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Berkeley / Los Angeles / Ireland


by Ward Stothers

          “Pardon me”, “I’m sorry”, “Will you forgive me?” I said this to get your attention, but also to point out that we all realize what forgiveness is and the appropriate language for its occasion. Forgiveness is mercy. It is someone overlooking an offense or giving up rightful claim to another owing you something: (money, work, a favor, respect, a fulfillment of a promise, or an argument about who’s right and who’s wrong) It is indigenous to God and sewn into his loving character. It is useful even necessary for us, within the broken state of the creation, to participate and learn to agree to flee turmoil and start once more, over, and again, and again, and again.
          Offenses will not be a part of the new heaven and new earth.  Revelation 21 reminds us that there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, and this should be like a stair railing for us now as we climb Jacob’s ladder with strife, hurt, contention and woe inconsiderately clawing our burdened backs.  At Christ’s return, mercy will rest.  His people, complete and whole in Jesus, then, will sing.
          For now, the course of the earth from the smallest family unit to a league of common nations, is revolving upside down and around in argument and offense, confusion and pain, holding the future as a questionmark.  Augustus Toplady, a Presbyterian hymnist wrote the words for Rock of Ages, and in the midst of a church battle over the frequency of sin with the perfectionist-leading John Wesley of the Methodist denomination, Toplady compared a person’s debt of sin to his country’s national debt.  He got out a calculator of sorts, a very long sheet of 18th century paper, and like Peter, mathematically analyzing the numerical quotient of forgiveness in our text,  played with Wesley, figuring out loud that, at the rate of one sin per second  at eighty years of both voluntary and involuntary sin, Wesley would weigh in on the corruption scale, at a modest 12 ½ billion sins.  Transgressions pour out and pour on, and we breathe it like air, but we breathe it to die. Where is the life in a squall between brother and sister, in vengeance remittals coming out of Northern Ireland ghettos or in the pay back turf wars of East Oakland? One father losing his son recently was quoted, “The role of a man is not being hard.  I can’t say ‘Baby, come home’ anymore pointing to his stepson’s casket.  If you’re out in the streets, leave those streets behind and go back to your families.”
          The incident that triggered Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness was not battle but bluster occurring at the mountain top where a glowing, transfigured Christ met with Moses and Elijah, Peter, James and John. A voice from a near cloud presumably speaking to the disciples, and probably spoken in a local, Hebrew syntax echoed, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.  The statement of being well pleased with Jesus reveals more than his love in Trinitarian closeness; it is divinity now reaching down and touching the gravel point of humanity in Jesus the God-Man and the material earth that the Spirit made and loves.  The regal pronouncement that Christ satisfied the standard of perfection for our fellowship with God, was enough, alone, to buy us a meritorious life with God.  Death, however, on our accord as an expiation for our bent and foulness, kept Jesus on earth at that tick in time before any premature ascension. 
Peter, James, and John recognizing the cosmic majesty of the event wrapped their own visions in a debate over who gets to sit where, in the coming of the new kingdom, and who would appear first on Survivor, as ‘The Greatest Disciple’.  As leader heads began to swell, Jesus’ attention now turned to answering their pushy assertions— slaps of fists on the wood table tops and biting, rank-ruinous put-downs  of each other.  It is ironic that the ‘Greatest of All’ lived as Servant of All in a patient unfolding of the wisdom of God.
His answer to them was—a child manifesting a defenseless grid of belief that dynamically fits the center of the circle with surrounding, ruling elders and session sages.  It is the childlike clinging to the parents’ pant leg who are humble and laborious in prayer before icons of power, wisdom, riches, and celestial sittings. They receive the teaching assignment for the Kingdom and get the blessing of their God.
Christ not only criticized the apostles’ swagger and attitude but demanded that they change in order to enter his heaven.  This is a reiteration of Christ’s mountain sermon, barking that their righteousness must breathe, walk and exceed that of the puppeteer espousals of self righteous Pharisees.  We hear the call and see the reason for it in Jeremiah 9:23-24,”Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts, boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these things I delight. Jesus then admits and proclaims that differences and discord, that is, sin, must come, but woe to the carrier of such fires.  Implied in the context is that he is pointing at his own disciples including the obstreperous four who never turned down an argument—Judas, James and John, and the fireballing Peter.
“If your brother sins against you, go to show him his fault just between the two of you.”  ‘Brother’ is distinguished here to draw tight the lasso on Jesus’ surrounding disciples.  The problem of seating oneself at the head of the table, wearing the nametag of greatness, without the invitation of the Lord God, is sticky, glib pride, and a distraction to Christ’s wanting occasion of ministry on the repose of the other side of the Jordan.  Christ should be the offended in all these passages, but isn’t.  As the disciples pass vain justifying arguments, like dealing a hand in a card game, the core of Christ’s teaching centered in the washing of each others’ feet, circles down the drain of strife and unrest.
 Jesus differs from his Rabbinic equals in that at the first overture in a dispute, he recommended that the offended should go to the offender.  This graceful intent would hopefully help in the gain of reconciliation with a self-forgetting voice. Rabbinic literature also agrees with Christ in keeping the matter secret amongst the brewing pair.  According to the Jewish criminal law, punishment could not be inflicted unless the offender (even in the case of the woman suspected of adultery) had previously been warned before witnesses.  If a clear and private tete a tete does not acquire peace, increasing numbers of people are added as witness and help. 
Matthew is the only gospel teller to use the term and title, church, It is recognized as carrying the authority, later amplified in the epistle of Titus, to rule on a separation of the offender from the assembly. This was only after an unsuccessful attempt at a desired restoration to its church body, no matter how ugly and bitter and difficult, the offender person may have been.   This member had been called to life in Christ, and now caught in the mash of dissent who should be restored, if possible, in feast and celebration.  If reconciliation doesn’t work for the least and worst sinner, God has vacated his world, with the church again caught slouching toward Bethlehem.  We know, however, that Christ has not left us as orphans.  The prodigal son is everyone.  We have the mandate to restore, revive and redeem the creation including Christ’s church universal in glistening joy with raucous hallelujahs.
          The dispute process of Matthew 18 is positive, helpful and wreaks of the incense of peace if the steps are followed with communal fervor.  When Jesus sums up the portion of scripture saying where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them, he was not primarily addressing and talking about the power of prayer, but his God-desiring claim and call for us to agree on things, to know unity and love harmony, and by doing it to know life and thru it, to  recommend his gospel to the world.  We know who we are—

