Saturday, September 27, 2008

Disciples Values: The Ecumenical Principle

John 17:20-26

I don’t think I need to remind anyone that there’s an important election on the horizon. Yes, in just a few weeks we’ll elect the 44th President of the United States, among others. Electioneering, as we all know, can be strident, divisive, and even angry. Candidates and their supporters often speak in black and white terms, sometimes even demonizing the other side. The reason they do this, is that it helps them solidify the base – their brand. What’s true of politics, is true of many other areas of life. Consider college football. You can’t root for both the Oregon State Beavers and the Oregon Ducks, USC and UCLA, and I’m just assuming, though I’m new to Michigan, that you can’t root for the Wolverines and say nice things about the Spartans. Indeed, if you drink Pepsi, then surely you won’t like Coke!

The danger in all of this, is that we end up polarized, which leads some of us wondering if Rodney King had the right idea after those LA riots several years back — yes, “Can’t we all just get along?” When things are going badly, can’t we have a bit of a bipartisan consensus?

What is true of the rest of the world, is often true of the church. It’s very easy for us to pursue brand loyalty and even demonize those who are different from us. But when we do this, we often undermine the message of the gospel. When people see us fighting amongst ourselves, they often ask: “Why can’t you just get along?”

That’s the question that the Campbells and Barton Stone asked two centuries ago, and it’s the question that has driven the Disciples ever since. Disciples pastor and ecumenical leader Peter Ainslie, said near the beginning of the 20th century that the "greatest scandal of civilization is that Christians have not learned how to behave toward each other." I suspect that this same concern about the threat of disunity to the gospel, that led Edgar DeWitt Jones to become a leader of the national ecumenical movement, while serving as pastor of this congregation.

I. CHRISTIAN UNITY: THE DISCIPLE CAUSE

When it comes to finding unity in spite of our many differences, St. Paul suggests that we look to Jesus, of whom he wrote:
"In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross" (Col. 1:19-20).
Though we humans have a tendency to break things, we’re told that in Jesus, God is at work putting things back together. And, if we are, as the church, the body of Christ, then God must be using us to bring healing and reconciliation to our world. Unfortunately, it appears that we as the church have been wounded, which makes it more difficult for us to help bind up the wounds of the world.

The Campbells and Barton Stone recognized the importance of this problem. They recognized that the church was broken and they tried their best to fix it. Thomas Campbell said that division in the body of Christ is a “horrible evil” that needs to be fixed and Barton Stone said that we should make unity our “polar star,” our guiding purpose. Now, if we’re honest, we have to admit that we’ve been imperfect agents of reconciliation. We’ve experienced our own brokenness and have added our own brands to the Protestant world. But, despite our failures, the pursuit of Christian unity is in our blood. As Kenneth Teegarden, a former General Minister, put it:
“The ideal of Christian unity is to Disciples of Christ what basketball is to Indiana, hospitality is to the South, and nonviolence is to Quakers. It is part of our identity. It is our ‘middle name’. It is ‘the plea’ -- the distinctive cause that has been the Christian Church's reason for existing.”


II. CHRISTIAN DISUNITY – THE CHRISTIAN DILEMMA

Things have changed since those early frontier days. Denominational brand identity isn’t what it used to be. Indeed, it’s rare to find people who have been part of one denomination all their lives. That’s why I find it so amazing that there are those of you, who have not only been Disciples all your lives, but you’ve part of this congregation since childhood. In fact, some you were baptized by this congregation’s founding pastor, Edgar DeWitt Jones. Still, even here brand identity isn’t what it used to be.

When it comes to church shopping, the statisticians tell us that we live in a religiously generic age. It appears that about 25% of Christians have switched their allegiance at least once, 20% have switched twice, and 10% have switched three or more times. What’s more, I may be the poster child of this post-denominational world! I was born, baptized, and confirmed as an Episcopalian. But, starting in high school, I took off on a journey across the religious spectrum. I’ve been everything from Pentecostal to Baptist, Evangelical Covenant to Presbyterian. I’ve been part of both the Disciples and the Independent Christian Churches. No wonder I get involved in ecumenical and interfaith groups!

