Tag Archives: Forgiveness Sunday

Don’t Murder Love

Sunday, March 10 (O.S.: February 25), 2019: Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise (Forgiveness or Cheesefare Sunday).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Romans 13:11-14; 14:1-4
Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Slapping me on the shoulder, my friend Rabbi Joe once told me, “I like you, Fr Gregory! You think like a Jew! You forgive everything but forget nothing!”

I’m not exactly sure what Rabbi meant but I’ll defer to his judgment as to what it means to be Jewish. What I can say is that forgiveness is central to both Judaism and Christianity.

For Orthodox Christianity, forgiveness is the evidence of the truth of the Gospel that

Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death,

And upon those in the tombs Bestowing life!

Jesus tells us not only to forgive our enemies and love those who persecute us (see Matthew 5:44) but that we are to do so “seven times seventy time” (see Matthew 18:22).

And when He appears to His disciples after the Resurrection He grants them the power to “bind and loosen” (Matthew 18:18) the sins of others: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).

In all this, we should lose sight of the fact that we are able to forgive because we have been forgiven by God.

For most of us, most of the time, the sins we forgive, like the sins for which we need forgiveness, are usually petty. We are all of us primarily perpetrators and victims not of great injustices but minor annoyances. We are slowly “nibbled to death by ducks” rather than quickly killed by the sword.

This is why in her wisdom, the Church asks us to begin the season of the Great Fast by participating in the Rite of Mutual Forgiveness. We have all of us sinned against each of us even if only in mostly minor ways.

There is a caution that is important here.

The formality of the rite–”Forgive me a sinner!” “God forgives!”–is appropriate when the offense is minor and so easily forgiven and forgotten.

But if the offense is serious, if we were the victim or perpetrator of some great injustice, the formality of the rite is inappropriate. Simply saying “Forgive me a sinner!” would work against forgiveness and undermine reconciliation.

In the case of a serious offense, the formality of the words would not unreasonably be seen as a way of minimizing the harm and of forgetting the past without working to build–or rather, re-build, trust.

In the case of a serious offense, the formality of the Rite of Forgiveness erodes whatever trust is left between us. It says to the one I have harmed that I don’t take seriously the offense I’ve given and so I don’t take seriously the harm he has suffered.

As I said, the Rite of Forgiveness isn’t meant to undo “deadly sins” (see 1 John 5:17) but the myriad minor infractions we all of us commit and suffer daily. The latter can be easily forgiven, while the former requires not only that I go to Holy Confession but that I seek to make right personally and practically the wrong that I’ve done.

But today, today we approach each other with a generous, forgiving and repentant heart for the small offenses we have given and received.

But this doesn’t undermine what I said a moment ago. Our mutual forgiveness is evidence of the truth of the Resurrection, that the power of sin and death have been overcome (see Romans 8:2).

For all that any single offense is minor, in the aggregate, they are as deadly as any single serious sin.

The sad truth is that just as love between a husband and wife, to take only one example, can be killed by one instance of adultery, it can be ground down and destroyed by daily indifference. And like in marriage, infidelity in the spiritual life need not be dramatic to be deadly.

Thinking back almost 30 years later to my friend the late Rabbi Joe, I think what he meant to say was that, a good Jew (and so a good Christian), must always be ready to forgive but never at the expense of denying the harm we do to each other.

Without forgiveness, the harm we do by even the smallest offense is multiplied, eroding trust and affection until love is murdered. Not only is this is something we can never forget it is also something we need to remember.

Let me speaks now simply for myself.

I need to remember this.

I need to remember this not to justify holding grudges but as a reminder of my need to forgive.

I need to remember that even small offenses, over time, will kill love.

Above all, I need to actively seek and extend forgiveness not just for serious sins but also the myriad small and petty offenses of daily life.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Forgive me a sinner!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Forgiveness Sunday

Sunday, February 26, 2017: Forgiveness Sunday; Porphyrius, Bishop of Gaza, The Holy Great Martyr Photine, the Samaritan Women, Holy Martyr Theocletus, John Claphas the new Martyr

Epistle: Romans 13:11-14; 14:1-4
Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21

Through the Apostle Paul, the Church reminds us that today, this morning, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand.” There is, or should be, a sense of urgency in how I approach the Great Fast. It’s beginning signals the growing nearest of our victory in Christ.

On first hearing, the Apostle Paul’s words might seem negative—“ cast off the works of darkness.” But this “no” to the “the flesh” is in the service of a greater, “yes.” We cast off the darkness of sin so we can “put on the armor of light.”  We have the strength to throw away “reveling and drunkenness, … debauchery and licentiousness, … quarreling and jealousy,” because we have experienced the mercy of God in our own lives and so long to live in charity with our neighbor, especially for the one “who is weak in faith.”