          We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,  (We’re) Soldiers of the Cross.
          If you love him why not serve him,   Soldiers of the Cross.
          Every rung goes higher, higher,  Soldiers of the Cross.
          Rise, Shine give God glory, Soldiers of the Cross.

We’re all here and accounted for, except Peter.  He’s in the corner continuing to struggle with, and swallow, the wisdom of a no-win resolution for “argument.”.  The Rabbinic teaching went far in recommending three offers of forgiveness to those on the ‘outs’ with us.  Peter, thinking gospel revolution, sparks Christ’s attention and going the extra mile, he recommends that the offended turn the other cheek up to seven times. That’s receiving a lot of swollen abuse and embarrassment but Christ’s answer pushes grace far past, in numbers equaling infinity, with 70X7.
  He is pointing again to Mercy—permanently fixed in the breath and being of God.  Jesus ends the mix with a poignant close to these chapters on strife.  He aims his final arrow at probably Peter in the parable of the unmerciful servant warning,  “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Jesus is really the offended one in these chapters, but he does not mutter, moan or judge outrightly.  He offers his presence, his divine pant leg for clinging and needy children, he offers his teaching, he offers  himself as the living bread of the meal of righteousness, recessed and at rest in unity, togetherness, communion, and love, now and forever.
The Healing is in Christ, the Author of Life, the Vanquish of Death.  We heard it declared in Peter’s profession in Matthew that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  We acknowledged it, urged by Christ in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” We watched it demonstrated at the Crucifixion with Christ even then intercessing before his last breath of atonement, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  We accepted it mandated at the Sermon on the Mount, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”  This command sums up the importance of every venerable syllable taught by our gracious Lord in Matthew 18 on forgiveness. 
Christ is our forgiveness, and our mercy.  If we forgive, we cannot help but reconcile our own differences in the process, Offender and Offended at one; and we cannot help but know life because of it;  Life in the quiet place, the eye of the stormy argument where God talks and forgiveness is humbly tried and tasted, where peace is offered to those biting and devouring themselves and others.  We caress a badge of wholeness pinned on us by the living God who keeps reattaching it like a name tag falling off from our straining doubts and fears.  When it does remain, it reminds us of whom we are and to whom we belong in the family of God.

Brothers and Sisters
As God’s own,
clothe yourselves with compassion
kindness and patience,
Forgiving each other
As you have heard,
 The Lord has forgiven you,
And crown all these things with love,
which binds everything together in a sealed unity,

Copyright © 2002 Ward Stothers