But it wasn’t all that long ago when things were different and brand loyalty was important. In fact, not all that long ago Catholics and Protestants so disliked each other that they not only didn’t talk, but they killed each other. And yet, Cheryl has taught in Catholic schools for much of the past eleven years. But it goes further than that. Not so very long ago, it would have been scandalous for a church to host an interfaith gathering like the one we hosted last Sunday afternoon, where people from across the religious spectrum from Protestant to Hindu, Muslim to Sikh could gather for a conversation about peace in our world.

Despite this good news, there are still walls that need to be taken down. These walls may not be denominational ones anymore, but they still exist. These walls are cultural, ideological, ethnic, and political. The fact that we’re taking e a Reconciliation offering today is a reminder that we still have work to do, that racism still affects the church!

III. THE CALL TO UNITY

This year’s Reconciliation theme is “Come to the Table.” It picks up on something Paul said: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). And next Sunday we will celebrate World Communion Sunday, an observance that reminds us that the Table of unity and inclusion remains, for many Christians, a Table of Division and Exclusion, a place where only the initiated may enter. But this is not the message of Jesus, who as we heard in the reading this morning from John, prayed for the unity of his disciples. Just moments before his arrest he prayed that his followers would be one, even as he and the Father are one.

This unity that Jesus prays for can take many different forms. It can happen locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. It can involve ecumenical institutions like the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, Churches Uniting in Christ, or Christian Churches Together – all of which have strong Disciple participation. Or, it can happen at a more personal level, as we gather together with other Christians to pray, to study, and to serve. Yes, there are walls that divide us, but these walls are not from God. As it is written in Ephesians:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:3-6).
God calls on us to be united, even as Jesus and the Father are united. It is our calling as Disciples and as Christians. Indeed, it is our calling as human beings, created in the image of God.

IV. THE PURPOSE OF UNITY

The Disciples movement, of which we’re a part, has from the very beginning tried to bear witness to the importance of Christian unity. We’ve been committed to ecumenical ventures, because Christian unity is in our DNA. And this witness is an important one, because we live in a broken and divided world, a world that’s full of violence, hatred, anger, ignorance, and disease. The good news is that God is at work in the world, binding up the wounds of the broken ones in our midst, and God is seeking to use us to accomplish this important work. But, if we remain divided, the effectiveness of this work of God in the world will be diminished.

Christian unity can’t be built on a generic faith that’s more concerned about relevance and success than God’s work of reconciliation. So, even as we prepare today to begin taking the Reconciliation offering, it’s important that we consider and embrace this third Disciples core value – the ecumenical principle. As we do this, the walls that divide us will begin to fall, and we can begin the work of binding up the wounds of our world and building bridges to wholeness.


1. Peter Ainslie, The Scandal of Christianity, (New York: Willett, Clark, & Colby, 1929), 1.
2. Thomas Campbell, "The Declaration and Address," in F. L. Rowe, Pioneer Sermons and Addresses, (Cincinnati, 1908; reprint, College Press, n.d.), 16.
3. Kenneth Teegarden, We Call Ourselves Disciples, (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1975), 36.


Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
September 28, 2008

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Disciples Values: The Restoration Principle

Acts 3:17-26

"Boy the way Glen Miller played, songs that made the hit parade, guys like us we had it made, those were the days, and you know where you were then, girls were girls and men were men, mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again, didn't need no welfare states everybody pulled his weight, gee our old Lasalle ran great, those were the days!"

So sang Archie and Edith Bunker way back in the 1970s. If I were to sing something similar, I would probably change the lyrics just a bit. I might replace Glen Miller with the Beatles or maybe the Moody Blues. I don’t know if I’d exchange Richard Nixon for Herbert Hoover, but I guess I’d have to sing about our old Galaxy 500 rather than an old Lasalle.

