50 - To Forgive From the Heart, Aug 23, 2020

This Sermon can be viewed on our public Facebook page (you need not be a Facebook subscriber to view it). Look for the recorded live-stream of the Divine Liturgy served on Sunday, Aug 23, 2020

Philippians 2.5-11 (Leavetaking)

1 Corinthians 9.2-12

Luke 10.38-42, 11.27-28 (Leavetaking)

Matthew 18.23-35

As this king did to the unforgiving servant this morning, ‘so my heavenly Father will do to you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.’ In another place, Our LORD adds: ‘Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father’ (Mt 5.44-45). To forgive from the heart, even to love one’s enemy, is, the holy fathers tell us, the sure sign of the Spirit of Christ dwelling within us.

But, the LORD says through His prophet, Jeremiah: ‘The heart is deep, beyond all things’ (Jer 17.9 LXX). To forgive from the heart, then, is not something we attain in a day. We must get down into the deep of our heart beyond all things; or, perhaps, first we must find the Path that would take us down to our heart beyond all things. This is the narrow path, and it’s not traversed in a day.

And what do we imagine we would find in the deep of our heart? Do we not sense what we would find even before we make such an attempt, such that we never make the attempt but are constantly looking for distractions to divert us from turning even a tad to peer into our soul?

Let’s not imagine, says St Macarius (4th cent) that the darkness and gloom of hell are so very far from our own soul. We are ‘capable of admitting and receiving the evil one. Death keeps fast hold of the souls of Adam, and the thoughts of the soul lie imprisoned in the darkness. When you hear of sepulchers, do not think only of visible ones. Your own heart is a sepulcher and a tomb. When the prince of wickedness and his angels burrow there, and make paths and thoroughfares there, on which the powers of Satan walk into your minds and thoughts, are you not a hell, a tomb, a sepulcher, a dead man towards God?’ (Hom 11.11) How many of us feel that our heart, this place deep within us we can sense but have great difficulty getting into, is impenetrable like an enclosed tomb we’re outside of, cold, hard, unfeeling toward God like a spiritual corpse? Is this not evidence of the truth of St Macarius’ word, that our heart is dead towards God, even as we are very much alive to the desires of our flesh?

St Macarius’ description of the soul that is dead towards God sets us before the tombs of the Gadarene demoniacs? How many of us are like the townspeople and do all we can to stay away from the ‘tomb of our heart’? One can understand why the townspeople wanted the LORD to leave. If the LORD abides in you, where does He lead you if not into the tomb of your heart where you are held fast by death and where the prince of wickedness and his angels are walking to and fro, so that you can confess to Him the sins and trespasses you walk in (Eph 2.2)?

I see in this morning’s parable a reflection of Holy Baptism. The King is the LORD Jesus Christ. The servant who is brought to stand before the King because he is unable to pay his debt is the catechumen brought by the priest and his sponsors to the sacrament of confession. Like the servant in the parable, the catechumen acknowledges his debt, confesses his sins and trespasses, trusting in the mercy of the King. The King has compassion on him and forgives him of all His debt. Here is an image of the LORD’s self-emptying in order to take upon Himself our human nature, together with its curse, and to become completely one with us, even becoming sin for us even though He knew no sin, that He might destroy our sin and death on His Cross. The depth of His compassion was expressed when He prayed: ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.’

To forgive means, literally, to throw out and send away from. There is another moment when the LORD ‘sends away’ from Himself; English translations obscure it. It’s the moment when the LORD ‘Sent forth His Spirit.’ Worldly-minded theology, in my opinion, identifies this as the moment of the LORD’s death. But, was not the LORD’s true death when He cried out: ‘My God, My God, Why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ For, to be forsaken by God is, in the teaching of the fathers, the ‘true’ death. The word for ‘sent forth His Spirit,’ is the very word translated also as, ‘to forgive.’ This is the moment His soul left His Body to descend into the darkness of hell to fill it with His Light (Jn 1.4, 2 Cor 4.6) and to save the souls of Adam out of their distress, to bring them out of the darkness and shadow of death, and to break their bonds asunder, and to shatter the brass gates and the iron bars that held Adam fast in death, as the Psalmist foretold (Ps 106.14-16), while He sent forth His Spirit—like Noah sending forth the doe from the ark—to brood over the ‘face of the deep,’ the ‘deep of the heart beyond all things,’ as at the creation (Gn 1.2), to make the heart ready for the LORD to create her anew, to put a new and right spirit into her.

