Matthew 18 v 21-35; Exodus 14 v 19-31; Romans 14 V 1-12; Psalm 114
We have been hearing quite a lot about Peter over the last few weeks.
It wasn’t long ago that he received Jesus’ blessing after answering correctly the question of who he was. “You’re the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Peter had said, but then he was firmly put in his place a few verses later for rebuking Jesus when he tried to tell him and the rest of the disciples just what it meant to be the Messiah. That he must suffer—and what it would mean for them to follow him—that they must suffer too.
Last week’s Gospel reading was about how to deal with people who fall by the wayside. And that brings us to this morning. Today we find Peter trying to get it right again, trying to understand exactly how often to forgive people. He takes Jesus aside and asks how many times do I have to forgive someone? Surely, you can’t keep on forgiving, said Peter, so I’m thinking, perhaps that seven times would be good. What do you think, Jesus?
Now, two things here: First, Peter gets part of it right. He understands that the aim is to bring people back into the fold, perhaps a new concept in Biblical times under the Romans, when rehabilitation of offenders was not a common objective. Cruel punishment to set an example to others was more general.
The second point is that Peter thinks he’s being generous! And by most standards he is. To forgive someone seven times seems quite reasonable. But Jesus tells him it’s not enough. Not seven times, he says, try seventy times seven! The number of times is not important, it is the principal of keeping on forgiving, however hard it may be. Because we all need this and this is what Jesus does for us.
And then Jesus tells the parable about a king who wishes to settle his accounts with his servants. He listens to the pleas of one who cannot repay what he owes and then forgives him. And what does that servant do? He doesn’t reciprocate the mercy that has been shown to him, but instead refuses to forgive someone else.
We will probably tend to think that this is not quite right. And others thought the same and reported back to the King. The King then brings this unforgiving servant before him, gives him what-for, and in anger hands him over to be jailed until he could repay his debt in full.
And again, maybe we will think that he has got his just reward. But how often do we ourselves forget to be forgiving, to harbour grudges and resentments perhaps over many years, to expect behaviour in others that we do not demand of ourselves? We expect and accept the loving forgiveness of God, but can be slow to forgive others from our hearts.
It’s when we really think about the mercy and grace and forgiveness we’ve received from God, that we can try to find the strength to offer the same to others. Mercy should give rise to mercy, love to love, compassion to compassion and forgiveness to forgiveness.
While I was researching this sermon, I came across a, probably apocryphal, story about a monastery that was not prospering – fewer monks, fewer visitors. The Abbot consulted an ecclesiastical colleague, who said that his congregation was declining too. As they parted, the other cleric said “But I know one thing, the Messiah is among you”. The Abbot was a bit confused and when he told his fellow monks what his colleague had said, they were confused too. But then they started to wonder who among them the cleric had been referring to and they started to behave towards each other as if Jesus was among them, watching their every move, being one of them and with them. It changed the way they lived. Their feelings of failure and decline left them as they treated one another as they would their Lord. The monastery became somewhere that people wanted to be as the place was filled with love.
How much better life is for us all when we remember that Jesus is with us, walking with us, supporting us, loving us and forgiving us.
How many times must I forgive? Peter asked. Jesus responded, If you’re counting you’ve missed the point.
The way Jesus offers, the way of love, the way of mercy, the way of forgiveness, isn’t a checklist, it’s a way of life for us all.
There is within the Armed Forces a simple understanding that when a command is given by your senior officer then that order is followed without question; indeed especially on the battlefield those who stand up and question that order, in the middle of a battle, are more likely than not to be shot.
In our everyday lives it is entirely different, we in fact spend a large proportion of our adult lives questioning why we have to do this or that. Disagreement between countries, parties and even individuals has become almost second nature to many of us. Do we have to wear facemasks, is it really necessary to ‘socially distance’?
We need only to look across ‘the big pond’ to our friends in the United States to see, especially at this present moment, disagreement at it’s most disagreeable. Yet I am sure you would find that both President Trump and his arch rival Mr Joe Biden are both heavily backed by religious organisations, both evangelical and otherwise. So we may well ask where does this lead us to an understanding of today’s Gospel reading?
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one”.
I may well be becoming a little cynical in my old age, but I cannot really see this working between Trump and Biden, and probably not between Boris Johnson or Keir Starmer. Christianity it would seem on many occasions is only skin deep, or politically convenient, as is the case for many other religions.
I am afraid that the sad truth of the matter is summed up by Jesus himself at the end of our Gospel reading from Matthew,
“Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven”.
We cannot always be united, though we could probably manage it more often than we do. We must sometimes hold out for what we think is truth against falsehood, though probably less often than we would like. But against that temptation and need to squabble, we have the vision, given to us by Jesus, of what our unity could achieve. There is perhaps a terrible sarcasm in that phrase ‘if even just two of you could agree about anything’. What we forfeit by our love of discord!
Watching the service on Tuesday evening of Father Peter’s instalment as Team Rector in Worcester South East, I much enjoyed the sermon given by the Bishop of Worcester and the one word message that came very strongly from it, that word and message being ‘love’. This message resounds very much with our reading from today’s letter from Paul to the Church in Rome,
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”… “Love does no wrong to a neighbour, therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law”.
In this very simple teaching nothing has changed since Paul wrote those words right up to our present day. If only our World leaders, our politicians of all parties, and our neighbours, each and every one of us here today, could learn to love one another as Jesus wished us all to do, then we would truly come very close to agreeing with one another and moving, at least one step nearer to heaven, both here on earth, and with our Father in Heaven.
Both Jesus and Paul were at pains to teach those that followed them that love and forgiveness was at the very heart of their message. The striking rule by which they were to live was to be that of forgiveness and reconciliation, even if it was at times this would prove to be a hard-won reconciliation. Sometimes appropriate confrontation is the necessary prelude because reconciliation does not come by sweeping things under the carpet, or by pretending that nothing is really wrong. Equally, confrontation that does not aim at reconciliation is worse than useless.
Again in the Bishop’s sermon on Tuesday it was interesting to note that a main reason for the demise of the Roman Empire was the steady growth of Christianity and the teaching it brought of love, forgiveness and reconciliation.
In some respects and in many parts of our ‘Christian Kingdom’ these great corner stones of our faith have been either lost or badly eroded by those wishing to use the ‘clothing of faith’ for their own ends.
Let us today in our own small but very important way hold on to the teachings of Christ so that we may find agreement and compromise in our everyday lives as a true Christian community.
Matthew16 v 21 -28; Jeremiah 15 v 15-21; Psalms 26 v 1-8; Romans 12 v 19-end
Things can change – or appear to change – very rapidly sometimes. We have seen that throughout the World in the last few months.
Last week we were hearing in the previous few verses of Matthew 16 about Peter the Rock. The man who recognised Jesus for who he was and who Jesus had such confidence in that he declared him to be the rock on which he would build his church. Jesus had asked Peter the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”. He had said the right thing then.
This week the same Gospel passage continues with Jesus telling his disciples about what will happen to him when they get to Jerusalem. How he will undergo great suffering, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
In these few very important verses Jesus explained to them the reason for his earthly ministry, God’s plan for the salvation of humankind and that He had come to suffer, to die and be raised again for the forgiveness of our sins and the sins of the whole world!
Peter was having none of this. He simply could not understand what Jesus was saying. He loved Jesus and had given up everything for Jesus and now Hewas saying that it was all coming to an end and that he would die and – come on – be raised from the dead. Really? Perhaps Peter had expected something rather different from Jesus in his earthly role and did not understand that what Jesus was saying was the essence and most vital reason for him coming to earth.
But Jesus knew Who He was and why He had come! Jesus saw Peter, the rock, seemingly standing in his way. Jesus was human as well as being divine and he must have been frustrated that Peter had not understood what he was saying. More than that,perhaps he thought that the devil really was trying to eat into the heart of Peter, to try to erode the rock. So, he seems to have lashed out at Peter. Not what we expect of Jesus really.
