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Meeting Castro in Heaven

Sermon #199 St. James the Less #106 9/13/20

Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Matthew 18:21-35

Eternal Implications

A few years ago I came across an article in Christianity Today that made me stop in my tracks. It’s entitled, “Love Your Heavenly Enemy” with the subtitle, “How are we going to live eternally with those we can't stand now?” In this article, the writer’s main argument is that the work of forgiveness is immensely important now because it has eternal implications.

He said that forgiveness is not just important work for God, or for some of us, but for all of us because it foreshadows the age to come.

That’s not really something that had crossed my mind before. When we usually talk about forgiveness we usually talk about it in the context of resolving interpersonal conflicts, like last week’s gospel reading about addressing conflicts in the church.

Last week was pretty practical stuff: if you have a disagreement with someone, talk to them privately, and if that doesn’t work bring two or three other people to help resolve the issue…

But the writer of this article challenged us to think on a bigger scale, the eternal scale if you will.

Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of all time, was once asked: "Is it true that one day in heaven we will see again our loved ones?" Barth responded with a chuckle, "Not only the loved ones!"

We always picture meeting our family and friends at the pearly gates, but we quickly block out the folks that we really don’t like. We assume for some reason that they are far beyond the mercies of God just because they bother us.

But of course, that doesn’t negate their standing with God. It seems like a no-brainer when you think about it. Of course, the person who annoys us at work, or more seriously, that family member who wronged us, may very well be with us on the other side. We may even rub shoulders with them from time to time.

Forgiving Enemies

Barth’s answer “reminds us to be ready to meet even those whom you dislike here, and challenges our propensity to populate heaven only with people whom we like” (Volf).

And so we need to seriously think about our relationship with people with these kinds of implications in mind. Forgiving people who annoy us is one thing, forgiving someone who has wronged us—that’s even harder.

We see in our gospel story that Peter asks how many times we must forgive someone who has sinned against us. Someone who has truly caused us harm. Jesus says we have to forgive them too; we can’t get away from the eternal implications of forgiving our enemies either.

There’s a story that the Yale Professor Carlos Eire tells of visiting his elderly Cuban mother, where he often ends up as a resident theologian for the small immigrant community of her friends.

A woman once asked him, "Is it possible for Castro to convert on his deathbed and end up in heaven?" This was a woman who fled from Castro’s rule in Cuba years earlier; she knew the evils he had done to his own people. "It is possible," Professor Eire assured her. "This is what Christian faith is all about. Nobody is beyond the pale of redemption."

"Well, if that were to happen," said the woman, "then I would not want to be in heaven."

Like this Cuban woman, most of us have our own "Castros" with whom we would rather not share the space of the world to come.

The point I’m trying to make is that there are eternal implications of the actions we do here on earth. This is an overlooked assumption, but when you think about it, it’s kind of a no-brainer. If we Christians claim there is life after death, and that we continue on as ourselves, then the work we do today has direct implications in the world to come.

Just because you die doesn’t mean that the grudge you are holding goes away; you very likely will have a relationship with that person in the life after death, so you better figure out how to address it now!

Parable of Forgiveness

Now, this is where our gospel lesson from Matthew really comes in. Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness—what’s the limit? When can we draw the line and stop forgiving people who have wronged us?

If you think about it, Peter’s number seems a little high. Seven? Really? It’s hard for me to forgive someone once or even twice?

But Jesus gives him an outrageous number. “Peter, if you’re trying to count it’s pointless, you don’t understand the nature of forgiveness if you’re keeping tabs.“

The parable that Jesus tells is one where a servant is in deep debt to his king. Ten thousand talents, in fact, which is an outrageous figure. This guy must have really been reckless with money because ten thousand talents would be like us saying he owed a bazillion dollars. It would’ve taken him a couple of lifetimes to ever pay back that debt.

And amazingly, even with that knowledge, the king has mercy on the servant and cancels his debt. He is no longer liable for even a penny of it. It is as if he never had that debt to begin with.

