Saturday, April 14, 2012

Easter 2B April 15, 2012

         “These are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Tuesday in Holy Week at the annual service for clergy Bishop Taylor preached. He doesn’t travel in his collar or purple shirt, but one day a young woman sat next to him found out he was a Christian, and an Episcopalian, and a bishop. Then she asked him, “The Bible, is it true?” “The Bible, is it true?”  Bishop Taylor told her his story - a spiritually lost 27 year old whose life found focus when he volunteered in an Atlanta soup kitchen and met Jesus.

We all have a story. Mine is of a college student who drank too much Saturday night Thanksgiving weekend. When my priest father got me up to serve at the altar early Sunday morning for the men and boys corporate communion the wine of communion set off the other alcohol in my system. I had to go sit on the back step head down so I wouldn’t pass out. I said, “I don’t want to live this way anymore,” and the Lord said, “You don’t have to.” Rough times followed, but Jesus offered me new life that morning. The God who made us loves us, and sent his son Jesus to die on the cross to set us free from sin and shame and guilt. Jesus rose from the dead to give us new life, now and forevermore. And Jesus gave us for new life his Holy Spirit of truth and power. We all have a story, and we need to be able to tell it when God gives us opportunity.

          In Easter Season our first lesson is from the Acts of the Apostles. The second lesson this year is from the First Epistle of St. John. Last year the second lesson was from the First Epistle of St. Peter, next year from the Revelation to St. John.  

          Some scholars think the same St. John wrote both the gospel and the epistles; others think they have different authors. The theme of St. John’s epistles is light and love. “God is light” and “God is love.”  “. . . if we walk in the light . . . we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus God’s Son cleanses us from all sin.”

          “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Those of us familiar with the 1928 Prayer Book or Rite I hear this as one of the Comfortable Words after Confession and Absolution. Jesus Christ is our advocate one who speaks for us on judgment day. Jesus speaks for us that we are guilty and pardoned. By his death Jesus has set us free from sin and God’s judgment for all our sins – “for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

          Jesus’ death and resurrection was not only for us who “profess and call” ourselves Jesus’ disciples, but for every one in every place and every age who admits sin and claims the pardon. I’ve sat in civil court and heard the state attorney offer the plea bargain. Almost 9 cases in 10 in criminal court are settled by plea bargains. The defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offence with less prison time or a lighter fine and the more serious charges are dismissed. The judge says to the defendant, “Do you accept this agreement, and are you in fact guilty of the crime to which you plead?” The required answer is “yes, I am guilty.” So say we all. We all are guilty of willful disobedience of God’s law in some respect at some time. As St. John tells us, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

          Our society and church have a major problem - our pervasive denial of the reality of personal sin. We all think of our good intentions and we ignore our morally ambivalent and some times egregiously evil actions. Bishop Tom Fraser of North Carolina used to say, “Be hard on yourself and easy on others.” Our natural tendency is to pay close attention to the faults of others and to seek ways to excuse our own errors of judgment and action. The Jesus Prayer in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  As we become more aware of our own sinfulness, we are more able to accept the wonderful grace of our risen Savior. “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

          Today’s gospel tells of Jesus’ coming to the disciples gathered, traditionally, in the upper room where they had celebrated the last supper. The doors were locked; the mob was still out there, likely looking for more blood. Jesus comes to give them peace, and to share with them his power to forgive sins. Later today after our general confession, I will in God’s name and by Jesus’ authority entrusted to me by Jesus’ body the church tell you that your sins are forgiven, “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life.  Amen.” As St. John says, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Our sins are put away forever. Our sins are washed away in the shed blood of Jesus on the cross.

          Baptism is the beginning. The water of baptism washes away sins and every time we confess our sins we renew the spiritual effect of our baptism. The church has traditionally required baptism before communion, and that is a requirement of Episcopal church law. The church also recognizes “baptism by desire” when water baptism is not available, and  my practice is to invite to communion all Christians, all of us who say to Jesus with Thomas in today’s gospel “My Lord and my God.” In 45 years of ordained ministry I’ve met some people who have come to faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection but who have not been baptized in water. We offer the communion to everyone who comes to receive. We trust that the spirit of Jesus has brought them to his altar. But I believe the Christian tradition is right, baptism first.

          Some clergy disagree with the tradition. They believe in radical spiritual hospitality. You may hear in an Episcopal Church something like, “Whoever you are, wherever you are in your faith journey, you are welcome to receive communion here.” The diocese of Eastern Oregon and others has proposed that this summer’s General Convention change the present church law. 

          The risen Jesus shared with the disciples his authority to forgive sins against God, and he also gave a limited but essential power to forgive sins to all Christian disciples. Jesus gives each one of us the power to forgive sins committed against us. . “If you forgive the sins of any (against you), they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any (against you), they are retained (to you).” We all commit sins against ourselves and against one another, and we are all sometimes sinned against. We can continue to hold on to the truth that we are sinned against, or we can forgive. We sometimes call the experience of being sinned against “resentments.”  We can continue to resent, or we can forgive. We say in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The contemporary version of the prayer has “sins” – “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

          The gift of being able to forgive sins against us, to let go of resentments, is a gift of the Holy Spirit by the resurrected Jesus. It is also hard spiritual work.  G.K. Chesterton once said, “Jesus commanded us to forgive our neighbors and our enemies. Frequently they are the same persons.”  We need to forgive over and over again, as often as the resentment comes back to bother us. When we have forgiven the sins committed by others against us we also can forgive the sins we have committed against ourselves, the things we have done to harm ourselves even when we knew they were wrong when we did them,.

          The great gift of God is that when we forgive he gives us the wisdom, the grace, and the power, to change, to do things differently. For that we thank God. Today’s gospel tells of Thomas’ radical change from skepticism to belief, from “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” to “my Lord and my God!” Jesus met Thomas’ need to see and touch.

Jesus meets all our real needs. He met Porter Taylor’s need for direction and purpose. He met my need for a new way of life. He met the need of the young woman on the airplane to know -  “the Bible, is it true?” He has met our needs, and he calls us to tell our story of his grace, his light, his love, his forgiveness, his freedom.

So think about your story, your encounter with Jesus, and be prepared to share it the next time God gives you opportunity. You don’t have to be a bishop on an airplane, but you do have to be aware and alert and ready.

“These are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” 

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