When we reminisce about the good old days, it always seems like yesterday was better than today. We call this nostalgia, but when we get nostalgic, it always seems like the best days of our lives happened when we were kids. I remember my father talking fondly about growing up in upstate New York during the Great Depression. I guess it was because he could go to a movie and get a burger for less than a quarter. I too look back to my childhood, back to the days when record albums cost less than four bucks, a 16-ounce bottle came in for less than a quarter, and a movie might cost a couple of bucks. I remember playing wiffle ball in the center meridian and basketball in the snow. Yes, those were the days.

And yet, as we remember the good old days, the preacher in Ecclesiastes brings us up short:
“Do not say, ‘why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Eccl. 7:10).
Just like us, churches have a tendency to pine for the good old days.
“Remember,” we ask our friends, “when the church was full, people were committed, and maybe were even more pious than they are today? Remember the choir and children? Remember that preacher who could preach a stem winder every Sunday. Yes, remember the good old days.”
Church related nostalgia often takes one of two forms – traditionalism or primitivism. Traditionalism takes tradition, which one historian calls the "living faith of the dead," and hardens it into the “dead faith of the living.” We do things simply because that’s the way we’ve always done them. Primitivism, on the other hand, assumes that the church has lost its way and needs to find its way home. Of course, most primitivists believe that they have found the only pathway home. Of these two temptations our own Disciples tradition has too often fallen prey to the dangers of primitivism, though we often call it restorationism.

Disciples have, for the most part, abandoned restorationist language, but our siblings in the Churches of Christ and the Independent Christian Churches still refer to themselves as the Restoration Movement. We abandoned this language in part because we came to realize that there probably never was a golden age of the church that can be restored. But we also abandoned this language because it didn’t deliver on its promise of Christian unity. All of this may be true, but just perhaps there is some value to be found in what Mark Toulouse, our tour guide on this journey, calls the “Restoration Principle.”

I. RESTORATION AS A COMMITMENT TO BIBLICAL FAITH

Some proponents of restorationism suggested that we can find the blue prints for the perfect church in the book of Acts. They would say to us – read Acts and you’ll find God’s intended pattern for the church. If only we will all adopt this pattern then there will be unity among Christians. The problem is, when we read the New Testament we find more than one pattern of church life. So, which one should we restore? This search for the perfect church seems, in my mind, to be a dead end. But, when we read through Acts and the rest of the New Testament we do find some principles that can help us become God’s missional church for the 21st century frontier. That’s because, instead of finding a blue print for a perfect church, we find the churches adapting themselves to their environment so that they can give a true witness to the love of God for humanity.

This “Restoration Principle” that Barton Stone and the Campbells embraced, reminds us that we have an apostolic inheritance called the New Testament. Although we might not find a golden age or a perfect church, this apostolic inheritance points us to the life and ministry of Jesus, and it’s through this lens that we can examine our own history, traditions, and experiences with God.

This apostolic inheritance is at its root, the promise of a relationship with the church’s founder, Jesus the Christ. Through his life and teachings that have been interpreted and passed on to us by his followers in the New Testament, we discover our pathway to God. And as Mark Toulouse reminds us, the Restoration Principle calls on us to discern God’s will for the church, so that it might "work and serve meaningfully in the midst of a hurting and broken world."

II. RESTORATIONISM GONE AWRY

Unfortunately this principle can go awry when we begin to believe that we’ve reclaimed the “perfect and pristine church,” or that we alone have the complete truth of God. It becomes a problem when the means become the end, and we indulge in nostalgia and lose sight of what God is doing in our midst today. Over the years, we Disciples have fallen prey to this trap because:

  1. We developed questionable views of the Bible.
Things got messy when the founders began using American constitutional language as the lens to read the bible. Some became “strict constructionists,” who read the bible as if it were a law book. When they did this, they fell into legalism, and the bible became a word of prohibition rather than a word of freedom. It became a word of exclusion rather than a word of inclusion.

2. We developed questionable views of the Church

This second problem stemmed from the first, because when we started reading the bible as if it was the church’s constitution, we began to believe that we alone had the key to bringing together the whole body of Christ. We got locked into a certain way of being church and forgot that a missional church must adapt to its environment. That is, as Mark Toulouse puts it, we forgot that the church is “rooted in its own historical and cultural setting and is, therefore, constantly changing and developing.” That was true in the first century, and it remains true to this day.

