Thursday, 7 July 2022

Sin and Forgiveness

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
2nd July 2022, 11.00am

Matthew 18:15-20   "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.  16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.  18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."

Exodus 20:17  You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

Romans 13:8-14  Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  9 The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbour as yourself."  10 Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.  11  Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;  12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light;  13 let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy.  14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

The film Beyond Forgiving [1] depicts the journey of two South Africans
            to bring healing and reconciliation to their country post-Apartheid.
Letlapa and Ginn form an unlikely pair:
            a black atheist man and a white Christian woman.
In 1993, during the post Apartheid years, Letlapa,
            then director of operations for the military wing
                        of the Pan-Africanist Congress,
            ordered reprisal massacres
                        in response to the killing of black school children.
Ginn lost her only daughter in one of these.
            And many years later she met and came to forgive Letlapa.
We’re going to watch a couple of clips from the film now,
            as a way into our consideration of our passages for today
            which take us to the hearts of sin and forgiveness.
Beyond Forgiving Trailer
Beyond Forgiving clip
I don’t know how the idea of Ginn forgiving Letlapa makes you feel,
            but in me it stirs mixed emotions.
On the one hand I’m deeply moved
            by the transformation that her actions have brought about;
            not only in her life, or indeed his life,
                        but in the lives of so many others who they have affected
                                    as they have learned to work together,
                        telling the story of their journey
                                    towards forgiveness and reconciliation.
But on the other hand I find myself feeling unaccountably angry,
            because it seems as if, somehow, the rules of justice have been violated.
‘Where is the righteous anger?’ I want to cry.
            ‘Why should he be free and laughing,
            while her daughter is long dead by his command?’
And therein lies the complexity
            of forgiveness and reconciliation.
It is never straightforward, it is never comfortable, it is never easy.
And yet, still, somehow, we have to learn to live with conflict,
            we have to learn to live with anger, hatred, and betrayal.
We have to learn to live with emotions
            that demand revenge in the name of justice,
and we have to learn to live with logic
            that demands justice in the name revenge.
There is a tendency to divide conflict into two categories;
            on the one hand we have conflict at a community level,
                        which encompasses everything from a riot to a war,
                        and where the people involved have little or no personal knowledge
                        of those they are in conflict with;
            and on the other hand we have conflict at a personal level,
                        which involves particular disagreements
                        between people know each other well.
Only some of us will ever have direct experience of community-level conflict,
            but my suspicion is that all of us are well acquainted
            with conflict that occurs at a personal level.
We all know the difficulties involved
            in maintaining relationships over the long term,
                        whether within a marriage, or a friendship group,
                        or an intentional community such as a church.
It is all-too-easy for people to find themselves in conflict
            with those whom they see regularly.
The sin of covetousness,
            of desiring that which is not ours,
is at the root of so much violence and discord.
The interesting thing about the story of Ginn and Letlapa, of course,
            is that what started out as a community conflict between strangers,
            evolved into a personal conflict between two individuals,
            as part of its journey towards reconciliation:
                        The communal became individual.
            But I think the same can also apply the other way:
                        because individual conflicts never occur in an isolation bubble.
            A sin against the one, is a sin against the many.
And so we come to our passage from Matthew’s gospel,
            which seems, on the surface at least,
            to simply offer a practical mechanism
                        for dealing with conflict when it arrives.
If another member of the church sins against you…” Jesus begins,
            and the subtext here, of course, is that ‘if’ really means ‘when’…
I’m afraid there is no such a thing as the conflict-free church,
            and even if there was, as the old adage goes:
            ‘if you find it, don’t join it, because you’ll ruin it’.
The reality is that at some point, someone who you share worship with,
            someone who you break bread and share wine with,
is going to say something or do something
            which will give you cause for grievance.
It’s going to happen.
            The question is, what to do about it?
One route might be to have a massive row,
            to stand up for ourselves,
            to fight back, bite back, make them see how wrong they are.
Tempting… but, perhaps, not very ‘Christian’?
Much more likely, we will ‘take it on the chin’,
            or ‘turn the other cheek’, to misquote the sermon on the mount.
Much more likely, we will take the anger into ourselves,
            seething quietly within,
            whilst never letting slip our well-practiced ‘Christian smile’.
Much more likely, if we are strategic and careful,
            we will find ways of distancing ourselves from the person,
                        walking away from groups where we will encounter them,
                        maybe even to the extent of leaving the fellowship altogether.
We divide ourselves against ourselves and within ourselves,
            taking for our own what is not ours
as we seek the vengeance that is God’s alone to dispense or withhold.
Well, says Jesus in our reading today, neither of these are the right approach.
            And so we get his famous and oh-so-practical solution:
Firstly, try at the earliest opportunity to resolve the difficulty one-to-one.
If that doesn’t work, the second step is to take a couple of others,
            to engage in mediation with a view to restoring the broken relationship.
Only finally, if neither of these work, does it become a public matter,
            with the community becoming involved in the discussion.
Simples, no?
Well, no, and, yes.
The thing is, if we try to apply Jesus’ advice in a mechanical way,
            it can too quickly become just another mechanism for social control.
Comply, or you’re out.
            If the pastor comes to see you, and you don’t conform,
            before you know it, everyone knows, and you’re persona non grata.
From the ‘shunning’ practices of the Anabaptists,
            to the Excommunication of the Catholics,
this teaching has been used down the centuries
            to both require and enforce compliance.
Which is, I think, a long way from its origins.
The community that Jesus is speaking to here
            is a community seeking to hold together great diversity and complexity.
It is a community that is struggling to be inclusive
            of those whom others would never tolerate.
And the insight that come to us, [2]
