Salvation

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal SalvationDavid Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved inspired me to reflect a bit on salvation and how Christ’s coming into the world is good news indeed for all humankind.   His book brought to the forefront of my thinking the many reasons I joyfully embrace Christianity as my faith and experience of God.   This is the 5th and final post in this blog series which is looking at ideas from his book which have been an anchor to my faith.  The previous post is: Is Free Will the Curse?

The Gospel is and is meant to be good news for all of us who inhabit planet earth and struggle in life, who have to cope with evil and the effect of sin on our existence here.   And while the good news promises us salvation, it does not promise us life on earth will be easy, without suffering or temptation or death.  We are to be of good cheer because Christ has overcome all of these aspects of the world, and so they are proven to be limited, circumscribed, in their power.

In its dawn, the gospel was a proclamation principally of a divine victory that had been won over death and sin, and over the spiritual powers of rebellion against God that dwell on high, and here below, and under the earth. It announced itself truly as the “good tidings” of a campaign of divine rescue on the part of a loving God, who by the sending of his Son into the world, and even into the kingdom of death, had liberated his creatures from slavery to a false and merciless master, and had opened a way into the Kingdom of Heaven, in which all of creation would be glorified by the direct presence of God.

It was an announcement that came wrapped in all the religious and prophetic and eschatological imagery of its time and place, and armored in the whole metaphorical panoply of late antique religion, but with far less of the background and far fewer of the details filled in than later Christians would have found tolerable. It was, above all, a joyous proclamation, and a call to a lost people to find their true home at last, in their Father’s house. It did not initially make its appeal to human hearts by forcing them to revert to some childish or bestial cruelty latent in their natures; rather, it sought to awaken them to a new form of life, one whose premise was charity. Nor was it a religion offering only a psychological salve for individual anxieties regarding personal salvation. It was a summons to a new and corporate way of life, salvation by entry into a community of love. Hope in heaven and fear of hell were ever present, but also sublimely inchoate, and susceptible of elaboration in any number of conceptual shapes. Nothing as yet was fixed except the certainty that Jesus was now Lord over all things, and would ultimately yield all things up to the Father so that God might be all in all.  (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2790-2803)

When the Lord Jesus came eating and drinking with sinners was He not enacting the very thing He proclaimed in His parables – that those invited to the wedding banquet did not wish to attend and so the banquet had been opened to all – undesirable people were invited, even compelled to come in and join the banquet even though they were undesireable?   Did not the Jesus’ own lifestyle and actions, especially His table fellowship, announce that the Kingdom of Heaven had come, that God had reconciled the world to Himself?   Yet, we see already in the New Testament a rejection of this reconciliation between God and God’s creation.  Pharisees, among others, rejected Christ’s message and condemn Him for His table fellowship with sinners.  A concern for judgment of sinners and unbelievers comes to the forefront of thinking as Christians see people not only rejecting the Gospel but also persecuting believers.   Being forgiven by God, reconciled to God, united to divinity was not enough good news for believers – they thirsted for triumph over enemies and retribution for sinners.  Rather than sorrowing that everyone did not embrace salvation, believers began persecuting those who didn’t believe.  The values of the Kingdom of Heaven were replaced by the values of worldly kingdoms.

However, the Church never lost sight of its message.  The Gospel shone through the centuries to those who would hear it.   St. Leo the Great (d. 461AD) writing in the 5th Century about the Nativity of Christ still captures the joyous message of salvation for everyone:

“Our Saviour, dearly beloved, is born today; rejoice!  For it is not fitting that we give any place to sadness when Life is born, the Life which, consuming the fear of death, has filled us with joy because of the eternity He promises.  No one is excluded from this gladness.  One reason for joy is common to all, since Our Lord, the destroyer of sin and death, as he found no one free from sin, came to deliver us all.  The saint is to exult, for he is nearing his palm.  The sinner is to rejoice, for he is invited to forgiveness.  The pagan is to take courage, for he is called to life… 

And so, dearly beloved, we are to give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit, to Him who, in the abundant mercy with which He has loved us, has had pity on us, and ‘when we were dead in our sins, has brought us to life together with Christ’, so that we may be in Him a new creature, a new work.  Let us, then, take off the old man with his works, and become partakers in the generation of Christ, renouncing the works of the flesh.  O Christian, realize your dignity: you are associated with the divine nature, do not turn back to your past base condition by a degenerate way of life. Remember that you have been rescued from the power of darkness, you have been transported into the light and the kingdom of God. By the sacrament of Baptism, you have been made the temple of the Holy Spirit.  Do not make such a guest take flight by perverse actions nor submit yourself again to the devil’s slavery, for you have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, for He will judge you in truth, He who has redeemed you in mercy, He who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.”  (THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT & THE FATHERS by Louis Bouyer, p 530)

St. Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022AD) writing five centuries after St Leo says:

“… He Himself, Who is able to do all things and is beneficent, undertook to accomplish this work through Himself.  For the man whom He had made by His own invisible hands according to His image and likeness He willed to raise up again, not be means of another but by Himself, so that indeed he might the more greatly honor and glorify our race by His being likened to us in every respect and become our equal by taking on our human condition.  O what unspeakable love for mankind!  The goodness of it!  That not only did He not punish us transgressors and sinners, but that He Himself accepted becoming such as we had become by reason of the Fall: corruptible man born of corruptible man, mortal born of a mortal, sin of him who had sinned, He Who is incorruptible and immortal and sinless.  He appeared in the world only in His deified flesh, and not in His naked divinity.  Why?  Because He did not, as He says Himself in His Gospels, wish to judge the world but to save it.”   ( ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE  Vol 1,  pp 144-145)

Christ did not become incarnate in order to condemn humans, but, rather, to save them.  God became human so that we humans might become god.   If He wanted to condemn sinners, He didn’t need to die on the cross.  That death is God’s love and will for humanity – God uniting Himself to humanity, not spurning humanity because it is fallen and sinful.  Why senselessly be tortured for humanity if your goal is punishment for sinners in the first place?  The life, death and resurrection of Christ are God’s continued effort to bring about God’s own plan: to unite heaven and earth, to reconcile humanity to God so that we humans might share in the divine love and life.

Writing 900 years after St Symeon, Archimandrite Sophrony  building upon the words of St Silouan the Athonite discusses the struggle with evil humanity has faced through the centuries:

“The history of the Orthodox Church, past and present, right up to our own day reveals frequent instances of a leaning towards the idea of physical combat against evil, though fortunately confined to individual prelates or ecclesiastical groups.  The Orthodox Church herself has not only declined to bless or to impose these measures but has always followed in the steps of the crucified Christ, Who took upon Himself the burden of the sins of the world.  The Staretz was profoundly and very precisely aware that only good can defeat evil – that using force simply means substituting one sort of violence for another.  We discussed this many a time.  He would remark, ‘The Gospel makes it plain that when the Samaritans did not wish to receive Christ, the disciples James and John wanted to bring down fire from heaven, to consume them, but the Lord rebuked them and said, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of . . . I am come not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them”.’  And we, too, must have this one thought – that all should be saved.”     (ST. SILOUAN THE ATHONITE, p 226)

David Bentley Hart is in good company as he argues the purpose of God’s incarnation in Christ, His death and resurrection all were done for the salvation of the world not for condemning sinners to hell.   As previously noted, a message of universal salvation does not change the struggle which believers face in the world, does not deny that evil is real, does not take away the suffering undergone in this world by innocent people.  It does bring the Gospel to the forefront of the Christian message and says “God is love” is not an idea that can be negotiated or altered.  Rather it becomes the key to interpreting all of Scripture.  God’s purpose in creating the cosmos is to bring all things into communion with God.  This is God’s plan, unaltered by human sinfulness, which is being realized from creation to salvation in Christ to the kingdom of God.  God is both Creator and Savior because God’s will is that we should be united to God.   As Hart says:

… between God’s antecedent and consequent decrees: between, that is, his original will for a creation unmarred by sin (“Plan A,” so to speak) and his will for creation in light of the fall of humanity (“Plan B”). And it has usually been assumed that, whereas the former would have encompassed all of creation in a single good end, the latter merely provides for the rescue of only a tragically or arbitrarily select portion of the race. But why? Perhaps the only difference, really, between these antecedent and consequent divine decrees (assuming that such a distinction is worth making at all) is the manner by which God accomplishes the one thing he intends for creation from everlasting. Theologians and catechists may have concluded that God would ideally have willed only one purpose but must in practical terms now will two; but logic gives us no reason to think so.  Neither does scripture (at least, not when correctly read). After all, “our savior God,” as 1 Timothy 2:4 says, “intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth.”  (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location

