Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Sunday of Cheesefare/Forgiveness Sunday

This homily is based upon Matthew 6:14-21

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

This morning is Forgiveness Sunday, which is our doorway to Great Lent. In the gospel lesson from Matthew 6, our Lord Jesus Christ instructs us, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.” As we stand in this doorway, preparing to go forth upon our Lenten journey, we are reminded that forgiveness is the foundation of the Christian life. God has forgiven our sins and granted that we may share in His Divine Life and Love. Forgiveness and love form the whole basis of our communion with Him, as well as the basis of our communion with one another.

As we are told in Ephesians chapter two: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Notice in these verses that it is the love of God that raises us up from the death of separation from God in our trespasses and makes us alive in Christ. I also noticed that the words “us” “we” and “together” are used a total of 8 times throughout these verses to indicate that we are not made alive to God as individuals, but together as the community of those being saved. Salvation is very much a communal experience, not an individual one. Together we are saved in Christ Jesus.

This is the pattern you find throughout the Scriptures. Salvation is a corporate experience. Even in those cases where people might receive the gospel message individually, they are not left in that isolated condition, but are baptized into the Church, have hands laid on them by the apostles of the Church, and are made members of that Church called by St. Paul “the Body of Christ” where their salvation is worked out, lived out and experienced together.

Pop-Christianity has often sought to separate the salvation experience from the Church, but the scriptures and the Christian tradition simply do not support this urge. The Church of the scriptures is not simply a “worship center” for like-minded individuals to gather for fellowship and praise as they each enjoy their own individual relationship with God and their own independent salvation. There is no model for anything of this sort to be found in the bible, although such “centers” exist all around us today. Instead, the bible presents the Church as the community of those who are being saved together.

Understanding that our salvation is a corporate experience, we are therefore very much obligated to pay attention to the many scriptures which command Christians to live together in love and unity and harmony and forgiveness. It would be good if all Christians lived by these verses, but the sad reality is that they do not, or else there would not be the division that we see today in twenty-thousand different denominations. People who believe that their salvation is individually obtained really have no need for unity with other Christians, and those verses which call for it become little more than a nice sentiment, a “scriptural ideal” perhaps, but something which is easily set aside if we simply can’t agree with one another.

We Orthodox Christians cannot afford to live that way and must seek to defeat this divisive spirit wherever in may try to creep into our souls or our parishes. Everything revolves around our unity in Christ. Even here in the Divine Liturgy, our supreme service, we do not commune with God individually, but together as the one Body of Christ. We are even told that before we can take communion as Orthodox Christians we must first be reconciled to one another lest that unity be broken by human sin. Forgiveness is essential to that reconciliation.

Alas, in any community comprised of fallen human beings, there are going to be occasional conflicts and rough spots or hard feelings between people. There will always be pettiness, jealousy, judgmental attitudes, church politics, as well as that strange human tendency toward isolation and coldness and the desire to maintain distance from others. But whereas most people have no reason to address these feelings and tend to simply indulge them, we must consider these things to be enemies of the communion of love and take seriously our need to be reconciled to one another in the Church. This reconciliation includes personal confession to the priest who is the representative of the community and who has the authority to restore broken communion. But it also includes our approaching one another in humility and asking forgiveness for any offense we may have given. That’s what we do tonight during the Forgiveness Vespers service.

You know, some people feel odd about the Forgiveness Vespers because it is such an intimate service. We literally go around to one another and ask forgiveness face-to-face, and some people are uncomfortable with that level of closeness and prefer the comfort of a measure of distance. But we must remember that the kingdom of heaven is not about keeping our distance, but about breaking down the walls that separate us from God and from one another.
You need to go to each person in the church tonight and ask their forgiveness. Even if you can’t think of any overt sins you may have committed, you have still sinned against every person in this room through your indifference, your selfishness, your lack of love for others, your lack of prayer for them and their needs, your lack of sharing your life with them. You need to be forgiven. And you need to forgive others as well, for they have sinned against you in ways that you may know and may not know. We do not seek justice with one another. In fact, you’ll notice that we don’t actually allow the time for people to “discuss their issues” or air their grievances with one another before giving or asking forgiveness, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because mercy is more important than justice. If God was just with us, we would all perish in our sins. But because God forsakes justice for mercy, we can live and can show the same mercy toward each other in the Church.

So forget about your gripes and your discomfort and come tonight seeking only to forgive and be forgiven, to be reconciled, and share together in the communion of love in Christ Jesus our Lord. And may God bless this holy parish and the efforts of our Lenten season this year.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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