Sunday, March 13, 2016

Return with the New Adam to Paradise: Homily for Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Romans 13:11-14:4
Matthew 6:14-21

           Today the Church calls us to see ourselves in Adam and Eve, cast out of Paradise and stripped of their original glory.  God created them in His own image and likeness and had clothed them with a robe of light, which they lost when they chose their own pride and self-centered desires over humble obedience.  Their great potential for growth in holiness squandered, now they are reduced to covering themselves with fig leaves and wearing the flesh of corruption and mortality.  Adam sits with Eve outside the shut gates of Paradise and weeps bitterly for what they did to themselves and to the entire creation.  

           In ways obvious and not so obvious, their tragic story is also ours. We live in a world of people who, from generation to generation, have chosen to satisfy themselves rather than to flourish in the glory of those who bear the divine image and likeness.  Due to advances in communications, we are more aware today of the details of the world’s problems than were previous generations, but not much really changes from age to age in the human soul. Fear, hatred, violence, greed, abuse of the weak, self-centeredness, and addiction to pleasure plague every generation and have ruined the lives of so many who were created for eternal joy.  We do not have to look very hard at our society or world, or at ourselves, to see that we live very far from Paradise.

           The good news, of course, is that the God-Man Jesus Christ is the New Adam Who clothes us with a robe of light in baptism.  As St. Paul wrote, “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  (Gal. 3:27) The father restored the prodigal son by giving him fine clothing, and the Savior restores us when put Him on in baptism. (Lk. 15:22)   He entered into death, the ultimate consequence of Adam’s sin, in order to conquer it through His resurrection. We are baptized into His death in order to rise with Him into the life of Heaven, even as we live and breathe in this world. (Rom. 6:3-4) He comes to bring us back to Paradise.

           Even though we have put on Christ and are members of His own Body, the Church, there is still much of the old Adam in us.  Time and again, we fall back to the nakedness and despair of those who strip themselves of the divine glory through sin.  That is why St. Paul told the Christians in Rome to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”  He told them to strip themselves of the pitiful garments of sin and death and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires.” That means ripping from their lives whatever diminished and weakened them as the children of God.  That means living faithfully to our identity as those who have died to sin and risen to eternal life with our Savior. The season of Great Lent provides a blessed opportunity for each and every one of us to do precisely that.

           With Adam and Eve, sin and death came into the world through unrestrained indulgence in food.  We fast in Lent from the richest and most satisfying foods in order to find healing from the self-centered desires of our stomachs and taste buds, which in turn helps to free us from addiction to other forms of self-centeredness.  Humble fasting is the enemy of lust, pride, and anger, for example.  As our Lord taught, we do not fast in order to impress others, but in secret.  We must not draw attention to ourselves or inconvenience others as we fast.  As St. Paul wrote, we must not judge anyone for what they eat or do not eat. Remember that the self-righteous Pharisee lost the benefit of his spiritual disciplines due to pride and judgment, while the sinful tax-collector was justified due to his humility. (Lk. 18:9ff.) If we turn the blessed discipline of fasting into an instrument of pride, we will end up doing more harm than good to our souls.

           Instead of wasting our time in evaluating others, we focus in Lent on more fully participating in the healing and restoration that Christ has brought to the world.  Since we have put Him on in baptism, we must live in a way that reflects and reveals His mercy and blessing.  The Lord is very clear about what this means:  If we want forgiveness for our sins, we must forgive others for their offenses against us.  He says that because forgiveness is not some kind of legal decision about justice, but a characteristic of a relationship that reveals the health or sickness of our souls.  The prodigal son had no claim to restoration as a son, and he knew that, but the overwhelming love of his father healed the deep wounds that the young man’s behavior had caused.  If we want to open ourselves to the unfathomable divine mercy, we must become channels of that same mercy to others.  If we are “participants of the divine nature” by grace, our Lord’s forgiveness will become characteristic of who we are. (2 Pet. 1:4)  Like an iron left in the fire takes on the qualities of the fire and conveys heat and light to other objects, those who truly share in Christ’s life will share what they have received with others. As St. Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  (Gal. 2:20) If we want God’s forgiveness for ourselves and refuse to forgive others, we are very far from the life of the New Adam.         

           At Forgiveness Vespers this evening, we will personally bow before one another as we ask for and extend forgiveness to everyone in the parish. We begin our journey toward the deep mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection with humility and reconciliation.  What greater sign is there of our sinfulness than how easily we offend, harm, and disregard one another, even those we love most and with whom we share a common life?  To the extent that none of us has lived as faithfully as possible, we have all weakened one another spiritually because we are members of one Body. Now is the time to grant to one another the forgiveness that we ask from the Lord.  We open ourselves to His mercy as we show mercy to others. If we begin Lent this way, we will also find new strength to heal broken relationships in all areas of our lives. Then we will grow in humility as we overcome our stupid pride and make things right with our neighbors.
           The Lord taught that our hearts will be wherever we place our treasure, wherever we invest ourselves.  As we give of our time, energy, and resources to the needy during Lent, we serve Christ in them.  We also turn from the idolatry rooted in Adam and Eve’s desire to use the blessings of the creation simply for themselves and not for the purposes for which God created them, namely, to meet the needs of everyone.  We must “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires,” by making our fast a feast for the poor and hungry.  Whenever we limit our own self-centered desires in order to bless others in any way, we take a step toward Paradise and away from life as usual in our world of corruption.

           The spiritual disciplines of Lent have nothing to do with legalism or punishing ourselves.  Instead, they are tools to help us find healing and strength as we wear the robe of light, as we grow in our personal participation in the salvation that the Second Adam has brought to a world of despair and decay.  Now is the time to strip ourselves of all that would hold us back from following our Lord to His cross and glorious resurrection, for it is through His Passion that we will enter into the fullness of the glory for which He created us in the first place.  Now is the time to turn from our spiritual weakness and nakedness to “put on the armor of light” as we begin an intense struggle for the healing of our souls.  Let us struggle joyfully, for the journey will truly lead us to Paradise.        

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