Posts Tagged ‘forgiveness of sins’

A Christmastime Reflection

December 21, 2017

The story of Jesus begins and ends with forgiveness: Mark’s gospel begins with John the Baptist’s “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Luke’s ends with Christ’s parting words “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). Christ’s commission to Paul is to open the eyes of the Gentiles “so that they may turn from darkness to light… [and] receive forgiveness of sins” (Acts 26:18).We humans need forgiveness of sins terribly, not just of the “sins” that can be named and counted, but forgiveness and healing of anything that causes self-loathing in us and sends us looking for a scapegoat, because until then our self-unforgiveness and unforgiveness of others – however masked by denial – are toxic and infectious and keep the world mired in evil, false solutions, and consequent despair. Without real repentance and forgiveness, I believe, social and political action are but a band-aid, and religious programs off the mark; but with repentance and forgiveness, one finds the Pearl of Great Price and can help all come to repentance, which I believe is God’s own desire (2 Pet 3:9).

But cheap repentance and cheap forgiveness are dangerous counterfeits to be shunned. If one looks deeply enough into oneself, one may find an “I” so damaged by being sinned against (especially while the “I” was forming) that it cannot truly say either “I forgive” or “I repent.” Or a guilty soul may find such an overwhelming fear of exposure that self-confrontation is blocked and guilt must go unacknowledged. In such cases the only cure may be God’s intervention. One must invite and welcome it as best one can, however frightening or painful it may prove to be. It may help to reflect that it will probably be no more painful to ourselves than the pain suffered by the One who bore our sins on the Cross. He lives, and is will lend courage and endurance to any who lack it, I believe, as generously as He has lent them to me.

Welcome, Christ, through whom, in whom, and as whom only, I believe, can we recovering sinners discover how infinitely we are loved by our Creator. Amen.

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Instructions from the Risen Christ

April 20, 2015

A sermon delivered to Manhattan Monthly Meeting on First Day, 4/19/2015

Friends, – Jesus had a lot to say to fallen, suffering humanity during His years of ministry, but, judging from the gospel records, very little to say during the short period between His resurrection and His ascension (traditionally forty days, though the number forty may have been picked more for its mythic associations than its historical accuracy). “Hereafter I will not talk much with you,” Jesus had said in the final minutes before His arrest (John 14:30), preparing His disciples for a future in which the Holy Spirit would provide the guidance they’d been looking to Him for up till then. – And then, less than twenty-four hours later, He’d said tetélestai, “It is finished,” and died on the cross (John 19:30). And that finished His conversation with them, His teaching, His ministry, His sacrifice, His work on earth. – Almost.

This morning I invite you to join me in unpacking the remainder of that “almost,” – that is, the teachings He gave us after His resurrection from the dead. Now, the written record is sketchy. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John disagree about what happened next: in John, Mary Magdalene meets Jesus outside the tomb, and He forbids her to touch Him; in Matthew, two women encounter the risen Christ, – and touch His feet. Mark and Luke mention no encounter with Christ by the empty sepulcher, but rather with one or two men in dazzlingly white clothing (one in Mark, two in Luke). But all agree that the first witnesses were women, or a woman, who came at dawn and found the stone rolled away from the mouth of an empty grave.

And then what? – Mark and Luke tell the story of an Easter-afternoon encounter on the road to Emmaus, with a nighttime sequel among the disciples in a room in Jerusalem. John mentions two meetings with the disciples, one with Thomas absent and the second with him present. Matthew mentions no meeting with the disciples in Jerusalem, but rather one that takes place on a mountain in Galilee. John also has Jesus arrange a final breakfast with the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. In all these encounters it seems as if no one recognizes Jesus until He wills it. He also enters rooms with locked doors without passing through them. He also… vanishes.

Paul, writing to the Corinthians, also tells of the Risen Lord’s meetings with His brother James, with five hundred brethren, and with Paul himself (1 Cor. 15:5-8). A Gospel to the Hebrews, known to the Church Fathers but now lost except for a fragment, also mentions an Easter-morning breaking of bread with James. Now what happened in all these encounters? What did Jesus have to say that He hadn’t said already, or couldn’t have said before rising from the dead? And – is there a common theme or central point to it?

Here are the essentials I’ve gleaned from the records that we have:

1. I am really alive among you, in a physical flesh-and-bones body that can eat, drink, and be touched.

2. Thus was it foretold, that the Messiah should suffer, die, and be raised again (Luke 24:35-37, 44-47).

3. All authority in heaven and on earth has now been given to me (Matthew 28:18), and I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Matthew 28:20b).

4. Now “receive Holy Breath from me” (John 20:22), and “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49b). In other words, an anointing of some sort is needed before you are ready to go out as disciples. (The Gospel of John says that Jesus “breathed on them,” but the original Greek says that He “blew into them” as a flute-player blows into a flute, using the verb from which we get our word “emphysema,” so He may have given them mouth-to-mouth artificial respiration, one by one.)

5. Thorough changes of heart and mind (metanoia) have now been made possible, a virtual rebirth that enables the discarding of sin (áphesis hamartiōn), which no longer clings to the sinner as it once did. This good and liberating news must now be announced to every nation (Luke 24:47).

