all who have been apathetic to the claims of Christ, there is only eternal separation from God’s pure love to contemplate.
This may not be a popular claim to make today, but it is clearly present in the imagery of the parable. Furthermore, Jesus seems to be building on the language of the prophet Joel, who used the picture of a sickle as a way of talking about God’s judgment on the Day of the Lord.
So it’s good news for the fire and brimstone brigade, isn’t it? Those who shout at us in the street, warning us of the coming judgment – they’ve got it right. Haven’t they?
Actually, no. This judgment is in the future, not the present, and it is the prerogative of God, not us. Like everyone else, we shall stand before Christ, dependent upon the mercy of God, a mercy we have found in the Cross, not our own superiority.
I was thinking about this yesterday, when the July 2009 issue of Christianity magazine came through my letterbox. The first column I read every month is the one by Jeff Lucas, and in his piece this month he had this to say:
‘… we followers of Jesus can become holy meddlers on a crusade to sort people out. We (who are so unsorted ourselves) can be quick on the draw with natty little ‘answers’ that are little more than slogans. Instead of just shutting up and listening, we rush to dispense our occasionally silly solutions. I know that the Bible encourages us to nudge and even rebuke each other so that we won’t be caught in insane and life-vandalising sins; but surely that doesn’t mean that today is yet another opportunity to run around looking for people to sort out, pronto.’
God will judge. His main judgment will be in the future. We are not to judge. This is not to eliminate the need for the Church to speak out on all sorts of social evils and to campaign against them. However, it is to say that whenever we need to do so, we must remember that we are sinners saved by grace, not a self-righteous cavalry riding over the hill to rescue poor old God.
Where does this leave the followers of Jesus when it comes to the development of God’s kingdom, then?
We begin by remembering that Jesus has sown the kingdom of God; we are secondary sowers of the word today.
Secondly, sowers are not growers: it is the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to grow the kingdom. Our calling is to the life of obedient faith, also by the power of the Spirit.
Finally, there will be a harvest of judgment where righteousness will prevail and evil will be destroyed. But vengeance is not ours. God will judge. We are his witnesses.
Truly, our calling in God’s kingdom is be junior partners with the Holy Spirit. Yes: junior partners.
The other week, I reported on some recent book purchases. One was Klyne Snodgrass‘ book Stories With Intent, about the parables of Jesus. This week I am using it for the first time in sermon preparation, since Sunday’s Lectionary Gospel is the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30.
My first impression of the book is that it is ‘everything you wanted to know about the parables but were afraid to ask’ – and more. In an eight hundred page book (no, I don’t plan reading it cover to cover), twenty four are devoted to this parable. Admittedly it is one of the parables that appears in more than one Gospel – in Luke it is the Parable of the Minas – and that creates certain problems. However, in terms of direct exposition on Matthew’s version, there are barely two pages of those twenty-four. It is fascinating detail, and if you want to go into scholarly questions of exegesis, hermeneutics and history, then you are going to love this book. However, it is no short cut for sermon preparation!
If I wanted quick sermon prep, I would revert to my previous favourite, Interpreting The Parables by Craig Blomberg. He has three or four pages on each parable, and you can soon find the part of the exposition where he sets out the main point or points of a story. Having said that, Blomberg spends less time distinguishing between the varying ways in which the different Evangelists present a parable. Snodgrass, in all his mammoth detail, gives incredible detail on how the Lukan version reflects recent history with Archelaus. If I were preaching on Luke, he would have a lot for me!
So that is just an initial reflection. I’m sure when you see sermons on this blog based on the parables, you will often find that Snodgrass is behind my exegesis. However, when I am in a hurry, it might well be Blomberg again! It’s rather like having the detailed commentary and the brief popular paperback. Not that I wish to demean Blomberg’s considerable scholarship by making that comparison, but if you were to be thinking about buying a book on the parables, you might want to take considerations like these into account.
In the meantime, we’ll see what shape things take for Sunday. As usual, the sermon should be posted here on Saturday night.
Here is my sermon on tomorrow’s Lectionary Gospel reading.