The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs

I found Martin Mosebach’s The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs to be a worthy read.  There is of course that one learns a bit about these 21 Christians, all poor migrant workers, beheaded by ISIS militants on a Libyan beach.  They have been glorified by the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church as martyrs for the faith.  In their lives they seem to have been pious Orthodox Christians who were trying to eke out a living under difficult circumstances.  One also learns a great deal about the life of Coptic Christians in Egypt, an Orthodox Church which considers itself to be “the Church of the martyrs” based on its 2000 year history which has seen centuries of suffering and martyrdom. The Copts continue to be targeted by Muslim extremists and live perpetually in a state of being at risk for persecution, and yet their faith is strong.   Mosebach, a practicing traditionalist Catholic, writes about the Copts with sympathy and understanding.   He is not reluctant to express his skepticism about some of the things he learned.  It is obvious that even modern martyrs’ lives quickly are embellished with legend and miracles, as if their martyrdom itself is not sufficiently miraculous witness to the Lord.  As Mosebach writes it such embellishment is a normal part of Coptic history and faith.  Mosebach also makes it clear that to call these martyrs victims of terrorism is to completely miss the importance of their faith in their lives.  They are not victims of terrorism, but true witnesses to their undying faith in Jesus Christ.  As such they stand as a challenge to American Christian attitudes towards suffering, being in the minority or being in power and what Christ teaches us about martyrdom, enemies, suffering and power.  They have to carry the cross daily in a way American Christians are not willing to do.  As one Coptic priest said, “One cannot simply dismiss Muslims as hostile – regardless of religion, one can still be a good neighbor and express kindness and trust, especially in one’s prayer.”  Who is my neighbor?  The one to whom I can be neighborly as Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The Copts have to choose to live the Gospel lessons daily.

Fulfilling the Command to Pray

“Every day call this prayer to mind, and repeat it to yourself as often as possible: ‘Lord, have mercy upon all who appear before thee today.’ For at every hour and every moment thousands of people depart from this earthly life and their souls appear before God – and how many of them depart in solitude, unknown to anyone, sad and dejected because no one feels sorrow for them or even cares whether they are alive or not! And then, perhaps, from the other end of the earth your prayer for the repose of their souls will rise up to God, although you never knew them nor they you.

How deeply moving it must be for a man’s soul, as he stands in fear and trembling before the Lord, to know at that very instant that there is someone to pray even for him, that there is still a fellow creature left on earth who loves him! And God will look on both of you more favorably if you have had so much pity on him, how much greater will God’s pity be, for God is infinitely more loving and merciful than you! And he will forgive him for your sake.”

(Fyodor Dostoevsky, from The Time of the Spirit: Readings Through the Christian Year, p. 45)

Take Up Your Cross

Cross-bearing and servanthood are not substitutes for or bypasses around the task of overcoming evil. Rather, the section as a whole shows that God’s victory comes in a most unsuspecting way: the way of self-denial, humble service and the very giving of one’s life for others. This is the way of Jesus. And there is also the resurrection, a vital part of every passion prediction on the way.

Jesus’ hodos [way] is not only a way to death, but a way also to God’s victory. This victory is assured by Jesus’ death as a “ransom for many.” For Jesus and his disciples the way of faithful warfare was and is that of humble service, even unto death. Victory comes through God’s vindication of the faithful.

(Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace, p. 116)

The Cross: Redemption, Not Sacrifice

“Yet the only text in St. Paul which directly applies sacrificial phraseology to the death of Christ is that of the Epistle to the Ephesians: 

He gave himself up for you as an offering and a sacrifice (prosphoran kai thusian) to God, as a fragrant perfume. 

It seems undeniable that, in expressing himself in this way, St. Paul was thinking of the text of Psalm 39.7-9.

You took pleasure neither in sacrifice nor in offering,

but you have opened my ears:

You have desired neither holocaust nor sacrifice for sin;

then I said: “Here am I, I am coming,

in the scroll of the book I am spoken of. 

My God, I have delighted in doing your will

your law is in the depths of my heart…

In other words, what the psalmist presents as something other than ‘sacrifice and offering’ and as what God prefers to them, is now described by the very terminology proper to what this has replaced. This transfer is extremely important. It is found at the basis of the whole sacrificial vision of the Epistle to the Hebrews, even though too many commentators have neglected to note this fact. 

We might be tempted to link up, with this unique text of St. Paul’s on the death of Christ as a sacrifice, another text found in the Epistle to the Romans. For the latter seems at first sight to lead directly into the sacrificial and, precisely, expiatory developments in the Epistle to the Hebrews: 

We are freely justified by his grace, by the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God has predestined to be a propitiation by faith in his blood. 

