Fr. Bill Carroll – The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2023
Jesus said to Peter, “Not seven times, I tell you. But seventy-seven times.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you’ve never paused to ponder it, I would invite you to spend some time with a painting in Guild Hall. It is a reproduction of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. And you can find it to the left of the coffee pot in the little alcove, on the wall closest to the church. The painting is one of the most powerful images of forgiveness in the entire history of art. And (like the parable it portrays) it embodies a revolutionary vision of God.
When you have some time on your hands, please consider going into Guild Hall and praying with this image for a while. Reflect on its use of light and darkness. Meditate on the posture of the people in it—the kneeling son with his face turned to one side, pressed into his father. The father embracing his long-lost child. Look at the expressions on their faces. And then pray with what you find there. The painting points us to a powerful experience we can still have—whenever we are lost or far from home.
Recently, I have been reading a book by Paul Griffiths, called Christian Flesh. On the cover is another great painting, namely Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. It depicts the moment, one week after Easter Day, when Thomas puts his finger into the side of Jesus, finding the proof he craves that his Savior is alive. Caravaggio portrays the wounded flesh of Jesus in a vivid manner. And yet, our Lord is transfigured by the light, as Thomas sees and touches him.
The book is intense. Among other things, it describes violence, and it contains explicit reflections on human sexuality. But, ultimately, it is a meditation on the possibilities and limitations of our flesh, as well as the central Christian claim that “the Word became flesh.”
For Griffiths, being flesh means we are given life and existence, as well as our very selves, through flesh-to-flesh contact. Positively, this involves what he calls “caresses.” These begin when we are nurtured in our mother’s womb. And they continue, ordinarily, with skin-to-skin contact with her as we nurse at her breast.
But, in a world marked by sin and death, which Griffiths calls the “devastation,” every touch (every touch) also implies the possibility of being hurt or killed. Jesus lives a fully human life, in every way but sin. Like us, he grows and flourishes as a human being through flesh-to-flesh contact, beginning with his mother and foster father. But Jesus is also subject (we all are) to various forms of violent contact with his flesh, including torture and death on the Cross.
Jesus comes into a world devastated by sin to embrace our flesh and all that it entails. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus transfigures our flesh. He makes our human flesh into God’s own flesh. He brings us into intimate, flesh-to-flesh fellowship with God. And, ultimately, he brings us to the heavenly City, where we live together as one—beyond all possibility of violence.
I mention Griffiths’ retelling of the Christian story this morning, because we live in the time of the devastation, when others can and do hurt us (and we, in turn, hurt them). It is in the world of suffering and death that we hear about God’s forgiveness. Too often, we hear this as an impossible commandment—instead of Good News that sets us free.
Again and again, Jesus commands us (he commands us) to forgive each other. In today’s Gospel, Peter asks him how often we need to forgive someone who’s sinned against us. “Up to seven times, Lord?,” he asks. To us, this seems like a lot. (It’s more than we would do.) But Jesus presses us further when it comes to forgiving each other. “Not seven times,” he says, “but seventy-seven times.” He means an infinite number of times.
And so, for our own good, Jesus commands us to forgive our fellow sinners. He commands us to forgive them whoever they are and however they have hurt us. He commands us to forgive and forgive and forgive—to keep on forgiving each other.
It’s a very difficult teaching—one that’s central to the Gospel. (It’s in the Creed.) But, despite this fact, forgiveness is some of the hardest work we do.
Sometimes, we’re too angry, or too hurt, to forgive. We struggle to forgive each other, because we’ve been traumatized, and because we are afraid that it would mean giving up on justice and accountability. But forgiving other people, including our own mortal enemies, is consistent with keeping them at safe distance when we have to.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting people go on hurting us. But, once again, Jesus commands us to forgive each other without limit or exception—over and over and over again. It is the stuff of the Chrisitan life. And it is not for the other person’s sake (at least not at first). It is for our own benefit and healing.
Forgiveness is about breaking the power of resentment in our lives. It involves grieving and lamenting our losses. Sin is a kind of loss. Whether we do it or we suffer it, it is a loss. Like other kinds of grief, forgiveness is a process. Sometimes, we need therapy and other forms of help, in order to do this work well. Forgiveness is about letting go with God’s help. It’s about accepting our freedom in Jesus.
In this way, we learn to let go of the past. We give up on trying to change it. That’s because we can’t. We can only hand it over to God.
We don’t have to deny or forget what happened. (We can’t do that either.) Nor do we have to give up on justice or the truth. We have only to put things back in the past where they belong.
After all, God has forgiven us more than we could ever repay.
Jesus has embraced our flesh. He lived and died for us all.
And his love sets us free.