Reverend Philip Stringer
LET US PRAY: O merciful Father in Heaven: You give the knowledge of your saving help-- a comfort to your people. Feed our hearts with your Holy Word, and make our hearts instruments of your glory, today and all days. AMEN
Stories about Danny and Krehl telling me what I had to do to get into their club: blood from sticker bush; catch a rabbit.
I never got into their club.
They were always making something or doing something -- and as it turns out-- as I look back -- I was doing the same stuff they were doing -- but for a different reason. They were doing the stuff they were doing to have fun. They were playing. But I was doing that stuff to buy a place among them. I was doing it to belong; to have value; to matter.
I never did get in. I was so close, but my place with them was always in question. I never did belong.
I think that Peter must have felt much the same way. He wanted to know how much forgiving he had to do to get into God’s “club.” And Jesus’ answer must have been difficult to hear: “How much forgiving do you have to do before you can know you’re safely in? More than you can do.”
But here’s the twist to this story: God is gracious. Jesus forgives simply because it is the way he is.
Peter approaches the act of forgiving as a duty surrounded with danger and fear. He’s not sure he’s safe, so he wants to find a way to earn a place in God’s favor -- and his question is not really, “how many times do I have to forgive.” The question is really, “how many times can somebody sin before God gives up on them and stops caring about them?” Peter’s question isn’t asked because he cares about the sinner. But Jesus forgives out of love.
For you and me, the difference between our gospel text being good news or bad news is a matter of faith.
If we have faith in God’s grace, then what we see in this passage is good news. Forgiveness is a natural expression of love and gratitude.
But if we do NOT have faith in God’s grace, what we see in this passage is bad news -- because no matter how much we forgive as a work toward earning a place in God’s kingdom, it will never be enough.
There are at least two messages that come to us in the Scripture texts today:
1. Don’t be afraid. God’s grace is real.
2. When we forgive as Jesus forgives, we will know new life.
Over the past few weeks, I have spoken of power being expressed as a means of gaining control, or as an expression of love.
I’ve spoken about the ultimate futility and hopelessness of trying to acquire control.
One thing we see about control is that fear and control are best friends. Wherever you find one, you will also find the other. Whenever people are afraid, they will seek a means of control over what they fear.
When Jacob died, the brothers of Joseph became afraid -- and for those who live by control, they had good reason to fear.
RETELL STORY OF JOSEPH’S BROTHERS SELLING HIM INTO SLAVERY.
They didn’t believe that the forgiveness Joseph offered them was real -- so they lied.
And Joseph -- continued to be gracious to them. And the explanation he gives for his own graciousness is the key to understanding it: “Am I in the place of God? You intended evil -- no doubt about it -- But God has been at work in it to bring about good.”
Joseph trusted in the power and goodness of God -- And Joseph’s life was shaped by that belief so that he was gracious in the fashion of God.
The forgiveness of Joseph was real.
You and I have been set free from a life of fear by the love of God, shown to us in Jesus Christ. Don’t be afraid. God’s grace is real. That’s the message of the gospel. From the first passages of Genesis, we read about Adam and Eve hiding in fear and acting in fear. But from the start of the gospels -- from the time the angels spoke to the shepherds to Jesus’ parting words to his followers, the message of the gospel is, “fear not.” Don’t be afraid.
Yet we live in a world filled with fear and the quest for control -- and there are many challenges we face that would try to shape our lives by fear and control rather than by faith in God’s grace.
This past week we marked again the anniversary of September 11.
A few days after the attacks -- my friend said: “I am praying for the conversion of Osama Bin Laden. It happened with Paul. Why not with him?”
In a time of fear, he chose love.
It did not happen. Osama Bin Laden did not become a follower of Jesus. But if that is — for you — the test of success, you are missing the point. To measure prayers by the percentage of times you get what you want, is to treat prayer as a means of seeking control. It is an abuse of prayer.
The point here, instead, is the heart of my friend. In praying for Osama Bin Laden, my friend showed the character of his heart. A heart being shaped by the love of God for him in Jesus.
It was a heart unchanged by people like Osama Bin Laden.
Joseph was unchanged by the continued deceitfulness of his brothers. Because his life was shaped by his faith in the grace of God, Joseph kept on being gracious to his brothers, even when they were unworthy of it.
To live by faith in the grace of God is to live a new life. A life not defined by fear or hate, but by love.
“How many times must I forgive?” If you must ask the question, then you don’t really understand the nature of forgiveness at all.
In the parable of the unforgiving slave, Jesus tells a story about someone who continued to live by fear, even though the king’s grace had removed any reason for him to be afraid. And the lesson that Jesus teaches in this story is that fear cannot make sense of grace.
The question that Peter asked which prompted this parable was a question rooted in fear -- what is expected of me? What must I do to be saved? How many times do I have to forgive?
And Jesus tells him that if your motive to forgive is your fear of punishment if you don’t -- if your motive to forgive is to earn points for yourself — then that isn’t really forgiveness at all. You cannot forgive in fear -- you can only truly forgive when you know you are safe.
Do not be afraid -- the grace of God is real. You are safe.
And so forgiveness is not something that you HAVE to do as a burden. It is something that you GET to do. It is an invitation for you to live.
I wanted to buy a place in my brother’s club.
Jesus tells us that there is no need for this with him.
So Come (altar) — receive his grace that is freely given.
And go from here believing in the power of that grace to hold you safe and to change the world for good.
Do not be afraid.