49 Passing Over from the Old to the New - Aug 31, 2008

1 Corinthians 9:2-12

Matthew 18:23-35

We easily recognize the King in this morning’s Gospel as God who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. We are the slaves of God because he made us; we did not make ourselves. The account he wishes to settle with us is our transgression when we sold ourselves to the prince of darkness. We sell ourselves to the prince of darkness and we come under bondage to his dark lordship in every thought, word and deed when we choose to live for what we want without any regard for what is the will of God. We need to understand that each one of us is like the servant whom the angels are hauling before the Judge in this morning’s Gospel parable, owing the King thousands of talents – for what we stole from the King and sold to the prince of darkness is of inestimable value: it is our very life, our very being. It all belongs to God because he made us in his image.

So of course, when the King demands payment of the debt we, like the servant, can’t pay it. We have nothing because everything we have has been given us by God. The sentence the King passes on this servant, that he be taken away together with his wife and children and everything he has is just; for the servant is a thief. We are thieves, having taken our very life and our very being that belong to God and handed it over to the prince of darkness. Moreover, it is clear from how this servant goes out and treats the servant who owed him money that his plea to the King for mercy and his promise to pay all that he owes is insincere. It is out of fear borne of self-love, not out of any remorse or love for the King. We can be sure that the King sees through the servant’s insincere pleas and promises; and yet, the King still takes pity on him and forgives his debt.

I take this servant in this morning’s Gospel as a reflection of me when I came to Church this morning. Can I honestly say that I love God? Can I honestly say that I am not driven by self-interest, and that I live my life according to God’s will and not my own?

Who of us thinks we can fool God and make him believe we love him when by our actions and by our words, by what we desire in our hearts and by the thoughts we invite into our minds, we show that we don’t? Let’s be honest with ourselves. Aren’t we like this servant who fell to his knees and promised God everything if only he would spare him from the punishment he deserved? God is not mocked. God is not deceived. He knows our hearts. He knows our thoughts. If we are not honest with God we deceive only ourselves.

We say that Christ is in our midst – and Christ is the Son of the King, the Father, to whom the Father has given the judgment of the world. When we came to Church this morning, we came into the presence of the Almighty Judge, owing him thousands of talents: i.e., our very life and our very being – everything we are and everything we have. We can be sure that the sentence passed on this hapless scoundrel servant is the sentence passed justly on us, for we have sinned, we have all gone our own way, not one of us is righteous.

So also, the mercy God shows this servant, forgiving him even though he was insincere, demonstrates how true it is that God desires not the death of a sinner but that he turn from his wickedness and live. How many of us came to Church this morning truly and sincerely in the fear of God, with faith and in love? The Good News of the Gospel to us this morning is that even if we don’t love God as he commands us, and even though we don’t come into his presence sincerely in the fear of God with faith and in love, God will still show mercy on us. All we have to do is go through the motions, like the servant in this morning’s Gospel: bowing, making the sign of the Cross and saying the prayers that the Church gives to us, and God will have mercy on us. He knows our heart better than we do. He knows if we are sincere or insincere, and yet such is his mercy that even if we just go through the rituals and prayers that he has given to us in his holy Church, he will have mercy on us and forgive us our sins.

There is more to it than this, of course. Through the death of his Son on the Cross, he has done more than to forgive us: he has opened the door to our heart and shown the way that leads into our heart, where we are made in the image of God, and he has shown how we can be restored to our “virginity”, as the fathers say, our original wholeness and integrity and begin to live again in the image and likeness of God. He shows it in this morning’s Gospel, which coincides wonderfully with the liturgical significance of this morning, which happens to be the last day of the Church year.

