Accountable to God
Sermon preached at Enmore, 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 17th September 2017
Readings: Exodus 14.19-31, Romans 14.1-14, Matthew 18.21-35.
As a child the story of the Israelite’s crossing the Red sea was one of my Sunday School favourites. It remains one of the most dramatic moments in The Old Testament and we understand why it was so loved by movie makers like Cecil B. De Mille. Today I read it with some unease, conscious that Israel’s deliverance was achieved at great cost to their enemies but there is no denying that this is one of the pivotal moments in Israel’s history. (Not surprisingly, Egyptian Christians find this a difficult text). The exodus event is the defining act in Israel’s story; providing certainty of their salvation not only in the past but also in the present and the future. The account of Israel’s crossing the Sea is used as a model for subsequent events such as the entry into the Promised Land across the Jordan and their much later return from exile as described by Isaiah and Ezekiel. Attempts by some commentators to explain the parting of the waters by natural phenomena rather miss the point. In the exodus story God saved Israel, not some fluke of nature. Pursued by the Egyptians the Israelites are helpless and struck with terror so much so that they turn on Moses and declare that it is better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness. But Israel’s salvation has nothing to do with the people’s cleverness or worthiness, it is the work of God alone. Moses understands this and tells the people to stand firm and they will see the Lord’s deliverance.
Reflecting on this event the writer of Deuteronomy declared, “It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors that he has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh.” The Lord is revealed as a God of justice who hates oppression and is faithful to his promises. Throughout history people experiencing slavery or other forms of oppression have often identified with the exodus narratives. The African slaves on American plantations took comfort from this story and gave voice to their hope of freedom in their spirituals. In the 1960’s Liberationist readings of the Bible became popular in Latin America and arose out of the reflections of those who experienced poverty and economic oppression.
The New Testament writers were quick to take hold of the exodus theme. The incarnation account found in Matthew has echoes of it- the flight of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus as refugees to Egypt and their subsequent return is interpreted as a second exodus. The crossing of the Red Sea becomes for Paul a symbol of baptism- leaving behind the old way of life and rising again into new life. As the Lord delivered his people from slavery in Egypt so Paul argues Christ frees us from sin and death and gives us freedom.
Our exercise of freedom is the issue that Paul addresses in our Epistle reading. In the early church there were two sources of dispute about what you could eat. Christians who had grown up within Judaism often were reluctant to eat non- kosher food and were offended when their Gentile brothers and sisters did so. The attempt by some Church leaders to make Gentile Christians observe Jewish food laws and other rituals like circumcision was one of the controversial issues that threatened to divide the early church. The other food issue was food sacrificed to idols. In Roman cities animals were offered as sacrifices in pagan temples and then the meat sold in the market place. Some Christians were very sensitive about this and believed it was wrong to consume food that had been offered to idols. These may seem trivial matters to us today but in the first century they were serious issues that caused friction in many communities. The other matter Paul raises is the question of religious observance. Even within the early Christian communities there soon arose differences in the way people worshipped: some observed special feast days and others did not. In all these matters Paul declares that we have freedom –we can choose to eat or not eat as our conscience allows. We can observe special days or we can choose not to. What we are not free to do is to pass judgement on another Christian sister or brother over matters of conscience. Paul calls for sensitivity towards one another and encourages mature Christians to be welcoming to those who are of a weaker conscience. He argues that we are ultimately accountable to God and not to one another in these matters.
The matters of dispute have changed over the centuries but the principles remain the same. Food is unlikely to be a big issue in a Christian community today but our response to some of the social and moral issues of the day may well be. Christians differ in their attitude to abortion, euthanasia and most currently, same sex marriage. Paul’s teaching is that we are not to pass judgement on those who hold a different view from our own. Ultimately we answer only to God. In these things we do what our conscience allows but we must respect the views of others. The question of how to worship has exercised the Christian church since its beginning. In this parish we are comfortable with traditional Anglican worship, we use the Prayer Book, follow the lectionary, wear robes, use incense and encourage the ministry of women. That makes us rather different from many of our Sydney Anglican brothers and sisters who don’t do any of these things but it is not helpful for us to pass judgement on them, even if we think they are missing out on something valuable. Nor is it right for them to criticise us. If Christians had shown a little more tolerance towards one another over the centuries we wouldn’t have the plethora of denominations and groups that we have today. In Paul’s words, ‘let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.’
The Gospel reading for today follows on from last week’s reading where Jesus addressed the issue of what to do when a Christian brother or sister sinned against you. In case you missed last week the answer was to go and talk to the person who hurt you and seek reconciliation, before you think of involving anyone else in the community. Peter’s question follows on immediately after that discussion: “How often should I forgive if someone sins against me? As many as seven times?” I suspect Peter thought seven times was pretty generous and we might be inclined to agree. “No”, Jesus says, “not seven times but seventy times seven.” In other words forgiveness isn’t something you can quantify- if you are keeping count you have missed the point. Jesus then goes on to tell a parable to drive the message home. Remembering that a parable is usually told to make just one main point, the lesson seems pretty obvious but it helps to remember a couple of things. The slave who owed ten thousand talents owed a debt that could never be repaid. Ten thousand talents in our currency would run to hundreds of millions of dollars. It was a ridiculous amount of money. The king’s forgiveness of the debt was an act of extravagant grace, for this was a debt the slave could never have hoped to repay. The amount owed to the forgiven slave by one of his colleagues was not trifling but it was a do-able figure. The hard hearted slave is punished so severely at the end of the story because he treated the mercy shown to him with such contempt –it meant so little to him.
The lesson is clear, we are the recipients of God’s extravagant grace. We have been forgiven more than we could ever repay so in gratitude for that mercy we are to reciprocate and be forgiving to others. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel and at the heart of our relationships with one another. Forgiveness is costly, and it is hard but our redemption was also costly. We love because God first loved us and we forgive for the same reason.