This text certainly brings us close to the Epistle to the Hebrews with this mention of propitiation, but we should note that here the implicit image of sacrifice is not applied directly to Christ’s death but rather to our faith in that death. Here, as elsewhere, the notion by which St. Paul explains the Cross is not that of sacrifice, but of redemption, that is, ransoming of slaves.”

(Louis Bouyer, The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, p. 142-143)

The Transcendent Myth

This is the 3rd and final post based on my reading of  John Breck’s short story, “A Life-giving Myth,” found in the book, THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  The previous post is A Life-giving Myth (II).  This post is my taking Breck’s points from his short story and reworking them a bit and connecting his ideas to baptism.

Faith is the search for that language that can describe the relationship between heaven and earth, between God and humankind. It is a relationship which ordinary language is incapable of revealing and expressing. It is a relationship which though ethereal is not merely emotional. And so we rely on ritual and symbol to lead us beyond the limits of human language to put flesh on that which is spiritual. Ritual and symbol are the interface where our physical existence encounters and is transformed by that which is outside the physical, that existence which touches us and envelopes us and yet like flowing water is impossible to grasp.  Ritual, icons, poetry and symbol together enable us to express the narrative which guides our understanding of this world.

In the Old Testament, it is dogmatically clear that God has no form, that God is invisible and transcendent, and yet if God were completely invisible to us, we wouldn’t know of God’s existence at all. God created a world, a physical creation in which we creatures can encounter transcendence. God established a temple to help us experience God. Prayer, chant, icons and incense were all used to help the people experience this transcendent God but to experience God in this altered reality of symbol and ritual and even myth. The chant and the scent of the incense and the smoke wafting through the air are all there to remind us that we are encountering a reality which is physical and yet which cannot be adequately portrayed in language or in art because it is outside space and time.  The flickering candle reveals to us the immaterial world which is yet real.

In baptism, in the church in general, we are endeavoring to open our eyes, the eyes of faith, to transcendent reality, to Ultimate Truth, to the presence of eternity within our time and space, to lead us beyond the limits of space and time, and to the presence in creation and in our lives of an infinitely powerful and all-loving God.
We believe that every atom of our physical being and every movement of our heart is directed by God toward a goal: the goal of life beyond the physical existence, with a full participation in his own divine life.

This God who is ever inviting us to experience this goal, who created a world to allow us to in some mysterious way to experience the transcendent, then enters into our world in the incarnation. God thus not only knows ‘about’ our needs, our suffering and our destiny; God shares actively and decisively participates in them.
So God creates time and space, but God does not leave us to history or history to us. The transcendent God who exists in eternity, outside of space and time, enters into history and shares our history including the pain and sorrow of this worldly existence. He accepts our destiny, becoming one with us, part of the created order. God participates in what is happening in this world and what is going to happen to humanity, to the world and the cosmos. Everything that happens or that God allows to happen has an impact or an effect on God – in fact all of it impacts God!

So God in putting on flesh in the incarnation, takes on our history, and in so doing unites us to eternity. In baptism we put on Christ, we enter into the primordial waters of the Jordan River and become united to Christ and put on eternity. Everything begins in transcendence, in God, but God shares this life with a created order in which we can experience transcendence. God enters into the creation God made in order that we might be completely united to God.  Life in the Church – ritual, symbol, icon, poetic hymns – all point to the transcendent life which is just outside our empirical world, yet breaking into it. It becomes our way to experience the transcendent and to be transformed by God.

As Fr John Breck writes in his short story: “Eternity in fact is ever-present. it is not only beyond time and space, beyond the physical universe. It embraces and penetrates, so to speak, everything that exists, including ourselves.

A Life-giving Myth (I)

“A Life-giving Myth” is the title of a short story in John Breck’s THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  It is the last and longest story in the collection.  The stories are OK, but in some of them the “story” is superfluous as  is the case “The Life-giving Myth” where a professor is giving a lecture and the content of the story is the lecture.  It easily could have been presented as an essay.  It was my only favorite in the collection of stories.    In this series of  three posts I want to highlight the things from the “story” which seemed so profound to me.

