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To Know Christ and to Make Him Known

Sept. 13, 2020: Come Together? by Bill Ernst

Come Together? Recording:

Come Together?

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 13, 2020
Bill Ernst

Old Testament: Genesis 50:15-21
Epistle: Romans 14:1-12
The Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and redeemer.

Last week’s sermon by Rev. Hartman, drawing upon the Gospel lesson appointed for Proper 18, pointedly reminded us that Christian faith is not a solitary enterprise. After considering the lectionary readings for today, I would like to extend that discussion a bit further. I promise, however, not to cite the gospel according to Lennon and McCartney. (Well, except for using the opening track of “Abbey Road” for a sermon title.) Not that there was anything inappropriate about the messaging—you just would not want to hear me attempt to sing. As Ringo Starr, who on one version of the Beatles tune Rev. Hartman referenced actually provided the vocals for the chorus, once said of himself, “I have the vocal range of a gnat.”

All of today’s readings address aspects of mercy, forgiveness and God’s grace. Both the gospel, to some extent, and the epistle, more directly, also address how Christians are supposed to interact. The reading from Matthew stands out in that, aside from one verse in Luke, there are no exactly parallel accounts in the other synoptic gospels. As we just heard, in reply to Peter’s query about forgiveness, Jesus responded with a parable to explain the nature of the kingdom of Heaven, although as recounted by Matthew, it seems to say more about the nature of God as sovereign than of the kingdom.

The first debtor owes an amount that is at the extreme limits of what would even be conceivable at the time of its telling. It is the equivalent in some estimates as more than $10 million in our terms. Whatever the precise value, it was an enormous sum. Recall that while the debtor merely sought forbearance, the king, we are told, cancelled the debt altogether. That act was as extraordinary as the size of the debt. Surely one implication is that the richness of God’s mercy is beyond human measure.  The scale of this act of compassion becomes even more apparent when contrasted with the actions of the man newly liberated from the burden of his own debt. Instead of paying mercy forward, he refuses even to grant forbearance and instead demands immediate payment from a fellow servant whose debt of 100 denarii (approximately three-month’s wages for a laborer) is miniscule by comparison. When the king learns of this, he responds with a very pertinent question, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

The coda to this parable, which some commentators think was added to clarify or amplify the message, focuses on the punishment then meted out to the ungrateful servant. In effect, it provides a negative rather than a positive spin in pointing out the need for mercy. However, over-emphasizing this may muddle the message of the king’s question, a question that also responds directly to Peter’s initial inquiry. If God’s forgiveness is so broad, should we not be as ready to forgive those whose wrongs against us are on a comparatively smaller scale?

The Epistle comes at this from a different direction. Now it may seem a bit odd that Paul expends so many words on a very narrow set of issues—the decision whether or when to abstain from eating meat and the ways in which special days are observed. Paul is playing a familiar role here. As is often the case in Paul’s epistles, he has put on not a hair shirt but a striped one, calling time to explain to the new and growing Christian community how to avoid fouling one another.

The issue in question, which is not exactly a pressing theological matter today — especially among Protestants — was far more significant in Paul’s time. This is far beyond contemporary debates between vegans and non-vegans over the ethics and morality associated with what we choose to eat. In Paul’s era, those with a long memory would have recalled that among the many grievances that stoked the Maccabean revolt just over a century earlier, one involved forcing Jews to consume forbidden animal flesh, including that of swine. The story of the torture and death of Eleazar and his family as recounted in Second and Fourth Maccabees, books of the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha respectively, had already been written and apparently widely disseminated within the Jewish community. Gentiles would not have shared that experience and therefore not assigned it the same status.

Given that early Christians came from varied backgrounds both Jewish and Gentile, each with its own traditions, the potential for disagreement was high. Paul attempts to reduce the significance of these differences while respecting their underlying impulses. As he pointed out, both those who abstained and those who did not were, according to their convictions, each giving honor to the Lord. In line with Rev. Hartman’s message last Sunday, Paul notes, “none of us lives, and equally none of us dies, for himself alone.” Much like the king in the reading from Matthew, Paul asks why Christians pass judgment or look down upon their fellow Christians. The same sort of zero- sum thinking that is so commonly bandied about in our own time seems to have affected their outlook as well. That is, the only way one side “wins” is if the other “loses”.

In our own era of doubt and division, these are good questions to ponder. So let us look not for differences and disagreements as excuses for standing aside but, instead, pursue justice, peace and love — reinforcing each other in the unity of the faithful as servants of Christ.

Let us conclude with the Prayer for the Human Family found on page 815 of the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.