Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Homily for Forgiveness Sunday Vespers - (February 18, 2018)


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

Beloved in Christ, we have now entered into the holy season of Great Lent. The next forty days will be a time of increased prayer, of works of asceticism, constant recollection and reflection, and of personal and community self-evaluation and penance. It is a time of forgiveness and a time of reconciliation.

Before I continue, I want to say something about forgiveness. Specifically, I want to talk about what forgiveness is not. This is especially important because it affects all that we think, say, and do, not only during Great Lent but throughout our entire lives. It is especially important, however, that we reflect on forgiveness as we prepare ourselves for the rite of forgiveness that we shall shortly begin.

Forgiveness is not excusing what a person has done or pretending that it never happened. That is simply dishonest. Forgiveness cannot be genuine until such time as the person who has been hurt, fully acknowledges the depth and reality of the offense. Similarly, forgiveness is meaningless to the offender if it is not accompanied by the full acknowledgment of having done wrong, asking for forgiveness of the one who was harmed or hurt, doing penance, and making satisfaction.

Sometimes people will say, “Oh, there’s nothing to forgive” when another comes asking for forgiveness. That denies the truth about the past and about the fact that they are now injured. Sometimes, one who has been hurt will say something like, “If I admit that you did, in fact, hurt me, you will have some kind of power over me and you will know how to hurt me in the future. Therefore, I will pretend to be unaffected and simply dismiss the request by laughing it off.” This is a common temptation.

Forgiveness is also not the same thing as not hurting. It is hard to feel like you have forgiven someone when you still carry the wounds from the offense. It is hard to feel like you have forgiven them when you still get angry at the very thought of them. But forgiveness is a decision. Hurting is very much a feeling. The two things are not the same. I can choose to release a person from what they owe me, and still experience the sting of what they took from me. If you struggle to forgive someone because the wound is still there, that is fine. You can still decide to release the one who offended or hurt you from his or her debt.

Here is one final thought about what forgiveness is not. It is not the same thing as forgetting. It is not the same thing as pretending that you can trust this person or that (in the case of betrayal by someone close to you) this person is still your best friend. That would be foolish, and again, it would be dishonest.

As Christians, we are called to be wise. Yes, we are called to forgive, but that is not the same thing as bringing someone who has proven that they are untrustworthy back into your confidence without them first demonstrating that they have earned your trust again. If a friend hurts or betrays your friendship, forgiving them does not necessarily mean that you will be friends again. You can do what you are called to do (release them) without entering back into a significant relationship with them again.

And this brings us to what forgiveness is. Forgiveness begins by acknowledging that those who have hurt or offended you actually owe you something. They are, in a sense, “indebted” to you. Justice would demand that they give you what they owe you. Forgiveness is when you make the decision to release them from their debt or obligation. Forgiveness is when you make the decision that you will not “collect” what they owe you. It is setting the other person free.

In this entire process, it is important to keep in mind that this does not always go as smoothly, and is not always received as graciously, as you might imagine. The person that you forgive may not know or believe that they have done anything wrong. They may not accept your offer of forgiveness and instead may turn it back as an accusation against you.

In these cases, it is still vitally important that you make the decision to forgive because God has commanded it and has made it clear that we are forgiven to the extent that we are willing to forgive those who have hurt us. When we release others from their debt, it is only because God has released us from the debt that we owed it to Him.

Every act of forgiveness sets at least one person free: the person doing the forgiving. Forgiveness can be the decision to not become bitter. Even though the person who has hurt you may never acknowledge or receive your offer of forgiveness when you forgive you are released from bondage. You are released from the pain of the past. You can be hurt, you can still remember the injury, but if you forgive, you can also still be free.

There is, however, one catch attached to forgiveness. And that is this: forgiveness is an act of love. In order for forgiveness to be genuine, it must be a free act of love, with no strings attached. Forgiveness without love is not forgiveness at all. It is nothing, it is meaningless.

This is a hard truth to bear, and I know there will be some of you here this morning, or who will read this homily online, that will think I am crazy for saying this. But the truth is what I have said: forgiveness without love is nothing.

Did not God love us so much that He sent His only-begotten Son to die in payment of the debts we incurred with Him because of our sins? God’s forgiveness of our sins was an act of love. Jesus dying on the Cross for our sakes was an act of love. Jesus’s death on the Cross was the manifestation of God’s mercy toward us, which is infinite and everlasting.

