Our series ends with a question. It isn’t our question, of course, it is Peter’s question. “How many times must we forgive?” This is one of those questions that we know how we’re supposed to answer, but it is harder to do in practice than in theory. When we gather for worship and hear the story from Matthew where Jesus tells Peter that we forgive 77 times, or 70 times 7, or in fact, we just keep forgiving, we smile and nod and clap our hands. “Of course,” we think, “we worship a forgiving God, and we know we need God’s forgiveness over and over again.” But then we realize that this means we also must be forgiving of those who offend us, again and again, perhaps. And then we wonder if that’s even possible.
We aren’t living in forgiving times. Even a cursory glance at the news will tell us that. When we’re divided into us and them, forgiveness rarely enters the conversation. Do we hear this call from our Lord as a call to live counterculturally? Are we to swim against the tide of anger and vengeance and hatred, and present a different face to the world? Isn’t this risky, this forgiveness thing? Well, yes. If we’re doing it right. It will be risky, scary and world-changing; it will be transformative if we take this call seriously.
Can we give space in worship to accept forgiveness and to offer it? Can we call one another to set aside grudges and suspicions and prejudices long enough to even consider what it means to be forgiving? How can we challenge the congregation to see the personal impact this grace would have on us and those around us? Perhaps we need a workshop on forgiveness, or at least space to understand, to learn about what forgiveness is and what it isn’t; and there might not be a way to do that during worship. But we could plant some seeds; we could issue the invitation to consider what a life of forgiveness might look like in our real-world living. And most importantly, perhaps, we can give the Spirit space to work in us and on us as we wrestle with this forgiveness thing this week.
We can be challenged by the Gospel text in concert with the Old Testament text. We can examine our reaction to hearing the relief and the joy at the drowning of Pharoah’s army, for example. Then we can hear Jesus’s response to Peter while those emotions are still fresh within us. How might that prepare us to hear the word proclaimed today? How might it bring us to the place of prayer and then surrender to the activity of the Spirit in our own souls?
We can be honest with ourselves and with God as we realize that we too often have asked that same question, “How many times must I forgive?”
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.