To Forgive

A Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: St. Matthew 18:15-20

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who has called the entire Church. Amen.

“…whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

If these words sound familiar, it’s because we’ve read them before – and recently. It was two weeks ago, when Simon confessed that Jesus is “the Messiah, the son of the Living God,” and Jesus bestowed on him a new name: Peter, the rock, and promised him “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (This, by the way, is why Saint Peter is so often depicted in pop culture as pearly-gatekeeper, a sort of celestial maître’ d, checking off whatever fictitious character happens to find themselves knock knock knockin’ on heaven’s door.)

Today’s text deals with the touch matter of church discipline – what does it take to cut someone loose from the Body of Christ? And, perhaps it’s the repetition of these words to Peter that reminds him of his new awe-some authority and leads Peter to ask the question in the next verse (which we’ll read together next week): “How often should I forgive” a church member who sins against me? Seven times?

It’s this authority to bind and loose sins that is so central to what’s called apostolic succession: that the faith and authority granted to Peter and the rest of the apostles has been handed down through the ages to bishops, pastors, and deacons via an unbroken chain of bishops laying hands upon those they ordain.

In theory, a clergy person serving today could trace their chain all the way back to the Twelve. Cool, right?

Ok, yeah, the history isn’t actually that simple. And while the laying of hands is an important sign, this is not the most important aspect of apostolic ministry.

Apostolic succession isn’t just petty bickering about who laid hands upon whom. Rather, it’s about the faith and ministry we have inherited from the apostles: to proclaim the coming Kingdom and the forgiveness of sins.

Answering Saint Peter’s question about forgiveness, Jesus tells him – and us – that our job isn’t to keep count of how many times we have forgiven someone, as though grace were some finite resource that must be rationed. No, our ministry is to forgive as we ourselves have been forgiven. Radically. Abundantly.

And this ministry is not only the domain of those who have had a bishop lay hands upon them and received a call to wear funny robes and colored scarfs on Sunday. This is the vocation, the calling, of the entire Church! Whether you’re the Bishop of Rome or a lay person in the pews in Macon, we have all been called by God and sent out – apostello – like Peter to spread the Gospel.

Rejoice, kindred, for you have been called to ministry in the Church of Christ, to proclaim the abundant, radical grace of God.


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