            is that if we are to be a community of genuine inclusivity,
                        encompassing not just the strong but the weak,
                        not just the powerful but the vulnerable,
            then we cannot afford to overlook the sin that seeks to take hold in our midst,
                        because if we do, it has the capacity to destroy
                        the good which is coming into being among us.
The confronting of sin, and the challenging the person trapped in it,
            is not about enforcing compliance,
                        but is rather about offering compassion.
The threat of making a person ‘like a tax collector or a gentile’
            is not about shunning or excommunicating them,
                        it is not about throwing them out of the church,
            rather, it is the issuing of a stark call to them
                        to return home,
                        and to be reconciled to the community that they have wounded.
Whether or not we have the resolve and courage to seek reconciliation
            with the one who has sinned against us,
            is therefore a mark of the kind of community we are.
To put it another way:
            Do we love each other so intensely,
                        that we refuse to risk ignoring the one who is going astray?
            Do we refuse to harbour resentment,
                        seeking instead the more difficult path of reconciliation?
This is not about eliminating the conflict that comes from sin,
            or suppressing it, or ignoring it, or denying it.
It’s about dealing with it,
            because the community that it threatens to destroy
            is too precious to us to abandon to the destructive power of sin.
Christians must take seriously what it means to confront their enemies well,
            because this is the only way in which the damage already done,
                        stands any chance of moving towards healing.
It is the only way in which the vulnerable
            will ever receive justice,
and it is the only way in which the perpetrator
            can be restored to their proper place within the community.
Too often, when we talk of forgiveness,
            we think of it in terms of ‘papering over the cracks’,
too often we define forgiveness in terms of ‘forgive and forget’,
            as saying to the perpetrator of hurt
            that it doesn’t matter, that it’s forgotten.
But this is not what Christian forgiveness is about.
            Because sin and hurt, and pain and wrong, do matter,
                        and they cannot always be forgotten.
But they can be addressed,
            carefully, and with good process.
And from that process, there is the possibility
                        that genuine forgiveness can emerge,
            which has the potential to liberate those entangled in the mess of sin
                        from the chains that bind them to hurt and pain.
Only through such process can the path to peace emerge.
            And the peace that Jesus offers,
                        is not simply the peace that emerges from the absence of violent response.
            The peace that Jesus offers is not the peace of the capitulator,
                        nor is it the peace of the person so bullied and coerced
                        that they have lost their capacity to fight back.
            Rather, the peace of Jesus
                        is nonviolent because it is based on truth,
                                    and on the telling of truth.
As Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela discovered in South Africa,
            with the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Only truth has the capacity to effectively counter violence.
            Only truth can un-spin the web of deceit which ensnares the unwary
                        in its violent embrace.
Covetousness is a secret sin of the heart,
            the desiring of that which is not ours,
            whether that is land, power, possessions, or status.
But truth brings that which is hidden into the light.
Even love, if it is love without truth, can be as dangerous
            as any open hostility.
If peace between the brothers and sisters of Jesus
            is to be real, it must be peace without illusion.
Truth is key to reconciliation,
            which is why Jesus instructs the person who has been wronged
                        to take with them ‘one or two’,
            so that together they form the ‘two or three’ witnesses
                        stipulated by the book of Deuteronomy (19.15)
                        as necessary for the establishment of truthful testimony.
Truth-telling in the face of conflict,
            is a gift that the community of Christ’s people can offer to the world.
If we can learn to model it between ourselves,
            and learn what it is to inhabit the peace of Christ,
then we become equipped and prepared to live that peace into being
            in all areas and spheres of our lives.
How can the world be changed?
            How can we make any difference to the conflicts that divide humanity?
Well, says Jesus, it begins with us, here and now.
            It begins with those who follow him,
                        as we learn what it means to relate in new ways,
            as we see relationships transformed,
                        and healing brought through truth to those who are divided.
And yet, the truth is often the last thing
            most of us want to know about ourselves!
We may say that the truth saves us,
            but in fact we know that any truth,
                        particularly the truth that is in Jesus,
            is as disturbing, as it is fulfilling.
How will we react,
            if someone comes to us,
            to point out to us the error of our own ways?
How will we respond,
            when someone tells us how much we have hurt them?
Self-righteousness is only ever a small step away,
            as the shutters come down,
            and we retreat to our world of illusion
                        where we are the stars of our own little universe
                        with everyone else playing merely supporting roles.
And even those who take seriously the journey towards truth,
            those who take Jesus at his word when he says
            that ‘the truth shall set you free’(Jn 8.32),
will find that the truth is often painful,
            and that the revelation of our own inner capacity to harm others,
                        and to engage in acts of destruction
                        against those we love, as well as those we hate,
            is a truth that comes only by great effort,
                        and by the grace of God.
But this is why Jesus insists that those who would follow him
            cannot let sins go unchallenged.
If we fail to challenge one another in our sins,
            we in fact abandon one another to our sins.
We show how little we love each another,
            when we refuse to engage in the hard work of reconciliation.
And yet, says Jesus, we cannot afford to ignore this,
            because our actions here today have eternal consequences.
When we loose someone from the chains of sin,
            when we cut the bonds of behaviours
            that bind people into destructive patterns,
then we loose them for eternity.
When we cut someone free from the web of deceit
            with the sharp edged sword of truth,
            they are free indeed.
The kingdom of Heaven breaks into our midst
            when people take decisive action to bind the Satan’s power
                        to deceive, distort, and demean.
And Heaven and earth collide
            when people find release to the new life
            that is theirs in Christ Jesus

[2] What follows draws on Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, SCM Theological Commentary, pp. 165-166.

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