Graceful Living Week 1

Almighty and eternal God, who drew out a fountain of living water in the desert for your people, as they well knew draw from the hardness of our hearts tears of compunction, that we may be able to lament our sins, and may merit to receive you in your mercy.

(THE oxford book of prayer pg 106)

Weekly Reflections and Questions

Matthew 18:21–35

The context of this passage is a series of teachings by Jesus to the disciples. Jesus has just taught about relationships within the church, particularly when there has been wrongdoing. Peter jumps in with an important question, “How often should I forgive?”
We can relate to Peter. Invariably he jumps to the heart of the matter—right or wrong.
Specifically, Peter wants to know, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? 

As many as seven times?” Peter does not address situations outside the church. He wants to know within the church family. “When is enough—enough?”  Peter suggests seven is more than sufficient. Seven is the number of perfection, the number of days of creation as described in Genesis 1. 

In his response, Jesus turns things upside down by choosing to focus on grace rather than obligation. The question is changed from “How many times do I have to forgive?” to “Now that I am forgiven, how many times am I free to forgive?” And that makes all the difference. In other words, “Peter, don’t even try to keep track of the number of times you forgive. You simply will run out of fingers and toes to count.”
Specifically, Jesus says, “Not seven times but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Seventy-seven is seven (the number associated with perfection) placed along side seven (perfection).  Some scholars believe the words are intended to be seven times seventy—an even larger number. Any way you look at it, the act of forgiveness is connected to perfection and the divine. We forgive only by the grace of God.  
Forgiveness is not a mathematical equation with numbers to track. Rather, forgiving is giving the gift of forgiveness as we have been given and received the gift of forgiveness in Jesus.              
Left to our sinful selves, it is easy to count wounds, betrayals, and injustices done to us. Soon, bitterness can consume us and destroy our spirit. Jesus shows another path.  He forgives Peter and us, setting all of us free to forgive.  In case of any uncertainty, Jesus tells a parable about the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-34).  Once more, the point is clear; forgiven disciples of Jesus are invited, commanded, and empowered to be forgiving people.
This is a difficult text to be read in congregations in the USA during the week of September 11 with all the memories of that horrific day.  Does Jesus intend Christians to forgive the terrorists?  How far-reaching is forgiveness? On the one hand, it would be easy to dismiss this passage by restricting the implications to church members alone.  After all, Peter qualified his question to Jesus.  He didn’t mention terrorists, malicious non-Christians, and others.  Maybe forgiveness is just to be extended to other Christians. 
On the other hand, we know that isn’t true. The images of Jesus hanging on the cross, forgiving those who killed him as well as the thief on the cross are etched in our memories.  Jesus forgives Jews and Gentiles, male and female, young and old.  Jesus forgives them—and us. 
Jesus doesn’t just forgive us and draw a line. Instead, Jesus extends forgiveness to us again and again. He forgives us seventy-seven times and then, forgives us more.  That number seventy-seven prods us. It is perfection times perfection. How can we forgive, but by the grace of God?
Forgiveness is not easy, especially when it comes to the deep wounds of life.  It might be done quickly when someone steps on our toes or bumps into us in the hallway; but when we face significant hurt, all good reason stops. We freeze in the trenches of resentment, bitterness and revenge. The only thing is—we lose. Our energy is zapped. Hatred and resentment eat away at joy and life-giving activities. Thus, we become victimized again. There is no room or energy to follow Jesus Christ in mission and ministry.
Forgiveness does not happen with a snap of the fingers.  Sometimes it takes a lifetime to forgive. Forgetting is not proof that forgiveness has or hasn’t occurred.  We can learn from the past wounds so they are not repeated.  Yet, in forgiving, our life is changed.  We are not the same. Our relationship with those we forgive, and with those who have forgiven us, is different. 
One of the most challenging things for disciples of Jesus Christ is not just to receive forgiveness for ourselves, but also to extend forgiveness to others.  By the grace of God, disciples of Jesus are forgiven and forgiving.

1. What can we learn about forgiveness from Peter’s life?

2. Why does Jesus  spend so much time focusing on the topic of forgiveness?

3. Does Jesus expect people to forgive the terrorists or others who commit horrific crimes?

4. Where does the Christians draw the line concerning forgiveness?

5. What role has forgiveness played in your own faith journey?

Romans 14:1-12

How does a follower of Christ live faithfully in community with others?  This is the question Paul is addressing in chapter 14 of his letter to the Romans.  It seems that differences and disputes had arisen in the community of faith about how to live out the faith in daily life. 
Disagreements about appropriate foods to eat and the proper way to keep the Sabbath and other holy days were dividing the Roman community.  For many, it was a matter of principle.  (Paul also addresses the issue of proper diet in his letter to the Corinthians – I Corinthians 10:23-11:1.)  People were being judged by others for the ways in which they practiced their faith.
Paul expresses an inclusive, open acceptance of others who are expressing their faith in different ways.  The one, overarching criterion Paul asserts is that everything we do in our daily life, we should do to honor the Lord.  Whether certain foods are eaten, or whether one abstains; whether worship services are held on Sunday, or the Sabbath is kept on Saturday – all should be done in order to honor Christ. 
Principles are important, but we are called not to serve principles but to serve God.  “Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord.  Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.”  (Romans 14:6 NRSV)  Those who differ in principle and practice of the faith also belong to God and are striving to honor God in what they do.

If we treat all days and all foods as gifts from God; we make each day and each meal holy.

All this is done in community.  In one of the beloved verses in Paul’s letters—one often read at funerals—he writes, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:8 NRSV)
Our religious practices might vary.  Our understandings of what is appropriate might differ.  Only one thing matters in the end, and that is our relationship with Christ.  How we express and live that relationship is to be a reflection and response to the Good News: in life and in death, we are the Lord’s. “For this end, Christ died and lived again ….” (Romans 14:9 NRSV)
We “practice” or live out our faith in community.  As we remember and affirm our baptism, we promise and commit to “live among God’s faithful people.”  This commitment calls us to be open to different ways of expressing the faith.  We strive to be accepting of differences, to live and act in ways that reflect the ultimate truth:  we are the Lord’s.
Paul’s word crystallize and focus our attention on what is of utmost importance:  in all that we do, we are to “honor the Lord and give thanks to God.” (Romans 14:6)

1. What are some issues that can divide communities of faith?

2. Summarize Paul’s teachings in your own words.

3. What does it mean to “practice” the faith?

Reflections and Questions from McCullough-Bade, “Daily Discipleship,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2005.  McCullough-Bade, “Daily Faith Practices,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2011.
Prayer, “The Oxford Book of Prayer,” Ed. George Appleton, Oxford University Press, 2009, pg 106.