Those lines are often thought to be a nursery rhyme, but it’s actually the first verse of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I was reminded it of it as I contemplated this week on my sermon topic. Family is exactly like Longfellow’s little girl with a curl. When it is good, it’s one of the greatest blessings on earth. When it’s bad, it breaks our hearts and even ruins lives.
The topic this week is actually the church as a family. We are taking the Gospel lectionary texts for the next few weeks, readings in Matthew, and spinning them in the direction of the major points of our new church vision statement, which begins, “We are a family.” So this week I’m looking at Matthew 18:21-35 and thinking about the family language in this text on forgiveness.
In verse 21, Peter asks how often he should forgive a “brother” who sins against him. Then after a very pointed parable on forgiveness, Jesus expands the family language to speak of God as “your heavenly Father” and to insist that you must “forgive your brother [or sister] from your heart.”
It seems to me that this text lies right at the heart of what it means for the church of Jesus Christ to be a family. Only by forgiveness is it possible for any family to exist and to have a decent life together. Most of us have at least some experience of strained family relations which have persisted for years, maybe for generations. The only possible healing would require repentance and forgiveness and those spiritual acts haven’t happened.
The church family, which is exemplified and made concrete in local churches, suffers from the same dire need for mutual repentance and forgiveness. Whether it is over huge issues like theology or race, or over petty squabbles about sanctuary furnishings or music, Christians have hurt each other and often made our “family life” as children of God pretty horrid.
The key to it all is buried in the parable which in verse 27 portrays the master/lord of the slave forgiving the entirety of a huge debt. That slave’s subsequent lack of forgiveness for a fellow slave stands in stark contrast to the forgiveness he received from his lord. The analogy is straightforward and powerful. Each and every Christian has enjoyed the huge forgiveness offered to us in the grace of Jesus Christ. That divine forgiveness then becomes the model and the center of our lives in relation to everyone around us. And it is only in the power and memory of God’s forgiveness that we can truly become what our vision statement and God’s Word say we are, a family.