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

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!

This Divine Liturgy on Forgiveness Sunday is the last service each year before we begin Great Lent. During the Vespers service this evening, we’ll change all of the cloths to purple, we’ll begin to sing the Lenten melodies, and the Great Fast will begin. Each of these Pre-Lenten Sundays we’ve been looking at how the various Gospel readings were specifically chosen for how they help us prepare for Lent. On the eve of our entrance into the fast, today’s Gospel reading focuses on three main topics: forgiveness, fasting, and our life’s overall focus.

1st – Forgiveness
On Forgiveness Sunday our Gospel reading begins with an admonition to forgive the people who offend us or sin against us in any way. The statement is conditional – “If you forgive men their trespasses, [then] your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (v14). The “Our Father” is given to the Apostles in the verses immediately preceding this morning’s Gospel – in it we pray, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). If we refuse to forgive others, then we’re also refusing the forgiveness that Christ offers to us. This point is so important that today is named Forgiveness Sunday. During Lent we’ll be focused in many ways on repenting of our sins, and turning our lives to Christ. For this to have any effect, we have to be able to forgive each other. We’ll come into this temple tonight (at Forgiveness Vespers) for the first service of Lent, and one of the most important. We’ll bow down before each other and ask for forgiveness (we’ll repent before each other). And our response to each other will be, “God forgives and I forgive.” The “I forgive” is the key – I have to forgive everyone, I have to hold no grudges or resentments, in order for my sins against God [which are far greater than my neighbor’s sins against me] to be forgiven. We have a beautiful reminder of God’s forgiveness with the baptism of the infant Philothea this morning. God washes our sins away, He removes them from us as far as the East is from the West. We just have to remember to forgive one another in this same image.

2nd – Fasting
Our Lord then goes immediately from discussing forgiveness to discussing fasting. One of the most prominent features of Great Lent is our fasting – so very appropriately we hear some words from Christ this morning on fasting. And His message is very simple (contained in just 2 verses) – don’t appear outwardly to be fasting. We don’t brag about it, we don’t find ways to bring it up in conversation, we don’t go around looking miserable so we get questioned and then have a reason to talk about it. Our fasting is between us and God. The Church certainly helps us find parameters for our fasting (we don’t do it in a self-willed and prideful way), but even in the Church we don’t talk about what we’re doing. The Church gives us the norms, and then the choice of what to do is ours. And we don’t look at what other people are doing either, St. Paul reminds us. “Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant?” (Romans 14:3-4a) We offer our fast to God and He receives it, and that’s all. We don’t need the praise or the pity of others – our fasting is between us and God.

3rd – the Focus of the Christian life
The Gospel reading then ends with some discussion on how our lives should be directed. We’re not here to stack up earthly wealth and reputation and status. If our lives are focused on attaining the things of this world, at some point (even if its not until death) all the things of this world pass away. If nothing else, the worldwide financial crisis that’s underway right now should remind us that the things of the world are fleeting. So Christ gives us our goal – “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:20-21).

Everything in Lent, and everything in Christian life in general, in about Christ. He’s to be the focus of everything for us. Christ is the desire of our heart, Christ is our goal, Christ is our completion, our love is for Christ. And if this is the way we operate, if our heart’s desire is Christ – the we’ll long to forgive the people who offend us for the sake of the love of Christ; we’ll fast in the secret of our closet just for the love of Christ; as we enter each day and every circumstance and situation, Christ will be for us a reference point for everything else that we do. Re-orienting like this isn’t easy, it takes some work and some effort on our part. As we enter Great Lent, it’s our time to struggle to be as much like Christ as we possibly can. We’re called to be like Christ, to be perfect even as the Father is perfect. Take the upcoming period of Great Lent very seriously – get rid of any resentments and frustrations you have by forgiving the people who hurt you and dealing with your own residual anger; offer your fast as fully as you can for the healing of your soul and drawing closer to the Saviour; and remember that the focal point for everything in life is Christ. May God grant us a blessed fast, and a holy preparation to greet the Resurrection of Christ with joy.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!