III. CAN THE RESTORATION PRINCIPLE BE RESTORED?

So, can we reclaim the Restoration Principle? I do believe that it’s possible, but we’ll have to restate it in a way that makes sense of our situation today. Again, I turn to Mark’s book for guidance, and in his book he offers us four markers of the apostolic faith that stand out in Disciples thought: and might offer us a way forward

1. The Confession of Christ as Son of God and Savior.

This is our confession of faith, which we make at our baptism and when we join with the church: “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and my Lord and Savior.” This is our apostolic inheritance, for it is based on Peter’s confession, a confession that Jesus considered sufficient. He said that it was on this confession he would build his church (Matthew 16:16-18).

2. The affirmation of the Holy Spirit’s guidance and inspiration.

We make this affirmation by trusting the Spirit of God to work in our midst. In Acts 1, Jesus tells the church to wait for the Spirit, and then in Acts 2, we watch as the Spirit falls on the church, empowering them and us for service. It’s the Holy Spirit who continues to prod us on toward fulfilling God’s purpose, which is the unity of the body of Christ so that the world might be reconciled to God and to each other.

3. The affirmation of Scripture’s authoritative witness to the things of God.

I like what Marcus Borg says: “I take the Bible seriously, but not literally.” In fact, my friend David Matson says it even better: “I take the Bible seriously, but not necessarily literally.” My point is, when properly interpreted and applied, Scripture is our norm in matters of faith and practice. It ‘s this witness to God’s work that will guides us in our faith practice, and as Disciples it alone is our normative creed.

4. The affirmation that the Church is the "Community of faithful worship, witness, and service in the world."

Our structures and our styles of worship and governance might change over time, but one thing remains constant: The church is a community of the faithful who worship, witness, and serve together. In other words, from its very inception the church has been God’s missional people. Or to quote the Blues Brothers, “We’re on a mission for God!”

Conclusion

The Restoration Principle goes awry when we think we’ve recovered the whole truth and nothing but the truth, which means that we have nothing left to learn. This principle has value when it spurs within us an ongoing and unending search for truth, and a commitment to finding “the integrity of faith." It has value as long as it points us forward into the future, even as it provides us with a solid foundation in the past. Peter spoke of a time of "universal restoration" (Acts 3:21), a time when we will experience refreshment in the “presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:19-20). When that day comes, the nations will stream toward the mountain of the Lord, so that they might be taught by God and walk in God's ways. Then there will be peace and unity among all creation. Then and only then will the restoration of all things be complete (Is. 2:2-4). And that is a restoration principle that we can and should embrace.


1. Mark Toulouse, Joined in Discipleship, rev. ed., (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1997), 57-58.

2. Toulouse, p. 64.

3. Toulouse, p. 68.


Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI
September 20, 2008

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Disciples Values: The Interpretation Principle

2 Timothy 3:10-17

In 2009 we Disciples will celebrate our bicentennial. Yes, next year we will celebrate a faith tradition that was born on the frontier – that is, Western Pennsylvania. This new movement proclaimed a message of freedom and unity based on a return to New Testament Christianity. It elevated the laity and gave them permission to lead. And it grew quickly because it was non-traditional, flexible, and responsive to its environment. It even had a little of Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett in it, and if you don’t believe me, just remember that one of our early preachers went by the name – Racoon John Smith! This was a faith fit for the journey west. In many ways it was the missional movement of the early 19th century. We are the heirs of that movement, even as we learn to be missional today.

It was out of this frontier ferment that the movements of Barton Stone in Kentucky, and the Campbells in Ohio and Western Virginia, were born. And from these movements came several basic values and principles that define us and guide us as a people to this very day.
Over the next six Sundays we’re going to explore six principles that I believe define our movement. I must admit up front that these principles and values aren’t original to me. I’m borrowing them from Mark Toulouse’s thematic history of the Disciples – although I’m adding one of my own! We’re going to begin our journey by considering first the “interpretation principle.”