In the University Library in Cambridge there is an old, leather-bound book containing illustrations copied from medieval manuscripts. There are no captions to the pictures, making them like early cartoon strips, but it isn’t hard to work out what’s going on. At the beginning of one story a woman is standing holding a club, with her skirt for some reason sewn together between her legs. Next to her, a man is standing in a barrel, with one hand behind his back. Battle then commences. The woman clouts the man, while the man tries to grab the woman. In the end she ends up head down in the barrel, her legs (still chastely covered by her skirt) waving in the air. It all becomes clear: this was the way in which they settled marital disputes in the Middle Ages. If the husband got the wife in the barrel, he’d won the argument. If she clouted him into submission – or unconsciousness – she’d proved her point. [Source]
This is not a sermon about marriage! But it is a sermon about conflict. Some people run from conflict. Some try to pacify the situation. Others – like Jesus, in this reading – seem to say, ‘Bring it on.’
The tension between Jesus and the religious leaders is escalating quickly. In particular, his overturning of the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple has proved particularly – and unsurprisingly – provocative. They have questioned his authority. He has confounded their questions, and then begun to tell parables that are pointedly critical of them.
Today’s reading is the second of three consecutive parables in Matthew where Jesus isn’t exactly subtle in exposing the shortcomings of Israel’s shepherds. What’s more, he says, this has been a pattern down the centuries.
And of course, he sees where this is going for him. The son of the vineyard owner will be killed by the tenants.
So how does Jesus chart the tragic story of conflict between God and the People of God in this parable? And where might there be both challenge and grace for us today?
The first theme of the parable is just how extraordinarily patient God is with his people. The landowner sends slave after slave after slave to the miscreant tenants. Eventually he even sends his own son. He gives them chance after chance.
And of course Jesus is telling Israel’s story here – how he formed them through the patriarchs, and sent Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt. Then, once they were in the Promised Land, God sent judges and prophets to them over many centuries. Even when they went into Babylonian exile, God sent more prophets to woo them back to him. But now the Father has sent his only Son. We’re talking about a feat of patience that endured around two thousand years. Some of us have trouble being patient for two weeks!
But this is the incredible patience of God our Father. How often have God’s people given him reason for despair or grief? From the golden calf in the wilderness to the golden cow of Christian materialism, he could have ripped it all up and started again with others. Yet by his grace he persists with his people.
We know, I hope, that as the Christian Church we can’t look down on the sins of Israel from superior vantage point. Whatever they did in stoning the prophets or even rejecting the Messiah, we have conducted Inquisitions and Crusades, and devised ways of flatly contradicting the Gospel while claiming still to believe. Time after time, the Church has trashed the Gospel, and yet God keeps using her.
And what about us as individual Christians? How many of us are aware of being failures in faith? Was it the going along with the crowd at work? Being as consumerist or materialistic as anyone else? Looking after number one, instead of caring for others first? Staying silent when God needed us to speak up? Gave into temptation instead of remaining self-controlled?
I imagine we’ve all been there. Some of us have assumed that at our time of failure, God would have given up on us. Surely he has rejected us? Or, if we are still in the family of God, we can never be of any use to God’s kingdom.
Meet the God of patience. He is the patient God, because he is the God of grace. He is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.
You may well have heard the saying that the only true failure is not the error, but when we don’t pick ourselves up off the floor and start again after a mistake. That is true in Christian terms. The Cross of Christ facilitates the possibility that in the mercy of God, we may get up from the ground, be dusted down by him and start anew.
Do not stay crawling in the dirt because you feel so bad about yourself. God knows the worst about you and still loves you. Let the crucified and risen Christ lift you to your feet and set you back on the road of discipleship again.
You may have been surprised about that first point when I said that the parable had arisen from a context of conflict. And the parable’s tone is shocking to some. Am I guilty of misrepresenting the holy God as an indulgent grandfather who looks down upon misdeeds and says, ‘Ah, they’re just little rascals’?
There is a time when patience passes to judgment. Israel already knew that with her history of exile in Babylon. There comes a time when individuals, groups, institutions or nations have so set their faces against the purposes of God that he says, that’s enough. In the parable, it’s the outright rejection of the landowner’s son. It symbolises, of course, the rejection of Jesus himself.
I would hate to dwell on that point in the way parts of the Church have over the years, and turned it into persecution of the Jewish people. And not least because I once worked with a Jewish woman who told me vividly how she was called a ‘Christ-killer’ when she was a little girl.
But the religious leaders of Jesus’ day have had no monopoly on rejecting him as the Christ. Do I mean atheist creeds and nations, as per communism? Yes. Do I mean other totalitarian systems? Yes, I do. Do I mean our society? In a certain way, yes. After all, as John White says in his book The Golden Cow, the difference between communism and capitalism is this: communism says only the material exists, and capitalism says only the material matters.
