By Linda Rex
October 2, 2022, PROPER 22—Nowadays, when someone wants to move a grown sycamore tree, if they can afford it, they call up the local landscape company who sends out a large truck with a digger on the back. The workers use this machine’s massive teeth to dig the tree up, roots and all, and to tip it back and up over the truck in order to carry it. Then the workers drive the truck with the sycamore tree on top to its new location, dropping the tree there into the ground.
In reality, a lot of us exercise some kind faith without knowing we are doing it. Looking at this activity on the surface, we may wonder exactly how much faith is needed to move that full-grown tree to a new location. For example, the workers need to trust that the people who put the truck together and the digger together did their job properly, enabling the workers to drive the truck back and forth, and to use the digger to safely remove the tree from the ground. The workers trust that the spade will hold the tree safely until they get it to its new location rather than dropping it in the middle of the highway, creating a massive traffic snarl. The workers trust in the digger’s ability to place the tree safely in its hole, and in the owner’s promise to pay them for their efforts. There is a lot of faith being expressed in this simple act of everyday labor.
In my recent studies with Grace Communion Seminary on the topic of Paul’s epistles, I am learning about his concept of faith. Faith, for the apostle Paul, not only has to do with the trustworthiness of the One being trusted—Jesus Christ, but also about his complete and perfect trust in the Father expressed in his self-offering on the cross. This faith is given to us to participate in by the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. The matter of having sufficient faith to move anything at all has been taken care of by the One who is not only perfectly trustworthy, but who also has total faith in our trustworthy Father—and Jesus enables us to participate in that perfect faith in the Spirit.
When Jesus said that with the faith the size of a mustard seed one could move a tree and plant it in the ocean, he probably had in mind the previous conversation he and his disciples were having about forgiveness. When we come face to face with impossible tasks such as continually and freely forgiving those who deeply wound us, we discover our inadequacy, our inability to do what God asks of us in those situations. It is not a bad thing to realize that our best efforts are insufficient—it reminds us to turn to the One who, by his Spirit, can and will live our best response in and through and out from us.
In our New Testament reading for this Sunday, 2 Timothy 1:1–14, we hear the apostle Paul reminding us to “kindle afresh” or “fan into flame” (NIV) the gift we have been given. Adding fuel to a fire or kindling to hot coals causes the flame to leap up and again begin to burn intensely. Paul is reminding us that there is a fire we are baptized with, the Holy Spirit, and we do not want to “quench” this fire in any way. Rather we want to facilitate and encourage its continued flame.
In speaking of this gift of the Spirit, Paul reminded Timothy that this “sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” was indeed living within him. Because God by the Spirit was living within Timothy, he did not have a spirit of timidity or fear, but one of “power and love, and discipline”. The indwelling presence of God by the Spirit enabled Timothy to do the ministry he was called into, and it was by the Spirit that Timothy found God’s grace and purpose at work in his life. It was not all up to Timothy, but rather a walk of faith in which the “faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” were expressed as he lived out God’s calling on his life.
When asked by the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith,” Jesus spoke of the tiny amount of faith necessary to pick up and move a large tree from land into the sea. And then he went on to use a parable, which in our culture does not really resonate with us, since so many of us object so strongly to slavery. But what if we looked at it a little differently?
Think of a college intern, Gracie, who works for a fashion designer, Laurel, in hopes of one day she might have her own designs looked at and used. (Sorry if this sounds like a romcom plot.) Gracie spends her days fetching Laurel’s coffee, running her errands, picking up her dry cleaning, and taking care of the designer’s everyday tasks. Gracie doesn’t get paid much of anything since she is an intern—she’s lucky to barely have enough income to cover her expenses with her side job waitressing in the student union.
If Gracie is out running errands for Laurel, is the designer going to call her up and invite her in for tea and crumpets, offering to serve her? No. Instead, Laurel will probably call her up and tell Gracie that while she is running around, she is to stop by Laurel’s favorite dinner spot and pick up a meal to go and to be sure to bring home Laurel’s favorite coffee while she is at it. Gracie will be expected to do all that, finish her errands, and clean off the coffee table so Laurel has a place to eat her dinner. And while Laurel is eating, Gracie will be expected to take the dog Feathers out for a walk and to feed her. And when Gracie shows up and finishes all her tasks, she should not expect praise and gratitude from Laurel, since Gracie is simply supposed to do what she was instructed to do, since she is just an intern.
