We hear that phrase so often as a question tossed off by proselytisers. This is especially so in Sydney as some of our brothers remain so hung up and focused on the phrase. I bet some of you are surprised to hear me asking this question. It may just roll past, but I’m really asking— have you been saved? For an experience of being saved, of being plucked from the fire, is crucial to Christian faith. We’re not talking about finding a parking space when you’re running late. Perhaps that kind of experience might serve as a pale proxy, a way to imagine salvation.
Well, before Jesus’ resurrection, God was in the salvation business. The exodus (along with exile) is a central story that shaped Jewish faith as Jesus knew it. The God of Israel, the God of our scriptures which we Christians call the Bible, the God of Jesus does not make sense without this experience of being delivered from imminent disaster. The movie version cannot do this scene justice. Imagine yourself in the sandals of those Hebrew slaves. With your back to the sea, you can see the dust of the chariots coming. When they catch you, they will kill you and your family and everyone around you, except for the “fortunate” ones that they will beat, rape, and drag back to slavery.
If you have not knowingly been that close to the brink, I guarantee that someone you know has. Listen for those stories. Just recently I heard of a parent whose house went up in flames in the middle of the night. She’s not quite sure how she got out the window to summon help, but she is sure about the firefighters who went in and brought out her child, and about the medical teams who kept the firefighters’ lungs working past the smoke damage. To her, salvation is very real.
Part of salvation is to participate in forgiveness. In our scripture, this week from Matthew 18, Peter reflects on this. To show that he had a magnanimous spirit, he says, “[ Should we forgive] as many as seven times?” Seven times seems like quite a bit, doesn’t it?! In the Jewish mind, seven is a number that represents completion and finality. Surely this would be more than enough!
Jesus answers with a word play on the number seven and says that we should forgive seventy times seven. He doesn’t mean that we should keep track and forgive someone four hundred ninety times, but rather that we must throw away the calculator and live a lifestyle of continual forgiveness.
I imagine the disciples responded much as I would, absolutely dumbfounded at such a notion. Here’s the problem. We understand intellectually the notion that we forgive because we have also sinned and been forgiven, but sometimes the sins against us seem out of proportion and unforgivable. A person once told me that they had been seriously injured in a car accident. The person had gone through many hardships during recovery and had been very bitter toward the driver who hit them.
Guilt at the inability to forgive had plagued the person, doubling their misery. “Then one day,” the person said, “I realised that forgiveness is not a duty, it is the answer. When we forgive the grace comes to heal our hearts.” Working out forgiveness in the complexity of life is a subtle art. There are no simple formulas that will take care of the problem for us. Yet we can’t walk away from forgiveness.
Going through the process of forgiving is painful work, but so is living with the open wounds of unresolved anger and resentment. Forgiveness is not a virtue that comes from within, nor is it a duty we owe to someone else. It is a cry to God that says, “Lord, heal my heart.” Heal my heart and bring me salvation and I will be saved. Forgiveness is not an easy answer to our problems, but it is the most powerful answer.