 This last day of the Church year is like an icon of the Church’s spiritual journey on which she leads us each year to bring us to that deepest point in our heart where we choose whom we will love and serve. The movement of the Church’s liturgical cycle that brings us to this point at the end of the year corresponds sacramentally to our descent in the waters of the baptismal font. It is in the deeps of our heart that we choose to die to ourselves in Christ so that we might pass over into the life that God gives to us through his holy Church, and rise up as from the baptismal font, born from above as children of God like the Theotokos, whose birth we will be celebrating on the Eighth Day of the New Year, and to live, like her, according to our nature in the image and likeness of God, living the divine life of love for God and our neighbor as ourselves, and taking up our Cross on Sept 14 and following John the Baptist’s preaching of repentance on the feast of his conception on Sept 23 into the desert, into the wilderness like the Israelites following Moses, to find Christ outside the city, beyond the tomb, granting to us eternal life in the mysteries of his holy Church that he so graciously pours out upon us in the sacraments of the Church on Christmas, on Holy Theophany, Holy Pascha, Holy Pentecost and indeed, on all the feasts of the Church year.

These liturgical movements of the Church are the setting that shows us how to descend into our heart to lay hold of our desire and offer it to Christ; and this morning’s Gospel is telling us how to make this sacramental journey of the Church that leads into our heart, into the baptismal font and into the tomb of Christ a reality, how to make it incarnate, in our everyday life so that we pass over from death to life in the holy resurrection of Christ. We do this concretely by forgiving one another as Christ has forgiven us. The beauty of the Gospel is this: knowing how dark and evil our heart is, knowing how self-centered we are, that we do not love God but ourselves in our heart, the Gospel of the Church does not require us to give our heart at the beginning to God, only the motion of our bodies. In other words, she does not require us at the beginning to forgive one another from the heart, because she knows that until God has created in us a clean heart we can’t do that. She requires only that we go through the motions. She requires only that we pray for our enemy, do good to those who hate us, bless those who revile us; that we not return evil for evil. We do these outward things as the beginning of our obedience to God – and the Lord accepts the beginning, however insincere it might be, and grants us his mercy.

In other words: come to Church, even if you come insincerely. Make the prostrations, bow your heads, sign yourselves with the Cross, say the prayers of the Church, for even if you do so insincerely, you will receive mercy from God as this morning’s Gospel shows us very clearly. When you leave the Church, however, take the lesson of the unforgiving servant to heart. Speak no ill to anyone, do not nurse a grudge, guard your tongue and your actions, speaking and doing only the good, even to those who hate you, and to those whom you hate! And, even if you show kindness and mercy insincerely, you will receive mercy from God and begin laying up for yourselves treasure in heaven.

If we will make this new way of life the habit of our life, then these habits become the means by which our “virginity” is restored. Because, when we practice these evangelical deeds, even if our heart isn’t in it, we are making ourselves slaves of God, for we are doing what he commands even when we don’t want to. We are crucifying our will and our body to the Cross of Christ. We are putting our self-will to death, and our whole life now is becoming a life of descending into the waters of our baptism whereby we are dying in a death like Christ’s. This is how our baptism becomes incarnate in our earthly life and body. Our whole life becomes a dying and rising in a death and resurrection like Christ’s. As we do what Christ commands, even if our heart is not in it, we are dying in Christ, and as we die in Christ, the old man in us is being put to death and there begins to rise up in the field of the old man a clean heart, a new and right spirit, like a precious rose created in us by God from the seed of the Holy Spirit that was planted in us at our baptism.

I submit that the lessons given us by the Church at this time of year are all about how we can transfigure the passing years of our life from a journey into the grave and into a descent into the waters of our baptism so that our growing old and finally our death itself is experienced in a spiritual way as God creating in us a clean heart, a new and right spirit, and causing the new man in Christ to rise up in us. Simply do what Christ commands you to do: forgive as you have been forgiven, even if it’s just going through the motions, and you will receive mercy; and the more this outward practice becomes the habit of your life, the more the old man in you will be put to death and you will begin to experience the mystery of your baptism in your everyday life, that makes you like the Theotokos: a child, a daughter of God, taking up your cross to follow Christ with all the saints into the mystery of Christ’s Holy Pascha. Amen.