Judgement would hold nothing but terror for us if we had no sure hope of forgiveness. And the gift of forgiveness itself is implicit in God’s and people’s love. Yet it is not enough to be granted forgiveness, we must be prepared to accept it. We must consent to be forgiven by an act of daring faith and generous hope, welcome the gift humbly, as a miracle which love alone, love human and divine, can work, and forever be grateful for its gratuity, its restoring, healing, reintegrating power. We must never confuse forgiving with forgetting, or imagine that these two things go together. Not only do they not belong together, they are mutually exclusive. To wipe out the past has little to do with constructive, imaginative, fruitful forgiveness; the only thing that must go, be erased from the past, is its venom; the bitterness, the resentment, the estrangement; but not the memory.
How do we live as a Church? How do we live out our faith in lives in an authentic and authoritative way? These are questions which trouble us in the Church, and so they should, for they lie at the heart of what it is to be a Christian, to follow Jesus; and they help us to understand that how we live our lives affects how we proclaim the Good News, the saving truth of Jesus Christ to the world and for the world.
It goes without saying that we, as human beings sin, we say and think and do things which estrange us from each other and from God. Recognising this is part of one might like to term Spiritual Maturity – recognising that we miss the mark, and fall short of what God wants us to be. If this was all that there was then we could quite rightly wallow in a pit of misery and regret, out of which we could never climb by our own efforts.
Thankfully the solution can be found encapsulated in this morning’s Gospel: Peter asks Our Lord how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him – seven? Jesus reply, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’ looks back to the establishment of the jubilee year in Leviticus 25:8 – ‘You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years.’ The jubilee of the Old Covenant is made real in Jesus – here is the forgiveness and the renewal for which Israel longs. It is radical, and powerful, and can transform us, and the world.
Jesus explains his message of forgiveness with the use of a parable, that of the dishonest servant: he owes a debt which he cannot pay, and begs for the chance to try. Yet, when faced with a debtor of his won, he fails to exhibit the mercy, the kindness which has been shown to him. For this he is rightly and justly punished, to show us who hear the parable that as we beg God to forgive our sins, so we need to forgive the sins of others.
It really is that simple, it is why when Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray he says ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. As Christians this is how we pray, but these cannot simply be words that we say with our lips, they need rather to be actions in our lives – we need to live out the forgiveness which we have received. Thus the Kingdom of God is a place where God’s healing love can be poured out upon the world – to restore our human nature, to heal our wounds, and to build us up in love, for our own sake, and for the sake of the Kingdom.
We see this forgiveness in Paul’s Letter to the Romans – here are people learning not to judge others, learning to live as people of love, freed from all that hinders our common life together. If we consider for a second the fact that for three centuries Christians were persecuted for their faith – they were sentenced to death for preferring Christ to the ways of the world, and yet they were not angry, but rather lived out the love and the forgiveness which they had received, it was this powerful witness which brought others to believe and follow Christ.
We have to follow their example and try to live authentic lives together, forgiving each other, and living in love – putting aside the petty rivalries, the squabbles, the slights, all the little everyday annoyances. For how can we ask God for forgiveness and not be ready, willing and able to show the same forgiveness to our brothers and sisters? We would be hypocrites: more to be pitied than blamed for failing to grasp the fact the heart of the Gospel is love, and failing to live this truth out in our lives.
That is why we celebrate the Cross of Christ – the simple fact that for love of us Jesus bore the weight of our sins upon himself, and suffered and died for us, to show that there was no length to which God would not go to demonstrate once and for all what love and forgiveness truly mean. It is our only hope, the one thing that can save us from ourselves, from that which divides, and wounds, which separates from each other and from God.
It may seem utterly ridiculous that the Gospel promises unlimited forgiveness to the penitent, but how can we learn to forgive others without first coming to terms with the fact that we are forgiven. The slate is wiped clean, but this does not mean we can sit back and say ‘I’m alright Jack’ – we cannot be complacent, instead we are humble knowing that we rely upon God for dealing with things. Sin matters, it matters so much that Christ died for it, and rose again, to show us that as the Church we are to have new life in him. The Kingdom is here, now, amongst us – it is up to us to live it, as a community of truth and reconciliation, showing that same costly love which our Lord exhibits upon the Cross, and proclaiming that same truth to the world.