But that is not to say that God cannot or will not revoke His mercy. Remember the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. A king wanted to settle his accounts with his servants. One servant could not pay what he owed, and the king ordered him, together with his wife and children and all that he owned, to be sold so that what he owed could be repaid. But the servant fell to his knees and begged the king for mercy. Out of pity, the king granted the servants request. Now when the servant left the king, he came upon someone who owed him money. The king’s servant demanded that the man pay him, but the servant could not pay. He pleaded for mercy, but the king’s servant refused and had the man arrested. When the king found out what had happened, he was furious and summoned his servant to come before him. When the servant arrived, the king confronted him and said to him, “You owed me a great sum of money which you could not pay. You asked for mercy, that I not sell you and all that you own and give you more time to pay your debt to me. But I hear now, that one of your brethren who owed you money was not able to pay his debt, a sum much less than what you owed me, and that he asked you for mercy and more time to pay what he owed, but that you refused and had the man imprisoned until he pay the debt. Was I not merciful to you? Why then, should you not show mercy to him who was indebted to you? And in anger, the king sent his servant to prison” (Matthew 18:23-35).

The parable is very clear. The king is God. The unmerciful servant can be anyone of us here this morning. The other debtor can also be any one of us. God, who has forgiven us, will revoke His mercy if we do not show mercy to those who us a debt or obligation. God makes this point emphatically throughout Sacred Scripture.

When Jesus taught us to pray the Our Father, He put seven petitions on our lips, but only one had a condition attached to it. "Forgive us our trespasses," we pray, "as we forgive those who have trespassed (sinned) against us." We need already to have forgiven and to have the intention to continue to forgive. "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses," Jesus tells us right after revealing to us the Lord's Prayer.

Now some people may say that the concept of forgiveness is nice, but unrealistic because people hurt each other without end. This way of thinking minimizes or denies the absoluteness of God. It functions implicitly as if God had no clear and unchanging character, as though there were no divine measure for human character or behavior. This kind of relativism does not get along well with biblical statements like, "Be holy for I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16), or, "Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). So, relativism minimizes the absoluteness of God and His will.

Relativism also maximizes the absoluteness of self. It says that the way to healing and wholeness is to stop measuring yourself by external standards or expectations, even God's. Instead, without reference to God or His Word, be yourself. Make yourself the measure of what is good and acceptable. Give yourself an unconditional positive self-regard. The only role that God has to play in this relativism is to be the divine endorsement of your own self-affirmation. God functions as a kind of booster for the absoluteness of self. If He presents Himself as one with standards or commandments, then He is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The saddest thing about this way of thinking is that it undermines the glory of God's grace in forgiveness. It sounds gracious on the surface, to say that God has no law, no standards, no expectations, no commandments, no threats, that He is simply there to affirm us in whatever we happen to be. This all sounds great, but there is something very wrong with this way of thinking and believing. First, it denies the love of others and exults the love of self. Second, it denies forgiveness. If there is no love in one’s heart for others, then there cannot be forgiveness.

Where there is no law, no just standard, no legitimate expectation, no normative way of relating to God and man, there can be no forgiveness. Because forgiveness is the letting go of real offenses, real transgressions, real violations, real faults. But if there is no law to transgress, or no standard to offend against, or no expectation to violate, or no commandment to disobey, or no love to give or share, then there can be no forgiveness. What looked like grace turns out to be the undermining of grace by the undermining of forgiveness.

These are the two great needs that we all have. The first is to be forgiven; to have all the violations, offenses, transgressions, disobedience, and sins that burden our souls and make life difficult for us canceled out. "Though your sins are as scarlet they shall be as white as snow!" (Isaiah 1:18). And the second need is to have God Himself come into our lives where sin once reigned. We need a personal relationship with God through His Spirit. We need wisdom and guidance and love and joy and peace and patience and goodness and self-control. And we need extraordinary power for the task of local and world evangelization. We need the gift of the Holy Spirit. "What shall we do?" What shall we do so that our sins will be forgiven, and we can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? The answer is simple: "Repent!”

Repentance is not just regretting. Repentance means following through on that conviction and turning around—changing your mind and your heart so that you are no longer at odds with God but in sync with God. Jesus spoke to Paul in Acts 26:18 about this "turning" that leads to forgiveness and gave Paul his commission with these words, "I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins." There it is. That is repentance: turning from darkness to light and from Satan to God. It is a reversal of the direction of your life—toward God.

To illustrate the need for repentance, Jesus used the parable of a fig tree. The point of the parable is this: fig trees are supposed to do one thing, produce figs. And in the parable, the tree was given an amount of time to be cared for and fertilized, but there would come a day of reckoning where either the fig tree produced fruit, or it was going to be cut down because it was not producing fruit as it should.

