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The limits of forgiveness

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We often think of forgiveness as having no limits. But that's not what the Bible teaches. God's grace, and ours, too, does have limits. But what are those limits, how do we encounter them, and what do they do to our relationships? In this exposition of Matthew 18:15-20, Malcolm explores how the love of Christ acts as mediator between Christians, and how people can, tragically, place themselves outisde the limits of forgiveness.

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The limits of forgiveness The limits of forgiveness Malcolm Lithgow / General New Year / Forgiveness; Discipline; Grace and Union; Love; Church: Fellowship and Unity / Matthew 18:15–20   Introduction & Kid’s talk I want to talk about forgiveness. [Ask what nasty things people have done to someone.] [Ask what they think Jesus wants them to do in response. [Forgive]] [Ask what they want to do, themselves (honestly).] [Ask if it is fair that Jesus expects us to forgive?] Jesus died so that we could be forgiven for all the nasty things that we’ve done to God, hurting his precious creation (i.e. people, including ourselves). But what if someone doesn’t think they nasty thing they did to you was wrong? What does Jesus want us to do? The Bible reading for today explains how Jesus doesn’t expect us to just forget about the wrong thing that someone in church did to us. In fact, a part of being the church is that we must love one another, and so we must care about one another. If we’ve hurt someone, we need to be sorry about that, and at least try not to do that again. If we don’t care, then Jesus says that the church should kick us out! God wants to be fair, so if people refuse to play fair with their brothers and sisters, then they can’t play at all! There are limits to forgiveness! But the one who stops forgiveness is the bad person, not the good person. So we must remember that when someone in our family hurts us, the first thing we want to do is to give them the chance to say sorry. And when they do, we forgive them, just like Jesus forgives us, over and over again. Jesus said, “seventy times seven.” Kid’s church The limits of forgiveness Who has heard of the idea of the limits to forgiveness before? Is it something you’re comfortable with? Do you understand how it fits in with God’s infinite grace? This idea of the limits of forgiveness is one that we often struggle with in the church, because we have this vague idea that God’s forgiveness is infinite, and ours is supposed to be, too. But if that were true, why does hell exist? And if it were true, how is it fair? Those who aren’t sorry for hurting others get forgiven anyway? I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound fair to me. The Bible does actually teach us that there are genuine limits to forgiveness. But those limits are not up to us—we don’t stop forgiving when we run out of compassion—no, those limits are up to those who’ve wronged us! That’s what this passage teaches, so lets dig into it. But first, let me tell you a story that happened to me years ago, which hopefully illustrates some of the limits of forgiveness. Illustration Years ago, we opened our small group up to new people. Several of the new people were a family that had recently joined our church. They were professionals, and long-time church attenders, so they fit into our group quickly and easily, or so we thought. A few weeks after they started coming, there was a rather strange interaction one group night. That was followed by a series of rather alarmingly threatening letters and phone calls with various members of the group from this couple. We tried to talk to them about the issues one-on-one, but they refused to accept either our apologies for our carelessness or our assurances that we would be more thoughtful in the future. At the same time our small group put a lot of effort into changing our interactions so no-one could ever be accidentally offended in the same way in the future. We weren’t just faking our contrition, and although we genuinely believed that offense had been taken where none was intended, we had changed our behaviour and apologised unreservedly. After several weeks of this refusal to accept our apologies, I found church, with this couple present, very difficult to endure, so I asked the leadership if they could witness another attempt at reconciliation. We sat down with the couple, along with a couple of the leaders, and talked about the issues dividing us. To our shock, they not only refused to accept our apology, but added further accusations that even the leaders could see were outrageously false. The leaders made it clear in that meeting that it had now become the other couple who needed to repent of their behaviour rather than us. A couple of weeks later, that family left the church, much to my concern. Rather than offer forgiveness, as we were prepared to offer for their false accusations, they had chosen to flee the relationship they had destroyed. This is not how the Christian life is supposed to work! Jesus’s guidelines So how is it supposed to work? Step 1 - v. 15 The reality is that, even in the church, we are constantly being selfish to one another without even realising