But this is more: judgment is not merely about ‘them’. It is about us, the church. In his first Epistle, Peter said that judgment begins with the house of God. And when he says that, you could be forgiven for thinking, ‘Wait a minute! I thought we in the church were the forgiven ones. How are we judged? How are we the first to be judged?’
I think it’s something like this: God’s purposes revolve around his people – which, today, is what the Church is meant to be. However, just because that is his overall plan doesn’t mean that certain churches deserve to stay open forever, and that it’s automatically a crime if they close. The Church may be Jesus’ prime agent in the world, but no individual church has a divine right to existence. The gates of Hell may not be able to withstand the Church, but some churches will fail.
Now they will fail for many reasons, but one of them will be that they stopped taking Jesus seriously, and were judged. Oh, they mentioned Jesus. He was still in their hymns and liturgies. But he wasn’t central to the affections of their hearts any more. The church was being maintained for its own members, rather than to give glory to Jesus. Because glorifying Jesus means more than singing hymns about him. It means mission. It means holiness. And within that, the worship is an expression of the spiritual life that is going on the rest of the time.
Wesley said that Methodism was raised up to spread scriptural holiness. If we were to abrogate such a fundamental Christ-centred duty as that, then would the Methodist Church have any right to exist? No.
God has mostly fulfilled his purposes through people. So what happens if the people are put aside in judgment? In the case of Israel’s leaders, Jesus prophesied that God would raise up new leadership. That new leadership proved, I think, to be a bunch of mostly uneducated, unqualified, ignorant types. The apostles.
And if God can judge his Church an her leaders just as much as he can judge the leaders of Israel, then what will he do to fulfil his purposes? He will raise up new leaders and new churches.
A non-Christian recently asked me the old question about why there are so many Christian denominations. I’m afraid I slipped into the ‘nice’ answer, namely that we agree on all the basics of the faith, but there are some things on which it’s OK to disagree: church leadership, sacraments, blah blah blah.
I think there are other, uglier reasons. They are to do with human pride, and also to do with God judging those who are refusing to take their Christ-centred mission sufficiently seriously. The Reformers were the sign of judgment on corrupt Catholicism. But the Baptists and Congregationalists were a similar sign on those Reformers who liked to stay close to state power. Wesley was God’s judgment on a moribund Church of England. The Salvation Army was on nineteenth century Methodism. Pentecostal and charismatic Christians were judgment on powerless, lifeless twentieth century mainline Christianity. Today, emerging churches, fresh expressions, missional groups and new monastic communities are judgment on a wider church that won’t make a missionary engagement with today’s generations.
God will not simply judge, he will always find new ways of continuing his purposes.
What does that mean for us? I believe we need to lay hold of God’s patient mercy before judgment falls, and be serious about our Christ-focussed mission. All that we do and share needs to breathe the Spirit of Jesus.
That doesn’t mean that everything we do has to be overtly religious, because to the Christian everything is spiritual. It does mean, though, that we do everything to the glory of God, from eating toast at Sunday breakfast to bread at communion. Whether our gatherings have a religious topic or not, we are seeking to form community based on our life in Christ, rather than simply run a social club where the common interest is religion.
And most fundamentally of all, it is a missionary calling to make Christ known in word and deed. Our agenda is the mission of God. Not just mission as a task to be accomplished – those Jesus criticised in this parable had great missionary fervour, and would travel to all sorts of places in the cause. It is Christ-centred mission that shares his message of love in a spirit of love. We are those who are sent in the love of God to the world.
Now when we are consumed with things like that – rather than maintaining the club, or rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic – and when our business and property priorities are directed towards the mission of God’s love in Christ, too – then we know we are in the ongoing purposes of God.
Many years ago, I heard the true story of a young Christian woman who was raped. Many who suffer rape keep their identity secret, but this woman rushed to her church for support and told the story.
The support came in this form: ‘Have you forgiven him?’
Job’s comforters, indeed.
We believe in forgiveness, and this parable makes clear that it is paramount in discipleship. But do we always handle forgiveness well? Is it really a choice between denying the opportunity to express your pain -as happened to the woman who was raped – and being bitter?
Today, rather than expound the parable of the unforgiving servant in my normal style, I’d like us to explore what forgiveness is and why we need to forgive.
What Is Forgiveness?
What do we make of Peter’s question about how often we should forgive? Seven times? Seventy times seven? (Or should that just be seventy-seven times – so much easier!)