All of this is the mystery of your baptism! For the same Spirit that the LORD ‘sent forth’ from His Cross was invoked in the prayers of the Church, the Body of Christ, to come down into the waters of your baptism and to sanctify them, to deify them, to make them holy, so that they became by the descent of the Holy Spirit the incarnation of the Grace of God in which He creates in us a clean heart and puts into us a new and right spirit. So, when you were immersed into the sanctified and deified waters of the Font, you were immersed body and soul into the Forgiveness of God’s Grace, and so you were clothed in Light, you were justified, you were washed in the Name of the LORD Jesus Christ.

Why, then, do we, like the servant in this morning’s Gospel, find ourselves going away from the inexpressible joy we felt on the day of our baptism and, as soon as we are tested, find that the spirit of anger, which does not want to forgive, is provoked in us?

Perhaps St Maximus (d. 662) might explain it to us: ‘Unless curbed by the fear of God that accompanies the practice of the virtues, spiritual knowledge leads to vanity; for, it encourages the person puffed up by it to regard as his own what has merely been lent to him, and to use his borrowed intelligence to win praise for himself.’ (Philo II, p. 221)

Biblical salvation is a spiritual Exodus. Raising us from the Font, the LORD leads us on the inner Exodus of the Gospel into the wilderness of our soul to that spot in the Garden of our heart where, as He did Adam in Eden and Israel in Canaan, He tests us to see whom we will serve, with the command: Do not eat from the tree. Do not worship idols. Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me. Lose your life for my sake. Put to death all that’s earthly in you, namely vanity and spiritual pride in which, prancing about as though you are a god, you won’t forgive.

The Path of this ‘inner Exodus’ of the Gospel is the suffering that comes from denying our pride in order to gain Christ. ‘The suffering of the saints,’ writes St Maximus, ‘lies in the struggle between self-love and love of God. Self-love fights to win control. The love of God endures all things to avoid defeat.’ (Ibid, p. 169)

You can see in this morning’s Gospel that the forgiven servant made no effort to deny himself. There is no struggle against the ‘law of sin,’ spiritual pride, embodied in our earthly members (Rm 7.23).

How do we fight this unforgiving spiritual pride that holds us captive and makes us do what we don’t want to (Rm 7.15-23)? The LORD gave it to us last Sunday. By taking up the Cross of Christ in the ascetic disciplines of the Church, prayer and fasting. These are the ‘flowers that grow from the wood of the Cross.’ It is in the power of the Cross when we take it up in the form of prayer and fasting that the Grace of our Baptism becomes active in us, and makes us able to struggle against the unforgiving spirit of our vanity and pride and put it to death. St Maximus, again: ‘The divinity of God the WORD, which always dwells in those who believe in Him, withers the ‘law of sin’ in the flesh.’ (p. 221) We must pray; we must fast; we must keep the eye of our heart, the lamp of our body, always turned on Christ and not on the stormy waves of this world’s turbulent seas.

We must walk in the way of our baptism, presenting our members to Christ (Rm 6.13), not in the way of the god of this age, presenting our members to the desires and will of the flesh. (Eph 2.2, 2 Cor 4.4). We must pray and fast. This is how we train our souls for battle, so that when the test comes, we have power in the desire that is born in the fear of God to choose to present ourselves not to the anger of the prince of this world but to the LORD (Rm 6.13) whose Spirit, dwelling and acting in us as we freely and actively present ourselves to Him, transfigures our heart in that moment of testing, creates her anew, and puts in her a new and right Spirit, enabling us to forgive, for now we are walking in the Spirit of the God who loved us and gave Himself for the salvation of all. Amen!