it. So we have to have some way of dealing with this. The first step, Jesus says, is to talk to one another. Mt. 18:15. Matthew 18:15 ESV 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. Now there are several points to note about this approach. Matthew 18:15 ESV 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. First, this approach only works between what the New Testament calls “brothers,” in other words, fellow Christians. The reason for this is simple: the only person who will agree with you on what is right and wrong is a fellow Christian. Those who are not Christians might agree on most things, especially if they are from a Christian-influenced society or family. But they won’t agree with you that it is their duty and privilege to love you, and for you to love them. That ethic: “love your neighbour as you love yourself,” is one that is distinctly Christian, simply because it is impossible to really believe it or act it out without first loving God with all you are. And if this love is one-way, you can’t expect reconciliation, which requires that two-way love that only two Christians have a hope of achieving, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s why it says that, “if he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” And, if you are not listened to, your fellow Christian is treading the deadly ground of rebellion against God’s second most important commandment, the love for others. And that’s why this process doesn’t include mediators, because the love of Christ is the mediator between fellow Christians. Matthew 18:15 ESV 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. Second, this approach assumes that your fellow Christian has sinned against you. The Greek talks about “rebuking” them, a word which points to repentance and reconciliation, not scolding. The whole point of this exercise is not to punish someone else, but to restore the loving unity of Christ’s body. Which brings us to the third point. Matthew 18:15 ESV 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. Thirdly, that’s why you go to your fellow Christian in private. Reconciliation is not achieved by humiliating your enemies, but rather by privately exposing the hurt your friend has caused you, and asking for them to turn away from that behaviour in future. Matthew 18:15 ESV 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. Finally, the idea of your fellow Christian “listening to you” is not just saying that they heard what you said, but rather it indicates that they heard, understood, agreed, and intends to act on that new understanding. Now notice that it doesn’t say, “If he does what you ask, you have gained your brother.” If this process did require perfect future performance from the sinner, then Peter’s question of verse 21, and Jesus shocking answer in verse 22, would make no sense. Matthew 18:21–22 ESV 21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Why would you need to forgive someone again if they never committed that sin again? No, the only requirement that Jesus asks of the sinner, is a contrite heart, not a perfect life. And thank God for that! We constantly fall back into the same old sins. But fortunately, God keeps on forgiving us, forever. And Jesus teaches us, in his model prayer, that we should forgive as God forgives, endlessly. Matthew 6:12 ESV 12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. So where then are these limits that I’ve talked about? They are present in the “if” of the second sentence. Matthew 18:15 ESV 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. “If he listens.” What if he doesn’t? Well, that’s when step 2 is needed. Example But before we move to step 2, let’s think of an example of step 1. Let’s say I had been really nasty to someone in my arrogance (it has happened, so it’s not an entirely hypothetical example), but it took them a while for the hurt to really sink in. They have a wide range of choices in how to respond: they can gossip about what a stuck-up, horrible person I am; they can bear their burden silently (shooting me the occasional dirty look); they can flee, cutting off all contact with me; they can confront me in public to cause maximum damage to my reputation and thus justice for their wounds; or they can come to me to seek my understanding and repentance. Now I’m sure you know why, of all these options, only the last one will end with the minimum of damage. So let’s say they take that route. This person comes to me with their account of the sin I have committed against them. I now have a range of choices of how to react. I can dismiss their complaint (“Don’t be silly, that’s not offensive,”); I can justify my behaviour (“I didn’t know you were sensitive to that,”); I can respond with my own complaint (“Well, you did this to hurt me,”); or I can accept that I have hurt my brother and repent from that sin, committing to try to change my behaviour. I hardly think you need me to explain which of those approaches is best, and I’m sure you’re all familiar with them. I have to confess that I struggle with them all, when confronted with a sin. But any of those responses, except the last one, will not heal a relationship, and nor does it show love, rather they show a bald self-love. Of course, you might ask, what if the sin that the person brings to you is something