In the parable, the unproductive tree represented the Jews who were not producing the fruit of faith and repentance. They had been given time to produce, and they did not, they refused to believe that Jesus was, in fact, the promised Messiah, and instead of confessing their sins, repenting of them, and believing that the Messiah would die for their sins and they would amend their sinful lives, they kept on doing what they were doing, all the while pointing out things that were happening to others, thinking that they were just fine with God because something horrible did not happen to them.

The owner of the vineyard is God the Father, the one who is looking for the fruit, in this case, the fruit of repentance. He was giving time for the fertilizer, that is, His Word, to be showered upon the trees, but there would come a day where fruit would be expected, or it faces judgment.

This is a timely parable for this penitential season of Great Lent because historically, it is a time of fasting, prayer, and repentance as we ponder what our Savior, Jesus Christ, has done for us at the cross. In fact, for centuries, the season of Lent was a time of catechesis, or instruction, for adult converts into the Christian faith. They would spend this time in an intense study of the Scriptures, with the goal at the end of that period being the confession of their sinfulness and their subsequent reception into the Church, as members of the Body of Christ. 

On the eve of Pascha, at the Great Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday night, these adult converts would make a public confession of their faith and be baptized. The timing symbolized the fact that their sins had been atoned for by Christ’s death and that they were now being raised to new life with Christ as Christ was raised to life again on Easter morning. And that is really the life of the Christian, a life of repentance. In acknowledging this, we recognize that our sin will cut us off from God and the life He has to give if we remain in sin and do not repent of it.

Every Sunday, every holy day, and every feast day, when we attend and participate in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we hear about what our Savior has done for us through His life, death, and resurrection. Leaving here as His forgiven people, we want to live our lives in repentance by avoiding sin in our lives as well as the near occasions of sin, those things or people that may cause us to sin.

Forgiveness is like being cured of a horrible disease. Once you have received the medicine and been cured, you do not then go out and expose yourself to it again so that you can get sick. Fruits of repentance work the same way. Once we recognize a sin, recognize what it threatens to do to our lives, confess it for what it is, and receive Christ’s forgiveness through Word and Sacrament, we stay away from it so that it does not threaten to devour us in the end.

Unfortunately, I have seen and met too many people who profess to be Christians who think “all I have to do is come to church on Sunday morning, confess my sins, get my vitamin pill of forgiveness, and then go back to what I usually do because I can be forgiven of it anyway.” That is not what repentance and forgiveness of sins are about at all. Are we truly sorry for our sins if we just treat the forgiveness Christ won for us on the Cross in such a cheap, meaningless manner? Is that what God really expects of us? Certainly, no one with intelligence and the faculty to reason rightly can justifiably say or believe that forgiveness of sins is automatic simply because one says he or she is sorry. There must be the intent to convert one’s heart and behavior; there has to the intention, born from both the heart and from faith, not to sin again.

Repentance and forgiveness of sins is not something to be taken lightly; we are talking about life and death stuff here. I have consistently taught you that you must keep your hearts pure and your soul free from the stain of sin; that you must make this a  daily priority so that if you were to die today, you may present yourself worthy before the throne of God and hear His words of comfort: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over little, I will set you over much. Enter now into the joy of your Lord.”

Death can come to anybody at any time. Nobody knows when their time is up. Repentance is a daily part of the Christian life because if you are going around thinking that you do not need to amend your lives, are you in for a big surprise! Your time may well be running out. Yes, this is life or death stuff.

But for today, you and I have been given time to repent of our sins and trust in Jesus Christ for our forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. God does not just zap people who do not believe in Him. He preserves their lives for a time in this world so that they can hear His Word in the hopes that they will repent and be forgiven. In the Old Testament, He sent His prophets to warn the people of Israel to turn back from their sinful ways, and their false gods, and turn to Him in repentance and faith, trusting that He would deliver on His promise of a Messiah before time ran out and judgment came. And too many times, it did.

For us today, our Lord gives us time. He gives us this season of Great Lent; the time to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with those in our community who may not believe in Him. Time to show through our fruits of repentance and faith what Christ has done for us, the difference He makes in our lives, and the reason that we are here in this community. Time to make serving others an integral part of our life so that in doing so, we make Christ visibly present in a world so lost, so corrupt, and so much in need of love and hope. That is why we boldly proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ crucified for the sins of the world to the people in our lives and in our communities, with the hope and the prayer that they will produce fruits of repentance and faith before the day of grace has ended.

Tragic things have happened in our world, and tragic things will continue to happen, reminders that our time is short, and we live in a world that is plagued with the inescapable reality of the wages of sin, which is death.

