On a beautiful summer day twenty-three 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 home-made truck bomb destroyed the Murrah Federal Building and killed 160 people. The city had been changed completely and probably forever. We remember that event on Thursday of this week. Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. For many of us today, even here in the US after Blacksburg, DeKalb, Binghamton, Manchester, Oak Creek, Sandy Hook, Waco, Charleston, San Bernardino, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, and Parkland (to cite only some mass shootings in this country since 2008), the whole world sometimes 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. So the temptation to try to exert control over even the ordinary affairs of life can be huge. And it has always been a trap, for as we erect more and more defenses against perceived forces of disruption, our ability to live freely and gracefully become increasingly compromised. Today the Word of God has something important to tell us in that regard.
It is still Easter evening as far as the Church is concerned, and always will be. The gospel reading
resumes the account we heard on Easter Sunday of how Jesus suddenly appeared in the midst of his disciples just after two travelers related breathlessly how they had encountered him earlier on their way home. They must have run hard, because Emmaus seems to have been about 20 miles away and Jesus had stayed for supper. Nothing is said 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 one we heard from Peter in the first 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 word Peter uses that we hear as “repent” (and we’ll hear again in the Gospel) comes from the Greek word 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 mean “repent” or “reform” as we use those words today, but “change your mind — 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 by our own efforts. 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 when we are least able to. That’s where Jesus’ message truly comes home to us.
In both John’s gospel and Luke’s, Jesus first says to his terrified disciples, “Peace be to you.” The disciples needed 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 — 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, desperate 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.