I think we generally accept that Jesus is not putting a ceiling on forgiveness when we reach four hundred and ninety. Forgiveness is something we keep having to do – and I’ll come back to that question later.
But I think Jesus is also showing us that forgiveness is the permanent refusal to exercise vengeance. The numbers ‘seven’ and ‘seventy’ are connected with vengeance in Genesis chapter four. In that chapter, Cain kills Abel. The Lord chooses not to kill Cain, but makes him a wanderer, and threatens seven-fold vengeance on anyone who kills him. Later, one of Cain’s grandsons, Lamech, kills a man who wounded him, and says, ‘If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold’ (Genesis 4:24).
So when Jesus says, ‘Not seven times but seventy times seven,’ he is withdrawing the vengeance option. That is what forgiveness is. True forgiveness never says, ‘I forgive you, it was nothing,’ it says, ‘Yes, you hurt me, but I choose to lay aside my desire for vengeance.’
This is probably one of the most important ways in which we can be witnesses to Christ today. Most people will not read a Bible, but they will read our lives. So when we refrain from the option to press the vengeance button, we are allowing them to read about Jesus.
Of course, there is much more to what forgiveness is. Just to examine the Greek word employed here by Matthew and other New Testament writers tells us something. The word,aphiémi, means to set free. It’s what you do when you cancel a debt: you set the debtor free from their obligation to repay you. Forgiveness is like that. You release the one who has hurt you from the obligation to pay for what they have done. You allow them to walk away. You choose not to exercise your right of punishment.
But forgiveness is much more than setting free the offender. In a wonderful way, forgiveness sets us free, too. If we harbour resentment, then we become bound up, as if ropes have been wrapped around us. When we forgive someone, then the ropes of bitterness fall away. Forgiveness sets everyone free.
Perhaps another image of forgiveness will help. The Psalmist says, ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he [God] removed our transgressions from us.’ To forgive is to remove. It is to take sin away. Think of the hurt from sin as a large object that you cannot put in the wheelie bin for your normal rubbish collection. Instead, you open up the rear doors of your car and fold down the rear seats. You open up the hatch and remove the parcel shelf. Then you put the large object in the back, take it to the council depot at Drovers Way and dispose of it. How do you feel? Considerable relief, I expect.
So it is with God’s forgiveness. Sin is landfill. That may not be a good illustration environmentally, but I’m sure you get the point. It’s buried. He doesn’t dig it up again. I think that’s why R T Kendall in his book Total Forgiveness says that if you keep talking about a wrong that has been done to you, then you probably haven’t forgiven. I’m not sure I entirely agree with him, but I take the general point. Forgiveness takes away sin. There is a sense in which it isn’t here any more.
One thing that is often said about forgiveness is that if we truly forgive, then we forget as well. ‘Forgive and forget’ are put together. Perhaps that’s a development of the idea that forgiveness is about the removal of sin. Others say, ‘I can forgive but I can’t forget’, and feel condemned by those who associate forgiveness with forgetting what happened. So does forgiveness necessarily involve forgetting the offence?
I am in the middle of reading a book by an Anglican priest containing his reflections on divorce, having been through a divorce himself. Early on in the book he gives one definition of forgiveness. He doesn’t describe it as forgetting at all. He calls it ‘remembering well’. Humanly, we are unlikely to forget bad things that have been done to us. The more we try to forget, the more they are entrenched in our memory – much like the proverbial flying elephant. But we can come to a point where we hold the memory in a holy way. When the memory comes back to us, we choose not to bitter. One way of doing this is by praying that God will bless the person who hurt us.
Some years ago, I heard a tape from Spring Harvest of a sermon by Caesar Molebatsi. If you haven’t heard of him, Molebatsi is a black South African pastor much involved in justice and reconciliation issues. During the terrible years of apartheid, he was hit by a white car driver and lost a leg. Although the driver was caught, he never apologised. Molebatsi has a permanent reminder of the violence in that he has only one leg. He regularly has to choose to forgive, because it is impossible to forget when the sin done to him meant he is without one of his limbs. His only choice is ‘remembering well’.
And that links with one other observation I’d like to make about forgiveness. One of our great mistakes when it comes to forgiveness is to think that it is instant, or a one-off. The moment we have said, ‘I forgive you,’ everything is fine. It isn’t. Someone like Caesar Molebatsi knows that. Bob Mayo, the author of the book on divorce I mentioned, also knows that. Whatever happened between him and his wife, he has the permanent reminder that she is no longer there, but living somewhere else.
