john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Matthew 18 - The Power of Forgiveness

    St Margaret of Antioch, Toxteth - Parish Eucharist, 02/09/15

    David was walking on air. Heıd just seen Sarah, Sarah who for such a long time heıd been avoiding, Sarah who he knew heıd hurt so badly, made so angry, Sarah to whom heıd owed such a great apology that it had taken him months to face up to it and do something about it.

    Heıd finally decided to confront her; to face her and say that he was sorry for what heıd done.

    This made him feel very vulnerable, disarmed, exposed, powerless, deciding to confess all to her when she might just throw it all back in his face, reject him, laugh at him, kick out against him and leave him begging.

    But heıd plucked up the courage to see her, and now he was walking on air because she hadnıt rejected him. Sheıd heard what he had to say for himself. She accepted his apologies, she forgave him, she let him know that as far as she was concerned they were friends again. It was ok.

    There is great power in forgiveness. Power for good and power for bad. It is carried by the person who is in a position to choose whether or not to forgive another.

    Sarah had taken that power in her hands and chosen to open them up, release forgiveness into her relationship with David. The consequence: a very real freedom and renewal they both experienced.

    The next person David saw was the last person he expected. Because Phil had been avoiding David for weeks. Phil owed David, big-style. Phil couldnıt afford to repay David; they both knew that. David had made it clear through the grapevine that if Phil didnıt pay up, heıd be dead meat. And here he was, standing in front of him. And what was he saying? He was begging forgiveness.

    David clenched his fists in anger. He wasnıt listening to Philıs attempts to buy some time, to ask David to understand his position. After a short time David had heard enough; he grabbed Phil by his jacket collar and spat the words into his face: ³Look, you owe me and Iıve put off doing anything about it for too long. If you donıt sort it out for me by this time tomorrow youıll be seeing me again, I promise you and there will be payback.²

    There is great power in forgiveness. Power for good and power for bad. It is carried by the person who is in a position to choose whether or not to forgive another.

    Phil had seen that power in Davidıs hands and plucked up the courage to appeal to his mercy. But David kept the power to himself, quietly enjoyed making Phil squirm. Kept those fists of his tightly shut against any form of reconciliation. The consequence: bad blood. Nothing positive achieved for either person.

    There is great power in forgiveness. Power for good and power for bad. It is power which we all have. It is power which comes from God. Power which God has given away to us.

    I wonder what comes into your mind when you hear the phrase, ŒThe power of Godı.

    Power corrupts, so the saying goes, and so, as good turn-the-other-cheek Christians, we tend to be suspicious of it. A powerful God could be a tyrant, crashing about in creation, trailing natural disasters, terrible diseases and personal tragedies in his wake. Or he could be an egotist, only willing to use his power to benefit those who pray in the right way.

    Even more terrifying, God could actually be powerless, an impotent divinity, able at best to share in our suffering but not to do anything about it.

    Traditional Christianity has tended to portray God as a rule-giving patriarch, a ruler who places himself far above us and demands humble obedience of his servants. But we know God through Jesus, and Jesus lived and died outside Jewish and Roman power, and was regularly in opposition to them.

    Jesus had divine power all right, a lot of it. But the gospels show us that he exercised it in a very different way.

    He set the tone at the beginning of his ministry when he rejected Satanıs suggestion that he demonstrated his divine power with a show of strength.

    He went on to use his power with a breathtaking humility, sharing his ministry with ordinary men and women, associating with societyıs outcasts (the disabled, widows, prostitutes, tax collectors), and warning his followers not to tell anyone that he is the Christ.

    And he resists imposing his message on his hearers. Notably, the rich young ruler who, in Matthewıs gospel, asks Jesus how to please God, who is a allowed to walk away after hearing that he must sell his possessions and give to the poor.

    Jesus forces no-one to sign on the dotted line of commitment, though he leaves many with the challenging truth ringing in their ears.

    And he insists on sharing his power. Under Jesusı leadership, Fishermen are made healers, housewives made preachers, and ordinary Galileans sent out to proclaim the kingdom of God. And this emphasis on the empowerment of others prepares the ground for his ultimate giving-up of power alone on the cross.

    A Church of England curate* gave birth to her baby boy Max, just before last Christmas. She says she was assisted by two fantastic midwives, Denise and Becky.

    She says that the job of a midwife is focussed totally outwards, empowering someone else to find their own life and breath and voice. And they did this for Max, she says, by listening to his heartbeat, feeling his position, guiding his little body as it emerged into the world, washing and clothing him and setting him off on his journey.

    To this young mother, Christianity presents us with a God whose power is like that of a midwife. An empowering, nurturing God, who labours alongside us in the continuing work of creation.

    Godıs power is a power that is given away. Power clutched to itself becomes a tyranny - just think about some of our world leaders and how they are using their power at this present time. But true power, as shown in the life of Jesus and demonstrated to us by this midwife God, is held loose. It is used not to impose its own will but to empower and enable others.

    And so to return to the power contained in forgiveness. A power we all hold in our hands because God has given it to us. What will we do with it?

    Will we be like David in my story, or the unforgiving servant in Jesusı parable, who no sooner had he been forgiven, chose to hold onto the power he had, and use it against the one who came to him begging forgiveness?

    Thatıs the route Iım often tempted to take. Thereıs less risk involved in that for me; its less complicated and it makes me think at least I know where I am in that particular relationship. At least I know my place, and the other person theirs.

    In the face of such behaviour God wonders why we havenıt learned anything from his ways, and asks,

    Shouldnıt you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?

    As we move now into our time of prayer, let us ask God to help us increasingly, be like God, learning how to open our hands in forgiveness, to release its positive power into our relationships, seeking to empower and enable the other person to discover the freedom and the joy which forgiveness brings, and sharing in that freedom and joy ourselves.

    * Briony Martin: The Power of God: A Mother's View, in CCJ journal Common Ground, 2002/2, is extensively referenced in ŒThe power of Godı section of the sermon

    This bible reading and opening 'parable' also form the substance of my Blue Coat school assembly talk, 11/09/02