None of us should ignore or take lightly the consequence of God revoking His mercy and forgiveness. If He does so, we will go to Hell, a prison in which there will never be enough time to pay our debt, because unless God forgives us our sins, our sins will prevent us from getting to Heaven. I can add also that if we fail to forgive others, we will not have to wait until we die to go to Hell because we will already be experiencing a hell on earth. The past pains due to others' sins against us will always remain in the present, raw and heavy, dragging us down by their weight. Jesus gives us the command to forgive others not just so that we might imitate His merciful love, and not even so that we would revoke it by our failure to be merciful to others, but so that we might experience the liberation and joy mercy brings the giver. 

At this time, I would like to give you four simple tips that I hope will help you make this Great Lent spiritually fruitful and beneficial. First, for us to be merciful to others, we need to recognize that we, like them, are also in need of mercy; that we, like them, are in fact debtors because of our sins. The more we are aware of our own need for forgiveness from God and the more we receive it, the easier it should be to extend that gift toward others. That is why it is crucially important that we examine our consciences daily and go to confession frequently. When we recognize that even our "smallest" sins incur an infinite debt that Jesus had to pay with His own blood, then we want to root those sins out. Sorrow for our sins and a healthy self-love move us to go to the Divine Creditor and drop to our knees, begging for His mercy in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

The second practical tip relates to our mercy with others. Sometimes we hesitate to forgive others because we think it implies that we do not consider what they have done any longer to be wrong. But this is a false and harmful understanding of forgiveness. When we forgive another, it does not mean that we approve of the wrong they have done or will not try to bring a malefactor to justice if they have done something criminal. Mercy is not opposed to justice and to forgive does not mean to be weak and "soft on crime." On the contrary, a true spirit of forgiveness involves a genuine horror for the sinful quality of the harm sins do and the deep desire to right the wrong and deter others from committing similar wrongs. It involves hating the sin but loving the sinner. Sometimes our greatest mercy toward another is, in a spirit of unvindictive charity, to help them to see the error of their deeds and repent through a just punishment.

The third tip is to recall that Jesus never said, "Forgive and forget." So many people have told me over the years that they cannot forgive because they can never forget the pain from the harm done by others. Jesus never told us, "Forgive and forget," because of the simple fact that when another deeply hurts us, there is no way we could ever forget that. Forgiveness is not some type of psychological or emotional amnesia. It is something altogether different.

That leads me to the fourth and last practical point.  Forgiveness means changing the present significance of a past event, from one that causes pain to one that leads to mercy and love. Imagine your best friend deeply betrays you and you find it difficult even to think about the person, not to mention be in the other's presence. What would forgiveness look like in that circumstance?

It would begin by praying in these or similar words, "Dear Lord, please be merciful to that person and be merciful to me too." Whenever we do this, we are changing the present meaning of the person's past actions from something that opens up the wounds of pain and hurt to something that causes us to pray for mercy for that person and for us too. I call it the "cow manure" principle, by which we change the detritus we have undergone into fertilizer for growth in holiness. If we can convert all of these past pains into present opportunities to pray for God's mercy, then we have a chance to become deeply holy, because there are always plenty of people and reasons to forgive.

Whenever we come into the presence of those who have hurt or wronged us, if we are led to pray for them and for ourselves, then instead of doing us harm, they will do us great good. That is what forgiveness really is. Today, Jesus is calling us to recall those whom we need to forgive and to extend toward them the same offer of mercy He extends toward us.

Our Lord called us to "love others as I have loved you," and His love for us is always merciful. Therefore, our love for others must likewise always be clement. As He was dying to pay the debt for our sins, after His back had been shredded at the flagellation, after His head had been crowned with thorns, and the Roman soldiers were about to hammer His arms to the wood of the Cross, Jesus cried out not in pain but in mercy: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!" (Luke 23:34). The "them" and the "they" He was referring to were not just the Roman soldiers who clearly knew how to crucify someone, but to all of us who when we sin really do not have a clue about how they crucify and kill our Savior. There is a similar consequential ignorance when we sin against others and others sin against us.

Today, Jesus is asking us to make His words our own, to make His love our own, to make His mercy our own - by our receiving it from Him in the Sacrament of Mercy and by our sharing that forgiveness lavishly, with others. He who is mercy incarnate has made us rich in mercy like His Father. He has restored to us billions that we have squandered. Let us spend that merciful love down to the last penny!

As we begin our Lenten journey, let us be thankful that God gives us a time and season to repent of our sins, believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, and live in the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation that He has provided for us. But let us not stop there, let us also go out and share that joy of repentance with the people in our community and the world.

This is what tonight's service of forgiveness and reconciliation is all about, my beloved, and indeed it is what all of Great Lent is about, and actually, I must say, it is what our entire life as Christians is about - being reconciled to one another, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. And by so doing, we become united to Christ Himself.

Amen.

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