Sunday, September 7, 2014

Love, sin, forgiveness

Sermon: 7 September 2014 May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

We hear today in his letter to the Romans St Paul telling us that if we love one another then we fulfil the law. I am sure that all here can see the wisdom of this: if we love someone, we will not treat them unjustly, we will do nothing against them that have a right to expect that we will not do, we will not wound them in the way we behave. Out of true Christian love flows the kind of behaviour listed in the commandments: if you love your parents, you will honour them; the loving spouse will respect their marriage vows; the loving person will not deal violently with another person; the loving person will not steal or otherwise seek to enrich himself by taking what is not his.

But why do we behave like this? Why do we sin against our brothers and sisters, and indeed God himself, by failing to behave in a loving fashion? It is because of our weak, human nature; the same human nature that led to the Fall, the Sin of our first parents; the same human nature that leaves us prone to the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

To be tempted in itself is not wrong. We know from Sacred Scripture that our Lord himself was tempted during his 40 days and 40 nights fasting and praying in the wilderness. No, the sin lies in yielding to the temptation, in having the choice between good and evil before us, and choosing the wrong path. Why does God allow us to be tempted, you may wonder? Because if he did not, there would be no free will; if it is not open to us to do evil, then neither can we be said to do good. And in fact great good can come from the times when we are faced with temptations and resist them.

I came across a story on this very theme told by the Elder Arsenios recently. Fr Arsenios was a monk and an abbot of the Romanian Orthodox Church. A man of great holiness, he suffered terrible persecutions under the communists, imprisonment and torture. But the witness of his resolute faith inspired many so that even now, several years after he has reposed in the Lord, he is revered. 

Elder Arsenios related the story of two monks, one old, a mystic and a seer of visions, and one young, with the elder being a mentor and spiritual father to the younger. The old man was having great trouble sleeping, so much so that it was of great concern to all in the monastery, who feared for the holy father's health. One evening the two were walking in the nearby woods. The old man sat down to rest and soon was fast asleep. 

At first the young monk was glad to see his mentor asleep after so long. But then it began to grow dark and he thought of his own bed in the monastery. 'I need my sleep too,' he thought and was tempted to wake the old man. But seeing him so peaceful and knowing how much he needed his rest, he resisted the thought. Again and again the thought came to him in the night to wake the old man and return home. But each time he resisted, nine times in all. 

Finally morning came and the old man awoke. He stared at the young man in astonishment. 'What have you done all this night?' he exclaimed. The young man spoke of prayer, of reading the Psalms. 'No, no,' said the old man. 'What else have you done?' The young man was puzzled; he couldn't think of anything else. 'I thought about salvation … ' he began. 'No, no,' said the elder. 'Something else; something out of the ordinary. I know there is something, for I see nine crowns above your head.'

The story is of course, for us, a parable, about the spiritual benefits that come when we resist temptation and show love for God or neighbour, about how in this way we earn treasure in heaven, treasure that endures. And so temptations can be a blessing, for they allow us the opportunity to show the love that all Christians must aspire to, and to progress in our own spiritual life, and grow in holiness. But only, of course, if we resist.

And for those who do not resist, for those who fall prey to temptation and sin, we may take counsel from today's Gospel reading, when our Lord advises what to do when one Christian sins against another. There is more here than simply seeking justice for oneself when one is wronged; no body likes to be wronged; but on the other hand, the Christian is called to be humble, and humility demands that we do not seek justice in such a case purely for one's own sake, but also for the sake of the one who has sinned. We do not abandon our brother or sister to their sins; we seek to make them aware of how they have sinned, of the consequences of their actions not only for their own souls but for the body of Christ, and we seek to bring them back to the way that Christ taught, the way of love.

And so Christ says that first we speak to the person one on one; next in a small group; and finally the Church. Each level of intervention is intended to bring the sinner to an understanding of the wrong they have done, and give them a chance to repent. And even the final move, of having them be as a tax collector and a gentile to those within the Church, is not intended to be a final and absolute casting out of the person. Did Jesus not welcome tax-collectors in? Was not the mission of the early Church precisely to reach out to the gentiles? No, this final move is intended as being medicinal, as helping to cure the sickness of sin within them, as helping them to love their brothers and sisters again. It is not intended to make them despair; and certainly not despair that they have lost hope of salvation, but rather to bring them back to the path that leads to salvation. 

And of course we do so not self-righteously but aware that we also are sinners ... remember the story of the woman taken in adultery ... Christ said let he who is without sin cast the first sin ... not he who has not committed adultery or some other serious sin by he who is without sin, any sin ... and none could lift a hand against her. And so even when someone has wronged us, we bear in mind our own flaws, our own weakness ... and when we act to correct we do not do so out of anger, or vengefulness, or pride, but out of charity, out of love.

Because to love is also to forgive; and so just as we live in hope of God's forgiveness for our sins, we offer forgiveness to those who have sinned against us; loving others, even as we know ourselves to be loved by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen


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