You’ve probably heard it said: “Well, it’s a matter of interpretation.” What we mean, when we say that, is that there’s more than one way of looking at something. It’s like figuring out the color of the paint on the wall. Is it purple or plum? Eggplant or violet? Paint color is one thing, but interpreting Scripture is another.

I’m often asked, maybe because I’m a pastor: “What do you believe about the Bible?” What they want to know is: What is your starting point? I must say that my answer often makes people uncomfortable. That’s because I try to steer the question away from a discussion of biblical authority to one of interpretation. I tell people that we Disciples believe that each individual has the freedom to read, interpret, and apply the Scriptures for themselves. We don’t have any creeds or a hierarchy that tells us how to read and understand these words. There are those for whom this is quite frightening, in large part because they’re not confident in their ability to read and interpret the Bible. But there are many others who find this approach inviting and refreshing. It can make things interesting sometimes, maybe even a bit chaotic, but it is a view that respects our ability to understand Scripture and apply it faithfully. The question is: are we willing to give our neighbor the same freedom so that we can live together in unity, even though we don’t agree on every point of interpretation?

This is an important point because, as our text reminds us, the Scriptures not only give us information about God, they provide the foundation for our faith. The Scriptures, we’re told, are "useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work." So how does this happen for us?

1. We must be clear about our assumptions concerning the Bible

Although we don’t have creeds, we do have some wonderful slogans that remind us to take the Bible seriously. One of them says: "We have no Creed but Christ, No book but the Bible.” Another one says: "Where the Scriptures speak we speak, Where the Scriptures are silent we are silent." What that means is that no one’s interpretation has priority over anyone else’s. It also means that the essentials of the Christian faith are few.

The Scriptures themselves speak of the Bible being for us the Word of God. When we seek to hear from God, we believe that we should turn to the Bible for that word. But in what way is it the Word of God? Did God dictate it? Well, no, these words that we find in Scripture were written by human beings who lived nearly two thousand years ago or more. As a text, it’s limited by human language, history, and experience – not just of its readers, but also its authors, who were very different from us. And yet, we still believe that if we’re willing to listen, God will speak to us through these words.

When it comes to reading and applying the words of Scripture, I believe we must come to this task with a deep sense of humility. That’s because Christians don’t usually divide over questions of biblical authority, they divide over how to interpret the Bible. I’ve heard people say about me, and about others: “She doesn’t believe in the Bible.” Usually, when someone says this, what that person means is – she doesn’t read the Bible the same way I do. It’s not so much a question of what it says, but how it reads. And so, while we Disciples believe that the Scriptures are our norm, we also believe that unity among Christians will only come when we give each other room to hear, interpret, and apply this word to our own lives.

If we’re going to do this successfully, then we must check our assumptions before we come to the Scriptures. We need to ask ourselves – much like a Supreme Court Justice reading the Constitution – what are my life experiences, biases, and ideologies that might affect the way I read it? After all, I am a well educated, white, middle-class, middle-aged male living in America. How does this identity color the way I read the text? As we ask these questions of ourselves, we’re invited to humbly consider how the life experiences of our neighbors might color their interpretation. How might an impoverished farmer living in sub-Saharan Africa read these words?

2. We should follow the general rules of literary interpretation when we read the Bible.

We must start by examining our own assumptions, and then when we begin to read the text, Alexander Campbell tells us: "If then God speaks in human language, must not his communications be submitted to the same rules of interpretation as all other verbal communication?" The Bible may be sacred to us, but when we read it, Campbell says, we should use the same principles and tools that we would use to read and understand any other piece of literature – especially when that piece of literature is at least two thousand years ago and was written in languages very different from our own.

