St. Peter has been listening, and he has gotten the point to some extent. That is what prompts his question. But either he has not yet perceived the full implications of what he has heard from Jesus, or else, and perhaps more likely, he simply chafes at those implications and so resists them.
Now, you along with St. Peter have also heard (this past Sunday) that greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven is that of humility — dependance and need — like that of a little child. And those little ones will stumble. It is inevitable, Jesus says, that there will be stumbling blocks and stumbling. The little ones will stumble, as you will also stumble. But you dare not be a cause of stumbling.
Today it is made clear, if it was not already clear, that the causes of stumbling include, not only temptations to sin, but also refusals to forgive and restore the one who has sinned. To withhold the Gospel from those who repent of their sins is, in fact, the most grievous stumbling block of all.
As Christians, we take sin seriously, as surely as the Lord Himself takes it seriously. We exercise both self-discipline and church discipline, as the Lord Himself has taught us. We hear and heed His call to repentance, and we call each other to repentance from within our respective callings.
But the aim of all our dealings — and what the whole life of the Church on earth is all about — is the rescue and reconciliation of those who have been lost, the full and free forgiveness of sins, the restoration of faith, and the fraternal fellowship of life and love in the Body of Christ Jesus.
Therefore, do not despise the little one who stumbles and falls and by God’s grace gets back up. Do not despise the little one who wanders away and returns to the fold. Do not despise the little one who sins and repents. But rejoice with the Lord to receive back and forgive your brother.
Really, such falling and rising are the shape of the Christian life on earth — the shape of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, who died and rose again. So is it also the shape and significance of your Baptism in His Name, the daily dying to sin, and the daily rising to newness of life. And if that is what your Baptism means — that every day of your life is one of such dying and rising in and with Christ Jesus — then every day is one of repentance and faith in His forgiveness of sins.
So has the Lord Himself taught you to pray every day in the Our Father for the forgiveness of sins — and likewise to forgive those who sin against you.
That is what the Christian life on earth is like. That is what it’s all about. Not so much being “nice” and avoiding conflict and controversy (as the world imagines), but forgiving real sins with real forgiveness. Therefore, do not ask “how often,” or “how many times,” and do not even keep track or keep score at all. If there were a score kept in this game, then you have already lost!
But the Lord does not keep score, and He does not keep track. He does not count your sins against you. He does not consider how often you have sinned or how many times He has forgiven you. He simply calls you to repentance and faith in His forgiveness of sins: again and again and again. For it is not the will of your Father in heaven that you or any of His little ones should perish, but that you should be rescued from sin and death, reconciled to Him in faith, and raised up forever.
Thus do you live by the compassion, grace, and mercy of the Lord, your King, who freely and fully removes your entire debt. He doesn’t set up a payment plan. He doesn’t bargain with you or reduce your debt. He removes it altogether. He forgives it completely, as though it never were.
Now, as I also pointed out last Sunday, you and your fellow Christians are brothers and sisters of this one Lord Jesus Christ, fellow subjects and servants of this one gracious King. And all of you alike live by His forgiveness and His love. It is therefore necessary that you forgive those who trespass against you — as often as they do — just as you depend upon your Lord’s forgiveness.
The necessity of forgiving those who trespass against you is of one piece with your Redemption and with the Gospel of your Lord Jesus Christ, of one piece with His preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of your sins; because there is one and the same forgiveness for you and for all.
There is only that one forgiveness which flows for you and for all from the crucified and risen Body of the one Lord, Jesus Christ, who was crucified for your transgressions and has been raised for your justification. For God was in Christ reconciling the whole world to Himself, and it is by His Ministry of reconciliation that He has called you to Himself by the Gospel of forgiveness.
As you here come into the presence of this Lord, your King — and as you worship Him, bending your heart, mind, body, and soul before Him, praying to Him, singing His praises, and calling on His Name for mercy and for peace — you are released from all your debts by His forgiveness of your sins. It is not that you have bought Him off or “stroked His ego” with your worship; but it is truly meet, right, and salutary that you should worship and adore Him, thank, praise, serve, and obey Him, because He forgives you all your sins and saves you from sin and death by His grace.
Accordingly, have mercy on each other. Not just your own husband or wife, parents or children, but on all of the children of your own dear God and Father in Christ Jesus. Forgive each other, as your gracious Lord forgives you. Have mercy on all of your neighbors, even on those who do not know the Lord who loves them and gave Himself for them. Forgive them for Christ Jesus’ sake, that they might learn to know His mercy and His grace through you, His freely forgiven servant.
What does such forgiveness mean? What does it look like and entail? You have no better example than that of the Lord Jesus Himself, who prayed for the forgiveness of those who were nailing Him to the Cross, even as He gave Himself into death as the Sacrifice of Atonement for the sins of the whole world. You know the love and forgiveness of God in Him, who has mercy and compassion even on you, His unworthy and often unfaithful servant, chief of sinners though you be.
