Lent and Priesthood #4: The Priesthood of Forgiveness


Sunday of Forgiveness, February 26, 2017
Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

The Lord said: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Today is now the fourth week in our ten-part series on the priesthood as understood through the themes of Great Lent and the pre-Lenten season. One of the more well-known yet also most-misunderstood facets of priestly life is bound up with this theme of forgiveness that we focus on today on this, the Sunday of Forgiveness.

It is a priestly act to forgive. This is part of why we have the ordained priesthood, to help us to connect with God’s forgiveness. This theme also winds its way through this season—even in the preceding Sundays, with the parables of the Publican and Pharisee and the Prodigal Son, as well as this past Sunday of the Last Judgment. In all of these, forgiveness is a key doorway through which we enter into the Gospel message.

But today we especially contemplate forgiveness and try to enter into it as best as we can, particularly with the act of mutual repentance we will share tonight at Forgiveness Vespers. This is how we enter into Lent, through the doorway of forgiveness.

We heard from Jesus in the Gospel that if we forgive others, then the Father will forgive us. And if we do not forgive others, then the Father will not forgive us. This is pretty straightforward and is also represented in the Lord’s Prayer which we pray constantly in our Christian life: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

To forgive is something that priests do.

First, this forgiveness flows from the High Priest Jesus Christ. His incarnation, His life, death and resurrection—this act of His priesthood is what makes forgiveness possible at all. God the Father extends His forgiveness to us through His Son Jesus Christ. We are sinners, but we can be forgiven sinners by participating in Christ’s own life, by accepting the free gift of salvation and by truly incorporating it into ourselves.

How does this priestly act of forgiveness work? To forgive is to make space for another person despite his sins, his imperfections, his dysfunction, and to decide that I will not find him a threat to me. It is to accept him just as he is, not to react, not to take revenge or demand recompense.

It does not mean that I pretend that I’m not hurt or pretend that the other person is perfectly trustworthy if he betrayed me. But it does mean that I’m not going to expect that he will make it up to me. And I will also not try to hurt him back.

This can be hard, especially if we feel really hurt. Especially if it’s a serious betrayal. Especially if it’s a long term pattern of being hurt. Yet Jesus says explicitly to us that if we do not forgive then we will not be forgiven. There is no getting around the necessity to forgive if we want to be forgiven. Our salvation depends on this. And if we don’t forgive, it messes us up even in this life.

So how can we do it? The key is to remember that we are part of the royal priesthood. While the ordained priesthood has through apostolic succession been given the gift of binding and loosing sins, the royal priesthood we all belong to has been given a similar gift of forgiveness.

We can also choose to bind sins by not forgiving or to loose sins by forgiving, and the binding and loosing happens within ourselves and within our relationships. When we forgive, we loosen up our lives and our relationships, giving them greater freedom and love. And when we do not forgive, we bind not only the relationship but even ourselves, restricting life.

In seeing ourselves as priests who forgive, we can also think of the act of confession. When a priest stands as confessor to one who is penitent, it is his job to ask God for forgiveness for that person. In most cases, he is not asking for forgiveness for something that has hurt him personally. Even if he is, he takes himself out of the picture and serves only as the channel for God’s forgiveness.

When we see ourselves that way with other people, even if they have hurt us personally, then we will find it easier to forgive. When we remove our own ego from the picture and see that other person as a suffering creature of God, a distorted creation who needs forgiveness and healing, then we will find it easier to be forgiving. After all, it is not truly my own forgiveness that I am giving, but God’s.

The problem so often when we try to offer forgiveness is that we make it about ourselves, about our own feelings. But that’s not what forgiveness is. I do not forgive by trying to feel something different about the other person. I forgive by seeing him as a hurting creature of God who is broken and distorted, in need of healing. And then I make space for him in my heart, even if it can only be a space in my prayers.

But there is an even deeper sense in which forgiveness is a priestly act.

The priesthood ultimately resolves into one central act, whether we are talking about the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ, the priesthood of our ordained clergy, or the royal priesthood of the People of God. What is the ultimate priestly act? It is sacrifice.

To sacrifice is to offer something up to God. And when the offering is given, God acts upon that offering. And then the offering is returned to us for our participation. And in participating it, we are changed. We are sanctified. We are cleansed and made holy, set apart for God’s service.

It’s probably easiest to see this dynamic in the Eucharist, where the bread and wine are offered, changed by God into His Body and Blood, and then received by the faithful for their sanctification.

But did you know that forgiveness is also a sacrifice, also an offering? In forgiveness, we offer up our brokenness to God. We offer up our hurt. We offer up our need for revenge. We offer up our incompleteness. We offer up our dysfunction. What we are finally offering is ourselves, including that other person. We are offering him to God.

And when this sacrifice is made, and all our pain is placed on the altar of God by speaking it in confession, by seeing another’s sins and not taking revenge in word, deed or even thought, it is in that moment that God is invoked. In that moment, He reaches down from Heaven and receives what is offered. And He sends His Holy Spirit to cleanse it with the fire of life, the fire of forgiveness, the fire of refinement and perfection.

Some people say “Let go and let God,” as though praying and then trying to forget about something is the key to forgiveness, the key to Christian life. It’s not. We don’t “Let go and let God.” No, we offer up our lives to God, and we offer up each other to God. And we don’t forget about it. We wait to receive back what has been sacrificed. We wait to receive it so that we can do something with it. We wait on God to receive what has been transformed by Him, what is being given back not for our spiritual spectation but for our priestly participation.

We are called not to be spectators in God’s work of forgiveness but participants. And we participate as priests. We are here to loosen sins with His grace. We are here to set ourselves and others free with His grace. We are here to offer suffering souls health and transformation with His grace. We are here to forgive.

This is the priesthood of forgiveness. It is a priesthood we all share as baptized and forgiven souls cleansed by the grace of the High Priest Whose actions on this earth are what grace is made of.

To the High Priest Jesus Christ Who forgives therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

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