Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Monday, March 12, 2018

Homily for Forgiveness Sunday/ Divine Liturgy - (February 18, 2018)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Typically, this expression means: If you have a great body, don’t hide it under modest attire. Show yourself off for the world to see. If you have a brilliant mind, don’t be humble and unassuming. Expose the genius within. If you have money, spend it so that people know you’re loaded. Perhaps you can see the problems with the notion, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Yet, for some bizarre reason, many Christians assume that this expression is valid in the spiritual realm.

It is common for Christians to brag about how much they give, how much they pray, how much they serve, and how spiritual they are. Honestly, we have all been guilty of this behavior. It is easy to be spiritually smug and let pride enter into our lives. We all want to be recognized and appreciated. We all want to impress people with our gifts and devotion. Yet, the Bible is clear that we must seek to impress God alone. This requires a motives check-up. After all, motives matter when it comes to being approved and rewarded by God. This means you must do the right thing in the right way.

As we stand at the threshold of Great Lent, Jesus shares three practices that will enable us to do the right thing in the right way and that will make our Lenten journey to the Cross and the empty tomb more spiritually rewarding and meaningful. What Jesus has to say to us this morning, beloved, is more than food for the soul. His words are life, eternal life. If we listen intently and carefully to His words, if we take them into our heart, and employ actively in our lives, then we shall watch them blossom forth into abundant fruit that will draw men into the bosom of the Father.

The first thing Jesus tells us is to give without fanfare. He urges you and me to give with pure motives that please God. Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” The word “beware” always warns of danger ahead, like an elevator being out of order or a road being washed out.  To refuse to obey such a sign is both foolish and dangerous. Here, Jesus warns us to beware of seeking to impress people. He does not say that you cannot be impressive.

Many Christians are impressive people. Jesus is not opposed to public righteousness that is an act of worship. We are commanded to be “salt” and “light.” Jesus’ primary concern is with our motives. God looks at the heart (motive) before the hand (action)! If our motives are to hear people “ooh and ah” over our righteousness, we have our reward…but it is on earth, NOT in heaven.

Jesus’ words are absolute. He is saying, “Anyone who does a good deed so as to be seen and appreciated by others will lose his or her reward, no matter how ‘good’ and beneficial the deed is. There are absolutely no exceptions!” It is imperative, therefore, that we do the right thing in the right way.

After laying down the overarching principle, Jesus focuses on the topic of financial giving. He says: “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full.” Jesus says “when” you give. The word “when” is a key word throughout this entire passage. Jesus does not say “if” but “when.”

Jesus assumes that His disciples will give to those not only to those in need, but to support and assist their brothers and sisters in the faith. This means giving is not optional. Yet, maybe you are thinking, “I’m barely making ends meet and you want me to give?” I know how difficult it is to give when you cannot even afford the rent put food on the table. But, what I have learned from my own personal experience is that there is always someone out there who is struggling worse than me, who is struggling and worse off than I am. Therefore, I appreciate what little I have and how precious it is. That is why I am more grateful to God for giving me the ability to share what I have with those who have less than me.

If you are struggling to get by, give to someone who is struggling more than you. The Lord will meet your needs, especially if you are obedient to give and do so with an open and free heart.

The question that Jesus is addressing to us today is not “when” but “why.” Why do you do what you do? It is important to see that Jesus does not look down on or forbid public giving, but He does not want us to “sound a trumpet” when we undertake works of charity or almsgiving. This is a figurative phrase from which we get our expression “toot your own horn.” In other words, do not give for the purpose of being “honored” by people. When the offering baskets are passed, do not cough loudly as you put money into the basket. Do not slam-dunk your offering into the basket or make a scene of it. Do it discreetly and quietly. If you are giving a large bill, then fold it up discreetly and when the basket comes before you, place it quickly in the basket so that no sees the denomination of the currency.

Do not give so that your name will be inscribed on a building, on a plaque, on a brick, or in a list of donors for all to see. If you do, that will be your reward. The word translated “in full” (apecho) is a technical term for commercial transactions and means to “receive a sum in full and give a receipt for it.” When you make a donation to the Church or to some charitable organization and ask for a receipt so that you can deduct it on your income taxes, you are not really giving, because you will get your donation back in the form of a tax refund. The same thing happens when you ask for an annual end-of-the-year statement of giving from your parish. All the money you put into the collection basket over the course of a year and all the extraordinary donations you make are not really donations at all because you will get it all back in the form of a tax refund. This is equally true when I seek to impress people instead of God. The end result is that your donations are not donations at all because you are getting something in return, basically a tax deduction.