6. You disciples must also feed My sheep (John 21:15-17), that is, live no longer for yourselves, but to tend lovingly to the people I send to you, and build community. I will equip you for your several missions with facility with new languages, immunity to snakebite and poisons, and the power of healing touch (Mark 16:17-18).

7. Peace be with you! I now send you forth, as my Father sent Me forth (John 20:19-21). Make disciples among all nations (Matt. 28:19), washing them clean in the power of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all the things that I have commanded (Mark 16:15).

Now to me, some of these parts of Jesus’ post-resurrection message have the look of the central teaching, and others, the look of a frame around the central teaching. As part of the “frame” I’d include the presentation of His credentials: He was and is the Messiah, He really died, He really is alive now, and He has authority over everything, forever. Also part of the frame would be His commission to spread His gospel, His anointing breath and charismatic empowerments, and His instruction to feed the sheep.

But what is this gospel, the central teaching in the middle?

It is, in a word, salvation. It’s the sin-eliminating metanoia, the “repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18), the birth of the new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17, Gal. 6:15) within the shell of the old personality, the transformation made possible for all humankind, both before and after Jesus’ walk on earth, by the death and resurrection of its Savior Jesus.

Transformation, metamorphosis: we morph, and we do it merely by facing that Holy One, name Him however we will, and by letting Him reshape us into something more like Himself (2 Cor. 3:18). This transformation, this “morphing,” frees us from addictions to sin, frees us from our defenses against being aware that we’re addicts to sin, one of which is our habit of seeing faults in others that we can’t admit to having in ourselves, and frees us from identifying ourselves with our sins and so walking around in perpetual shame, guilt, and uneasy denial, over all the vile things we’ve ever said or thought or done.

Repentance, rightly understood, disconnects us from sin so that it falls away from us. This falling away, or removal of sins, áphesis hamartiōn, often translated “forgiveness of sins,” is something that we can feel – not when we die and go to heaven, but right here. Jesus confirmed that the prostitute that crashed the banquet and washed His feet with her tears was someone who’d felt her sins forgiven, and that’s why she acted so wildly generous and loving (Luke 7:36-50). It’s not something we can fake by glibly declaring ourselves sinless, and neither is it something we can get without first forgiving everyone else their sins against us (Matt. 6:15). Neither is it a blessing that God reserves only for His special darlings, for we are told in 2 Peter 3:9 that the Lord is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (You want it for yourself? Help everybody get it!)

We come to the heart of the matter when we ask what the connection is between repentance and salvation. Briefly, there is no salvation without repentance. Salvation, sōtēría, means “safety” or “making safe.” In our unchanged, unrepentant state we are not safe, we are in bondage where we can be jerked around by our chains. If you doubt that, think of how quickly anger can jerk you into a state of temporary insanity, where you suddenly become sure that you’re in the right and the other person is in the wrong, and not only that, you must immediately correct that wrong person by hurting or humiliating him. As we are in bondage to anger, so are we in bondage to fear, pain, hunger, thirst, and erotic attraction. But Christ will free us from bondage to these things for the asking, if we’ll only cooperate with His efforts to strengthen us against the temptations these things hold over us.

If we’ve experienced this transformation of repentance, or even started to feel it, let’s do all we can to share the glorious fruit of it. It is wonderful to feel bondage to sin gone from our lives! If we haven’t yet, then let’s pray to receive it, and do all we can to get the obstacles out of the way, for ourselves and for others! – for most people in bondage can’t feel how horrible it is until they’ve been freed. Salvation has been won for us, and the Lord Jesus Christ, now risen, holds it out to us as a free gift. All we have to do is say “yes,” reach for it, and accept it.

Stopping Climate Change Will Take a Change of Heart

August 22, 2014

You and I know that these could be our last years on earth, and our children’s too. We’ve known since the 1970s that our greenhouse gas production is driving climate change. The nightmare sequels, we now know, may include global famine from cropland desertification and collapse of the marine food chain as CO2 sours the seas. To their credit, many men and women of good will are responding by innovating, protesting, going off-grid and eating more simply. Protest actions against a major coal-fired power plant have led to plans for its closure. But the mitigations put in place have consistently seemed too little, too late, and profiteers, enabled by an “anything goes” culture that cares little about truth-telling, are still generating PR claims that natural gas and plutonium are “green,” and elected officials are buying it. Global demand for an ever-higher standard of living, along with capital’s need to milk that demand for ever-higher levels of corporate profit and power, still trump any sustained and coordinated effort to intervene for the common good. Can a People’s Climate March hope to change this? Can any raising of voices or massing of numbers?

A man-made doomsday

How shall we name the situation? There are too many people on the planet saying Me first, or groups of people saying Us first. We’re choking on human selfishness. What’s looming ahead of us is a man-made doomsday attributable entirely to human greed, lying, willed inattention – let’s call it by its right name: human evil. And it’s not just the evil of bankers, fossil-fuel CEOs, and their hirelings in government that we’re looking at, but a spiritual sickness we all share: for we all try to tilt reality in our own favor, sometimes hiding the truth to protect our own skin, often turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. If we stand on moral ground no higher than the “culprits” of climate change, dare we hope to change their ways?

