Philippians 1:3-11 Matthew 18:21-35
For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all
in the mercies of Jesus Christ.
Our journey in Trinity season into the kingdom of heaven is near its completion.
Last week we ended with the call of St Paul to “pray at all times” – meaning a kind of state of mind where we are holding God before our minds, lovingly beholding him, and willing the will of God. Of course none of us are there yet, but it is a kind of high aim and hope in our life in Christ.
Our journey in Trinity season has been a kind of parallel of the journey that the high priest made once a year into the Tabernacle in the wilderness. He went from the outer court, with its sacrifices, then a washing in the pool before entering into the inner court, lit by the seven branched candle. And then, after further sacrifices, he would enter into the holy of holies behind the veil. In the holy of holies, there was the ark of the covenant (like our altar in the sanctuary) – it was a wooden chest coated with gold, and upon which was placed a lid called The Mercy Seat. It was solid gold, with the wings of the two cherubim pointing inward and veiling a space above the mercy seat, where God promised to manifest His glory to the high priest.
What does this have to do with our journey? In our journey we have moved inwardly, beyond our passions (that aspect of our soul that is most connected through the senses with the world), beyond our mixed motives, into the inward person (or inner man) illumined by the Spirit, there to enter into God’s true rest. We are given a new comfort in our own skins, but we know that that rest is not a resting in ourselves, but in a kind of leaning continually upon God, clinging to God in love, longing for the fuller union of our hearts and minds and souls with Holy Wisdom – so that we see the things that God sees, that we hear the spiritual songs of heaven, and are moved by the love that moves the stars [Boethius, Dante].
St. Paul prays today that [our] love may abound yet more and more, with knowledge and all discernment [or KJV – in all judgement] – that is, that our love may overflow with God’s knowing, approving what is excellent…being filled with the fruit of righteousness. [Philippians 1:3-11]
The kingdom of heaven is within us. Jesus says, Whoever has my commandments and keeps them (rightly ordering, by grace, the passions), he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.… [St John 14:21] Jesus promises to reveal himself, converse with us, in our hearts.
To arrive at this place in the inward person where God promises to manifest Himself, we have had to depend completely on God’s mercy.
- It is by God’s mercy that we have even been born. We have no right to exist, it is purely out the superabundance of God’s grace, out of His mercy, that we are even here – He made us not because He needs us but that there might be more joy.
- It is because of God’s mercy that we have been able to make this inward turn. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, we are not afraid of condemnation. So we can turn inward and look at ourselves and in His light confess our sins. Be not afraid, says Jesus, the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins.[St Matthew 9:6] And so we continue inwardly, the Spirit illuminating our minds, helping us to see through all lies, all false ways of thinking, that that we might see Him. It has all been by His mercy, by His grace.
- And when we enter into the holy of holies, that highest aspect of our souls, where we might have divine conversation, divine showings, to be lifted up beyond ourselves – it is here that we are especially dependent upon God’s mercy. We are human, and even if we were perfect human beings (which we’re not), how could we possibly think we deserve to share in the divine life? It is so clearly a matter of waiting and trusting in God’s mercy – his undeserved grace to lift us into His life, the Divine life.
We are to covet the divine mercy, to desire it to cover us completely, a garment of shining gold like the ark of the covenant that was gilded with gold without and within. We are to recognize Christ as the mercy seat, who rests above, between the highest of what we have to offer of ourselves and God himself. And we must rest there, inwardly, continually under the Mercy seat, under the Throne of grace, under Christ [Heb. 4:16; Rom. 3:25]. Only then might we be ready to behold, should God be merciful, something beyond ourselves – God’s way of being and knowing and willing.
But Jesus shows us all too painfully in the Gospel today [Matthew 18:21-35], what happens if we rely on God’s mercy for ourselves, and yet forget to show mercy towards others. In today’s Gospel, the one who is forgiven 10,000 talents (one talent is 20 years wages for a labourer) cannot forgive one who owes him 100 denarii (a denarii was about day's wage for a labourer):
You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt, because you pleaded with me. And should you not have had mercy on your fellow-servant, as I had mercy on you? And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother and sister from your heart.
