11th Sunday after Pentecost – Orthodox Homily on Forgiveness in the New Church Year

Blessed New Year! The new Church year begins today, September 1.  We remember with thanksgiving the multiple ways God has made Himself present to us in the past year and we look forward to growth in our Faith in the new year before us. With the advent of the new Church year and the first Feast of the new year next Sunday, the Nativity of the Theotokos, we’re presented with an opportunity for a new beginning, for spiritual growth, and for renewal.

The passing of time provides us an opportunity to think about how we’ve used this past year that God’s entrusted to us, even as we ponder what this new year will bring. We know that everything temporal in our lives, those material things that consume so much time and focus, begin and come to an end, as do the cycles of the year, our human calendars and sense of time (chronos) are temporal, even our own lives, as we hear from King David in Psalm 103: “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more (Ps. 103:15-16). 

But everything born of God grows in perpetuity to eternal life.   At Vespers we sing the beautiful verses of Psalm 104, “The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.  The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.  The sun ariseth, and man goeth forth unto his work and to his labor until the evening.”  That sun knows its setting, but the Sun of righteousness, born of the Virgin past human comprehension, knows no evening, and has, according to St. James, “no variableness neither shadow of turning (Js. 1:17).  

Christ God, the Light of the world, alone dispels the darkness of sin and fills our souls with this light, the eternal truth of His being.  It is to Him we look for the opportunity this new year to grow in our communion with God the Holy Trinity, to participate more in the Life He alone is.  

Our God is the God of new beginnings.  He receives us again in repentance when we sin.  HE restors a right spirit in us and renews our communion with Him. He interjects into the fallen world and our lives His great forgiveness, the ultimate sign of His Kingdom and foremost demonstration of His great love and mercy for us sinners as He receives the penitent back into renewed relationship with Him, the Author of Life.

When the Lord responded to the Disciples’ question, asking how they should pray, He responded with the Lord’s Prayer and the indelible words of the petition, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  These key words of the prayer pervade the entirety of the Christian life.  True forgiveness is a gift little understood outside of Christ’s Church. In the world an offense may be forgotten, but it’s rarely truly forgiven.  Forgiveness is the New Covenant language and action God has given us that we may be elevated beyond the ‘tit-for-tat,’ fallen relationships so often manifest in the world around us today.

In the world, it’s easy to begrudge, grow bitter, or write off those who’ve offended or hurt us, or, even worse, to desire revenge.  The reality is, though, that bitterness and grudges are like getting bit by a snake over and over again.  Whatever the initial harm that’s been done to us or another—whether real or perceived—our growing bitterness and grudges against that person means that we continue to nurse the same old wound.  It’s like a scab that we just keep re-opening; it can never fully heal. When forgiveness is withheld the damage to our souls is truly devastating.

Often, whatever the initial offense or hurt, our dwelling on it, our cultivating enmity against the offender, will grow the hurt or offense into something even larger than it originally was; it will take on a life of its own, becoming a means through which the enemy underscores to us even more how much we’ve been wronged or how deeply our pride’s been wounded.  As we give into such feelings of hurt ego, anger follows.  So, without forgiveness, these self-inflicted passions, as well as those truly committed against us, continue to bite and sink into us, doing us further harm.

The truth is that when we’re bitter, nursing a grudge or deep wound, we turn someone else’s sin into our own sin; it eats at us like some spiritual ‘cancer’; if unchecked, it grows, infecting our souls, destroying our faith even as it alters our sense of reality.  We cannot be close to God, we cannot maintain and grow our relationship and communion with Him and others, while holding onto bitterness and withholding forgiveness from one another; the two are mutually opposed.

God, in His great love for us, desires our freedom from such spiritual cancer:  bitterness, grudges, enmity, and the sin of pride that makes it so easy to take offense.  When St. Peter asks the Lord how many times we must forgive, thinking maybe seven times would be sufficient, the Lord replies,” seventy times seven”(Matt. 18:22), symbolic of an infinite sum.  