Another way of seeing the situation

But this scenario is built around fear, and the expectation of scarcity and death.

Scarcity and death are not God’s will for us, as the witness of God in your own heart will tell you if you will listen for it. The scriptural testimonies of humans who have known the heart of our Creator confirm this: in Isaiah 45:18, God declares that God created the world “not in vain, but to be inhabited.” The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon makes the amazing assertion that God “did not create death, but the ungodly, with their hands and their words, drew death to them” (Wisdom 1:13-16), and the prophet Ezekiel records God as saying, “I have no pleasure in the death of him that dies” (Ez. 18:32, 33:11). In the Sermon of the Good Shepherd, Jesus declares, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10), contrasting His role with that of the sheep-rustler whose work is only to destroy. Jesus taught that it was God’s will not to judge and condemn, but only to forgive and heal, and Jesus modeled this divine love by laying down His life for souls gone astray, forgiving even His own murderers. How perfectly or imperfectly the Jesus of scripture reflects the actual character of the God who gave you life and consciousness, again, is something you can ask the witness of God in your own heart. Expect an answer.

The climate crisis will not be overcome by forcing or persuading the “sheep-rustlers” to stop destroying the environment. Neither is there any good done by punishing, condemning or scapegoating them, not even in your fantasies, for “with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged” (Matt. 7:2), and Jesus also taught that refusal to forgive our enemies keeps us unable to receive God’s forgiveness (Matt. 6:14-15).

Forgive and be forgiven

But there is a larger point to be made about forgiveness: it is the revolutionary principle that can change the world. It is the only revolutionary principle that can change the world. The social, economic and political world that is now cooking itself with greenhouse gases is one that runs on the principle of scapegoating: that is, morally imperfect persons with injured consciences (that’s all of us) seek the healing of their injured consciences by imputing evil to other people and then, to the best of their ability, driving those others out of society. This is the origin of war, slavery, the subjugation of women and countless other evils. Like an addictive drug, scapegoating numbs the pangs of conscience, but does not heal the injury. But extending universal forgiveness does, and the empowerment that comes with being healed and receiving divine forgiveness knows no limits.

Let us try, then, what love can do. Forgiveness is an act of will, not a matter of having the right feelings; anyone can do it. It does not require reconciliation with people who have hurt us, and whom we would rather have nothing more to do with. It asks of us only that we make the effort to wish them the same eternal happiness we would wish for ourselves.

The vocal ministry I’d like to hear at meeting

April 13, 2014

Meeting began at 11 a.m. today, and the first message came at 11:08.  By the time the ten or twelve messages were over I was feeling quite alone, and even slightly sick, wishing I had a second community to pray with to prepare me for worship with this community, this big unruly family of Friends I love that I’ve been worshiping with for twenty-five years.  I couldn’t leave them unless God reassigned me – they’re my tribe.  But I’d looked for food, and gotten sawdust and sand.  I longed to hear something said among them that I wasn’t hearing, and the Holy Spirit was not opening my mouth to say it myself.

Late in the afternoon, after business meeting, after I’d parted from everyone, I seemed to feel the Lord urging me to write down what it was that I’d wanted to hear, so I spent most of my subway ride home writing a first draft of what became… this:

“The reign of God is at hand!  And Jesus Christ, who brought us this wonderful news, repeated it again and again, sealed it with His blood and witnessed to its truth by rising from the dead, has assured us that He is with us always, even to the end of the world; so that if the reign of God was at hand when He opened the eyes of the blind, fed the five thousand, and forgave harlots and publicans their sins, then so is the reign of God at hand today!  Brothers and sisters, do you know what this means, this reign of God?

“It means that the reign of self is over!  No more domination of the weak by the strong, the poor by the rich, no more ‘survival of the fittest’ where each has to fight to get his own way and some get trampled, because God loves everyone and can be trusted to provide what’s best for each!  That means that Love rules, and not fear, in the kingdom we inhabit – where, as God’s beloved children, no longer competing with one another for scarce goods, we ourselves reign with God!  What though there still be sword, hunger, plague and iron bars endangering the body in this world of suffering – God gives love, trust, courage, and guidance enough to sustain the soul through anything this world can inflict!  Which is to say that God gives us new eyes to see with, eyes that can see the ocean of light covering the ocean of darkness.

“How may we know that the reign of God is at hand?  By this: that as we ourselves forgive trespasses, we can feel the dirtiness, the shame, the guilt of our own past trespasses fall away, and the wellsprings of our own sin cease to flow.  And by this: that just as Jesus gave his disciples in ancient Galilee the authority to heal the sick, rebuke evil with power, and call the troubled to a thorough and effective repentance, so He gives us that authority today also, if only we will own our discipleship and devote ourselves to it!  Oh, my brothers and sisters! This is that new heart of flesh with the law graven on it that the Hebrew prophets promised us!  This is what it means to be born again as a new creature in Christ!  And it delights our Heavenly Parent to give this to us, if we will only open up our souls to accept it!  Hallelujah!  Brothers, sisters, open up your souls!”