Jesus commands us to forgive, but with no guarantees regarding the outcome.
Recently, a beloved sister of ours announced her resignation from the church. It’s the kind of thing we hate to talk about – and yet it must be talked about. Not the specifics, by any means, but the implications for the congregation. Unfortunately, people have been leaving churches since the first century: yet it never feels okay. It leaves the individual terribly isolated and vulnerable; and it leaves those who remain with strong and often conflicting emotions: sadness, anger, shame, confusion, deep concern for the one who has left; and even, sometimes, relief – and guilt about that relief. Of course, rumours abound; and they muddy the waters and damage relationships further, so this is an attempt to name a few truths and bring a few things into the light.
When somebody leaves, it challenges the core of our faith. For what does it mean to be followers of Jesus if we seem to be failing at our primary task, which is to create spaces where people love, forgive and reconcile with one another not just once, but hundreds of times if necessary?
As we just heard, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘Be on your guard! If you see another disciple going off track, correct them; and if they have a change of heart, forgive them. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I’ve had a change of heart,” you must forgive.’
It’s easy to hear this, and feel like we have failed. But notice two things: first, the reaction of the disciples; second, that Jesus says nothing about the outcome.
For when they heard his words, the disciples didn’t go, ‘Ok, no worries, boss!’ Instead, they begged Jesus to increase their faith. They knew they didn’t have the capacity in themselves to interrupt the cycles of retaliation and broken relationships. Like us, they lived in a world where a small slight leads to a big insult leads to a deep grudge leads to the death of relationship between people, families, tribes, and nations.
The Hebrew directive to take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hurt for a hurt, was a great advance on the system of payback. It placed limits on it, and stopped things from spiralling out of control. But Jesus demands more. He doesn’t suggest that disciples should limit payback; instead, he demands that disciples interrupt the cycle of payback altogether. ‘Love your enemies,’ he says, ‘and bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who abuse and persecute you.’ In other words, where there is hurt, disciples must offer healing; where there is hatred, disciples must offer love; where there is violence, disciples must practice nonviolence; where there is broken relationship, disciples must walk the path of reconciliation.
Outrageous! And as impossible as uprooting a mulberry tree, and planting it into the sea. Yet this is the image Jesus gives us: planting a tree in a place where we would never expect it to grow and can’t imagine it thriving. Planting love in a barren heart; planting nonviolence in a threatening situation; planting healing in a wounded relationship; planting acceptance where we have known rejection; planting joy for pain, generosity for stinginess, grounded authenticity for pride; generously sowing seeds of forgiveness in fertile, weedy and stony soil; abundantly planting saplings of reconciliation in fields and among thorns, in desert wastes and ocean depths.
This is our challenge: and as ordinary disciples we may feel we don’t have enough faith for this. And it’s true. If we rely on our own efforts, we will never have enough faith, because faith is not an object; it is not something to have, to hold, or to grow. Instead, faith is a way of life in which we turn to Jesus, and allow him to work through us.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus commends people for their faith: a leper, a blind beggar, a bleeding woman, and others. Yet in each case, they have done nothing more than turn to him. They are not spiritual giants: but their turning to Jesus is enough for him to get to work in their lives. In the same way, if we stop relying on ourselves and start relying on Jesus, there will be enough faith working in us and through us to plant good things in unlikely places: a mulberry tree in the middle of the sea.
So if we want to participate in Jesus’ ongoing commission – the work of reconciliation and forgiveness – we need to lean into him. We must obey his command to forgive wherever there is a change of heart; and where there is not, we must follow his perfect example of non-retaliation and love.
This brings me to the second observation: that following his example does not provide any guarantees. Maybe the mulberry tree will grow in the sea; maybe the sea will reject it. Maybe the people will follow the Messiah; maybe they will reject him. The leadership at Sanctuary has been working through a long term conflict and breakdown of relationship between our sister and the team. We did not try to gloss over the conflict, but nor did we seek her resignation. Instead, we were aiming for shalom: the peace beyond our culture’s understanding, which builds relationship and brings healing. We want Sanctuary to be a healthy community where conflicts are worked through; where hurts are forgiven; where relationships are restored; and where people engage with love, integrity, authenticity and peace; and this is what we were working towards. Therefore, to cut a very long story short, the leadership team invited our sister to work towards a change of heart, suggesting a pathway and offering support. Sadly, she rejected the invitation, and resigned from the church.
We are deeply saddened that she has decided to leave, but having taken every step of what has been a long journey prayerfully and carefully, and having worked under the guidance of the BUV church health team, we believe there is little we could have done to change the outcome.
Of course, any person here has the freedom to leave and to cut off relationship, and we must always honour this choice. However, we must also continue to pray for future reconciliation and healing. Meanwhile, I urge those of you who are in an ongoing relationship with our sister to keep offering her your love and support; and we will pray for you and try to support you as you do this.
My friends, this type of situation is never easy. We believe that the forgiveness and reconciliation that Jesus and his disciples shared is contagious. It has been passed on from person to person, from movement to movement, all the way to us. But throughout that long history, there have been countless people who have chosen not to participate in this great conversation of ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I forgive you’ and ‘How will we move forward together?’ And there are also a great many people who have chosen not to participate fully, or yet. And this ‘yet’ is a very powerful word: it is where our hope lies. Because history is not over: we do not know the end of the story.
So let us pray and let us hope; and in the meantime, let us now share a sign of peace with one another. And let us do so humbly and seriously. For we are participating in a rite and a practice that traces a thread through two millennia of discipleship, from those first disciples gathered in a locked room right down to those of us gathered here in this room tonight; a thread which stitches us together as the people of God and as disciples and friends of Jesus Christ. May the peace of our Lord be with you. Amen. Ω
This reflection has been co-written by the pastor and the members of the leadership team. Although it is painful, we have decided to put it here to help break down the illusion that churches don’t have conflict. Trust me, they all do; and church health is indicated not by the absence of conflict, but by whether it is swept under the carpet, or people are demonised because of it, or people try to work through it together. And as for whether reconciliation happens, well, to paraphrase the Rule of the Community of the Transfiguration in Teesdale, the attempt is everything, and the rest is none of our business. Text: Luke 17:3-6. Given to Sanctuary, 6 September 2019 © Sanctuary, 2019. Image credit: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.
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