Now, in the real world, I would like to hope that if there are any Laurel’s out there, that they would reconsider how they treat their interns. But this is a parable, right? It is to help us see in our minds eye what Jesus is saying. The disciples wanted Jesus to increase their faith, and Jesus said that even the tiniest bit of faith can move a large tree to the sea should it be exercised.
The only way any of us has any faith at all is in Christ, as we participate with him in his death and resurrection. It is Christ’s faith at work in us by the Holy Spirit which enables us to do difficult things such as forgiving what seems impossible for us to forgive. And when we do forgive, when we do live like we should, when we do say what is healing and encouraging rather than hurtful, should God stand up and applaud? No, because we are simply doing what we were created to do, being who we were created to be—image-bearers of the divine, reflections of the glory of God in Christ by the Spirit.
It is God’s life at work in us by the Spirit who gets the credit. It is for his glory and to fulfill his purpose. The life of faith begins with a God who is trustworthy and who, in Christ, lives the life of faith we were created to live within, and who gives us, in Christ, the faith necessary to follow him and live in the truth of who we were created to be as children of the Father. I would imagine that even the angels of heaven have delight as does the Father when his children return home to their real selves, living in right relationship with him and each other. But truly, isn’t that where we belonged all along?
Father, Jesus, Spirit, you made us to live in loving, other-centered relationship with you and each other. We cannot and will not do this apart from your life in us and with us by your heavenly Spirit. Thank you for giving us the faith of Christ by the Spirit, enabling us to trust you in any and every situation, as you always meant for us to trust you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and be planted in the sea”; and it would obey you. Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come immediately and sit down to eat”? But will he not say to him, “Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink”? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.” ’ ” Luke 17:5–10 NASB
By Linda Rex
September 13, 2020, Proper 19—Last night I decided to microwave some fresh green beans for dinner that I had received from one of our members in Cookeville who likes to garden. I washed them and broke them up into a microwavable bowl and cooked them. As I was eating them, my mouth began to burn. It wasn’t until I had eaten several of the green beans that I realized that I had inadvertently cooked a hot pepper with them and made the green beans inedible in the process!
As I sought something to help to relieve the intense burning in my mouth, I thought about how easy it was to go about doing what we believe is the right thing to do and find ourselves in a place where we are broken and hurting instead. This happens so often in our relationships, because we are broken people—we live as self-centered persons rather than as the other-centered persons God created us to be. This includes our understanding of what it means to be forgiving of those who wound us.
The disciples knew what the rabbis said about being forgiving—forgiving someone three times was being very generous and understanding, they said. So, when Peter asked Jesus how many times a person should forgive an offender, he thought he was being excessively generous in suggesting that he should forgive someone seven times.
Jesus took forgiveness to the next level by suggesting that a person should forgive someone “seventy times seven” times—in other words, a ridiculously large amount of times. We should not hold grudges, but be generous in our offering of grace. Then he told a story in which he described what forgiveness looks like within the kingdom of heaven—what it means that God forgives us.
He began with a king who brings his vassals before him to account for his portion of their tax assessments. He is a generous king, apparently, for this one particular vassal owed him the equivalent of twelve million dollars—a sum he could never repay in his lifetime. The king concludes that maybe the only way to get his money back from this man was to throw him and his family into prison (a common practice then) with the possibility that one of his friends might pay his debt.
This vassal begs and pleads for the king to have compassion on him. And the king does. He forgives this huge debt—lets the man completely off the hook. The king writes the debt off the books—he no longer expects any payment from this man. As far as the king was concerned, there was no longer any need for the man to do anything except from that point on, to do a better job at collecting the king’s share of the funds and turning them in.
Apparently, the king’s vassal totally misses the point of what his master had done. He does not admit to nor accept the reality of the immense debt of which he had been forgiven. He doesn’t receive the grace and compassion shown him. He is still, in his mind’s eye, living in the place of collecting on debts and debts needing to be repaid.