No: forgiveness, says Bob Mayo, is a journey. It may take time and practice. We may long for reconciliation with the one who wronged us, but often forgiveness precedes reconciliation. It may be a long time before we can face seeing someone who hurt us deeply, even though we hold no bitterness against them.
Miroslav Volf is a Croatian theologian who has written much on forgiveness and reconciliation, especially in the light of his experiences through the wars in the Balkans after the collapse of communism. One of his books, ‘Free Of Charge‘, was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book in 2006. In it, he says that forgiveness means we blame but do not punish. We do not pretend about the offence. It is real. But we choose not to punish, or press for punishment.
That is rather like God’s treatment of us with regard to our own sin. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin so that we might repent and follow Jesus. The Spirit of God never pretends that the sin was a fiction. Otherwise, we could never repent and walk in the ways of God’s kingdom. But having convicted us, there is no sentence and we are treated as if we had never sinned, even though we have. If this is how God treats us, then it is also the goal we seek in our journey of forgiveness.
Having explored in quite a few ways what forgiveness is, I’m sure it’s already evident to a large extent why we need to forgive.
First of all, because it is consistent with the character of God. The Lord may say, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ but that is surely because God is the only one to whom vengeance may safely be trusted. In our hands, vengeance becomes revenge, not justice. But ‘the Lord is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love’, and the work of the Holy Spirit within us is to make us slower to anger and more ready to be rich in love.
It’s central to our calling to become more Christ-like. Whatever the word ‘Christian’ means today, it started out as meaning ‘little Christ’. Debbie and I say that Rebekah is her mini-me and Mark is my mini-me. Notwithstanding the fact that the ‘mini-me’ language comes from the Austin Powers films, where Mini-Me is the son of Doctor Evil, I nevertheless assume that Jesus is longing to see a vast crowd of his ‘mini-me’s on earth. A central way in which we can be more like him is in adopting the practice and discipline of forgiveness.
For of course Jesus often called his would-be disciples with the words, ‘Follow me’. He didn’t simply mean a geographical following of him, but following his lifestyle. It’s what Jewish rabbis did: they expected their disciples to follow them in the sense of imitating their life. So if discipleship is about following Jesus and Jesus modelled forgiveness, then it’s of the essence of Christian faith to forgive.
But this approach poses questions, and one is this: another strand of the call to faith is what Paul emphasises, namely that God saves us in Christ entirely by his own work, and not on the merits of our good deeds. How then can it be essential to forgive? Wouldn’t that be salvation by good works, rather than by faith?
I believe the answer is something along these lines. God does indeed save us entirely by his own work in Christ. We receive that by faith, and faith itself is not a good work, either: it is the holding out of empty hands in trust to receive all that God has done for us. However, the test of faith is whether we are grateful for God’s gifts – or as Paul put it to the Galatians, ‘faith working by love’. It’s therefore reasonable and logical to expect that those who by faith receive what God gives us in Christ demonstrate that by showing grateful love. And since Christ shows us the love of God supremely in forgiveness, it behoves us to show true faith by being forgiving people. That is what makes sense of the parable. That is why at the end the master is angry with the unforgiving servant. He has not demonstrated this.
One other question occurs to me, and it is the question of justice in society. If forgiveness means blaming but not punishing, how do we keep good order in society? Won’t criminals run rampant, free from concern about being imprisoned? Perhaps a story I have told before might help.
On the night of my thirtieth birthday, I was in Manchester training for the ministry and was invited to a friend’s house for a celebratory meal of – beans on toast. My friend and his wife offered to call a taxi to take me back to college, but – feeling I knew city life as a Londoner and being too stingy to pay for a ride – I declined. That was my mistake. On the way back, I was mugged by a teenager. He smashed my glasses and took cash. I had no hesitation after the attack in calling the police. As it turned out, they didn’t catch my assailant (even though he was clearly known in the area), but I resolved that if they had, I would have co-operated with a prosecution. However, I felt I could only do that as a Christian once I had committed to forgiving the thug. Society needed justice, and the criminal needed forgiveness. I felt that was a fair balance.
And that ties up some of the other reasons why we forgive, which I hinted at earlier: forgiveness is good and indeed authentic witness. If there is one thing we can do in society to show Christ, it is to forgive.
So may God who is rich in mercy fill us with the knowledge and experience of his mercy, that we too may be rich in mercy to others.