Repentance and Forgiveness: Present Signs of God’s Future Reality

Sermon delivered on the third Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Acts 3.12-19; Psalm 4.1-8; 1 John 3.1-7; Luke 24.36b-48.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Have you ever seen or heard about something and not believed it because it just seemed too good to be true? You know. Like being told my sermon is only going to be 5 minutes long today? Most of us here probably have experienced something like that and it can help us understand what is going on in Luke’s gospel passage this morning. Let the scene arise in your mind. The disciples are still afraid of the authorities and are still in hiding. There have been scattered reports of Jesus’ resurrection and he has even appeared to some of them individually, but not all together. And like us they were realists. They knew dead people aren’t raised to life again, at least not on an individual basis as in Jesus’ case. No, once you are dead, you are dead. That is why, for example, when I was a young man I could never say the line from the Apostles’ Creed that, “[I] believe in the resurrection of the dead.” I mean, really. All you had to do to disprove that statement was to visit any cemetery. The folks there still looked pretty dead to me and nobody ever really explained how this resurrection thingy works.

So it is no wonder that the disciples were startled and terrified when Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst, even as they hid behind locked doors. They hadn’t anticipated or expected Jesus to be raised from the dead (and they were quite sure he was dead). Now here he was in their midst and the only reasonable explanation they had was that they were seeing a ghost. Like many of us today, they were not prepared to deal with the reality of a risen Lord. And Luke makes it very clear that Jesus’ disciples were not easily persuaded. Despite seeing and touching him, some of them still couldn’t believe their senses. It was just too good to be true.

And thanks be to God that it was true! Jesus is not some shyster or phisher or fraudulent telemarketer. No, he is our risen and ascended Lord who has conquered death and launched God’s new creation here on earth. As we saw last week in John’s gospel, Luke gives us another glimpse of what our promised resurrection body will be like, a body that will be fashioned after Jesus’ body. It is a physical body that could been seen and touched. He could eat and drink and converse with his friends. But Jesus’ body was also more than just a resuscitated corpse because he could appear suddenly behind closed doors and hide his identity from his followers, just like he did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (cf. Luke 24.13-35). It appears that Jesus’ body had been transformed so that it was at home in the earthly dimension as well as the heavenly dimension and most of us are startled at the fact that Jesus’ resurrected body ascended into heaven, not just his spirit.

But of course physicality is part of the hope and promise of new creation. When Christ reappears again to finish the work of new creation that his death and resurrection launched, our soul will be reunited with our new resurrection body. That’s what John means, in part, when he writes in today’s epistle lesson that we will be like Jesus when he appears. Our destiny is not some permanently disembodied existence. It is God’s promised new creation, when the dimensions of heaven and earth are fused together in a mighty act of re-creation and the perishable puts on the imperishable forever. No wonder Jesus’ first disciples and the early church were overcome with joy and wonder, even in the face of severe persecution. They had seen their future arrive in the present and it was a game-changer for them. But first they needed to get their minds right, to adjust their hopes and expectations and address their fears. That is what is going on when Luke tells us that Jesus had to open their minds to what Scripture said about him. I don’t think Jesus had specific passages or proof-texts in mind. Instead, I think he had in mind the entire narrative of the OT which pointed to God’s promise to come once again and live among his people and establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven. But the kingdom, God’s new creation, would come through Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. It’s not what folks of his day (or before or after for that matter) wanted or expected. If we keep that storyline firmly in our minds, we can find references to it all over the place in the OT (and NT). As an aside, if you really want to know Scripture so that among other things your resurrection hope can be strengthened and you can experience the joy that inevitably accompanies it, take your cue from Jesus and start reading Scripture through this lens.

And this is where Jesus’ resurrection and the hope and promise of new creation come into play for us right here and now. As Luke reminds us in both our gospel and NT lessons, because Jesus is alive and is the Lord of all creation, and because through Jesus’ death and resurrection God has demonstrated to us that he intends to redeem his broken world and creatures rather than destroy us, we have a job to do right now. We are called to act in the power of the Spirit and under the authority of the risen and ascended Lord to help him in his work to bring about his new creation, and a critical part of that job is to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins. That doesn’t mean we are called to be professional preachers. Instead, we are to do our preaching mainly through our actions and then explain our actions, if necessary, like Peter did in today’s NT lesson and like Jesus generally did.