Just before today’s Gospel reading, the disciples ask Jesus how to prayer and so He teaches them the Lord’s Prayer. Reflecting on the prayers, St John Chrysostom says that “everywhere” Jesus “is teaching us to use this plural word that we might not retain so much as a vestige of resentment against our neighbor.”

Our willingness to forgive—to lay aside our resentment for the harm others have caused us—“makes us like God” Chrysostom says.  To be like God means to be like Him “Who has made ‘the sun to shine on the evil and on the good.’” This is why,

…Christ is seeking in every possible way to hinder our conflicts with one another. For since love is the root of all that is good, by removing from all quarters whatever mars it He brings us together and cements us to each other (“The Gospel of Matthew, Homily, 19.7,” in ACCS: NT vol Ia Matthew 1-13, p. 139).

Rooted in the grace of the sacraments—above all Holy Communion and Confession—we can summarize the of the acetical life and the life of virtue as nothing more or less than removing all that disfigures or impedes our love for one another.

We often hear people say so long as they don’t hurt anyone, they can do as they want. According to this standard, while quarreling and jealousy are wrong, reveling and drunkenness, and as long as they are consensual, debauchery and licentiousness are merely private choices, no better or worse than any other. Sadly, even Christians, who ought to know better, are liable to hold to this view of the moral life.

This, however, is to get Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel exactly backwards.

In the verses after those we’ve just heard Jesus tell us

The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23, NKJV)

A jealous and argumentative attitude toward my neighbor is the corrupted fruit of exactly those sins that St Paul tells us to lay aside. The more I give myself over to “the flesh,” the more I will come to “despise” my neighbor and to “pass judgment on him.”

This happens because just “as when the eyes are blinded, some of the ability of the other members is diminished, their light be quenched, so also when the mind is depraved, your life will be filled with countless evils” (St John Chrysostom, “The Gospel of Matthew, Homily, 20.3,” in ACCS: NT vol Ia Matthew 1-13, p. 142).  To root out the petty jealousy and arguments that ripe apart families and parishes and society I need to root out my own selfish tendencies. I need to fight against those very sins in my that I’m likely to overlook or indulge because they (seemingly) don’t hurt anyone else. But they do because they harm my ability to love my neighbor and so impede our shared restoration and journey to the life God created us to have.

 

To root out from my heart the petty jealousy and arguments that rip humanity apart, I need to root out my own selfish tendencies. I need to fight against those very sins in me that I’m likely to overlook or indulge because they (seemingly) don’t hurt anyone else.

But they do harm you because they harm my ability to love you and so impede our shared journey to the life God created us to have.

Think with me for a moment about the Apostle Paul command that we welcome “the man who is weak in faith.”

For the Apostle, “the person in question is not healthy” and in need of the love and care of the whole Church. It isn’t just the priest who heals through the sacraments; all of us by virtue of our baptism and willingness to embrace the stranger as our friend also have a role to play in his salvation.

But some of us are “disconcerted by” their neighbor’s weakness. And even though “they do not share it,” their neighbor’s weakness makes them “liable to fall into uncertainty themselves” (St John Chrysostom, “Homilies on Romans,” 25, in ACCS: NT vol VI Romans, p. pp. 337-338).

My neighbor’s weakness reminds me of my own. My willingness to look away from him because there are sins that I have not yet laid aside. In his weakness, my neighbor reveals to me that I am an enemy of charity.

This is why Paul goes on to say that I am not to pass judgment on my neighbor in his weakness. It is in that moment when your weakness reminds me of my own, that I am most tempted to turn you away in the vain hope of finding some relief from my own failings.

I judge my neighbor, I engage in “quarreling and jealousy,” because he reminds me of what I would not see in myself, my own lack of repentance. And the “reveling and drunkenness” the “debauchery and licentiousness,” the petty arguments and jealousy? What are these but feckless attempts to dull the pain, to justify myself by denying my failings?

My brothers and sisters in Christ!

Today is the last Sunday before the beginning of the Great Fast. At Vespers and Matins, we recalled the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. And on this day as well, we formally ask one another for forgiveness. We ask forgiveness even from those we don’t know and so couldn’t have offended. We ask forgiveness even from those we have never met because we know, I know, that my sin harms them.

Whether the harm is great or small, my sin has harmed you, it has exploited your weakness and impeded your reconciliation with the Father, with our Father. Because my sin harms you, the first step in casting “off the works of darkness,” and putting “on the armor of light,” is simply to acknowledge my failure to love you.

So, my brothers and sisters, forgive me a sinner!

