Sunday, May 01, 2011

Second Sunday of Easter

John 20
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Red is in free-fall, orange is surging, blue hasn’t changed, light blue is more than a little frustrated, and I have no idea about green. If the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have done anything of note thus far in their marriage, it is to distract the good citizens of Her Majesty’s largest Dominion in the hours before an election.

It was going to be a sleeper, with likely the same outcome as last time ‘round, but that now seems far from the case. Just a week ago I confidently bet my mother that a Conservative majority was coming. But a week is a lifetime in politics, and she can probably use the twenty bucks anyway. Maybe I’ll put it in a card for next week.

The thing that makes me most frustrated about politics is the surplus of certainty that politicians bring to the election. Just once, I would love to hear someone running for high office address the challenges of governing and describe a sense of their personal limitations. Just once I would love to hear a politician say: ‘I’m not altogether certain about the future; I don’t know if our program has all the answers; I don’t know what challenges lie ahead; and the challenges I do see may be too great for any one person or any one party to tackle.’

But that would be asking too much. We have come to expect perfection, or at least the power of a strong denial in public life. And showing vulnerability, and being completely honest, will never fly in this time and place. Scars and brokeness are to be carefully hidden, mistakes denied, and uncertainty case aside.

What a great contrast to that first night after the resurrection, when Jesus enters the locked room, speaks his traditional greeting, and shows them his scarred flesh. This is no return in glory, there is no trumpet blast and no choir of angels, but a turn of the hands, a turn of his side, and the assurance that he was there in their midst once more.

And the response was utter joy! The disciples were all Thomas’ at that moment, hopeful that the testimony was true, ready to believe, but also ready to see for themselves. And see they did. He extended his peace to them, he breathed the Holy Spirit on them, and began to teach the theme that would define the church down to today. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.

The first message, after extending the peace, is this: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” We should never forget that this is a sending religion, a faith based on taking the message out to as many people as possible and never hesitating to share it. It would be a mistake to imagine that confirmation is some sort of graduation, or completion, but rather it is a sending out, a tangible example of the message “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Abby, Liam and Robert are being sent into the world, to represent the Gospel and represent us, with a message and a level of articulation (as demonstrated in the creedal statements they wrote) that is truly impressive.

The second message, the core message that the disciples need to hear at this moment, is forgiveness: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” There, in a locked room, the disciples were no doubt relieved that their teacher and friend lives, but this does not mean they give up on the very human response to hate. The religious leaders (mistakenly call Jewish leaders—recall everyone in the story was Jewish) are at best guilty of collusion with the Roman authorities and at worst guilty of trying to destroy God. The disciples would naturally feel anger, and some guilt, since the foot of the cross was empty, save the faithful women.

So the message, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” is first and foremost a message as the disciples prepare to make their way into the world. They could be consumed by anger, they could seek revenge, but Jesus says ‘forgive, do not cling to your anger, do not let your anger get in the way of your mission to take a message of forgiveness to a hurting world.’

Implied in this message of forgiveness, is the recognition the disciples need forgiving too. They did flee away at the critical moment in the story, Peter did deny Jesus, and their first response to the resurrection was disbelief. The message Jesus shared, first pronounced from the cross, is that the disciples are forgiven. The oversights, the anger, the disbelief are all forgiven.

Back to our politicians for a moment, one of the true marks of leadership is acknowledging limitations. It is knowing when to seek help, when to admit you don’t understand, and when to declare that something about us makes it impossible to be effective. This is weakness as strength, the same weakness as strength that allowed Jesus to surrender in the garden and accept what was about to unfold. He had to be weak, he had to accept the suffering and death that was coming, in order to demonstrate that relationship between God and humanity could be righted. He had to accept death in order to defeat it, to be weak in order to be strong, to die on the cross that we might live.

So here we are, redeemed sinners, broken people in need of forgiveness, ready to forgive and be forgiven. This is not a “poor me’ message, or a message that we’re somehow born bad, but rather a message that takes the scars and the limitations and the brokenness that we all possess and transforms them into something good and faithful. St. Augustine, in a prayer, said: "By loving the unlovable, you made me lovable." (Yancey, p. 159)

"By loving the unlovable, you made me lovable [God]." You took the weariness and the doubt, the anger and the shortsightedness, and turned it into the last, best hope for the world. You, God, took a group of ordinary men and women, gave them a message of forgiveness and love, and unleashed them on an unsuspecting world. You took water and clay and fashioned us into worthy vessels, and when the vessels were spoiled on the wheel, you refashioned us into your children once more.

I could say that the message of forgiveness is needed in our world more than ever. But that would be to misread human history. Now, as much as ever, the challenges of the world, the wars and rivalries, the mistrust and the foolishness, can best be met with forgiveness. “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Our three new disciples, newly sent, need our constant support and need to see an example being set. May God strengthen us to set that example, now and always, amen.


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