the vocation to penitence and forgiveness: holy cross sermon for september 11, 2011 — pentecost 13, proper 19, year a

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


In today’s Gospel lesson, we have a continuation of the Lord’s teaching on forgiveness. Last week, Jesus said that his disciples were to behave in a way that is at odds with the world’s understanding of justice – of the demarcation of rights and prerogatives, and of the fair allotment of possessions. He said that the whole point of divine justice is not apportioning to each person what belongs to him, but the reconciliation of perpetrators and victims with one another.


In last week’s Gospel, Jesus said: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained YOUR BROTHER.” In other words, if your brother sins against you, the problem isn’t that you have lost face, or been defrauded, or that you have lost your possessions; the problem is rather the damage to fraternity itself, the destruction of the bond of peace that obtains between us in Christ, that makes us brothers and sisters to begin with. It is this bond of peace between Christians that, in a sense, constitutes the communion of the Catholic Church, and is intended and established by God to be an effectual sign of his love for the world.


In John 17, in the final moments before Jesus’ suffering begins, he prays for his disciples: “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me…. And hast loved them even as thou hast loved me,” (John 17.21&23). This prayer, maybe more than anything else, sheds light on the vocation of Christians. We are to be lights within a dark world, beacons of reconciliation, unity, and fellowship, together with Christ, so that God’s love can be seen by those who have never known it, and who are dying without it.


And with the realization of the importance of “regaining our brother” if there is a breach in our relationship with him, comes the realization of the terrific scandal that unhealed breaches in the Body of Christ are. The breach between Eastern and Western Christians that has lasted almost a thousand years and, closer to home, the separation within the West of vast swaths of believers from the Catholic Church that has obtained since the Reformation – these are all terrific scandals and impediments to the Gospel that we have erected, and that we continue to erect, personally and corporately. To be clear: the separations from other Christians which we maintain with our actions and attitudes – these KEEP WEARY, DYING PEOPLE FROM COMING TO KNOW THE LOVE OF GOD.


In today’s Gospel reading, the Lord’s imperative to forgiveness is reinforced. Christians are to forget about their stuff, forget about their wounded pride, forget about their personal agendas, and to SEEK AND SAVE THE LOST (cf. Luke 19.10), and so become icons of the divine union that is nothing other than eternal blessedness. Peter asks Jesus how long he has  to go on being offended and forgiving the wrong. And Jesus’ idiomatic response is that this is a process that never ends in this world. Christians are by definition people who spend their lives forgiving and seeking forgiveness.


This can sound like Jesus is asking his disciples to become saps and suckers, to give ourselves to being defrauded and walk all over us. Not so. Jesus is himself the paragon of what he proclaims, and he did not go to the cross as a sucker. He was not duped into it. He sweat blood and toiled up Golgotha and embraced his cross “in sovereign freedom, in total dignity, and in an absolutely voluntary act of love,” (Thos. Hopko – from The Word of the Cross). He said: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father,” (John 10.17f). This is the perfect exemplification and enactment of the forgiveness that is our vocation. This charge we have received from our Father.


But what concerns us as individuals? What concerns us as a community of faith at HC? We might appropriately ask today – on this anniversary of 9-11 – what concerns us as a nation and a society? What does our vocation to forgiveness and reconciliation look like when our pride or our equanimity or our livelihoods or even our loved ones disappear under the sword-stroke of violence and hatred? Is forgiveness even a priority for us? It should help us to realize that while Jesus was a perfect victim, we are not. We are caught – both individually and corporately and socially – in cycles of reciprocal violence. Unlike Jesus, we are not only victims, but we are perpetrators as well. And although we often know perfectly well the histories of our own perpetration that return to us in the form of revenge, often enough we don’t. But the truth is that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. We hurt others, accidentally and intentionally. And although we believe and plausibly argue that our society is the most just and free that the world has ever known, the truth is that it too, like all the others, is built on a foundation violence. Only consider what Europeans did to American Indians or black Africans in order to build the society that we have inherited – or the conditions under which people labor to produce our clothes, our food, or our gadgets. The next perpetrator of violence against our nation could plausibly be a young man from central Asia whose family became what our newspapers call “collateral damage” in our “war on terror” – itself a massive act of reciprocal violence for the crimes committed against us, whose anniversary is today. And that act itself, in the minds of those who perpetrated it, was revenge for the indignities perpetrated against Muslims through this country’s foreign policy. The genealogy of violence is long. And the story is the same for individuals as it is for nations.


But how does it end? Drone strikes? A more philanthropic foreign policy? Isolationism? Policies that reduce our dependence on foreign oil? The Jesus-solution, for all those who belong to him, is a lifetime of penitence and forgiveness, in obedience to and imitation of him – and in gratitude for the cancellation in his flesh of the debt we owed to God. This is the only way to break the cycle of perpetration and victimage: by the refusal to live according to its logic, and instead to leave behind what we think we have coming to us, and to follow Jesus to the cross. On the cross, the evil is disclosed. It is acknowledged in its horrible reality, and it is destroyed –  by being forgiven.


Living this way is a choice that must be renewed intentionally and daily. Its not enough to decide once, because the decision, once made, does not get one outside of the cycle. We still have to live in a world of suffering – and this is another aspect of the Lord’s words today: I do not say to you that you must forgive seven times, but seventy times seven. We have to forgive, and forgive, and forgive. Not only because we keep finding things inflicted on us that need forgiving, but because once having said that we have forgiven a wrong, we go to sleep and wake up, and behold! the grudge, the rancor, the bitterness, has returned into our consciousness. And so we must forgive again – for our own sake. Because the cycle of the world’s violence can destroy through its proxy – which is the bitterness of harbored animosity.


It won’t surprise you to hear me say: Jesus is the answer. He is the one who commands us to forgive. He is the one who shows the pattern of forgiveness. And most of all, he is the one in whom we are forgiven before God. The beginning or renewal of this process means an encounter with Jesus – realizing, by keeping the eyes of our spirit fixed on him, the great price of what he has poured out on us with utter gratuity, and finding within this realization a more eager and a more grateful obedience; even the desire and the courage to forgive and to seek forgiveness from the heart.


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Published by Fr George

Fr George is the priest-in-charge of Holy Cross Dallas

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