45 - Forgiveness, August 8, 2010

I Corinthians 9:2-12

Matthew 18:23-35

To forgive others their sins against us is at the heart of the Christian faith. It is an act that proceeds naturally from the victorious and transcending love of God. The Lord teaches us that we are to forgive when He teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Thus, we cannot pray in the way of the Church if we are not forgiving others; for every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminded that if we are harboring anger, we are keeping ourselves outside the Body of Christ and out of the light. Therefore, we are choosing to place ourselves in the darkness and isolation of hell.

The Lord makes this very hard saying no easier when He says that we must forgive from our heart. Christian forgiveness is genuine; it is not a formality; for, the Lord created us in His Image so that we could grow into His likeness. If we are to become like Christ, who forgave even those who were crucifying Him and asked the Father to forgive them because they knew not what they were doing, we must forgive even those who would torture us.

Each one of us, I believe, wants to obey the commandments of Christ. But, we may feel we don’t have the power or the ability to obey Christ’s commandment to forgive our enemies as God has forgiven us. So, let’s reflect on the Lord’s commandment to forgive so that we can see how to overcome our weakness and put ourselves on that hard way that leads us through the narrow gate of salvation.

In this morning’s Gospel, the servant was forgiven his debt by the Lord because the Lord is infinitely compassionate. God is love, St John the Theologian tells us.[1] And from the prophets, we learn that God does not desire the death of a sinner but that he turn from his wickedness and live.[2] We see this in this morning’s Gospel parable. God does not want to throw His servant into prison. And so He releases His servant from his debt at the servant’s earnest entreaties.

Now, if we are created in God’s Image, and if the nature of that Image is to become like God, how can we dwell with the God who is love and who in His love forgives us and our enemies our sins if we are not forgiving our enemies as God has forgiven us? If we are not forgiving our enemies, we are not like God. Look beyond the anger into the choice not to forgive one’s enemies. You should see beyond the anger a choice that is profoundly selfish and that denies God. This is naturally destructive of our souls, alienating and isolating; for we are made not in the image of ourselves but in the Image of God. In the destiny natural to us, to become like God, we come out of ourselves to live and move and to have our very being not in ourselves but in God the Holy Trinity. So when we choose not to forgive, we choose to stay in ourselves and not to rise up into God. We deny both our own nature and we deny God.

This commandment of the Lord to forgive our enemies from the heart reveals a heavenly reality that is not of this world. It is a reality that is greater and more powerful, more real, than the evils that we inflict on each other. It is a reality of goodness, life and light in a gracious, holy communion of divine love where there is neither sickness nor sorrow nor sighing and it is beautiful to behold. But what makes this reality the Gospel, Good News, is that it is the reality of our own natural destiny to which the Lord is calling us, a reality whose gates He has opened for us by His death and resurrection, so that we can attain it simply by uniting ourselves to Him in faith and in love. How hard it is for us to forgive our enemies reveals how far we have fallen not just from God but from our own human nature. It exposes our profound spiritual schizophrenia. We are split off from ourselves as we were created to be by God. To abide in the love of God, in whose love we receive the power to forgive and to love our enemies from our heart, this is what is natural to us. To live in selfishness, in which we harbor and nurse anger against our enemy, this is unnatural to us; and it destroys our souls. It separates us not only from our enemy but also from God.

Now perhaps we begin to understand why the way of the Lord is so hard and why the gate of salvation is so narrow. It is hard because we are commanded to forgive our enemies from our heart. But we have become so crippled and so blind and deaf, so paralyzed in the hardness of our heart, so dead in our trespasses that to forgive our enemies in the likeness of God is beyond our power.

But, this vision of a heavenly reality that one can see in the Lord’s command to forgive our enemy from the heart has the power, I believe, to raise us up from the bed of our sin so that we can begin to walk in the commandments of Christ. This vision reveals the purpose of forgiving our enemy. Forgiveness is for the purpose of healing both our enemy and ourselves. Through forgiveness, we let go of this worldly life and let the evils that we suffer in this life fall away so that we may give all our energy to raising our minds on high in order to attain to the victorious and transcending love of God.

In the doctrine of the Church, we learn that we are one with each other in our nature. We are all human, and in our humanity we are connected to each other. In this vision, we learn to identify ourselves with our neighbor, even our enemy, because even our enemy is human as we are. In this identification, we begin to see feelings, emotions, fears and desires that we share with our enemy because we are human as our enemy is human. We imagine ourselves before the dread judgment seat of God, and the unspeakable terror we will feel when we see the eternal condemnation in hell that we deserve because of our deeds. For we, too, have sinned against God; not in the way perhaps our enemy has sinned against us, but in other ways, nonetheless, and so we are deserving of the same fate as our enemy. Now, I begin to see in the terror I will feel before God’s dread judgment the terror of my enemy. I begin to identify with my enemy. I feel his terror before God as though it were my own terror. Surely, when we transcend our enmity against our enemy and begin to identify with our enemy, standing before the dread judgment seat of God as though my enemy were me, to feel the terror of my enemy before God as my terror, have I not come to the beginning of the love of God in which He so identified with us that He became flesh and dwelt among us that He might take away the judgment written against us and heal us of our evil so that we may rise up whole and be made to become partakers of His own divine love and Spiritual Life? When we stand before the judgment seat of God as our enemy, as though he were me, do we not find the prayer of our lips beginning to change? Do we not find ourselves spontaneously crying out to the Lord, “Have mercy on me and have mercy on my enemy? No one of us can endure the terror of the condemnation of hell. I pray Thee, Lord, do not let any of us perish in our wickedness, but bring us all, even our enemies, to repentance that we might be saved! Lord, forgive us all. Cast the deeds of all of us into the abyss and create us anew. Fashion us again in your image, and in your goodness train us how to grow into your likeness.”

And, if we begin to pray like this to the Father, are we not already beginning to attain to the likeness of God? Is it not so that this vision of the Church revealed in the Lord’s command to forgive as God forgives us, a vision which shows us our identity with our enemy – is it not so that this vision has the effect of evoking in us spontaneously this prayer for the salvation of all of us, even our enemies, because it appeals directly to the Image of God that we are in the very principle of our being? Does not the spontaneous response of our heart to this vision that is revealed to us in the Lord’s command to forgive, a vision in which we instinctively, naturally, almost immediately begin to pray for the salvation even of those who have sinned against us prove the truth of the Gospel proclamation – that we are created in the Image of God, called to grow into His Likeness that has been revealed to us in the mystery of Our Lord Jesus Christ?

Central to the commandment to take up our cross and lose ourselves for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, then, is the command to forgive our enemies as God forgives us. Striving to attain to such love that is both divine and human in its nature is the innermost substance of the Church’s ascetic disciplines. She enjoins us to take up these disciplines as our cross, to forgive as God forgives us, in order to heal us and to raise us out of this worldly reality of a goodness that is perverted by union with evil, out of this worldly reality of a life that has been perverted by union with death, that we may pass through the narrow gate and attain to the higher reality of heaven that we were made for and, as is natural to us, abide in the life and love of God that is not of this world, where there is neither sickness nor sorrow nor sighing but life everlasting, to the glory of God the Father, together with His Son who is from everlasting and His most holy, good and life-creating Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

[1] I Jn 4:8 & 16

[2] Eze 18:23