Words for Sunday 13 September 2020

Influence and forgiveness

Old Testament                             Genesis 50:15-21

New Testament                            Romans 14:1-12

Gospel                                           Matthew 18:21-35

Callum, my step grandson, challenged me the other day. He was talking about friends and acquaintances who decided not to have children. He went on to say that the only thing that we leave behind, when we die, is our name and our genes. It wasn’t personal so I don’t think that he was talking about me but I am sure that we leave far more than genes and a name, important though they may be. I think that the biggest thing that we leave behind is our influence.

Callum doesn’t remember a time when I wasn’t around in his life but I am sure that he has benefitted – or perhaps suffered – from my influence. I have learned from him, and the other step-grandchildren, and I am sure that they have learned from me. That learning will carry on through the generations, even though they do not carry my name or my genes.

It is the same for me – I have learned from my parents – my forbears. I have spoken before about my Huguenot ancestors (because I have been exploring the family tree during lockdown!) so I know that, at least in that line, my family were serious about their protestant Christian beliefs.

Of course, it is not just family that we influence. We can set an example to friends, to colleagues, to fellow Christians to people we pass in the street. We don’t always know that we are influencing people and certainly won’t know the effects that may ‘ripple on’.

In each of our Bible readings today, we see this influence at work.

Joseph, who had been treated badly by his brothers, could not have been expected to treat his brothers so sympathetically. The brothers knew what they deserved but Joseph could see a bigger picture. Joseph has seen what God has done following the violent and appalling behaviour of his brothers. God enabled the people of Egypt – including the brothers who had settled there – to survive through the seven-year famine.

God made Joseph see the bigger picture – Joseph was able to influence Egypt – not just his family.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans is willing to accept those who have different opinions to himself. Each person must follow his – or her – God-given path. But there is more – we must not push our own way of worshipping God on other people. It could be that they are right but we just need to remind them – and ourselves – that “we are the Lord’s” [Romans 14:8].

Christ died and lived again – Paul reminds us – so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. [Romans 14:9]

Our role is to set an example – to guide people – to encourage people to follow Christ: but not to judge them.

And so, we come to our Gospel reading.

One of the great themes of the Bible is about forgiveness. Again, we are looking at the bigger picture – not just isolated incidents. How many times should we forgive? That is the well-meant question that Peter asked of Jesus but it showed that he was thinking along totally the wrong lines. If you persist in counting how many times you forgive someone, you haven’t really forgiven them. In the society of Peter and Jesus’ time numbers do have a special significance: seven was the number of completeness so Peter would have thought that seven times was being completely forgiving – but Jesus, naturally, thinks otherwise.

Some translations of the Bible put Jesus’ response as seventy times seven – others, (including the New Revised Standard Version that we used today) have seventy-seven times. It doesn’t actually matter – it is a large number – not easy to count: I’ve certainly run out of fingers – so don’t bother to count – just continue to forgive when it is needed.

I’m not saying that it is easy to forgive – it is not, particularly if the offence is a serious one. It may take days, months, years of working through an issue before we can finally say (and mean) “I forgive you”. It may even be too late for the offender, or the wrongdoer may refuse to accept the forgiveness, but we know – and God knows – that we, at last, have forgiven the person causing us grief.

I don’t think that this means that we just accept everything that other people do wrong. We need to deal any mistreatment, particularly if the mistreatment is ongoing. And this leads back to what we were thinking about last week, doesn’t it, about how we settle disagreements?

We do need to confront sinful behaviour but we need to do it with forgiveness and reconciliation in mind – not punishment or revenge. We also need to remember that we, ourselves, are not sin-free. We, too, need to be forgiven – hence the warning in the last verse of our Gospel reading that those who refuse forgiveness will, themselves be refused forgiveness.

In a few minutes, we will be praying the Lord’s Prayer, as we so often do, which reminds us each time that we need to forgive others as well as asking for forgiveness ourselves.

The way that we treat other people who trespass – who sin – against us will have a knock-on effect. Are we going to be influenced by the king who forgave the debt he was owed or by the slave who refused to forgive? And look what happened to him! [Matthew 18:33-34]

W   Prayer of Response

God, forgive us our trespasses and remind us to forgive those who trespass against us. Amen