The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (6:14-21)
The Orthodox Church is interested above all else, in the healing of the human person. Each of us was created in the image and growing towards the likeness of God and yet this has been distorted and disfigured within us because of our sins. We are broken as people. We are fragmented in our mind, body and soul. This is the natural result because our sins cause fragmentation within us as well as between us and God and then between us and everyone around us. Sin breaks and divides, yet the Church seeks to offer the healing of Jesus Christ not only through words, but through the life giving grace of the worship and sacramental life.
As we are now at the doorway, at the very edge of entering into the great and holy arena of Lent, we are reminded that all of this is given to us by the Church, for our healing. We aren’t fasting to be miserable or to draw attention to ourselves. We are fasting in order to become reunited within ourselves and with God and with those around us. We are making war against the passions and the flesh and strengthening our spiritual efforts by God’s grace.
In an effort to make sure that we begin the lenten struggle on the right foot, the Church gives us this beautiful gospel reading for the Sunday of Forgiveness. These words of Our Lord Jesus Christ come from His sermon on the mount. We hear these words “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.”
In this short saying, we receive one of the great keys to the kingdom of heaven and to a life of peace. Forgive everyone of everything. Whether intentional or unintentional, whether someone has sinned against you in words or deeds or dirty looks or bad thoughts, forgive them. Husbands, forgive your wives. Wives, forgive your husbands. Parents, forgive your children. Children, forgive your parents and your brothers and sisters. Forgive your friends and co-workers. Even forgive your enemies. This is a sign that we are healing as people, that we are quick to forgive others. It is a sign that we are growing in the image and likeness of God, that we are becoming His children. How beautiful is life when people ask forgiveness and forgive one another quickly, without delay!
St. Nikolai of Zicha once said “Absolutely nothing will help us if we are not lenient toward the weaknesses of men and forgive them. For how can we hope that God will forgive us if we do not forgive others?”No one here is perfect. Everyone here has sinned either in word, deed or thought and these sins affect everyone in the community. When you are struggling, that affects me. When I struggle, that affects you. What a lovely thing it is for brothers and sisters to really give each other the benefit of the doubt, to be patient with one another, to speak to one another.
Tonight we will come together for forgiveness vespers. What a powerful, moving service! I hope that each and every one of you is able to come and be a part of this healing and uniting act. The Holy Spirit is present in a tangible way, when we humble ourselves before one another and say “forgive me.” What a joy it is to bow low before each of you and ask you to forgive me. I know that I am not perfect and that I sin often, either through some careless word or through neglect or in a myriad of other ways. But this service that we do together is the start of a new foundation for each of us in our spiritual life. We refresh and we begin anew as Lent begins. In this service of forgiveness we even begin to have a foretaste of the paschal joy, the joy of the resurrection! Because in the resurrection we “call brothers, even those who hate us.” We come face to face and make an effort. We break a sweat. We do with our actions, what we claim to want in our hearts, and healing follows.
When we forgive it is not enough to forgive people in our own prayers before God. We should go to them and ask them to forgive us. We are not guaranteed that they will respond appropriately or kindly. But we should ask them and unburden ourselves and make our conscience clear before God. And likewise when we forgive people, we should really mean it. It is not enough to say it and then go on speaking ill of others or judging them or condemning them. We should try to act kindly towards them. There are many ways that we deceive ourselves when we say that we are not angry with others and then we recall the past or we speak ill of others or won’t sit down at table with them, or won’t acknowledge their presence. This is not forgiveness or love.
Listen to the words of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk “Do we refuse to forgive? God, too, will refuse to forgive us. As we treat our neighbours, so also does God treat us. The forgiveness or unforgiveness of your sins, then, and hence also your salvation or destruction, depend on you yourself. For without forgiveness of sins there is no salvation. You can see for yourself how serious it is.”
God gives us the method and the tools for our healing, but He does not force us to use them. Our path is narrow as Christians. It is the path of love and this path often requires forgiveness. And how many times should we forgive our brothers and sisters? The Lord Jesus says “even seventy times seven” meaning, an infinite number of times…as often as God Himself has forgiven and continues to forgive each and every one us. May we strive to be healed together here in the Church, and may we start on this great and holy journey together crying out “God forgive me, a sinner!” AMEN.