15th Sunday After Pentecost, September 13, 2020
– Matthew 18:15-35
– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –
In ancient times and throughout the history of Christianity, the act of forgiving and reconciling oneself with another has often been expressed through the hospitality of a shared meal, by which former adversaries are treated as members of one’s own household and family. Jesus is understood as the sacrificial lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world reminding us of the Passover meal in which a lamb is killed and eaten, and whose blood signifies the sacrifice made by individuals or families to be forgiven of wrongdoings and reconciled with one another and God.
Peter asks Jesus, “How often should I forgive a person who sins against me? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21) Seven is a reasonable number, for in the Jewish tradition it represents the divine sense of completion, as on the seventh day when God rested after completing the creation of the universe. Seven, therefore, seemed a sufficient number of times to forgive.
However, Jesus responds that you should not cease from forgiving others who sin against you, for by so doing, you convey the character of God’s love and forgiving nature.
He also says that you should pursue every effort to be reconciled with the person who harms you. “Truly I tell you,” he says, “if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:19-20)
But what happens when two or three agree on something they are convinced to be the word of God that is totally contrary to what another group of two or three believes to be God’s word? This is not an anomaly among Christians for our history is riddled with conflict over what constitutes the word of God, even to the point of violence and death.
Even today our social, economic, political and racial divisions are so vehemently fueled by conflicting religious doctrine about God’s word that opposing points of view prefer to remain segregated in their own ideological bubble than suffer the prospect of having anything in common with those with whom they disagree. How can forgiveness and reconciliation occur amid such division and hostility?
The answer, I believe, lies within our sacred ability to show up and live as a patient, non-anxious, non-threatening presence amid such tension and turmoil.
Derek Black said, “I guess I only value the opinions of people I know.” Derek was a white nationalist who, while attending New College in Sarasota, Florida, met and befriended Matthew Stevenson, who invited him to attend a weekly gathering of Jews around a Shabbat meal, by which Derek began to count these acquaintances, whom he was reared to hate, among those he now knew and respected.
How many opportunities and occasions do we have nowadays, amid the many toxic divisions of our nation and world, to be part of an environment where the only objective is to become better acquainted with one another and what we share in common before discerning what divides us?
The reason, for instance, that the Food for Thought and Racism in America forums Good Shepherd conducted were set in the context of potluck meals was to provide opportunities for people of different perspectives and walks of life to feed one another, become acquainted and appreciate one another amid their differences. I long for the resumption of such occasions.
Is this not also the controversial appeal of the Lord’s Supper? It conveys the hospitable, non-threatening invitation and forgiveness of Christ to all, regardless of our condition of life, to quench our common thirst and nourish our common hunger at God’s universal banquet. For Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Those who come to me shall never hunger; those who believe in me shall never thirst…And I shall not drive anyone away.” (John 6:35,38)
Ultimately, it is not the doctrine of our church, or any faith tradition, that convinces people of God’s word. Ultimately, it is not any one political point of view that wins the day; but rather the doing and embodiment God’s word in non-anxious, non-threatening, all-inclusive, life-affirming ways that reconciles a divided world around the belief that the spirit of God is upon us and the realm of God is near. Amen.