Trinity 14 2017 | St. Paul’s Athens
Matthew 18, 21-36
Today the Church of England remembers the Battle of Britain. Between 1940 and 1941 the Royal Air Force fought the Luftwaffe against very heavy odds in a period commonly called ‘the blitz’. London, Portsmouth, Bath, Coventry, the Clyde in Glasgow – all these and more suffered from the bombing campaign of Germany. In September of that same year RAF Bomber command began a series of night raids over Germany that marked a turning point in the war with Germany as the RAF disrupted German plans to invade Britain in what was known as Operation Sea Lion.
It is difficult to think back to those days, and I have to be honest as I look back to Britain with its conscription at that time I would not have been comfortable in the Armed forces. I can’t even begin to imagine what it is to kill someone, yet I know that we had to defeat the evil force that Nazi led Germany had become. So today as we remember the Battle of Britain I am personally faced with a dilemma.
My son James has been in the RAF for 8 years, first of all training as an engineer, but now he is at Cranwell, training as an officer. Of course we are immensely proud of him and what he has achieved, but we also know that in theory at least, he would have to do what I could not imagine myself ever doing, not now and not back in the 1940’s. We live, don’t we, with so many moral conflicts – conflicts that can disrupt family life, communities and society, and there are conflicts within the life of Christ’s church. Such conflict is addressed by our Lord in today’s gospel and it is deeply challenging. Let’s see if we can begin to address it.
To begin with Peter asks Jesus a direct question. Should I forgive my enemy at least seven times? Why should Peter ask his question framed in this way? I think it is because Jews were required to pray to God seven times a day. Strict Muslims now have to do this, and it is the origin of the 7 monastic offices of the Christian church.
Peter is saying, should I forgive my enemies each of the seven times I pray to God. In other words, just as a ritual – lip service, if you like.
Jesus challenges that. In Matthew’s gospel he replies that Peter should forgive 77 times – in another gospel the text says 70 times seven, which is an even greater demand because that adds up to 490. That’s a lot of forgiving. Anyway, let’s leave the mathematics out of it, as Jesus goes on to explain what he really means, in the form of a parable.
In essence the parable of the unforgiving servant illustrates a situation where one person receives forgiveness for a massive debt but then fails to show the same measure of forgiveness to another who owes him much less. The servant receives bags of forgiveness but doesn’t give a drop of it to someone else. We have here a parable that illustrates something that is very well known to us, maybe so well known that the familiarity breeds contempt. They are words we say each time we worship, and they may be words you and I say each day in your own private prayers. It is of course, the Lord’s Prayer ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. These are such familiar words, but we can so easily fall into the same trap as Peter and just say the words rather than the challenge of acting on the familiar words.
In these challenging words of the Lord’s Prayer we make an assumption. We pray that we will be forgiven just as we forgive others. Do we? Are we first to forgive others of their faults, their failures, the offence that they might have caused us by words, or thoughts or deeds – or is the Lord’s Prayer just something we say as part of our ritual? ‘Lord do we forgive them each time we say the Lord’s Prayer?’ No – you must forgive them seventy seven times, is Our Lord’s reply.
Forgiveness should be abundant, because we each know that we are abundantly forgiven by God. That is our culture – that is our church – and that is our Christian challenge. There is no gospel worth having that does not challenge us to the core. There is no gospel without disruption to our natural weaknesses. There is no gospel that will not turn our lives upside down. There is no gospel that will not say to us, ‘forgive your enemies’.
That’s tough. On our Battle of Britain Sunday we cannot come here and sit under these flags without a real moral challenge. I cannot have the luxury of professing pacifism when I have not lived through a period when ‘an enemy’ was trying to destroy the freedoms of my country. There can be no criticism of those who served their country back then, and who still serve in the armed forces as they defend us against an enemy, an enemy that now has no nationality, no shape, no uniform, no respect for rules of engagement and yet – and yet, how often should I forgive, seven times?
We have much to consider today as we hear this gospel.