May God grant us a blessed fast and a glorious celebration of His Son Holy and Life-giving Resurrection!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Forgive Sincerely, Generously and Wisely

Sunday, March 13, 2016: Sunday of Forgiveness (Cheese Fare); Translation of the relics of Nikephoros, patriarch of Constantinople; Bishops Poplias and Marios

Epistle: Romans 13:11-14; 14:1-4
Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21

St Paul challenges us when he tells us to remember that our salvation is drawing closer; it “is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” This is why he tells us to “cast off the works of darkness” and instead clothe ourselves with “the armor of light.” It is important to distinguish this call to repentance—to laying aside sin and taking up the practice of virtue—from the various spiritual disciplines of the ascetical life. While we can practice asceticism without repentance, the opposite is simply not possible. That radical change of heart (metanoia) that with baptism is foundational to our life in Christ is simply impossible without ascetical struggle.

We need to be careful though in hw we understand the relationship between asceticism and repentance.

Ascetical struggle is not about keeping the Church’s fasting discipline. To be sure I should fast, and fast as strenuously as I am able to do so. But this along with the other disciplines of Great Lent (prayer and almsgiving) fasting is a tool to help us to lay aside our sins and acquire the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving and by God’s grace, I slowly lay aside “the works of the flesh… adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like” that keep me from “the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5: 19-21, NJKV).

Hearing the list, you might be thinking “But I haven’t committed any of those sins!” Or maybe “I haven’t committed the serious sins! And even the ones I have committed, there were very mild in form.” Fair enough. We are most of us decent people and our sins are typically minor and done more from weakness than malice.

But these sins, however minor, are not so much the cause of my loss of the Kingdom of God but the symptom of my estrangement from Christ and the Kingdom. In whatever form they take in my life, they highlight for the absence of Christ in my heart. Or maybe better, those parts of my life that I have closed off from Christ and His grace.

And so to repentance, I’ve got to add not only the cultivation of virtues. Not only those unique to the Christian life but also those common to all persons of good will. The “fruit of the Spirit,” Paul says is “joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5: 19-21, NJKV) but for these to exist I must also cultivate not only the theological virtues of faith, hope and love but also the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. I must be not only, if I can dare the expression, a virtuous Christian but also a virtuous pagan!

This brings us to the Gospel.

Jesus tells us that if we wish to lay up for ourselves “treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” then we must not only fast but do so simply, quietly and without affecting a “dismal” appearance to draw attention to themselves. To draw attention to ourselves and our fasting, He says, is to live “like the hypocrites,” those whose “virtue” is meant simply to gain the approval of other, equally shallow, self-aggrandizing and frankly silly individuals.

Instead Jesus tells us to “anoint your head, and wash your face.” We should cloth our repentance with the joy of having been forgiven. Rather than making a show our asceticism and the repentance it serves, we need to keep both hidden. We do this not out of shame, since after all “your Father who sees in secret will reward you,” but so our struggle doesn’t distract from what is our primary concern not only during Great Lent but always.

To be disciples of Christ, to be witness to His resurrection, means to be apostles—sacraments—of forgiveness and mercy.

Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”

Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven (Matthew 18: 21-22, NJKV).

As we will hear in the Gospel reading for Agape Vespers on Holy Pascha (John 20:19-25), forgiveness of sins is the pre-eminent sign of the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. No matter how well I sing the Troparion, “Christ is Risen from the dead and by death He has conquered death,” no matter how loudly, how enthusiastically or in how many languages I say “Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!” without forgiveness all of this is vain. “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

It is here, in our obligation to forgive, that we find the reason for our asceticism, our repentance from sin and our cultivation of the life of virtue. All of this helps us, helps me, to forgive sincerely, generously and wisely.

Sincerely, that is not for show but from our hearts because “your Father who is in secret … sees in secret,” and know what is in my heart.

Generously, that is again and again, without limit but “seventy times seven.”

Wisely, that is in a way that truly liberates not only us but those who we forgive from slavery to sin. Too often, Jesus’ command to forgive is misused simply to smooth over difficulties in the Church. While well-meant, doing so has the practical effect of making me a partner in my neighbor’s sin. This is why St Paul says “As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions.” Yes, forgive him his weakness but don’t collude with him in his sin. However noble the aim, when I collude with my neighbor’s sin, I become the occasion of his fall and my own and, in so doing, make us both the enemy of God.

Can the standard of wise forgiveness be twisted? Can it become a pretext for revenge? Sadly, yes. But then what hasn’t sin corrupted? . When I do this, to borrow from Tertullian I am “damned in secret” even while appearing “to be absolved in public.” This is why Jesus warns us against hypocrisy

As we begin the Great Fast, let us by all means fast as strictly as we can, pray not simply longer but more sincerely and give alms freely.

Let us cultivate the life of virtue and so root out the consequences of sin.

Let us also forgive not only our neighbor’s sin but also his weakness.

But let us forgive not only sincerely and generously but also wisely, freeing each other from “the punishment of terror and the fear of judgment” so we can be “filled with … joy … and … purity of his heart” as our God by His kindness “dissolves” our sins “into unspeakable gladness and delight” (St John Cassian, The Conferences).

Forgive me a sinner!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory