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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon

11th September 2005

Fr David Shepherd

Trinity XVI

'...How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.'

September 11th is a good date to think about forgiveness. How often should we forgive? The concept of forgiveness is easy to grasp in the abstract. But how can we forgive when others have done us a great wrong, or even more so when others have done a great wrong to those we have loved? In the case of suicide bombers how can we forgive those who are no longer around to be forgiven and to receive our forgiveness?

We can easily see the problem of not forgiving especially in others who refuse or fail to forgive. People will often tell us in an embittered way, 'I'll forgive but I won't forget.' Forgiveness and forgetting are linked together. The embittered holding on to a sense of grievance years after the perceived wrong has been forgotten by others leaves us a 'victim' of that wrong. Leaving others bound up with hatred and deep resentment is often a consequence of great acts of evil. Centuries of failure to forgive and forget lie behind many of the evil acts in today's world.

So we have a dilemma. We know that as Christians we are commanded to forgive others who have wronged us. 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us', we pray each day. We know the consequences of our failure to forgive, leaving us eaten up by isolating, life denying bitterness. The dilemma is as to how we bridge the gap.

The problem is by no means a new one in the churches. In his letter to the Church in Rome, St. Paul is critical of those who quarrel and pass judgement on one another, thereby denying Christ. As we consider the current threats of schism in the Anglican Communion we can see that not much has changed. Peter's question about forgiveness in today's gospel is thought to reflect a situation in Matthew's Church community. Forgiveness of wrong doers had become something of a problem. It always will because the church is a group of imperfect people who are bound to upset each other from time to time. And yet how often do we hear people telling us that they stopped coming to church because Mr. or Mrs. so & so did them some slight in 1956 or when ever!

How many times are we to forgive, seven times? No says Jesus, not seven times but seventy-seven times. In other words there should be no limit to our forgiveness according to Jesus.

How are to forgive? In a real sense we never can because forgiveness is a work of grace in our lives. It is God's gift to us in Jesus, something he enables us to do. And it is always linked to the death of Jesus on the cross. 'He died that we might be forgiven' says Mrs. Alexander in her hymn. He also died that we might forgive.

As he often did Jesus replied to Peter's question with a parable, the parable of the unjust servant. The point of the parable is that the slave who was released by his king from a massive debt of thousands of pounds in modern money, immediately refused to forgive the debt of a fellow slave who owed him a few pounds. The slave's massive debt was written off, yet he failed to receive the king's mercy and forgiveness. Had he done so he would have shown mercy and forgiveness to his colleague. Instead he received harsh penal judgement. Failure to receive forgiveness & to forgive left him imprisoned spiritually as well as physically.

Thus we come to the Christian solution to our dilemma. How can we forgive others? It is when we come to the realisation that we who stand condemned by God, deserving his judgement, have received his loving forgiveness. ( 'Just as I am without one plea.' ) It is when, convicted of our Sin, we turn to God in penitence that we receive his forgiveness through the death of Christ. All have sinned, all fall short, all miss the target, and the amount of wrongdoing is irrelevant. As by God's grace we know this for ourselves, so by his grace we are enabled to forgive others. That all this is wrapped up in the mystery of the Cross, shows us that forgiveness is never easy, always costly. That it is linked to Christ's death on the cross also points to his resurrection. In knowing ourselves forgiven and in forgiving others we receive eternal life. That is the good news of Jesus Christ in an unforgiving world.


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