But I think we can assume that Jesus was perhaps foreseeing the problems the church would have and the hand of the devil, who it is terribly unfashionable to talk about, trying to mount an early attack on that very rock that Jesus would build his church on. Looking “through” Peter, Jesus said to the devil, “Out of My sight, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of humans”. Peter must have been shocked, but it must have made him think and perhaps to start to really understand why Jesus was here on earth. We know he ended up being just what Jesus had predicted – the rock. And Peter would giveup his life for Jesus in the end as he sowed the seeds of Christianity in Rome.
Earlier on in Matthew 12 Jesus says, whoever is not with me is against me. When Peter the rock was being obstructive, he needed pulling up sharply! It worked.
Jesus knew that his destiny was go to Jerusalem; suffer unjustly at the hands of wicked, hateful people; die a cruel death on the cross and three days later be raised again to life by the power of God. By doing so, He took on our sins and restored our relationship with God.
But this relationship is a two-way deal. If we want to be a part of it, we too must take up our cross and follow him. It will not be easy. However, it seems that sometimes we can misunderstand what a cross is. Our “cross” is specifically things we suffer, endure or, take on even when we do not want to, because of our love for him. Problems at work, illness, disease, struggles in relationships are not necessarily “crosses” because they are common to all human beings, not just Christians. Rather, our cross is something we deal with because we believe in him and love him and are His disciples, following his commandments – standing up for him, facing being mocked or thought a little strange and reaching out to those who need our help, however difficult that might be and at whatever cost to ourselves. Giving, caring, loving and asking nothing in return. That is bearing our cross.
Finally, Jesus said, “the Son of Man is going to come in His Father’s glory with His angels, and then He will reward each person according to what each has done.” We know that He doesn’t promise eternal life because of what we do, because we can never earn that ourselves. But what we do in this life should demonstrate our faith and love for him because of all that He has done for us. It is this faith, this love, not our works by themselves, though they are very important, which will be rewarded with the gift of eternal life with him. Whoever believes in me, said Jesus, shall not perish, but will have eternal life.
Let us pray that we will have hearts filled with faith and love and compassion, so that we may do in this life what he would have us do, so that in the end we may be worthy of him. Amen
What I have here is a bag of stones. I rather like stones – or rocks – and I often pick up them up on my travels. I am no geologist; I just like rocks. There are many different types of rock from all round the World. I have just a small number of my rather unremarkable and ordinary collection with me now, but here I have examples from Canada, the USA, Mongolia, Iceland and the back garden of my block of flats in Kew. I could have brought more.
Jesus said to Peter that he was the rock upon which he would build his church and Peter of course went on to bring the Good News to Rome and there to suffer a dreadful death for his faith.
There are many different types of rock. And there are many different people who make up the church. We are all the rocks on which the church is built. The church, as we have said many times before and really found out during lockdown, is not the building, it is the people. The wise person does not build their house upon the sand, but upon rock or on firm foundations. All modern houses will be built with concrete foundations and concrete is usually made up of cement holding together a vast number of little stones. The church is like that. The cement is the love of God and our faith in him, which holds us together, but we are the little stones, the little rocks, that help give the cement strength and permanence and purpose and a presence in the World. God depends on us to build his church, to support his church and to be his presence in an increasingly secular World. This commission is even more important than ever for us now as we continue on our way through the interregnum.
So why was Peter so important and why did Jesus rely so much on someone who could be flaky and unreliable? Because Peter recognised Jesus for who he was and who he still is. Peter did not think of Jesus as a good man or just a prophet. Peter recognised Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. It was the right answer.
We are the successors of Peter and have to answer that question too. Who do we really think Jesus is? If we think, as many people seem to do, that he was just a good man or just one of the prophets, then we miss out the essence of not only him, but of the Christian faith. But if we really believe him to be the Son of God, who has come into the World for us, someone who is the Way the Truth and the Life, then this should have a life changing impact on us. Everything we think, hope, do, should have that wonderful message at its centre – here he is, here is the Son of God, here is what gives us meaning, purpose, salvation, eternal life. We should be shouting it from the roof tops and telling everyone we know. The modern World may not think that having faith in God is a rational thing to do. Poor them, our view is the opposite. When you are aware of a God who loves you, who cares about everyone and everything and has given you so many blessings, then it surely seems irrational to not believe in him.