The premise of this infinite forgiveness comes from God: He grants forgiveness to us over and over, as many times as we confess our sins to Him with the intent to change and amend our words, thoughts, and actions.  And while we ourselves sin and then may struggle to forgive those who wrong us, God does not sin and yetHe forgives us for our sins against Him andothers.  For this reason, regular sacramental confession is so important for our relationship with God and others; it’s truly a breakthrough of the healing of heaven into our otherwise sin-sick souls.  

To illustrate this truth, Christ gives us today’s parable: One of the Master’s servants owes him an incredible amount, ten thousand talents, it’s an impossible sum.  If we thought of God’s forgiveness towards us in terms of a debt, we’d never be able to settle such an account.  This is why we call God’s salvation, “grace,” “mercy.”  The servant is forgiven as God forgives us our sins.  But he, having received that gracious gift of forgiveness for his own debts, immediately takes his fellow servant by the throat, demanding that he pay all hisdebts, which in comparison to his own are but a pittance.  

So, the question raised here is how we dare to withhold forgiveness from our fellow man and yet expect that no matter what, God will forgive us.  If we do so, we may presume on God’s grace.  Such a state of hypocrisy puts us spiritually in a very perilous place indeed.  The Lord warns us that such a double-standard simply cannot be.  

When the Master in today’s parable discovers what his wicked servant has done, throwing his fellow servant into prison, failing to forgive his debt when his own debt has been so mercifully forgiven, he grows righteously angry.  Jesus warns us, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” This teaching then goes to the heart of what the Body of Christ is to do: forgive one another from the heartbecause we can’t claim communion with God if we withhold forgiveness from one another.  

At the same time, let’s recognize that forgiving others can often be a deep struggle, particularly in the cases of abuse or other such deep and painful wounds caused by another’s sins. For this reason, we do well to remember that forgiving is notthe same as forgetting.  We may never forget a wrong, abuse, some grievous sin done against us, but we can with God’s help, learn through much struggle to forgive that person and practice ongoingforgiveness.  In other words, we can make the ongoing work of forgiveness a matter of regular prayer and confession.

We remember the Lord’s words on the cross asking the Father to forgive His tormentors, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  St. Stephen, the Protomartyr said the same thing of those who in their hatred stoned him to death.  Only the love of God can do this.  He, who has gone before us in all things, shows us the way, leading us by His own example.

For our part, we can pray regularly to grow in such love.  We can pray that God will free us from bitterness and enable us to forgive. We can confess our grudges and bitterness as often as we must.  Even if it takes a lifetime, God will honor our struggle.  God’s healing in this regard begins with the desire to wantto learn to forgive others as God has forgiven and does forgive us.  

Along with active forgiving, we can also learn to say no to nursing wounds and building grudges or spreading gossip and mistrust that result from perceivedwrongs.  We can learn to go to the person who’s offended us to speak to them about it first.  We can give that person an opportunity to explain, ask forgiveness, and reconcile with us. But even if that person doesn’t offer to apologize, we can, in humility, learn to forgive and love them and, even better, to ask them theirforgiveness.  This is the strength and love our growing communion with Christ God gives us.  

As we grow in love for Christ, we learn to cultivate an attitude of being “slow to speak, slow to anger, and quick to forgive” (Js. I:19) St. Paul admonishes us, likewise, to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:22).

In this way, we learn to combat bitterness and grudges before they even set root and begin spreading their ‘poison’.  Forgiveness is the key.  Through humility and repentance, we grow free of and find healing from this spiritual ‘cancer’ in the body of the Church and in our own lives.  We demonstrate the love and forgiveness so indicative of the Kingdom of God into our otherwise transitory world.  This is the good news offered us today as we begin the new Church year: good news for those in search of the truth of God and new life in Him; good news for those needing healing and strength to forgive; good news for those needing to renew their communion with God; and good news for all of us desiring to grow in faith and love of God this new year.  

Fr. Robert Miclean

Holy Archangels Orthodox Church

Sunday, 12 August 2018

On Forgiveness 5

Epistle:            I Cor. 9:2-12

Gospel:            Matthew 18:23-35