Fortunately, Jesus offers an alternative to giving with fanfare or expecting something in return. He says: “But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Please do not take this verse literally. This is a hyperbolic phrase that means “give in secret.” Do not give with your right hand while you wave your left hand in the air. Instead, just drop your check in the offering or send it in the mail, without drawing attention to yourself. Fold the check. Keep the envelope sealed. Give in a spirit of humility and simplicity, as an act of worship.

Try giving anonymously sometimes, even if it means that you do not receive a tax deduction. Why? “So that your giving will be in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” Again, there is nothing wrong with public giving that is an act of worship. But there is plenty wrong with giving money to impress people.

Does this mean that you should never tell anyone what you give and who you give to? No! The Book of Acts tells of Christians selling possessions and giving to the needy. In Chapter 4, Verses 36-37, St. Luke tells us that Barnabas sold a field and brought the money to the feet of the apostles. If Barnabas was looking for status and prestige, his motive was wrong. But it is certainly false to say that it was wrong for others to be made aware of his gift because Scripture itself reveals that! Barnabas’ act of generosity was commonly known among the believers and was publicly and permanently recorded in Acts. Chapter 7 of the Book of Numbers lists the names of donors to the tabernacle. The Book of Chronicles tells exactly how much the leaders of Israel gave to build the temple. These recorded in Scripture for our encouragement and motivation.

Jesus does not object to the fact that people may know what you give, but give only for God, as an act of worship and to His greater glory. We need heroes in the Church. We need to know that our friends and leaders are giving. This motivates and challenges us to give even more sacrificially. The key is: why do you give? Do you give to please God or to impress people? When it comes to giving, make sure you do the right thing in the right way.

The second practice that Jesus puts before us is prayer without pride. Jesus’ teaching on prayer is the centerpiece of the entire Sermon on the Mount. Here, Jesus contrasts prideful and humble prayer: “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So, do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:5-8).

Again, Jesus’ concern is praying to impress others. He is not opposed to long prayers or public prayers except when you are seeking accolades from people. Jesus’ point is: When you pray to impress people, you are paid in full. Instead, pray in secret and receive a reward from God.

Perhaps a few questions will help you to assess your prayer rule as well as the motives for your prayers. Do I pray frequently or more fervently when I am alone with God than when I am in public? Is my public praying an overflow of my private prayer? What do I think of when I am praying in public? Am I looking for “just the right” phrase? Am I thinking of the worshipers more than of God? Am I a spectator to my own performance? Is it possible that the reason more of my prayers are not answered is that I am more concerned about bringing my prayer to men than to God? There is a right way and a wrong way to pray.

Jesus taught us the most perfect prayer, “The Lord’s Prayer.” In this beautiful but short prayer, there are a total of six petitions. There are three petitions that promote God’s glory and there are three petitions that concern our well-being. This pattern indicates that we should have more concern for God than we do for ourselves. Let us take a few minutes to explore this powerful prayer that has been an integral part of our Orthodox Catholic Faith for more than 2,00o years.

In the first petition, Jesus tells us to pray and how to pray: “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy Name.’” In this first petition, we do not ask God for anything. Rather, we worship Him. we acknowledge Him as our Eternal and Heavenly Father, and we praise and glorify His Holy Name.

The word “our” demonstrates that this prayer is for the gathered community, not merely for private use. Only fifteen times was God referred to as the Father in the Old Testament. Where it does occur, it is used in reference to the nation Israel or to the king of Israel. Never was God called the Father of an individual or of human beings in general. He was always called Yahweh and Adonai.

In the New Testament, Jesus comes on the scene and emphasizes the fatherhood of God. He expands the intimacy that we can have as we approach God in prayer. However, God is not our pal, our buddy, or “the man upstairs” - He is our Father who is in heaven! He is the Most High, the Eternal and Everlasting God, and He still expects to be approached with awe.

The word “hallowed” means set apart. “Name” refers to personhood and character. To understand why God's name should be hallowed, we first need to understand that the Jews (God's chosen people) had different naming customs than we do today. To a Jew, a person's name was more than just a way to identify them physically; their name also reflected their nature. Jews named their children in a way that expressed the child's mission in life. Because of this custom, the Jewish people had about 16 different names for God in the Hebrew Old Testament. Each name reflected a different aspect of God's character, so God's names were considered by the Jews to be just as holy as God Himself. In fact, God's names were and are so holy to the Jews, that they never write His full name for fear of bringing disrespect to it and to God.

