47 - To Forgive from the Heart, Aug 20, 2017

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I Corinthians 9:2-12

Matthew 18:23-35

Holy Scripture and the fathers of the Church teach us that the Orthodox Faith is not, if you will, believing but doing: viz., denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Christ on the inner Exodus of the Gospel through the wilderness of our soul into the tomb of our heart and to the “Jordan” in the Tomb of Christ. There, all that is earthly in us is put to death – our lusts and pride rooted in our self-esteem and egotism – and the tomb of our heart becomes a bridal chamber. The stone of our sin that sealed our heart from God is rolled away and our heart opens onto the Garden of Eden “beyond all things” (cf. Jer 17:5/9). Following Jesus, our “Joshua”, who comes forth from the Tomb as a Bridegroom in procession, we “pass over” with Him into the Promised Land and come into the Kingdom of Heaven. To deny ourselves, to take up our cross and lose our life for Christ’s sake is to find our life not here in the region and shadow of death, but there in the Garden of Eden, the Kingdom of Light and Life.

In this hope, we deny our own will and we submit in obedience to the guidance of the Church, following the seasons of the fast according to our strength and circumstances as the Church prescribes. We fast with our stomach to wrestle in a concrete way with our self-love, our greed and our lust. We fast with our eyes and our ears, being careful what we allow into the windows of our mind so that our inner man is shaped by the Wisdom of God and not by the darkened wisdom of the world.

Through the fast, we are fleeing the corruption of the world that is in lust and greed (II Pt 1:4). We are coming out of Egypt, out of the city. Here, in the wilderness, as we make our Exodus to the Promised Land of our inheritance, the Kingdom of Heaven, we pray. We pray in the radiant Cloud, the love of the Holy Theotokos and the Light of the Holy Spirit, and we are nourished by the Living Bread that comes down from Heaven, giving us even now a foretaste of the blessings of the Heavenly Kingdom. Living in the Cloud of the Church, we orient our inner man to God, not to the world, not to Egypt.

The mark of the Orthodox Christian in this life of our earthly body still in the world, then, is that he is praying and fasting, taking up his cross, in order to follow Christ. Because of indwelling sin, however, (St Macarius, Hom 19:1-2) our heart is reluctant to deny herself for the sake of Christ. Perhaps the central distinguishing mark of the Orthodox Christian in this life, then, is that he is fighting the reluctance of his heart, fighting to take the Kingdom of Heaven by “violence” – i.e., by doing violence to his soul’s corrupted love for the world – fighting the good fight first against himself not to give in to his love for the world.

In our parable this morning, the fact that this servant of the king would not forgive as the king forgave him tells us that he possessed the “little” faith we heard the LORD talking about last Sunday. I.e., he was not taking up his cross. He was not denying himself and fighting, in this particular case, his desire to throttle the servant who owed him. His was not the faith of the mustard seed.

Note that the servant is not punished because he desired to throttle the servant who owed him. He is punished because he did throttle his servant. He chose to give in to that desire and he acted it out.

So, when we find that we have no desire to forgive those who sin against us, it doesn’t mean that we’ve transgressed or fallen away without meaning to. It simply means that we are still in the wilderness. We are not yet wholly transfigured or wholly deified. We still have work to do, the work of the Faith that was given to us at our baptism, the work of uniting ourselves to Christ, as we swore we would do at our baptism, the work of making our way through the wilderness of our soul and into the tomb of our heart to become one with Christ in the bridal chamber.

Remember that the LORD was led into the wilderness by the Spirit precisely for the purpose of being tempted by the devil, so that He could triumph over the devil in the wilderness.  If we have received Christ in the sacraments of the Church, then He is with us in the wilderness as we make our Exodus. Taking up the cross of the fast, which is to deny our desire to give in to our love for Egypt and our desire to return to Egypt: this, it seems to me, is the foundation of “prayer”. Fasting gives traction to the work of prayer, which I think we could say is initially the inner work of turning away from the lust and greed of our worldly ego in order to unite ourselves to Christ in “true prayer”. In fasting and prayer, we nail our resolve to the Cross of Christ. It is by the power of Christ’s Cross, not by our own power, that we are given the power to triumph over the devil in our union with Christ.

So, again, if we don’t want to forgive as we expect God to forgive us, that simply tells us that we are still in the wilderness fighting our corrupted desire to go back to Egypt. We still must engage ourselves in the work of faith, the work of uniting ourselves to the Cross of Christ in order to put to death the sin that has become embodied in us. We do that work by choosing not to give in to the sweet desire of throttling our debtor, and choosing to follow the LORD’s command, according to our strength and our circumstances, even if that means we can do no more than to pray for our enemy through clenched teeth. This, I think, is what the faith of the mustard seed looks like.

With this, we may have stumbled onto the deeper meaning of the LORD’s command to forgive from our heart.

For, where does this desire to follow Christ in order to fight our desire to give in to our love for Egypt come from? How is it that we can choose to go against our desire? Does this not show that there is a desire in us that is deeper and beyond our desire for Egypt? That desire comes into view when we believe and receive the LORD Jesus Christ in the Faith of the Church. It is expressed in the oath of our baptism, when we swear, freely, willfully, intentionally that we will unite ourselves to Christ. Might this desire be from our heart? Remember, our heart, according to the prophet, is deep, beyond all things, and it is the man (Jer 17:5/9); it is the true self made in the image and likeness of God, it is the true self beyond our ego, beyond our self-will, beyond our self-love. It is that spiritual mystery of our inmost being where we open beyond ourselves onto the God who loved us and gave Himself for us and in whose likeness and communion we long to be.

When the LORD commands us, then, to forgive from our heart, I hear Him commanding us to deny ourselves for His sake. For, when we choose to act as Christ commands us, when we don’t want to, we are denying ourselves and we are choosing to lose our life for His sake. In that moment, perhaps we can say, we enter in a real way into Christ’s Resurrection; for, in that moment, we descend, as it were, beyond our ego and into our heart and we raise up this deeper desire of our heart and act on it rather than on the desire to throttle those who sin against us. We are acting in accordance with the image and likeness of God in which we are created, not in the image of Cain in whose likeness we have become. In this, it seems to me, that we discover, not by reading a book or talking about it but by doing it, the wondrous metaphysical, ontological mystery of who and what we are: gods, sons of the Most High (Ps 81:6, Lk 3:38, Jn 1:13).

To forgive from the heart, then, doesn’t mean to diminish or ignore the sin. It means not to act out whatever anger or hatred we may feel rising up in us and instead to act out mercy for the sake of Christ, simply because Christ commands it. I believe this is the faith of the mustard seed by which we make our Exodus through the wilderness of our soul into the tomb of our heart deep beyond all things. By this faith of the mustard seed, a faith that consists, as it were, not in believing but in doing the commandments of Christ, the mountain, or let’s say the stone, is rolled away from the tomb of our heart to reveal the risen Christ bringing us into the land of our inheritance (Eze 37:12), the Garden of Eden where, wholly transfigured in the love of Christ, we are able to call brother even those who hate us and to forgive all things. Amen!