1 John 2:1-5a
Twenty-one years ago, I drove through Oklahoma City on my way to see my parents in Albuquerque. Everything seemed normal. A year later, I made the same trip, two months after a bomb destroyed the Murrah Federal Building and killed 169 people. The city had been forever changed. We remember that event today. Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. For many of us today, even here in the US, the world seems to be teetering on the verge of chaos. Violence seems epidemic. Even the weather has turned weird, if less so here than elsewhere in the nation. Fairdale is not so far away. So the temptation to try to exert control over even the ordinary affairs of life can be huge. It has probably always been that way, but every generation feels privileged. And it has always been a trap, for as we erect more and more defenses against the perceived forces of disruption, our ability to live freely and gracefully seems increasingly compromised. Today the Word of God has something important to tell us instead.
It is still Easter evening as far as the Church is concerned, and always will be. The gospel reading takes up the story we left off on Easter day of how Jesus suddenly appeared in the midst of his disciples just after two travelers related pretty breathlessly how they had encountered him on their way home earlier that day. They must have run hard, because Emmaus seems to have been about 20 miles away. There is nothing here about the absence of doubting Thomas, no mention of the Holy Spirit. But here, too, Jesus shows the disciples his hands and feet, the wounds of his passion and death, and his message is the same — the same message we hear from Peter in the second reading and in the Letter of John. We hear it often, but somehow we often fail to grasp its meaning. Perhaps that is why we need to hear it again and again.
The first reading continues the second sermon of St. Peter in the Acts of the Apostles, preached just after he and John healed the man born crippled. Toward the end, Peter says two things to the people who have gathered around, first, that “what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled.” He goes on to say, “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” [Acts 3:19].
Familiar words, and yet their very familiarity can hide their meaning from us. The Greek word Peter uses that we hear as “repent” (and we’ll hear again in the Gospel) comes from metanoia. It’s the same command that John the Baptist and Jesus preached when they were baptizing people in the Jordan River. We heard it a lot in Advent. It’s notoriously hard to translate, but it does not really mean “repent” or “reform” as we use those words today, but “change the way you think.” That should change the way we live, but Christians have often put the emphasis on undertaking some kind of special penance, hoping somehow to expiate our sins ourselves, to atone. Peter is really telling us to wake up, to recognize the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection and to appropriate the power it gives us to completely reorient our lives. All we need do is turn again to God.
It is here that things get down to a matter of control. Like little children, we complain “I want to do it myself!” Maybe mostly so when we are least able to. That’s where Jesus’ message truly comes home to us.
So in both John’s gospel and Luke’s, Jesus first says to his terrified disciples, “Peace be to you.” The disciples did need to calm down. They were already very scared by his violent death and the reported disappearance of his body. Now they think they’re seeing a ghost. Thus the first gift of the risen Christ is peace. But he goes on to talk about metanoia and especially about forgiveness.
Not only that, in Luke’s gospel he says that metanoia and the forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem [Luke 24:47]. Jesus does not say “do penance.” Rather, he is again telling us to change our way of thinking, to change our mind — our whole way of seeing reality. We miss the point entirely if we think Jesus is telling us to adopt some kind of penitential practice in order to atone for our sins. A lot of Christians do think that way, eager to regain control over their moral and spiritual lives with some special kind of activity, something we can do to get God off our backs. But the simple fact is, we can’t atone for our sins. Only Jesus could do that and he did it. Once for all. That is what the Letter from John insists on when he writes, “He is an offering for our sins, and not for our sins only, but for those of the whole world.”
The desire to atone runs very strong in the human heart. Estrangement from God because of our crazy, sinful ways is hard to bear. But if we think we can fix that ourselves, that it’s somehow in our control, then the sacrifice of Jesus was pointless. The more we try to atone by ourselves, the farther we get from Christ. We are actually denying that Jesus reconciled us to God, completely and perfectly. In fact what Peter and John and Luke and ultimately Jesus are all telling us is that Jesus himself IS the atonement. Recognizing that, accepting it, and living that truth is how we are to change our way of thinking. That is the Easter message.
Does that mean that we are free from the burden of making amends with those we have harmed? Not at all. In fact, just the opposite. And this is what Jesus next gives us, the second part of the message in today’s gospel. Because we have been forgiven, we have the power to forgive and the command to do it.
Last Sunday, we heard in the Gospel of John about the mission Jesus gave his disciples on the evening of his resurrection. He breathed the Holy Spirit into them, the Spirit of love and unity, of reconciliation, and said “forgive.” Luke’s account of Jesus’ appearance that night contains the same lesson, the same command — a complete change of heart expressed in forgiveness. That shouldn’t be surprising, because that was what Jesus preached and taught before he was crucified. If Jesus had not preached it after his resurrection, that would be surprising.
So if you want to know whether the grace and power of the risen Christ is alive in you, consider forgiveness. Whom do you need to forgive, and who needs to forgive you? Then go forgive them and ask for forgiveness if you need it. You’d be surprised how wonderful things can get after that — once we let go of our desire to be in charge and let God take control of our lives. Miracles start happening.