We are called to preach repentance and forgiveness because as Peter and John remind us in today’s NT and epistle lessons, we are the recipients of God’s radical forgiveness as demonstrated in the cross of Christ. We can almost hear the wonder of it all in John’s voice as he marvels at how much God loves us so that we can be called his children! That doesn’t happen without radical forgiveness offered and accepted, and the healing that results is a telltale sign of new creation. That’s what the healing of the paralytic illustrates. When new creation breaks into God’s world, healing and wholeness inevitably result. Forgiveness is one of the points of the story about Barabbas that all the gospel writers want us to hear—we are Barabbas and we can offer forgiveness in Jesus’ name to others precisely because we know what it is like to be forgiven, even though we are undeserving of it! God will use our work, in turn, to bring his healing love to bear on others, sometimes before they even realize they need of it, just like Barabbas!

Contrast our call to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and the character and lifestyle it demands, with Caesar’s way, the way of the world. We are told to take care of number one—always. We are told to crush our enemies if possible and to win at all costs. We are told to offer no mercy to others because showing mercy is a sign of weakness and we must teach our foes a lesson. We see what happens as a result. Just this past week, for example, in the news we read of a mother who ran scalding hot water over her baby to punish him for crying too much. We see some of our soldiers gloating over the mutilated corpses of their Taliban enemy in Afghanistan. Then there’s the scandals in the GSA and Secret Service,and that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the problem. It’s everyone for themselves, baby, and let the strongest survive. And to what result? More suffering, more misery, more degradation, more strife, more alienation, more sorrow, and more injustice, to name a just a few.

This is precisely why we as a church are called to have a voice and to speak out against these dehumanizing ways of living, a voice powered by our resurrection hope and all that it promises. We must, of course, start right here at home, in the church, by how we treat each other. When disputes arise among us, which they inevitably will, how are we going to act toward those who wrong or offend us? Will we be quick to forgive or quick to hold a grudge? Forgiveness is never an easy thing, precisely because it is so costly (we are a proud lot!) and the goal of reconciliation takes a long time to accomplish. But whether we are the forgiver or forgiven, if we are going allow Jesus to use us as his agents of new creation, we must say no to our human pride with its distorted sense of justice and follow our risen Lord’s example instead. Otherwise, we will be forced to admit that our hope in Christ is a farce and we really haven’t accepted God’s radical forgiveness and the hope of new creation that accompanies it. As I look around this room, the good news is that we do this with each other pretty well right now. If people will give us a chance and look at how we treat each other, they will indeed say, “See how those folks at St. Augustine’s love each other! What’s up with that?” Of course, we dare not get complacent in any of this because the enemy is always looking for ways to trip us up. But Jesus is Lord and in him we have an advocate who is much stronger than the powers and principalities, and he will help us persevere against their attacks

But we must also preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins to those around us, in our places of work and play, in our neighborhoods, in our communities, and yes, sometimes even in our homes. As we do with each other as members of Christ’s body, we do likewise with those who do not know the Lord to show them that there is a different way, the way of new creation. When we practice what we preach by offering God’s healing love and forgiveness to others, especially toward those who hate us, Jesus can and will use us to teach us how to once again become truly human beings who reflect the glory of God and his healing love out into a world and its people who desperately need it, the true sign of new creation. Never underestimate the power of Christ’s love to produce results when you offer to forgive another, especially when it is undeserved, or when you care enough about the person to explain what needs to happen for real reconciliation to take effect, which of course requires repentance. Only then can we be agents of new creation and only then can we offer real hope to the world and start to turn heads. Don’t misunderstand. This is not easy to do and we can expect tremendous opposition from the powers and principalities because we are a threat to them, to their way of doing business, and to those who follow them. Being an agent of new creation is not for the faint-hearted because it is terribly costly and we can expect to suffer for it.

Of course, we can do none of this if we are not transformed inwardly by the power of the Spirit so that we are able to put to death all that is in us that keeps us proud and unforgiving. Without the Spirit, our eyes will never be opened to see others as real human beings rather than as objects we use to help us achieve our own goals and selfish desires. It is also in the power of the Spirit that we experience the risen Lord and hear his call to us to follow him in the costly work of offering God’s healing love and forgiveness to those who do not deserve it—in other words, those just like us. Again, we do this because we know that Jesus’ resurrection has already inaugurated the new creation and that our future is secure, even as we await its final consummation. If we really believe that God’s future has broken into our present world, no circumstance can overcome our resurrection hope. This is because if we know God’s promises about the future are true, we can therefore trust our Lord to be good to his word about his call to us right now. We also have confidence that he will empower us to act on his behalf to help him continue the work of bringing in God’s rule here on earth as in heaven, just as he promised us he would do (cf. John 14.25-27). And when we have that assurance, we can live our lives with meaning, purpose, and power because we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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