The God we approach at this altar today is merciful, and also demanding of us. To come closer we have trusted in the sacrifice of His Son – we are bold to take into our hands and into our mouths the Body and Blood of Jesus. Jesus has suffered the pains of crucifixion for us. This is the highest showing forth of the love of God – his mercy. And so it is not surprising that at the end of this season of Trinity, describing the height of our maturity in Christ, we are called to be like Jesus, on the Cross, bearing in our bodies and souls the wounds of others and forgiving them as Jesus forgives us. Christ gave Himself for us that we might be like God, whose property is always to have mercy… as we pray in our liturgy [the Prayer of Humble Access].
So who is to receive this mercy from us?
It is not those who have made it up to us, but rather, the undeserving, that is what mercy is. If you or I are waiting for someone to make up for what he or she did before we will forgive – a full apology, with recompense – nothing less, that may be justice, but it will not be mercy. It’s only the undeserving who can receive mercy. When we practice mercy, we participate in the divine life – we become like God!
But maybe you want to teach that person what is right, what is just, so we will wait first. If that is what you believe, then you risk forsaking God’s mercy on your own soul, a mercy that we all are so much in need of trusting in. God does not demand of you and I a complete confession for every sin before he forgives us fully in Christ. We can’t even see all our sins yet in order to confess them, but we are promised that we are perfectly reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ now (we are fully justified, accounted righteous through our union with the one who is fully righteous). (This does not mean we are not also called upon to look within for ways we offended and to confess them as they are revealed to us.) Showing mercy to others means forgiving without receiving full recompense.
Does showing mercy mean forgiving and forgetting? No. If someone hurts us, we are wise not to put ourselves in harm’s way again – we have caution around that person, we don’t want to be hurt again, nor do we want the other person to sin again – so we take care in their presence or may judge it better to stay away.
Does showing mercy mean that we no longer feel hurt? We are called to show mercy before we have complete healing ourselves – healing can take time. Forgiving means not wanting that person who has offended us to suffer the same hurt that they have caused us.
But forgiving, showing mercy, for deep wounds is humanly impossible, and we must ask for the grace to forgive.
In the case of Joseph and his brothers [Genesis 45:1-7,15], it required time and a certain testing by Joseph to see they were repentant (we are graced with the Spirit and so able to forgive earlier than he was able to). But one thing that helped him was to see the good that came out of his being sold into slavery, that through their evil God had brought Joseph to a place where he could save his whole family and all Egypt from famine. Perhaps in our times of quiet we can bring before God our deep hurts and try to see why God permitted it to happen, knowing that a greater good could, in the end, by His grace, come about. How are we in fact in a better position, further ahead in our spiritual life now, despite our hurts?
The Parable Jesus tells us today also suggests it may be helpful for us to remember all the things we have asked God to forgive us, and compare them with the offence committed by another.
God desires the spreading out of the mercy he extends towards each of us, through us, towards our neighbours – it is essential in the building up of community life.
As a congregation, we cannot grow in love, unless we grow in love with one another, and that is possible only by continually showing mercy towards one another – as we do within friendships, families, within marriages, so also within this holy fellowship. Do you hear St Paul today [Philippians 1:3-11] –
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all, making my prayer with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, …For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more…
Do you see the sort of love that Paul has for all the church members? Can we say this about everyone here in the congregation? If not, there is still some mercy to be extended.
Let there not be one spot on our hearts today that is not covered in the mercy of God, because we have refused to show mercy on another. Let there be no holding of grudges that stain the heart that God would have perfectly restored in all its beauty. Let all of the inward parts of our soul be covered in the shining and pure gold of Christ’s mercy, His Blood, His righteousness. Then we will be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful. [Trinity 4 Gospel]
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2