“… those who have drifted away from the faith under secularizing pressures, or because we in the Church have done a poor job of opening their eyes to transcendent reality, and to the presence in creation and in their lives of an infinitely powerful and all-loving God.” (p 218)

The Church leadership and members should remind themselves constantly that our real goal is to open the eyes of everyone to that transcendent reality who is love and who cares about all of creation, namely our God.  The Church too often reduces itself to defending Tradition, maintaining customs, opposing countless sins and human failures.  The Church sometimes sees the job of leadership as to be police rather than pastors (shepherds)- enforcing rules, disciplining the unruly, imprisoning in hell non-conformists.   The Church gets reduced to law enforcement as well as being involved in judgement and even punishment of sinners, rather than in their salvation.  Another unfortunate development is when the Church is willing  to be the hiding place for anyone who is afraid of the 20th Century (even though we are already in the 21st!).   Clergy can act as if their only real concern is that someone unworthy might try to touch God and the clergy come to think that their main purpose is to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Clergy, canons, iconostases, asceticsm can be used as little more than the tools to keep the unworthy away from God, so that the laity remain forever exiled from God because of their sinfulness.  AND, at times clergy act as if their main message is to make sure the laity are aware that they (the laity) are deservedly exiled from God . In this thinking, Heaven is the goal but it will always be far beyond the people’s reach because they are unworthy.

Breck instead envisions a transcendent God who in Christ is imminent and accessible to humans:

“Eternity in fact is ever-present.  it is not only beyond time and space, beyond the physical universe.  It embraces and penetrates, so to speak, everything that exists, including ourselves.”  (p 232)

The claim of the Gospel is that God is always drawing us to Himself to embrace us, love us, share His divine life with us.  The whole of Orthodoxy is based in one idea that God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us.  God wants us (especially sinners!) to come to Him.  God came to earth to gather us together, not to cause us to flee from His presence.  The purpose of Liturgy and ritual and Scripture is to make God accessible to us – to make the transcendent break into our lives.

And for this reason Breck tries to rescue the idea of “myth” as a way of seeing how God is making Himself known to us and accessible to us.  Scripture is theology under the guise of narrative as the Fathers said.  Myth in this thinking does not mean “fiction” but provides us a way of gaining insight into reality.  God uses “story” or narrative to convey divine and eternal truths to us even in our sinfulness and despite it.

“Such myths use symbolic metaphorical language to express relationship between heaven and earth, between God and human kind, that ordinary language is incapable of revealing and expressing.”  (220-221)

How often the Patristic writers warned us that our language is inadequate for understanding God, and that if we think too literally, we not only do not understand God but rather turn God into an idol of our our making, in our own image, to suit our own purposes.   Poetry and myth, the languages of Scripture try to lead us beyond the limitations of our own experience and to take us to the unknown, to God as God is and chooses to reveal Himself to us.  Poetry and myth both remind us that God cannot be apprehended by human concepts and language.

“…every aspect of our life, every atom of our physical being, every movement of our heart is directed by him (God) teleologically toward a single goal:  the goal of life beyond the physical existence, with a full participation in his own divine life.  Thus we can affirm that he not only knows ‘about’ our needs, our suffering and our destiny; he shares actively and decisively in them.  He ‘knows’ them in the biblical sense of participation.  There is no human suffering, for example, that he does not share to the very depths.  As Isaiah declares of the Lord’s Servant, ‘he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.‘  This is as true a characteristic of God as his creative energy that ceaselessly brings things from non-existence into being.”  (pp 230-231)

God does not leave us to history, God enters into history and shares our history including the pain and sorrow of it.  God accepts our destiny, becoming one with us, part of the created order and what is happening and is going to happen to humanity, the world and the cosmos.  Nothing that happens or that He allows to happen has no impact or effect on God – in fact all of it impacts God and God in the incarnation makes sure of that!   History and our experience of it become imbued with divinity, and thus become something more than mere materialistic events, they become the stories of God, they are turned into God’s Word.  The Word becomes flesh, but in that process human life becomes the Word as recorded in the Scriptures.  Myth in this sense is not fiction but human life revealing divinity and divinity working in and through humans and human history.  We can never fully understand how the transcendent God can not only touch creation but becomes part of it.  That is the real sense of Christian myth – our world touched by the transcendent because God is revealing Himself to us and in His Light we see light.

Christianity is not meant to be a self-help program to allow us to succeed or be satisfied with material creation.  Christianity is not trying just to help us get to heaven.  Rather Christianity is God’s own presence in this world, enabling us all to become united with God, here and now – to experience heaven on earth even in the midst of sin and suffering and death because Christ has overcome this world.  Christianity is revealing this world as our way to union with God.

