Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Forgiveness Sunday

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. Today is Cheese Fare Sunday, our last day to enjoy wine and cheese before the start of Great Lent. More important than the fasting of lent however, is our need to begin this holy season with the giving and receiving of forgiveness with one another. If the goal of lent is to more completely love God, we cannot hold anger or resentment toward others in our hearts. If our prayers, our fasting, and our almsgiving are all expressions of a desire to love God and our neighbor as ourselves, we must let go of all that is contrary to love lest we defeat all our lenten efforts. Thus, tonight we’ll come together once again for the beautiful Forgiveness Vespers service which includes each of us going around the room to ask forgiveness from one another, and in turn, offering complete forgiveness from the heart. Among other things, this service reminds us that we are members of the Body of Christ and therefore mystically joined to one another. If any one of us should sin, even in secret, it affects us all. If there is enmity of any sort between brothers and sisters, parents and children, husbands and wives, it diminishes us all. We are not individuals, detached and isolated from one another. We are a Body in which the spiritual health of every member is important to the whole. This is why the NT scriptures repeatedly urge us to put aside all anger, resentments, self-importance, indignation, envying, gossip, and every corrupting and divisive thing, and embrace one another at all times with the mercy, love, and forgiveness of Christ. Even if you can think of no one against whom you’ve sinned or who has sinned against you, you still need to seek forgiveness. For there are sins of commission and omission, and perhaps our most frequent sins are all those good things we leave undone: the prayers we should have offered but didn’t, the kind or comforting word we left unsaid, the promises we broke, the help we might have given but withdrew from, or the ministry or labor that we left to others in the parish to do. These things also reflect a lack of love and a coldness of heart that is best healed by repentance and the humble asking of forgiveness. Every once-in-awhile I might hear from one person or another that they can’t forgive so-and-so yet because “their issues haven’t been resolved.” Many of us seem to have this idea in our heads that the one all-important prerequisite to forgiveness is “working things out,” by which we usually mean making the other person give us satisfaction by admitting how wrong they were and how deeply they’ve offended us. Let me ask a few simple questions concerning this. Has God ever demanded that of you? Did He insist that you resolve every issue with Him before He would grant you forgiveness? Has He ever required you to acknowledge every single act by which you have offended Him and make you swear on a stack of bibles that you would never do any of them again? Not really, huh? You see, God operates differently than we tend to. He forgives us out of love, and demands no satisfaction for Himself. His hope is that by granting us unmerited love and forgiveness, we will come around and begin to respond with repentance in order that our communion with Him might be fully restored. We tend to want the repentance and restoration before we will give forgiveness. There is something that we need to understand about forgiveness that will greatly help us in this regard, namely that Forgiveness and Justice are mutually exclusive. Wherever you have the one, there is a conspicuous absence of the other. Did God demand justice before granting us forgiveness? Not at all, for “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ’s death was not to satisfy the Father’s irrevocable sense of justice as the heterodox teach, but was to deliver us from death and allow us to be raised to newness of life by His glorious third-day resurrection. St. Isaac of Syria wrote, “Never say that God is just. If He were just you would be in hell. Rely only on His injustice which is mercy, love, and forgiveness.” Elsewhere this same saint wrote, “Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you.” And again, “Mercy and just judgment existing in a single soul is like a man worshipping God and idols in the same house. Mercy is opposed to just judgment.” When we therefore demand justice from those who have offended us, even justice in such seemingly innocent guise as a forced apology from the other, we have left the arena of mercy and forgiveness into a realm of demanding more from one another than God demands of us. This is why the Forgiveness Vespers service is so simple and straightforward. We do not have counseling booths set up outside where people can sit and work out their issues with each another before coming in. We simply come together, worship our merciful God together, and forgive one another as He forgives us. What more is needed in our life together as a fallen and broken people seeking our mutual salvation? And I will take it a step further. Whenever anyone offends you, strive not to become angry, but to bear the offense gladly as your tiny share in the sufferings of Christ. Hasten to forgive from your heart, blaming yourself for the offense even if you’re certain it was entirely the other person’s fault (Remember, there is no justice where mercy is concerned). Graciously cover the other’s sin, and do not loudly trumpet it about to his shame. Are we not told that love covers a multitude of sins? Pray good things for your offender, for example that God might grant him true peace and joy and further you both in your pursuit of salvation. While apologies are good, and we should always seek to make amends with those we have offended, do not expect the same from your brother, but extend grace and love him even when things are left hanging. If you do these things, the love of God will overflow you, and wash away your sins together with your brother’s as grains of sand in the ocean of divine mercy. This is how we should approach Forgiveness Vespers, and indeed the rest of our lives together. +To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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