My Father was a ship’s Captain. My sister and I sailed with him round the Mediterranean probably nearly fifty years ago. When we were far from land sailing towards Malta and thence Beirut, we used to stand sometimes on the bridge in the evenings and look at the stars, which were more than magnificent. My dad said one night – “When you look up at all this, how could anyone ever think that there is no God?” And he quoted the first line of Psalm 19 – the Heavens tell out the glory of God. Evidence of God is everywhere, so while it is irrational not to believe in him, it is also irrational to keep quiet about it too
Churches close, congregations wither, though we usually hear about this from people who never step foot inside a church. Congregations face challenges, as we will do over the next few months. But if we are firm, if we pray that we may be the rocks that support the church and God in Kew, we will triumph, we will excel, we will present whoever comes in due course to be our new Priest with a firm foundation for his or her Ministry here.
To finish, a short quote from the wonderful nineteenth century hymn.
My hope is built on nothing less Than Jesus Christ, my righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand, All other ground is sinking sand.
Christ is our rock, we are Christ’s rocks, we will be strong for him and he will support us through anything and everything.
Before coming here to Kew, over 3 years ago now, we lived in a small village with a church that was part of a Benefice with 6 other rural churches. I have, I am sure, mentioned this before. Although we were one Benefice there was very strong local feeling in each of the 7 villages towards their own churches. So I suppose that I should not have been surprised when I became part of Father Peter’s team, to find that there was not always great cohesion between the Barn Church and St. Luke’s, divided as they are by a railway line. I believe Peter told me when I once asked that it was ‘historical’.
It is both interesting and perhaps reassuring, that in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, that even Jesus at the outset of his ministry was selective with whom he wished to deal.
For when the Canaanite woman called on Our Lord for help to cure her daughter who was ‘tormented by a demon’, Jesus did not even answer her.
When she persisted he said to her, “ I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, I am here to save the Jews, my own people, and as you are not Jewish then you do not qualify. Gasp, shock, faint in disbelief, this cannot be our Lord Jesus Christ speaking? … Matthew must have got it wrong. Well actually if he did get it wrong, then so did Mark who tells much the same story in his Gospel, Mark 7 verses 24 to 30.
The truth is, that in fact it even took Jesus a little time, and encounters, like the one we have just heard with the Canaanite woman, to come to understand that his Father’s purpose for Jesus’ time here on earth was to be the saviour of all peoples, to be as his Father, a loving and inclusive God of all who called upon His name.
It is a lesson that is so very important for all of us here today and for the world we live in at this present time. Not always being able to see ‘eye to eye’ with our fellow church, or churches, is something of importance to guard against during a vacancy. However, this actually falls in to insignificance when we are unable to see ‘eye to eye’ with our neighbour, be they Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Seiki, Buddhist or even Roman Catholic, or any other creed or race.
But then it has been a well-known fact for years that God is white, British and after the Queen the head of the Christian Church, or was that before Her Majesty? I only jest in part, for it is a failing of us all that we too often envisage our God to fit our own specifications, and even Jesus had to understand that God is not like that. Jesus very quickly turned from a mission of saving just “the lost sheep of the house of Israel“, to saving all who turned to him and followed his path.
The Apostle Paul was for most of his life and in all of his letters, as with today’s letter to the young church in Rome, at great pains to hammer home the point that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God was available to all peoples without distinction, even those who once rejected Him.
“For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”
God does not call people in order to dismiss them later, and he does not give gifts and then ask for them back. If people do not at once respond then He always lives in the belief that if they see the joy and love in others who have accepted His gifts then they to will want to share in that joy and love as well.
We as Christians too often try and tie God into our own small parameters, fit Him into our life styles and even our own faith. God is so, so much bigger, so, so much more inclusive and expansive. Yes, our faith is important, our church, be it the Barn or St. Luke’s, is important, but only as a very small part of a much, much larger and encompassing belief and faith that has room for all peoples and for all of God’s great and mighty creation.
So perhaps in the weeks and months ahead we all need to remember that we are working for an inclusive Maker, who never rejects but always accepts, even if at times that requires great patience and love, and dare I even say compromise.