St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Accountable to God

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.

Philip Brad­ford