In the Lord's Prayer, the phrase, "Hallowed be Thy name" is appropriate, because not only is God holy, but His name is holy too. We should never treat God's name with disrespect as some do when they curse and use God's name in vain. We should give the same respect and honor to God's name that we give to God because He and His name are one in the same. 

In the second petition, Jesus says pray, “Your kingdom come.” In the New Testament, God’s kingdom is expressed as both a present reality and a future consummation. Jesus inaugurated His kingdom during His earthly ministry, but the fulfillment of His kingdom will not be fully consummated until He sets His feet down in Jerusalem and rules and reigns. When this occurs, we will experience a theocracy (not a democracy) where Jesus is King.

In the third petition, Jesus tells us to pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a prayer for God’s control of earth and our life as He has of heaven. In heaven, the angels respond to God’s commands perfectly and immediately. God expects this same type of obedience from us. This means that we go into our day saying, “Lord, I want to live this day for You. May Your will be done in my marriage, my family, my work, and my church. Use me to fulfill Your will perfectly and immediately. I do not want to make You look bad. I want to be Your representative.”

The fourth petition deals with our personal needs. Jesus tells us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Here, Jesus is not just talking about food. “Bread” is a figure of speech, which represents our needs. It is interesting that twice in this brief sentence we have an emphasis on “today.” “Give us today what we need today.” Jesus only promises us TODAY, not tomorrow, next week, or next year. He wants us to live in daily dependence upon Him. After all, none of us are guaranteed tomorrow. Jesus wants us to know that we do not provide for ourselves, neither does the company we work for, our spouse, or our family. He alone meets our needs.

The fifth petition deals with our interpersonal relations. Here, Jesus tells us to pray: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus assumes that you and I will forgive. He goes on to say, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” These words are not included in the Lord’s Prayer, but they are worth paying particular attention to and giving thought to their full weight.

Jesus promises forgiveness if we forgive others. He explicitly states that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us! This may sound severe but remember the underlying ethic in Jesus’ teaching is love—love for your heavenly Father and love for people. God loves you so much that He will allow you to come face to face with your sin. He will confront you with your refusal to forgive by withholding communion with Him. This is to bring about deep repentance and restoration of the love between the parties involved. So, how should you respond in light of Jesus’ words? I propose that you do three things.

First, remember the debt you have been forgiven. There are five key Greek words in the New Testament for sin. Only one is used in the Lord’s Prayer. It is the word translated “debts” but it can also mean “sin,” hence some translations of the Lord’s Prayer use the word “trespasses” instead of debt. If we think about the word debt, we know this word has to do with a balance owed. That is why Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts.” Every time you sin, you go into debt to God. You have taken on an obligation you cannot possibly meet. It is like maxing out your credit cards when you are out of work and have no income to make the monthly payments. Sooner or later, collection agencies are going to start calling you, demanding payment.

Sin makes us overdrawn debtors to God even though we are already Christians. As a result, our fellowship with God is broken. Only compassion and forgiveness can balance the books. The more aware we are of our great evil (and sin, no matter what kind of sin it is, is evil because we spit in the face of God every time we do something wrong) the more we will be able to forgive.

If you feel that you are not as sinful as the next person, then forgiveness will not be one of your character traits. However, if you know God’s forgiveness you will forgive, for a forgiven person is a forgiving person. Today, will you see anew and afresh the enormous debt that you owe God? Will you choose to see the sin that still pervades your life even though you are an Orthodox Catholic Christian? Will you repent before God so that you can forgive those who sin against you?

The suggestion I have for you is that you rely on the Holy Spirit to enable you to forgive. The word “forgive” (aphiemi) literally means “to release, to let go of.” Simply put, forgiveness is letting go of my right to hurt you for hurting me. In the New Testament, the word forgiveness was used primarily to describe the release of someone from a financial obligation. Forgiveness gives up the right to hurt back. When you forgive someone, you are saying, “What that person did to me was wrong. He has hurt me deeply and deserves to pay for his offense. But today I am releasing him from the obligation he has toward me. I am not forgiving him because he has asked to be forgiven or deserves to be forgiven. I am forgiving him because of the tremendous forgiveness God has offered me.”

Does biblical forgiveness work like a charm? Not in the sense that you may think. Although I have forgiven various individuals, fleshly thoughts toward these individuals still rear their ugly head. When this occurs, whether it is hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly, my goal is to release my negative emotions to the Lord. Forgiveness does not mean that you will forget, it means you let go of your desire to retaliate and seek retribution Instead, you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Obviously, this requires supernatural empowerment which only the Holy Spirit can give.

