Sermon - Sunday, 17 September 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 17 September.

Scripture: Psalm 103: 8-18 / Matthew 18: 21-35

Text: Then Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord , if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive, as many as seven times?’ Jesus said to Peter, not seven times, but I tell you, seventy seven times                                              (Matthew 18 21)


Although I am sure the people of the Northern Irish town of Enniskillen would prefer it was otherwise, one of the events for which their town is remembered is the IRA bomb which killed 11 people, injured a further 64 people, and brought devastation and destruction to the heart of the town.

Planted in reading rooms behind Enniskillen’s War Memorial, the bomb exploded just as people were gathering for the annual Remembrance Day parade and service on Sunday, 8 November 1987.

The bombing was widely condemned, indeed, such was the international revulsion at the indiscriminate nature of the bomb, the death and injuries inflicted on so many innocent civilians, 13 children included, historians consider it to have been a significant turning point in what were known as the Troubles.

As well as the loss of Libyan support, and with it the IRA’s supply of weapons and explosives, perhaps the most significant political consequence of the Enniskillen bombing was the apology offered by Sinn Fein’s leader, Gerry Adams, and the resumption of talks between Adams and John Hume, leader of the SDLP, talks that paved the way for the peace process and what is known as the Good Friday agreement.

And critical to that turning point, and to the subsequent peace process, was the extraordinary forgiving grace of a 60 year old Enniskillen draper called Gordon Wilson.

Attending the Remembrance Day ceremony with his daughter Marie, father and daughter were caught in the blast and buried in rubble.

Unable to move, Gordon Wilson held his daughter’s hand and comforted her as she lost consciousness.

Although pulled from the rubble, Marie never regained consciousness and died in hospital later that same night.

In an emotional interview with the BBC, an anguished Gordon Wilson described his last conversation with his daughter.

She held my hand tightly, and gripped me as hard as she could.

She said, 'Daddy, I love you very much.'

Those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say.

However, to the astonishment of listeners, Wilson went on to add that he bore no ill will and harboured no grudge with those who had killed his daughter.

Furthermore he pleaded that there should be no revenge attacks or killings by loyalist paramilitaries.

In all the trauma of his loss, this is what Gordon Wilson said;

Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life.

She was a great wee lassie.

She loved her profession. (Marie was a nurse)

She was a pet.

She's dead.

She's in heaven and we shall meet again.

I will pray for these men tonight and every night."

As historian Jonathan Bardon recounts; No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.

Then Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord , how often should I forgive, as many as seven times?’

Compassion, kindness, honesty, loyalty, generosity: of the many Christian virtues, of the qualities to which we aspire as individuals and as a congregation, perhaps forgiveness is the most challenging because there is nothing natural about it.


Forgiveness goes against the grain because when threatened or attacked the human instinct is to defend, hit back and retaliate.


So how, like Gordon Wilson, do you find it in your heart to forgive someone who has hurt you, offended you, upset you, betrayed your trust – or murdered your daughter?


The answer is you don’t for the truth is that neither you nor I have the power or the natural instinct to forgive.


And in large measure that is one of the important insights of Jesus’ great parable of the unforgiving servant.


Scene 1

A servant who owed the king a great amount of money is threatened with imprisonment but, to his surprise, his plea is heard and the debt cancelled.


Scene 2

The forgiven servant refuses to cancel the much smaller debt of a fellow servant and has him thrown into jail.


Scene 3


When the king hears of what has happened, the unforgiving servant is recalled, thrown into jail until the debt is repaid and receives what might well be described as his just deserts.


Like so much of Jesus’ teaching, this parable was told against a background of Jewish tradition; the custom of blood feud whereby someone could exact revenge not just on the person who had wronged them but upon an adversary’s family.

The custom had been mediated over the years, no more than an eye for an eye, and by Jesus’ day it was sufficient to forgive someone a maximum of four times before you were entitled to exact revenge.

If suggesting that someone be forgiven seven times Peter expected praise, Jesus’ parable introduces him to the unlimited nature of God’s forgiveness and grace.

Divine forgiveness is not something earned or deserved, rather it comes to us as a gift, a gift to all who believe and trust in the sacrificial and saving love of God in Christ.

And it was this understanding of divine forgiveness as a gift that so exercised the 16th century Augustinian priest and father of the Reformation, Martin Luther.

A troubled and troubling individual, Luther was appalled by some of the excesses of the medieval Catholic church of his day.

In particular he railed against the practice of selling indulgences, an ever more elaborate scheme whereby through a payment to the church, someone’s sin could be remitted or at least their time spent in purgatory reduced.

On a visit to Rome, Luther had witnessed the elaborate and expensive rebirth of St Peter’s, the 5th century wooden basilica built, it is claimed, over the grave of St Peter.

With the foundation stone having been laid in 1506, Pope Julius II authorised the sale of a special indulgence to raise funds for the new building.

When Julian’s successor, Pope Leo X wanted to prove his worth by speeding up the building process, he authorised a new indulgence.

Ordained as a priest aged 7 years, appointed a cardinal aged 13 years (no, I am not making this up) Leo was Pope aged 37 years and the novel feature about his new indulgence was that it could be purchased on behalf of someone who had already died, thereby reducing their time in purgatory.

Whether for the living or the dead, the purchaser or a deceased relative, Martin Luther had no time for what he considered to be the pious racket of indulgences.

His objection was not related to specific abuses of the system but to the system itself, the church’s unsustainable claim that forgiveness was in its gift.

Forgiveness, Luther believed, was in God’s hands.

And for the church to claim a role, worse still to charge for that role, was a total anathema.

Surely, Luther asked, for a person to acknowledge their sin and realise they were in need of forgiveness required a degree of contrition, not just an ability to pay.

As Jesus’ parable made clear, God would not be fooled, and whatever else it did, emptying your wallet did not equate to genuine sorrow[i]

In June of last year I attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

As well as all the usual business of committee reports, debates and decisions, one afternoon was given over to the theme of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.

One of the ministers spoke, a man who had served 16 years in prison convicted of being a loyalist paramilitary and who confessed to having maimed and murdered.

One of the elders spoke, a woman whose husband had been a serving police officer, killed when a bomb exploded under his car.

Two people sharing a platform, two people members of the same church, two people scarred by the experience of the Troubles, and two people who in different ways had also experienced the gift of divine forgiveness and the new life it brought.

We don’t need to look far in our own world to realise that real forgiveness would radically alter the patterns of terror and vengeance, of domination and injustice that constitute our way of living.

However, echoing Martin Luther, forgiveness is never something we earn or deserve, neither is it something which comes naturally or easily.

All forgiveness comes from God.

All forgiveness is a gift of divine grace.

And that is why Jesus insisted that those of us who bear his name must be willing to forgive not seven but seventy seven times - because of all people we know ourselves to be forgiven.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[i] Peter Stanford, Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident, Hodder and Stoughton, UK, 2017, p112