So, when the man encounters one of his debtors who owed him about twenty bucks, he grabs him by the throat and drags him off to prison until he paid him back. Do you see the vast comparison in the two debts? The vassal had just been released from a debt of about twelve million dollars, but would not release his debtor for the mere sum of twenty dollars. Jesus was using hyperbole, an exaggeration, to make a point.
This is the type of thing we do to one another in the face of what God does for us. Think about the nation of Israel, who God lived in covenant relationship with. How often had he forgiven them for idolatry, injustice, and trusting in other nations rather than trusting in him? Even when Israel justly ended up in exile, losing their temple and nationhood, God had restored them, giving them a new temple and a new space in which to live, albeit under Roman rule. Even so, they repeatedly rejected the Messiah, Jesus Christ, which he had sent them. In due time, Jesus knew they would even crucify that Messiah, at which point he would pronounce the most gracious words ever given to humanity, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
To live in the kingdom of heaven is to live in the reality of our need for grace and God’s overwhelming generosity in offering it to us. Abba offers us unfailingly the opportunity to start anew, giving us ample opportunity to change by wiping the slate clean and allowing us to begin again. The problem is that we as human beings prefer to live in the debit-credit mode. We may enjoy receiving God’s grace, but we prefer not to have to make the changes which go along with having been forgiven. By necessity, living in the truth of the immense debt we have been forgiven, we must admit our need for that grace, repent of the ways we incurred that debt, and in living out the truth of that repentance and forgiveness, we begin to be equally forgiving toward others.
So often in the gospels, Jesus offers forgiveness prior to repentance. We see the lame man lowered down through the roof in front of Jesus. Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then he tells the man to take up his mat and walk. The lame man hadn’t even asked to be forgiven—but no doubt, he felt he needed it. He probably had been told over and over during his lifetime that the reason he couldn’t walk was because he or his parents had sinned. Jesus affirmed that this was not the case, but that even those sins he had committed were removed. And that he needed to move forward in his life from then on.
In the case of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus ends the encounter by saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus’ forgiveness was obvious, but he didn’t let anyone off the hook. The accusers needed to repent and so did she. And Jesus did not leave her at that place—he told her to go and do the next right thing, to leave her life of sin. Would Jesus have forgiven her again if she sinned? No doubt, but what he was seeking was not retribution, but repentance and faith—a life change—wholeness and healing, not punishment.
In the story about the king and the debtor, the vassal missed the whole point. He had been forgiven an incredible debt—so he needed to repent, to change the way he did business. He needed a change of heart and mind—to have a heart of compassion and forbearance like his master’s. But instead, he continued on the path of self-deliverance. He was going to work out his own salvation—paying back the debt himself by collecting what others owed him.
The only boundary on God’s grace is the one we set by refusing to see our need for it and to receive it as an undeserved gift. We are the ones who make forgiveness something which needs to be earned instead of receiving it humbly and then offering it to others. We are the ones who ignore the reality of the huge debt to God we could never repay and focus on the petty inconveniences or miserable pains those around create in our lives. If God could forgive us for an unpayable debt, shouldn’t we do that for others?
Maybe there is some hurt or grudge that’s been festering in your heart lately. Or perhaps you are holding something against yourself that seems unforgiveable. Why don’t you bring these to Jesus right now and ask him to give you his heart of forgiveness instead. Allow him to provide you with a willingness to forgive that is grounded in him and his sacrificial offering, and to move you and the forgiven one into a new place of wholeness and restoration. May you find true freedom living in this place of forgiveness and grace through Jesus Christ our Lord in the Spirit.
Abba, thank you for your limitless forgiveness and grace which is expressed to us in the gift of your Son Jesus. Thank you for your patience with us when we are not forgiving, but are judgmental, condemning, and punitive. Grant us the grace to ever participate in Christ’s forgiving Spirit that we might forgive as you forgive us, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, | Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. | He will not always strive with us, | Nor will He keep His anger forever. | He has not dealt with us according to our sins, | Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. | For as high as the heavens are above the earth, | So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. | As far as the east is from the west, | So far has He removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:8-12 NASB
See also Matthew 18:21–35.
By Linda Rex
This morning I was listening to the You’re Included interview with David Torrance “The Grace of the Finished Work of Christ” (https://www.gci.org/yi/dtorrance104) and “Already Forgiven” (https://www.gci.org/yi108). I was struck once again by the significance of all that Jesus did for in his life, death and resurrection, specifically in regards to our ability to forgive the unforgiveable. And he calls for us to do just that, because being forgiving people properly reflects who we are as image-bearers of God.
