Christmas Advent HERO

On the day after the night before

Like many in this country, I sat up watching TV last night, trying to keep up as John King poked away at his Magic Wall. Then, also like many perhaps, I decided that there wasn’t anything I could do about what I was watching. Everyone in my house decided it was time to get some sleep, so we went off to try at that.

This morning we all awoke to learn (as we were told to expect) that nothing has yet been decided in the presidential election. The closeness of the vote is, however, a revelation in its own right. It tells us that we who live in this country are, in many ways, as divided as we feared that we were. Regardless of how the count ends up, half of us will be disappointed, perhaps bitterly so. The choice seemed so stark, regardless of the side you were taking, that it’s not hard to regard the opposite side not so much as different as wrong. Wrong and out of reach.

The Gospel according to Matthew tells us of a time when Peter approached Jesus with a hypothetical question about what to do when someone is out of reach. “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus had been teaching about forgiveness. Peter seems to be seeking some clarification – just how far does this thing go? At what point does forgiveness end and vengeance (or indifference) takes its place? Jesus’ response plays on stories of vengeance* and then it calls Peter and the rest of us into a new economy, one of abundant forgiveness. It is an economy of grace. He tells the story of the unforgiving servant and in doing so calls Peter to attend to his privilege.

Rather than considering himself as one who has been wronged, Peter’s privilege under God is to recognize himself as one who has been extravagantly forgiven. This isn’t something that Jesus is holding over Peter as a threat. It’s simply the nature of Peter’s life. He is a recipient of divine grace that is inexhaustible. Such grace is the primary blessing of Peter’s life. To ignore this reality is to remain ignorant of one’s privilege.

We might imagine that we need to guard our lives and seek to preserve ourselves against all threats, that like Lamech, our security will be in our ability to write others off, hold a grudge or seek vengeance, but we’re wrong. Not only will this approach contribute to our own alienation from others, it threatens to undo the joy of forgiveness in our own lives and erode our place of honor and privilege before God. 

Now, I’m not suggesting that we approach our Biden/Trump-voting neighbor and lead with “I forgive you for the way you voted…” Such a move would be an expression of the very arrogance that’s doing us so much damage.

Instead, my call is for each of us to recognize our privilege as among the continuously forgiven and use that privilege to simultaneously encourage our neighbors with whom we agree and seek to understand and learn from those with whom we disagree. None of us has all the answers. Each of us would welcome the honor of being listened to.

One final thought: Some translations of Matthew make the interpretive move of replacing “brother” from the Greek with “member of the Church” and so both solve the problem of gendered language and open us up to the insight that Peter is referring, not to a stranger or family member, but to another follower of Jesus. In this reading, this economy of extravagant grace and forgiveness is a protected economy, appropriate only for those who have Jesus in common. Personally, I’m all for that. If politically divided Christians could nurture love among themselves, I think all of human society would be blessed by the outcome.

*Jesus’ play seventy-seven times contrasts itself with the arrogant vengefulness of Lamech, Cain’s descendant. Lamech boasted in the killing of a young man who had done him injury. In his boast, he asserts that his unsleeping vengefulness will be his redemption. Jesus’ parable turns this prideful boasting on its head.

Pr Jim

Nov. 4, 2020

University Pastor James Wetzstein and Deaconess Kristin Lewis take turns writing weekly reflections. You can contact Deaconess Kristin here and Pastor Jim here