If we’re going to read the Bible responsibly, we must take into consideration its proper historical, cultural, and literary context. I can’t just sit down, open up to a page, and read it as if it was written yesterday with me in mind. It will take a bit more work than that if we’re going to hear a word from God. But if we’re willing to take the time and read the Bible responsibly, then it’s possible that we’ll experience the presence of the living God in its pages. That is, I think, what Campbell meant when he wrote that "the Bible reading of all enlightened Christians generally terminates in a Sacred dialogue between the author and the reader." For Campbell, the author is both the original writer and the God who inspired that author. So, in essence, Campbell is inviting us to share with him in a conversation with God that will equip us for every good work.

3. We must recognize the limitations of private interpretation.

We are free to read, interpret, and apply the Scriptures for ourselves. This freedom is a wonderful gift of God, but there is a caveat. Just because I’m free doesn’t mean that I can do as I please! Not every interpretation of Scripture carries truth nor is every interpretation beneficial. Paul said this about freedom: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial” (1 Cor. 10:23).

It’s important to remember that people have used Scripture to support all kinds of evil. Things like slavery, segregation, the suppression of women, anti-Semitism, apartheid, genocide, and more. We maybe free, but we need the community – the community of the church and the community of scholars – to help guide us as we read and apply these words to our lives. It is important that we accord to others the same freedom that we take for granted – and together we can seek to know the way of God. We can learn from each other, because it’s just possible that my reading is incomplete or even wrong. And ultimately it’s important that we don’t make our own personal interpretations a test of fellowship.

We live in a privileged age when personal ownership of a Bible is quite common. Not so long ago, owning a Bible was rare and people were dependent on others if they were going to hear and apply this word to their own lives. That’s no longer true, at least not in America. I would guess that most of us have several Bibles in our homes. It’s long been a best seller in this country. But amazingly, surveys tell us that most Americans are biblically illiterate – even though we have at our disposal all manner of new translations and study aids.

If we are to embrace the “Interpretation Principle,” then we must seek to recover this biblical literacy. If we’re to be true to our heritage then we must make, as Disciples Bible scholar Gene Boring suggests, "an intentional decision to become a Bible-Reading community of faith." We can read it at home, in church, in Bible Study. We can do it alone and with others. We can hear it read and expounded, we can debate it, and we can receive it. The good news, is that we are free to read, interpret, and live this word from God.

1. Alexander Campbell, Millennial Harbinger, 1832; quoted in Mark Toulouse, Joined In Discipleship, rev. ed., (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1997), 41.

2. Campbell quoted in Toulouse, Joined in Discipleship, 45.

3. Eugene Boring, Disciples and the Bible, (Chalice Press), 426.


Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI
September 14, 2008

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Gift of Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35

I don’t know Michigan’s penal code yet, but out in California they have a three-strikes and you’re out policy. It doesn’t matter what your third offense might be, if you’re convicted you go straight to jail for life. This tough on crime position reflects a zero tolerance attitude that seems prevalent in our age. As we look around, we see little evidence of grace or forgiveness – even among Christians.

With this background, what do you make of Peter’s question? How many times must I forgive a person who offends me? Is seven enough? That seemed awfully generous to Peter, because it went well beyond established precedent. Like the California penal code, the Rabbis said that three was the limit. And three is more than many of us would allow to those who offend us.

When Peter asked this question of Jesus, he assumed his extension of the number of times to seven would impress Jesus. But it didn’t! No, Jesus said, seven isn’t nearly enough. In fact, you should forgive your offender seventy times seven. Now, I’m not a mathematician, but that’s a very big number. Indeed, that’s 490 times. So, if you have to forgive someone 490 times, how do you keep track of the offenses? But of course, that's the point, you can't keep track. Forgiveness isn't a matter of accounting, it’s a principle of life.

I. THE PROBLEM OF FORGIVENESS

I know what your thinking. It’s easy to say: “I forgive you.” But it’s not so easy to actually forgive someone. In fact, all too often we say the words, but don’t really mean them. It’s like when we were kids. We’d get in a fight or an argument with a sibling or playmate, and our parents would tell us: “now Johnny said he’s sorry, so you forgive him.” And you’d say: “Johnny, I forgive you” – only you would have your fingers crossed.