I’m beginning to see that much of the mental anguish we go through in life has its basis in our inability or unwillingness to forgive wrongs done to us. Many of us go through life with deep emotional, mental, even spiritual wounds caused by significant people in our lives. We carry the hurts from our childhood into adulthood or from relationship to relationship, and they twist our thinking and feeling, holding us hostage in ways we don’t even realize or may even be willing to acknowledge.
It is inevitable that at some time in our lives we are going to be faced with the challenge of forgiving someone a wrong that we just can’t let go of. When that event comes back over and over in our mind and colors the way we think and feel about what’s going on in our life today, that is the time when we need to take seriously Jesus’ command to forgive.
But facing the challenge to forgive does not begin with us. We, of ourselves, are inadequate for the task. Even if we knew we needed to forgive and wanted to forgive, we may find ourselves unable to. The hurt or wrong may just keep rehearsing itself in our minds and hearts and we are unable to let it go.
This is especially true when there is a significant injustice involved. Forgiving may feel like we are letting someone off the hook for a very real wrong they have done.
But this isn’t the case at all. What a person may have done or said that violated us in some way is not ignored or passed over. Rather, it is put in its proper place—in the hands of a loving, just God, who is both our Judge and the one who was judged in our stead. Instead of us seeing that justice is done, we place this issue into the hands of the One best qualified to handle it—he is impartial and he is gracious, and he will deal with the issue in his own time and way.
Yes, there are times when we have to take action to protect ourselves and others from future harm. But, even so, we need to do so in a spirit of grace. Forgiveness does not require us to turn our backs on justice, but asks that justice be executed with mercy and compassion.
Placing our hurts and wrongs into the hands of a loving, just God, not only frees us from the need to make someone pay, but it also enables us to approach our need to forgive within the context of community. God does not ask us to forgive all on our own, under our own power.
God is the one, who since the beginning of time, forgives. If God had executed justice without mercy every single time one of us humans had done something wrong or hurtful, the human race would have long ago become extinct. Thankfully, forgiveness is God’s nature.
Because God knows we can’t forgive the way we should and need to, God gave us his forgiveness in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, in his life and death, experienced some tremendous violations of his personhood and was horribly abused. There is nothing that we as humans experience that he cannot and does not sympathize with. Yet, his final words on the cross included these: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
This same divine capacity to forgive is ours. God has given us in Christ and by his Spirit all that we need for life and godliness. (2 Pet. 1:3) Therefore we are able to forgive—in Christ. It is Jesus’ forgiveness that we draw upon and live out.
Jesus taught his disciples that forgiving others is something we need to do so that we are able to participate in God’s forgiveness of us. (Luke 17:3-4) It’s a relational thing, something we do in community with God and each other. We forgive and we are forgiven. We are forgiven and so we forgive. This is what it looks like to live joyfully and lovingly within the Triune relationship of Father, Son and Spirit and with each other. It is our nature as God’s children to forgive, so we forgive.
So in the midst of whatever we are struggling with, we acknowledge the reality that forgiveness is not going to be something that is humanly possible on our own, but is instead, a divine reality that we participate in. We agree with God that forgiveness is not something we are able to do on our own, but is something we need from him—we need Christ’s forgiving heart and mind. We need the forgiving Spirit of God to change us from the inside out and enable us to forgive.
And God will do that. We make the choice to forgive and we seek from God the power and ability to forgive. God will begin, as we participate with him in the process, to change our hearts and minds and enable us to forgive. And we thank God for the gift of forgiveness that he gives us from his Son Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit.
This gift of forgiveness is life-transforming and healing, and we participate in it gratefully throughout our lives, in every situation we may find ourselves needing to be forgiving or forgiven. It is God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ and by his Spirit. May you experience and share with others the grace of God’s forgiveness in your life today.
Forgiving God, thank you for the gift of forgiveness. May we be as forgiving of others as you are of us. Thank you that in Jesus and by your Spirit we participate in your divine life and love, sharing in your forgiveness just as we share in every other part of your divine nature, through Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives…. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Hebrews 2:14-15, 17 NASB