A sermon delivered by Mary Rathbone
Imagine you own a lovely local restaurant serving beautiful foods: crunchy salads and vegetables, succulent chicken and beef and delicious puddings and pies. The restaurant is warm, clean and safe. Soft music plays, cheerful conversations take place, and everyone is happy.
One day, you go outside to dispose of some leftovers in the dustbins and see a dishevelled person grovelling on the ground with stray cats, all scavenging for food scraps.
The person is just skin and bones, dressed in rags and has a body covered in open sores from the life they lead.
You are totally shocked to see the pitiful state of the sight before you, a human being fighting with stray cats for food.
You take the person by the hand, saying I have plenty of excellent and fresh food; come into my restaurant, and I will get you a proper meal.
Not only that, but you also go even further and tell the person that from now on, they can come in every day to eat in your restaurant.
But I have no money to pay with, they say.
No problem, you say, my resources are endless. You can eat any time you want to here. I will even reserve a table for you – so you know there is always a place for you to sit.
The destitute person cannot believe their luck and asks;
‘But, could I still come out here to these dustbins and scavenge for extras?’
What! Why would a person want to eat rotting and contaminated food when they had been offered fantastic fresh food at their own table in a warm and friendly restaurant?
The story illustrates how when someone physically and mentally destitute is offered all they could possibly need, they often still feel the urge to return to old habits that bind them to the only way of life they know.
Finding Freedom in Jesus
Although we are not (hopefully) in such a poor way as the person in this story, most of us have also acquired various strange habits and coping methods which make us fall short of reaching our full spiritual potential.
I know I have, and these can form spiritual binds that seem normal. Like scavenging in dustbins became routine for the starving person I spoke of.
But through the teachings of Jesus, we can be freed from any spiritual chains that bind us, free to become all that God intended for us.
Because when Jesus died, he had the resources to pay the full price for all our wrongdoings. They were washed away with his blood. This includes what we have done wrong in the past and what we will no doubt do wrong in the future…
Jesus fulfilled the law of the Old Testament and set us free from that law.
We heard in the readings from Romans (Romans 14:1-12) this morning that we are not to judge others, and then in Matthew’s gospel reading, Jesus taught the disciples to forgive one another.
So aren’t these more rules which means we are still under some sort of restrictive law?
No, because of Christ’s sacrifice, we are no longer bound by laws – he paid the price for all we have done wrong. But we still have God’s wisdom to guide us in reaching our full potential.
However, we still live in an imperfect world, so none of us can achieve these standards 100%, but we can live in the knowledge that when we fail, we are forgiven through Christ.
But to experience the forgiveness obtained for us at the cross, there are two conditions we must abide by.
Firstly, we must live with faith in Jesus and secondly, we must continually strive to turn away from any habitual wrongdoings we have acquired.
Is Forgiveness a License to Sin?
Some have suggested that if Christians are forgiven all their sins, then they have a license to continue to sin.
But the thing is when we truly invite Jesus into our hearts, we become open to being filled with the Holy Spirit, and will naturally want to strive to reflect the wisdom and standards he taught.
When we really know Jesus and allow him into our lives we will not want to return to our old bad habits (as did the food scavenger).
We will want to live the best life possible with his spirit shining from us, showing the way to others.
OK, it is a lifelong work, and we try and often fail, which is why we need to in our daily prayers, be sorry for the things we have got wrong, however great or small they are.
Jesus demonstrated his God-given authority to absolve people of their sins when he told the lame man, on the roof of a building where he was preaching, that he was forgiven – much to the annoyance of the watching Pharisees, who said it is only God who can forgive.
Then, after Jesus was resurrected from the grave, the authority to forgive was passed by Jesus to Peter and has been passed on since through the priests of the church.
This is why at the very beginning of every Sunday service we are always invited to examine our conscience before receiving absolution, or forgiveness, through the presiding priest.
Forgiveness helps Make us Complete
It is by living up to the wise standards taught by Jesus, that we can gradually develop into the fullness of our God-given potential but doing the opposite leads to unnecessary misery and waste.
Jesus gave us an amazing example of his wisdom when he spoke of forgiveness in this morning’s gospel reading. What he told his disciples was completely radical and must have totally shocked them.
The Jewish people had always believed in forgiveness (but not on the scale that Jesus was now teaching). He told them they must forgive seventy times seven, meaning four hundred and ninety times – or, in other words, always and forever.
The number seven is considered Holy in the Jewish faith. It means wholeness, perfection and completeness, and Jesus was teaching his disciples how to achieve these things.
Both the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18) and the New Testament (Mark 12:30-31) clearly state we should love our neighbour as ourselves. Meaning we should not bear a grudge.
As resentment gnaws away in the offended person, so forgiving our neighbours is a way of loving others and learning how to better love ourselves too. Because it brings sweetness rather than bitterness into our lives.
St Augustine summed it up well by saying; Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die‘
We are Powerless on our Own
Forgiving, being non-judgemental and all the many other wise things Jesus taught help make us complete and are necessary standards to work towards. They are virtues that help to perfect our hearts and minds.
But we cannot do these things in our own strength.
It is only when we place our trust in God’s grace that we can leave behind our poor patterns of behaviour that have been formed by the world (this is the thing the pauper at the restaurant couldn’t do).
As we gradually let go of bad habits and worldly ways and say; Jesus, you lead the way, we allow space for our minds to be renewed as we offer our bodies as a living sacrifice for the Holy Spirit to dwell within.