It’s quieter now. But the mystery lingers. For masses during the day on Easter, after the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter’s little sermon to the household of the Centurion Cornelius, we are given a choice of readings. For the gospel reading, the contrast could hardly be greater – for Mark’s version and John’s differ greatly – possibly because Mark’s was likely the first to be written, and John’s the last, over a period of perhaps 20 years or more.
Both passages conclude quietly enough, although there is much more yet to be told. In John’s account, Mary not only followed Peter and John to the empty tomb, but stayed behind when they left, and there she encounters the risen Lord – not at first recognizing him. In Mark’s version, the women remain silent and hide for a while, but he too goes on to describe how Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene who dashes back to the eleven with the good news, but they will not believe her. He quickly inserts a note that Jesus next appeared to two disciples, who also failed to receive a hearing when they returned to Jerusalem. Luke will tell us much more about that encounter. Finally, Jesus himself appears to the eleven, and the gospel rushes on to its conclusion. John has a good deal more to say, and we will be meditating on it for weeks to come.
But here it’s appropriate, perhaps unavoidable, to wonder why these gospel passages are placed here today, cut off on a note of surprise, fear, and even doubt. Perhaps it’s because we need that reminder, too. Last night we celebrated the Lord’s resurrection as a great triumph of light over darkness, of life over death. We might benefit now from a reminder that even then his closest disciples did not expect him to rise and did not at first believe that he did. Not even Mary Magdalene could believe her eyes. They were scared. And stubborn. Not by accident, the first thing the angelic witnesses say as Jesus himself will say is “Don’t be afraid.”
What were they afraid of, those first witnesses of the Risen Lord? Probably what we are at least half afraid of still: it might just be true.
Science tells us it cannot be so. Philosophers and novelists tell us it can’t be so, not literally true. Even Christian theologians sometimes grow evasive about the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is, after all, much easier and much simpler to think of the resurrection as a purely spiritual event, the raising of the memory of Jesus to indelibility because of the power of his message and his courage in the face of an unjust and cruel execution. Then why, I wonder, go to all that trouble to move his disciples to belief in his risen presence? Why not just inspire them?
I suppose the simple answer is that the gospel of Jesus is not just another Great Idea. Actually, Paul himself, no mean intellectual, rarely speaks of Jesus’ teaching. He is focused almost obsessively on the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, his bodily presence and redeeming sacrifice. And so are John and Peter, who use the word “touch” so frequently. We touched him. We ate and drank with him. He lives. And if so, then there are consequences. Scary ones.
So perhaps what those frightened women and skeptical men had cause to fear that morning so long ago was the sudden realization that somehow, despite everything, despite the horror of Jesus’ death, despite the paralysis that drove the Eleven into hiding, despite their own sorrow, doubts, and anxiety, somehow it is — unthinkably, unimaginably, incredibly — true.
Heb 4:14-16; 5:7-9
Death has been very much with us these past weeks, at least at a distance… and if we were paying attention to the news reports. The crash of the Germanwings plane has been etched indelibly into our thoughts… And while it is not unusual for Christians to find themselves under duress somewhere in the world much if not almost all the time, the pace of martyrdom has quickened very noticeably in recent weeks, even days – and not only of Christians but also of Jews and Muslims. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is when innocents are killed for their faith by someone who professes the same faith.
The death toll of the Christian university students at Garissa University College in Kenya is now estimated to be 147. Thousands of other Christians have in recent months been driven from their homes, beaten, kidnapped, tortured, and killed in Nigeria, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and India, many of them mere children.
Martyrdom is more a reality today than it was during the first centuries of the Common Era. We find that appalling and scary, but we should not find it surprising. Jesus told us it would be like that. In fact, he said, “unless you take up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.” [Mk 8:34, Mat 10:38, Lk 14:27]
And that is why we are here today, this afternoon, in this place – to present ourselves anew at this terrible event, the torture and execution of Jesus of Nazareth, an unjust, merciless martyrdom that in the plan and, we believe, the loving wisdom of God, brought life and hope to a desperate world.
A popular and influential approach to the story of Jesus, one of the great Courses, begins with an overview of all the stories of the ancient world in which divinities became human, were incarnate. But that is to misunderstand completely the meaning of the story of Jesus and especially the significance of his passion and death. As Raymond Brown and John Meier have shown, there are NO parallels between the Incarnation of Jesus and the myths of gods in human form, and nothing like them in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus or its significance for us today. And not only us but the world.
When he became one of us, he became all of us. The essential difference is that in taking on the stature of a slave, the lowest of the low, scraping the bottom of that barrel, he undertook the meanest, lowest, most humiliating death imaginable. In John’s opening gospel hymn, the world became flesh, sarx, he says in Greek – not just a body, but quite literally “meat” or “muscle,” the way people referred to a slave or a beggar.
So in Christ, no death is without meaning, no one’s death is insignificant. All have been taken up into the death of Jesus, all hallowed and consecrated, offered to God, redeemed, and ultimately joined in Resurrection. But that is yet to come. Here we pause, we marvel, and we pray as we behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. Come, let us adore him. More than that: let us take up our cross and follow him. Then we will know who we are. And Jesus, too, will recognize us and lift us up. Come you blessed of my Father. You now belong to the Kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world. [Mat 25:34]