Sunday, March 13, 2005

"Forgive One Another"

(Matthew 6:14-21) (Forgiveness Sunday)

Today marks the end of one season, putting, as it were, the final period and bracket to the season which began back in November, with the period of fasting that was in preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord; and shortly thereafter, His Theophany. We’ve considered two basic themes throughout this period of time.

The first is that of theosis: of becoming like God. We have talked about and thought about the significance of the Son of God taking on our nature; and how, as a result, we are taken into His nature. We have said that, among other things, we embody Christ. That is, we make Him present here and now, and all the more so, as we grow more and more into His likeness. It is our calling to show Him forth in and through our lives each day.

The second theme is the wonderful and tender love that God has for each of us. We have considered how it is an act of God’s love by which He forgives us our sins, and restores us to Himself, and to each other. This is meant to create love for God in us, and for each other, making us vessels of His love. God is love; and, if we are going to accomplish our theosis, and be like God, we must love.

And now it is Forgiveness Sunday, and we stand at the threshold of Great Lent. We are about to enter into the fast that is the time of preparation for the celebration of our Lord’s Pascha, when, by His love, He gives Himself for us completely, so that we might, in Him, trample down death by death – His death. Such is the instruction we are given by St. Matthew today; for his words call us once more to consider theosis, being like God; and the love of God for each and all of us.

Our Lord tells us that we are to forgive one another for the sins that have offended us. This is not an unusual instruction. For example, we are told, each time before we come to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, or even before making any offering to the Lord, that we should first be reconciled to each other. So that we may enter into and keep a holy Lent, later today, during the Vespers service, we will make a prostration to each other as a sign of humility, and ask forgiveness of each other, saying, “Forgive me, a sinner”; and replying, “God forgives; forgive me, a sinner”; to which the response is, “May God forgive and have mercy on us all.” It is a beautiful service; but it should not stop here. It is meant to be an example of how we should always respond to sin, whether it is an offense we have committed, or which someone has done to us. The key is in the exchange: “God forgives; forgive me, a sinner.” The promise is clear: If we forgive, we will be forgiven; and if we will not forgive, we will not be forgiven. When we forgive, we are like God; and God, recognizing the likeness of Christ in us, gladly saves us. If we will not forgive, we do not look like Christ – and will not be recognized as being His.

Consider also the necessity of always cultivating love for God, and for all who are made in His image, in us. To do so, we must value our relationship of love with God, and with each other, as being more important, more valuable, than anything else this world has to offer. Anything of material value will ultimately cease to exist; but the heavenly things that we establish within ourselves (by God’s grace) will endure. Our Lord says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If Christ is our treasure, our hearts will be with Him; and if our hearts are with Him, they will be influenced by Him; and if our hearts are influenced by Him, we will become more like Him; and the process of becoming like God, theosis, will be achieved – and all because we have learned to love with the love of God.

Brothers and sisters: Great Lent is upon us. At its completion is the completion of all things – our salvation, achieved by our Lord Jesus Christ by His offering of Himself for our sake because of His love. Let us forgive one another, and all who have sinned against us, even as we confess our sins; and let us earnestly desire to be filled with the love of God, and make Christ our treasure, that we may be with Him, and He with us; always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Love and Hell

(Matthew 25:31-46) (Sunday of the Last Judgment)

“When I think of the multitude of evil things I have done, I, a wretched one, I tremble at the fearful day of judgment; but, trusting in the mercy of Thy loving-kindness, like David I cry unto Thee: Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.”

We’ve been singing this at Matins over the past several weeks. It is sung after the reading from the Gospel, in the place where, ordinarily, we’d sing, “Having beheld the resurrection of Christ…” It follows the hymn, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy; and according to the multitude of Thy compassions, blot out my transgression.” It signals a change in tone, a different mood, which is being introduced as we draw near to the start of Great Lent. It is particularly appropriate today, with the reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel about the Last Judgment.

“I tremble at the fearful day of judgment.” We should be afraid; we should be very afraid of that day. We need to remember a truth that, all too often, it seems, contemporary Christianity doesn’t want to talk about; or, only talks about it in the wrong way. Hell is real; and people will suffer unspeakable torment without end for all eternity there. But, apart from saying to someone else, “You’re going to burn in hell for all eternity, you heretic!” – or something like that – we don’t often talk about the reality of Hell. Maybe that’s because, deep down, we know that, if we found ourselves in that place of torment, there would be no one to blame except ourselves. Hell is real, and people will suffer there for all eternity – not because God sent them there; but because they chose to go there.

Last week, we heard of the incredible love of the father for his Prodigal Son; and for his elder son, as well. We learned that we are meant to know that the love that our heavenly Father has for His children is of the same quality; that, as soon as we, His prodigal children, make the turn towards home, by our repentance and the confession of our faults, and our desire to be restored to Him, He runs to meet us, and to welcome us home. It is because of His love for us that He forgives our sins. Now, as we hear the parable of the Last Judgment, we need to understand that what is at question here is our response to God’s love for us. Do we love God? Do we love those made in His image? This is important, because the separation into those who will stand at the right hand of our Lord, and those who will be sent to His left, is directly related to our love.

Please take some time this week to contemplate the reality of God’s love for you. He has given you life; and more. He has given you what you need to save your soul; and more. He has given Himself; and what more can anyone give? He has called you into existence because of His love; and desires to share that love with you, with each of us, with all of us; now, and also for ever, in a life without end. Forgive, me, please, brothers and sisters: There are not words powerful enough to speak of the great depths of the love that our God has for us.

It’s important for us to realize that we are loved by God; for love calls forth love. When we realize how greatly God loves us, love for God should arise in us in response; and it is this love that moves us to desire to do what is pleasing to our Beloved – to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. It is love that moves us to desire to become vessels of God’s love; and, when we yield ourselves to Him for this purpose, we are filled with love, not only for God, but for each person who bears the image of God. It is this that leads us to feed the hungry, to give the thirsty something to drink, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick, and those in prison.

On the other hand, when we respond to insult or injury, or being mistreated by others, with anger, with pride, or with self-righteousness, we are not responding from love – and it’s the absence of love that blinds us to the needs of others, and keeps us from performing acts of mercy for them. When we have love only for ourselves, and not for others; when we only grudgingly give of our time and resources – all of which have been given to us by God in His love – to meet, not our wants and needs, but the needs of others, we are not acting from love; and it is this that will place us on the left hand of the Lord, where we will be told to depart from Him into the everlasting fire, the torment without end that will be Hell.

Brothers and sisters: The great and terrible Day of Judgment is coming. Hell is real; and those who have chosen a way of life marked above all by love of self will suffer there for all eternity. Where will you be told to stand? On the Lord’s right hand? Or on His left? Let us, while we can, choose to be vessels of God’s love, and love one another, even as He loves us, and died for us, that we might live in love with Him; now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.