Sermon for Trinity XIX: 2014
By Rev’d Hayden A. Butler
+In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.
“Be ye kind one to another, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”
In the Gospel lesson, the paralyzed man has no power to approach Jesus on his own, and has to rely on the charity of his friends for assistance. Jesus reveals that for this man, there is a spiritual and a physical component to his sickness – he is paralyzed physically but also spiritually. In healing this man, Christ shows that He possesses the divine authority to forgive sins and has brought this power into action in the world. He comes to provide ultimate healing, but healing in the proper order of things. The paralyzed man represents all of us. We come before Christ as broken and weak, in great need of His mercy and healing. We experience the forgiveness of Jesus through a personal encounter with Him, and by reliance on our community. Sometimes the reason for which we come to Jesus is not the most profound reason for why we need Him. He cares about all of our needs, but He primarily cares about the health of our souls. This is salvation. Christ heals first soul then body, and in so doing, reveals the healing that all will receive in the Resurrection.
The Epistle elaborates on this theme’s communal sense by declaring that God has overcome the ancient divisions in humanity between Jew and Gentile and made a new people that will erase old sources of contention and enmity. St. Paul reminds the churches that as members of that new humanity through baptism, they are stop believing and behaving according to what they used to be and start doing so according to their new identity. In short, they are to stop doing things that will jeopardize the peace and unity among believers, and instead to pursue whatever will build and cultivate healthy and edifying relationships among the faithful. St. Paul’s exhorts the church thusly because unity within the church is a sign to the world that we belong to God and that the Spirit is actually working among us. It sets us apart from fake religiosity, from cults, and from being mere do-gooders. It shows that we actually believe that God forgave us and sent His Son to die for us, thereby overcoming the chasm of sin and alienation so to save us. God heals our relationship with Him so that we might participate in this healing, and calls us to participate by experiencing His forgiveness and by forgiving each other.
Forgiveness is a decision and a habitual practice. When we are wronged and seek to forgive someone, we are called to enter into a process of releasing the debt of guilt that they owe us and then work to place the hurt of that wrong within a framework of grace so to find how it can be redeemed and to live that out. Sometimes this is a quick process. Sometimes, we spend years learning how to forgive our enemies. Either way, forgiveness is the essential activity of reconciliation, which is the central fact of Christian identity.
Reconciliation is the process by which the order of our lives and relations progresses in similarity to the order of the relations within the Trinity. It is ordained and founded by the Father, enabled through the Son, and performed by the Holy Spirit. It is the primary relational experience of our life in God, not just a legal fact, it has less to do with a status of culpability than it does with possessing a relationship marked by charity. So too, it is the identifying activity of the Church, through the community of the penitent to the lost. It is the primary duty of all Christians to be reconcilers, first amongst themselves and then to the world.
Even so, reconciliation is often challenged by habits that work against unity and healthy relationships. This often takes the form of quiet and passive bitterness rather than open confrontation; we often fall into the temptation to be “good” or “nice.” This does not prevent us from exercising vices, but it does change their means of delivery. Instead of being loud and boisterous about our impatience, discord, and animosity toward others, we do so in passive ways through gossip and sullenness. Open anger and impatience could almost, but not quite, be excused as instinctive or perhaps a fault in our self-control. Gossip and sullenness, the smiling-on-the-outside but seething within type of anger takes a lot of thought and deliberation, and consume more of us. It’s probably worse, and this is typically what we do at church. We smile and shake hands, while yet being two feet and a thousand miles away from others in our hearts. As the Epistle shows, though, the Christian life cannot be lived in isolation from our duty to love our neighbor. We cannot mature in the faith if we habitually live in discord with others.
To counter these habits, reconciliation in the Church serves to establish a powerful threefold unity: with God, with each other, and with the lost. All of these form a symbiotic relationship; take one out and the others are inhibited in the way they manifest in our lives. If we lack the central fact of our identity, then everything else will feel that lack. As we practice unity, we participate in the activity of God, and are drawn by grace into the life of God so to dwell with Him.
Reconciliation is worked out through community. By the virtue of our baptisms we are the family of God; we cannot change that even if sometimes we’d like to do so. What we then have to do is to pursue unity. Our experiences of living amongst each other over time means that there are times I will need the forgiveness of others and they’ll need mine, too. Though it is at times awkward and sometimes painful, the more we forgive, the stronger our community gets and the more that God dwells among us.
We practice reconciliation through confession (in private prayer, in the Offices, in the Mass, and in confessions made to a priest). It is more than just saying the words. We have to self-examine, come to a knowledge of the ways that we fail God and one another, feel the weight of this failure, and then earnestly apologize and try to turn away from those things. Moreover, we not only have to confess sin, but we also have to practice receiving forgiveness. This second activity is a discipline and a habit of soul that begins to see past mistakes in the light of grace as those things that bring us back to God, as part of the story that, though it may seem broken, nevertheless has become the means by which God has enacted His mercy and love.
Reconciliation reaches its proper end in evangelism, as our experience of forgiveness from God and within community changes our lives and provides something attractive for others on the outside. There is a brokenness at the heart of being human, and all of us are agents of God’s healing, exercised by the faithful use of gifts and means, but above all by being those who are always on the lookout for those who are hurting or lost so that we might bring them back here to our Lord where He can heal them.
Sin paralyzes and alienates; holiness reconciles and liberates. Eventually, habitual discord and strife arrive at their final destination—the unrepentant and angry person gets what they really want: a life all to themselves, untouched by the troublesome presence of others, in the waste places outside of the city of God. Habitual concord and peace, however, has its ultimate home as well: they lead us through a lifetime of practicing reconciliation into the peace of God, the healing of the nations, and the life of the world to come.
As our Lord says: “Be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.”
+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.