My third suggestion is this: recognize the personal benefit of forgiveness. It is possible to develop a root of bitterness that will defile you and many others. If you choose not to forgive, you will be the one who suffers. In the end, those whom you do not forgive are holding you as a hostage. Stop for just a moment and think about the person or persons that you have chosen not to forgive. Not forgiving those who wrong you is like carrying around a bag of rocks. The burden is heavy and can make one’s life exhausting and miserable. The angry we bear in our heart affects everything we do. This is what happens when you refuse to forgive. Often, we think of forgiveness as a gift to the other person, but it clearly is a gift to ourselves.  Save yourself some grief. Unload your unforgiveness today.

The sixth and last petition of the Lord’s Prayer deals with God’s protection. This final petition deals with our spiritual concerns. Jesus tells us to pray, “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” If this passage teaches that God leads us into temptation, then does that not contradict what is written in the Letter of St. James, wherein the Apostle tells us that God does not tempt anyone? The word translated “temptation” (peirasmos) can mean “temptation,” “testing,” or “trial.”

Prior to the time of the New Testament, this word only meant “testing” or “trial.” The New Revised Standard Version translates this word “trial”. If their understanding is correct, Jesus apparently is teaching that we should pray that God allow us to escape from trials. The idea of escape or deliverance is carried on in the second part of the petition “deliver us from evil.” Most English versions read: “deliver us from the evil one” rather than simply “deliver us from evil.” Either translation is possible and acceptable but “deliver us from the evil one” is the better translation, particularly since the Gospel of St. Matthew records the temptation of Jesus by Satan, the evil one.

The point of all of this is that we are incapable of handling spiritual problems on our own. We need God’s help. He alone is capable of handling each and every problem we face.

As we come to the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer, I want to make mention that many Bibles have a final sentence either in brackets or as a footnote. Scholars tell us that these words are probably not part of the original prayer taught by Jesus, but that they were added later as a doxology of praise. Although they may not be part of the original, they make a fitting conclusion to the prayer: “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Whether inspired or not, these words remind us that God is great and that He is in control. As you reflect on these words, please recognize that when you fail to pray you are basically saying that you can make it on your own. This is the epitome of arrogance. So acknowledge your need and pray without pride.

Jesus’ final topic of instruction deals with fasting. In a world of golden arches and pizza temples, this is a hard word. We are gluttons who worship food. Nevertheless, Jesus says, “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Mondays and Thursdays. But when they fasted, they looked miserable and tried to draw attention to themselves. They seemed to say, “Look at me; I’m fasting!” They are like some politicians who ride in helicopters over natural disasters. Their faces are grim and mournful, but it is only a “photo op.” Jesus says, “Do not be like them!” Instead, look to the positive examples in Scripture.

Old Testament believers fasted (Nehemiah 9:1-2; Daniel 9:2-20). Jesus fasted in preparation for His earthly ministry and implied that Christian disciples would fast following His brief ministry.  The Early Church fasted as well (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23 and Corinthians 6:5; 11:27). Yet, fasting is not commanded in any of the New Testament letters. However, fasting still seems to be assumed, even though it is not commanded.

So, what exactly is fasting? In Scripture, fasting is typically a time of abstaining from food for the purpose of devoting one’s self and one’s time to the Lord. We should not think of fasting as a way to get something from God. We fast as one means of drawing closer to God. You become keenly aware of your dependence on God when you are very hungry. This is designed to stir us toward God. But be careful of your motives. Do not think things like, “This will help me lose weight or purify my system.” Fasting is to purify the believer’s heart, to spend time focusing on God, to learn to deny the physical in order to grow the spiritual. Fasting is for repentance, for sorrow, for purification. Fasting helps us become more sensitive to God. If you are going to fast, make sure that your doctor gives you the freedom to do so. The motive and manner are crucial; the length, frequency, and intensity depend entirely upon one’s physical, spiritual, and medical condition. Always discuss your fasting rule with your priest or spiritual father. He will guide you as to what you should do so that fasting achieves the most spiritual good and benefits as possible. Remember, Jesus cares only about our motives. This is why He says, “Give without fanfare, pray without pride, and fast without notice.” It has been said, “The secret of religion is religion in secret.” Who are you when no one is looking? That is the ultimate question. Do the right thing in the right way.


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