It’s hard to let go of grudges, especially when someone really hurts you. You might say to someone or even to yourself – “I forgive her,” but deep inside, you haven’t yet let go of the hurt or the anger. That’s because wounds have a way of healing slowly, and they tend to leave scars. And so, even when we are serious about forgiving someone, we often carry with us those slights or words said in anger for years. And sometimes there was good reason for the anger.

How do you forgive that parent who verbally or physically abused you? How do you forgive the friend who betrayed you? How do you forgive the person who undermines you at work or spreads gossip about you? How do you forgive the person who kills your child? Where’s the fairness and the justice in it? And yet, Jesus says, forgive the one who offends you 490 times.

As we consider this seemingly impossible task, Fred Craddock offers us a bit of wisdom. He writes: "There can be no forgiveness without standards and values being violated, without persons and relationships being hurt, without a loss so deeply felt that efforts at restoration are pursued." So, maybe the first step toward reconciliation is to admit that we have been hurt.

II. THE COMPANY OF THE FORGIVEN

Jesus’ answer didn’t sit well with Peter. It didn’t make any sense – especially after he got out his calculator and saw the vastness of this number. Surely Jesus must be mistaken, because this is way too generous.

While Peter fumbled with his calculator, Jesus told a story: A king decided to have the books audited and discovered that the bookkeeper was embezzling money. In fact, when the auditors were finished, they determined that it would take him 150,000 years to pay back the debt. I guess his motto was: “If you’re going to steal, why not do it big time!”

Of course, the king was irate and told the book keeper to pay it back now or he and his family would be spending the rest of their lives at the salt mines. To no one’s surprise, the bookkeeper got on his knees and begged for forgiveness from the king: “Please give me a chance to pay back the debt,” he cried. And to everyone’s surprise the king relented, and not only give him more time, but forgave the entire debt. It was as if the Year of Jubilee had come. He had stolen a huge amount of money and now the slate was wiped clean. Now that’s mercy!

You’d think that someone who had been freed from such an enormous debt would want to show the same graciousness to others. But, no sooner did he walk out of the king’s office than he ran into a co-worker who owed him money. He could let this guy off easy, after all, it was a small debt – maybe three months pay. Here was the test: Would the one who had been forgiven much offer the same generosity to the one who owed him but a little? The answer is: No, he demanded full payment immediately. And when this debtor asked for more time, the forgiven bookkeeper had him carted off to prison until he could pay. Can you believe that? Right after the king wrote off a trillion-dollar debt, he had the gall to demand payment of a few measly dollars. As the story continues, the king didn’t like what he heard, and the forgiveness was rescinded.

I don’t want to dwell on the punishment. Instead, I want us to remember that we have been forgiven much and so we are called to treat our neighbor accordingly. Having been forgiven much, the question is: Has my life been transformed by the grace and love of God?

III. THE CHALLENGE OF FORGIVENESS.

In just a few days we will mark the seventh anniversary of the attacks of 9-11. The wounds from that day’s events are still healing. There is still great sadness and anger. We ask ourselves: How do you forgive something like this? And yet, Jesus says to us: forgive without keeping an account. Yes, even if it takes a lifetime, keep on forgiving. It’s not easy, but it’s our calling.

There are wounds that continue to eat at me. I may say: I’ve forgiven that person, but all too often the anger and the pain seep back into my spirit. And when that happens, I must forgive my offender all over again. Of course, I have wounded others, who must continue to forgive me.

While it’s not easy to forgive, we must heed the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu: "Ultimately there is no hope without forgiveness." Bishop Tutu knows what he’s talking about. After the end of apartheid in South Africa, he led the commission that worked to bring reconciliation between that country’s white and black communities. It wasn’t easy, and the task is not yet complete.

As difficult as it is to forgive, it’s even more difficult to forget. I don’t know that we can ever truly forget, but with the grace of God we can let go and stop counting the offenses. Because we have been forgiven much already, we can offer forgiveness in return.

1. Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year, C, (TPI, 1993), 441.

2. From the Ashes, (Rodale Press, 2001), 13.


Preached by:

The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 7, 2008