We really don’t need the Church to tell us how far we have become separated from God, alienated from the divine, exiled from Heaven.  We can experience that perfectly in our daily lives.  What we need is for someone to show us the way to reunion with God, to show us what communion with God looks like, and enables us to become deified.  That is the purpose of the Liturgy, of icons, of ritual, symbol, or poetic hymns.  It lifts us up to heaven and makes heaven present on earth.

Next: A Life-giving Myth (II)

 

Communion: Partaking of God

That of which we partake is not something of His, but Himself. It is not some ray and light which we receive in our souls, but the very orb of the sun. So we dwell in Him and are indwelt and become one spirit with Him. The soul and the body and all their faculties forthwith become spiritual, for our souls, our bodies and blood, are united with His. 

What is the result? The more excellent things overcome the inferior, things divine prevail over the human, and that takes place which Paul says concerning the resurrection, “what is mortal is swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4), and further, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). 

…Out of love for man He received all other things from us, and out of even greater love He joins what is His to us. The first means that God has come down to earth, the second that He has taken us from earth to heaven. So, on the one hand God became incarnate, on the other man has been deified. In the former case mankind as a whole is freed from reproach in that Christ has overcome sin in one body and one soul; in the latter each man individually is released from sin and made acceptable to God, which is an even greater act of love for man. Since is was not possible for us to ascend to Him and participate in that which is His, He came down to us and partook of that which is ours. So perfectly has He coalesced with that which He has taken that He imparts Himself to us by giving us what He has assumed from us. As we partake of His human Body and Blood we receive God Himself into our souls. It is thus God’s Body and Blood which we receive, His soul, mind and will, no less than those of His humanity.

(St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, p. 115-116, 122)

What the Kingdom of Heaven is Like

The Gospel lesson of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) is fascinatingly inserted between two teachings of Jesus on forgiveness.

42177591130_2aaca87ebdThen Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.    Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like(18:21-23)

 . . . 

So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” (18:35)

It all starts with the Apostle Peter asking a wisdom question:  At what point if someone sins against me repeatedly do I stop forgiving that person?   The question is more complicated, because Peter is not asking about just any person – a stranger or a foreigner or a rival or an enemy.  Peter asks particular about when do I stop forgiving my brother/sister?   It is an interesting question because it recognizes that even if we try to live together as brothers and sisters in Christ, we can and do annoy each other, disappoint each other, fail each other, sin against one another.

What if someone simply repeatedly fails you (sin implies “missing the mark”, but such failure can occur from a poor aim or lacking the needed skills, not just by intentionally missing the mark).  Peter wants to know what does wisdom teach us about holding someone accountable and not just enabling them to continue in failed behavior?   Jesus as He often does seems though to direct Himself to something slightly different (think about the Good Samaritan parable which is how Jesus answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?“).  Jesus turns Peter’s question into an exposition on what brotherhood/sisterhood/community means, philadelphia.  Can brotherly/sisterly love ever end?   Forgiving seven times might seem quite generous, but is not enough – if you want to quantify then think more in terms of 490 times.  However, at the end of the parable Jesus simply says when it comes to a brother/sister, you simply are to forgive from your heart.  There is no quantification, every time a brother/sister sins, you maintain brotherly/sisterly affection, concord, unity, the bond of peace or community.

In the desert fathers we find the same teaching is a story that appears in several versions.  The gist of the story is that a group of monks sets off on a journey through the desert to another monastery.  Traveling through the desert is always dangerous as the environment is inhospitable and life threatening.  As the story goes, the young monk appointed to guide the fraternity of monks gets lost, but the others continue unquestioningly to follow his meanderings, realizing their lives are at risk.  Maybe the young monk is the proverbial male and he refuses to ask for directions, but eventually he is forced to acknowledge he is lost.  “We know,” reply his brothers.  The young monk is amazed that no one complained or criticized him and realizes they all thought maintaining the fraternal unity was more important than pointing out his faults and failures or proving themselves right.

The counter intuitive nature of the story occurs because it holds love to be the highest good – even more important than being right.  Americans might dismiss the story as impractical and foolish, but the real point of the story is not to reward wrong behavior and sin (missing the mark) nor to tolerate bad leadership, but to force us as Christians to consider how important brotherly/sisterly love and the bond of peace in the community is to our Lord.

It is what the Kingdom of heaven is like.