that they do constantly themselves? This is actually pretty common—people who are offended by the same sort of behaviour which they are known for. In this case, you still need to listen to your fellow Christian, and repent from your own sin. If you want to confront them with their own sin, then make sure that you make it very clear that this is a separate conversation. If necessary, you might need to schedule another conversation later. Step 2 - v. 16 So, what if the sinner doesn’t repent? What if they refuse to recognise their culpability? Well, you give them another chance, of course! But you add some extra ingredients. Matthew 18:16 ESV 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. What are these extra witnesses? Are they witnesses to the sin? No, they are witness to the words exchanged in this second meeting. One extra person means that each side has two potential witnesses, the person themselves, and the third person. These witnesses are here for two purposes: they make your complaint “official” in a way, and thy provide for the third step, if necessary. How do they make your complaint “official?” Well, Matthew’s language here is taken directly from Deuteronomy 19:15 ESV 15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. This is a key part of the Old Testament Law. It defines how the judicial system of Israel ensured justice for the accused. By referencing this important passage, Matthew (and Jesus) are pointing to the formality of this process. It is now a judicial process. This increased weight, it is hoped, will influence the sinner to recognise their sin, and repent, and it is achieved with a minimum of extra publicity, and thus reputational damage. It is the most loving next step. What about false accusations? But what if you are falsely accused? Even if you are falsely accused, it is possible to be contrite. If someone tells me that I offended them by saying or doing X, even if I don’t think that saying or doing X is offensive, I can be sorry that I have offended them. This is actually what happened in my earlier example. We often dismiss apologies like, “I’m sorry that you were offended by my saying or doing X,” but the reality is that this is a legitimate apology. However, to avoid an offense like this in the future, the sinner will need to ask the victim to explain how they were offended. After all, you can’t avoid a future offense if you don’t understand how it hurt someone. This, then puts a burden on the victim. The victim must never assume that the sinner understands how they have sinned. If I say to you, “You really hurt me yesterday and I want an apology,” and you ask, “How did I hurt you?” I must never say, “Well, you should know, if you really cared about me.” Not only is that flaunting my moral superiority, and humiliating you, but it is assuming that you know everything, including my own internal concerns. No, in that case it is my responsibility to explain carefully and lovingingly how you hurt me and how you can avoid doing it again in the future. Remember that the love of Christ, which fills our hearts, is our mediator. If we refuse to listen to that mediator, well, that’s when we move on to step 3. Step 3 - v. 17 Finally, if the sinner has refused to accept or turn from their sin, even in the presence of one or two others, they are brought before the church. Matthew 18:17 ESV 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Why involve the whole church here? Is that really necessary? What’s the point? Well, we need to remember the purpose of this process, it exists not only to protect victims of sin, but to protect the sinners themselves. What are we protecting the sinners from? Well, from nothing more than the loss of their family! Remember the hope of v. 15? Matthew 18:15 ESV 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. To “gain your brother.” That is still the goal, here, to restore the sinning brother back into relationship with, not just you, but the community. Of course, that begs the question, what does the community, the church, have to do with a sin that was committed only against you? Well, it’s gone beyond that, now, hasn’t it? By refusing to listen to you, and repent, the sinner has shown that they don’t love their neighbour as they love themselves, and as John explains: 1 John 4:20–21 ESV 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. Whoah! Hang on there, did John really just say that failing to love your fellow Christian amounts to failing to love God? Yes, he did. And that idea is at the heart of the third step of Jesus process to win your fellow Christian back. If they cannot show their love for you by repenting from their sin against you, then they cannot love God. And how do you treat such people? By treating them like a Jew would treat a tax-collector or gentile, that is, by having nothing to do with them. There are two reasons for this harsh judgement: 1. The Christian community can only function properly if all of its members love one another. That doesn’t mean that they get it right all the time, or that they don’t bruise and wound one another. But when they do, and they find out, they must, in love, repent and try to be better at caring and loving one another. If that love is not there, it’s like cancer in the body, eating it up from the inside. And like cancer, such unloving souls must be cut out or all will be lost. 2. But also, the unloving soul itself can benefit from being “cut out.” People are not cancer, redemption is always a possibility. Paul explains this in 1 Cor 5:5, where he offers the hope that the unrepentant sinner might find salvation by the refining of his flesh. 