That’s what makes it so shocking that the servant would then be so merciless to a fellow slave who owes him a small debt. He does not reciprocate the same mercy that was so graciously given to him moments ago.

This parable has two seemingly different, yet interlocking sides to it. On the one side, we learn that we are to be forgiving and merciful because God our King so lavishly bestows on us his unconditional love and forgiveness though we continue to sin. Our debt has been paid, and he’s the one who paid it.

We could stop there and the moral of the story would be quite clear. Forgive as you have been forgiven.

But our parable doesn’t end there—the wicked servant is brought back into the royal court and judged according to his evil actions. Because he has not learned what it means to have mercy, he now must pay the debt that was once canceled.

And Jesus ends with a grim warning, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Mercy & Judgment

Mercy and judgment—though they may seem like opposing forces, Jesus shows us they actually go hand in hand. Our passage shows us that receiving God’s abundant love and forgiveness is meant to be a transformational experience. If it is taken seriously, and with a sincere heart, then you will indeed be a different kind of person—a more forgiving and merciful person.

There is a rule of life that Jesus is giving us through this story: If you have been forgiven, you are then to forgive. Another way of saying it could be: a forgiven person should then be a forgiving person.

That’s the expectation; that’s where God as the only holy and rightful Judge of our lives can say with all authority: you are expected to be a forgiving person because I have forgiven you.

It is free and undeserved forgiveness, we did nothing to earn God’s grace and mercy, but the expectation is that we will do the same. As people who openly profess to be followers of this Forgiving God, we are accountable when we receive God’s abundant forgiveness and do not forgive as we have been forgiven.

And so the work of forgiveness is deeply personal with eternal implications. But there is one more aspect to uncover in this important action we are called to.

The Day of the Lord

The Old Testament prophets were keenly aware that God’s mercy and judgment were dependent on each other. Unlike us modern folk who may say these two things are mutually exclusive, the ancient prophets didn’t see God’s judgment in opposition to his mercy—rather his judgment leads us into a deeper understanding and appreciation of his mercy.

For these prophets, God’s judgment and mercy coalesce on what they called the Day of the Lord. On that great day, the nations would come before the throne of God and be judged.

The prophets are mixed in their thoughts of this day, some call it a great and terrible day, while others long for it to come quickly so that they may be judged righteous. Overall, it is something to be looked forward to.

But Jews and Christians alike have seen this for more than an individual accounting of our sins, which usually fills our popular imagination when we think of Judgment day. Rather the Day of the Lord is when God finally restores his creation—when all wrongs are set right.

That is not something that we should dread, but something we should expectantly long for deep in our bones. Think of the deep societal problems that are so pervasive in our world: the genocides, sex slavery, the long-held prejudices that negatively affect each society around the world: Hutus vs. Tutsis, Jews vs. Arabs, Whites vs. Blacks.

The Day of the Lord is a social/societal event in which the people individually as well as collectively redefine their relationship with God and with each other. We are not simply talking about individual redemption anymore, but whole societies, whole nations washed clean in the blood of the lamb, as the Book of Revelation describes.

And so forgiving, even for the petty individual offenses that people do to us on a daily basis, reflects what God has done for us on the cross and foreshadows what will ultimately happen at the end of the age.

In this way, God’s judgment and mercy go hand in hand, and quite amazingly you and I play a small part in this cosmic dance between heaven and earth, between the Divine and humanity.

It’s our great calling to get a head start on the work that will ultimately be fulfilled on the Last Day. Our work neither ends when we die nor can we passively go through this life just waiting to be with Jesus.

The relationships we are building right now matters. The work we do in our community, in this church, and with our neighbors have eternal implications.

If we truly believed that, if we truly believed that the work we do and the relationships we build now will continue in the world to come then we have to reconsider everything.

That will change how we spend our time in retirement, how we will spend our off days from work, but most of all, it will hopefully make us rethink our relationships, and the ones we need to mend or at least forgive and come to some sort of peace.

We are a forgiven people, our debt has been canceled by none other than the King himself, and we must therefore become a forgiving person in this life, anticipating the age to come.

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