You also have the example of your fellow servants, such as you have heard this morning in the case of the Patriarch St. Joseph, who in faith forgave his brothers, in spite of all they had done. St. Stephen in the New Testament is another powerful example of forgiveness, as he prayed for those who were stoning him to death, trusting in his merciful and great High Priest, Christ Jesus.
Now, as we learned from Christ Jesus last week, forgiveness does not mean ignoring sin or taking it lightly. There is the call to repentance and the exercise of discipline for the good of the Body.
Yet, you call your brother to repentance and restore him in a spirit of gentleness, as St. Paul the Apostle expresses it. You likewise exercise discipline in such a spirit of gentleness and humility, because you recognize and know both your own sins and the gracious forgiveness of your Lord.
That is why you cover your neighbor’s sin and shame as much as you possibly can, as the Lord Jesus has directed. If your neighbor has sinned, then you first of all go to him privately, so that, if he will hear you and come to repentance, you have won your brother. And if he will not listen to you, then two or three others go with you to address the sin quietly and patiently, in the hopes that he will repent and be restored to the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Even if it finally comes to church discipline and excommunication, the goal remains repentance and forgiveness.
In all of your dealings with all of your neighbors, you are to be always ready, willing, and eager to be reconciled with them, to forgive their sins and do them good, and, in so far as it depends on you, to be at peace with them for Jesus’ sake, in whom God has reconciled the world to Himself.
Forgiveness does not mean that you must remain in harm’s way — aside from what duty requires; for duty does sometimes require that you put yourself in danger, that you suffer hurt and harm, like the soldiers who fight for us, like firefighters and police officers and emergency personnel. But where duty does not require it, forgiveness does not mean that you must leave yourself in harm’s way and simply take ongoing abuse. Neither does forgiveness mean that you strike back. You do not throw back anger at anger. You do not return hurt for hurt. You do not seek vengeance for the wrongs that you have suffered. If need be, you simply remove yourself from the situation.
Forgiveness does not mean that you leave your neighbor’s body and life in the jeopardy of harm and danger, either. In the same way that governing authorities punish those who have committed crimes — even if they have repented and are fully forgiven before God — likewise, forgiveness does not condone or tolerate the ongoing abuse or neglect of another neighbor.
As surely as love calls the one who is sinning to repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins, so surely does love also work to guard and protect the one who is being sinned against.
But forgiveness does not seek revenge. It does not retaliate. It does not harbor grudges. It does not keep track of wrongs done, nor does it keep score as to how often such-n-such has happened. Forgiveness leaves no room for bitterness and resentment to grow and fester in your heart.
Forgiveness does have compassion. It views weakness with sympathy, as you yourself are weak. It demonstrates mercy for the frail, the fallible, and the fallen. It exercises patience, and it is long-suffering. It turns the other cheek and still does not grow weary of doing good. It does not say, “This is the seventh time.” It does not even say, “This is the 490th time — next time watch out.”
Forgiveness rather speaks and acts with gentle kindness for the one who has been neither gentle nor kind. Forgiveness does not withhold love, but it is always seeking ways to love and serve and care for the neighbor. Not only does it bear the neighbor’s burdens, but it bears the burden of the neighbor in peace, in the confidence of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus.
You are free to forgive, because you are forgiven. You are free to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to do good to those who hurt you, because God raised Jesus from the dead — and He raises you.
In short, forgiveness does for your neighbor what your God and Father in heaven does for you by His Son, your Savior, Jesus Christ. For that whole debt of yours — that huge, insurmountable, unpayable debt of your sins, the curse of your mortality, your death, and your damnation — that huge debt of yours, which you could never have repaid in a thousand lifetimes — the Lord your God has removed from you entirely. It is all gone. Not a penny of that debt remains to be paid.
Your Father in heaven has taken that entire burden off your back and laid it squarely on Christ Jesus, His own dearly-beloved Son. And that is what the Lord Jesus Christ has willingly borne for you in love. The Father has handed Him over to death, to the torture of His Cross and Passion, to the prison house of Hades, in order to make full restitution on your behalf. And He has done it.
On account of His Cross and Resurrection, the Lord is patient and long-suffering with you. He does not grow weary of forgiving your sins and doing you good, again and again and again. Daily and richly He provides for all your needs of both body and soul. Indeed, He does not withhold any good thing from you but grants you His own divine Life and eternal Salvation, although for your sins you have deserved nothing but temporal and eternal punishment. Instead of that, He rewards you with good things, with food and clothing and shelter and love, with family and friends, with His Church on earth, His means of grace, the forgiveness of all of your sins, the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, the waters of His Holy Baptism, and a place at His Table in His House forever.
In mercy and compassion He is always seeking you out, He’s always calling you back home to Himself, He’s always watching and waiting with arms wide open, eager to receive you into His loving embrace — as your dear God and Father, and you His own dear child in Christ Jesus.
And here at the Altar of the same Lord Jesus Christ — with His Body given and His Blood poured out for you and for the many, for the forgiveness of all your sins — He enfolds you in the blessed fellowship — the Holy Communion — of His Body and Bride, the Holy Christian Church. Thus, with all His saints, with angels and archangels and all the host of heaven, you do not die but live.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.