1 Corinthians 5:5 ESV 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. So, as harsh as it seems, this final step is critical for both the sinner and the community as a whole. Just a final comment on this, it’s interesting to note that Jesus doesn’t mention any authorities or leaders in this whole process. Obviously the witnesses in step 2 must be trustworthy people so that their testimony in step 3 cannot be doubted, but the decision seems to lie with the whole church, perhaps guided and shaped by the leaders, but not restricted to them. Jesus’ presence with us The next three verses are therefore an encouragement for all of us, not just the leaders of the church. Matthew 18:18–20 ESV 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” The strange terminology in verse 18: binding and loosing, is only strange because we usually fail to understand the purpose of the process Jesus has mapped out for us. Once we understand that the purpose is in order to maintain the body, including preserving the membership of the sinner, we can see that binding and loosing is talking about binding the repentant sinner to the body or loosing the unrepentant sinner from the body. You can then see how shocking and scary this promise becomes: whoever we keep or expel from the church, God will honour in heaven! This is very scary, so much so that the Protestant church has developed a whole theology of the church invisible (God’s idea of the membership of the church) and the church visible (our, earthly idea). I do think that the earthly church and the heavenly church probably don’t exactly match, because the earthly church is such a mess. But this verse is making it clear that we should be striving to make sure that they do match up! The next two verses are promises that answer the obvious question: how can we hope to understand God’s moral wisdom and justice? Jesus promises that, whenever there is a congregation, even as small as two, who ask God to help them make a decision, God will honour that. Why? Because, as Jesus says in verse 20, wherever the church is gathered in obedience to him (loving each other rather than sinning against each other), he is there. This beautiful promise exhorts the church to have the courage to treat sin like sin, and righteousness like righteousness. And it is a reminder to us, that Jesus Christ is our Lord and God, the great I Am. What have we learned? OK, what have we learned? We started with the provocative idea that forgiveness is limited, and I shared a story where others fled instead of seeking or offering forgiveness. We looked at the three step process that Jesus provides us to deal with both the hurt of sin and it’s devastating effects on his community of followers. And finally we realised that all this is only possible because Jesus is with us, and he promises to be with those who are trying to obey his commands to love. Over the last few months I’ve had plenty of opportunity to think about this sort of thing. You know, this sort of process doesn’t work where Christ’s love isn’t present as the mediator. Instead we need human mediators, and they make mistakes or cause bitterness or are ignored. And where Christ’s love isn’t present we are ultimately forced to use power to enforce right behaviour. But this never leads to peace. Souls that love themselves more than those around them will never be at peace, no matter what. And that’s why God’s ultimate plan for the world is to separate the weeds out from the wheat. Those who love will become part of the Kingdom of Heaven, the kingdom of peace and joy. Those who love themselves more will be cast out. It is a sobering thought that God has no better solution than this. But his solution does yield a great and mighty kingdom, eternally full of joy and love. Think about our human solutions: we exhort tolerance, as Anna Wintour did this week, when she said, “This much I think is clear to anyone that understands the spirit and the joy of the game: intolerance has no place in tennis.” And yet in the same speech Wintour reveals that she cannot tolerate celebrating the greatest women’s champion of tennis, when she says, “Margaret was a champion on the court, but a meeting point for players of all nations, preferences and backgrounds should celebrate somebody that was a champion off the court as well.” You see, Court dared to disagree with Wintour, and so she cannot, must not be celebrated for her achievements. Our human solutions can’t last more than a few moments without destroying and twisting and crushing people, and ultimately destroying everyone. Exhortation So here in Renew, we must remember four things: 1. To “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.” 2. To “love your neighbour as yourself.” 3. To express that love by not overlooking sin, but approaching your fellow Christian who has sinned against you, for your sake and theirs! 4. To have humble hearts that are quick to repent and quick to forgive.
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