The God who beats us to the party

Sunday 18 April 2021

Acts 3.12-20

Psalm 4

1 John 2.15-17, 3.1-6

Luke 24.36b-48

                 ©Suzanne Grimmett

Every time I have this privilege of stepping up to the lectern and offering a sermon to this community, I do so aware that you will all come in a different place to when I saw you last. Things will have happened during the week that will have shaped you and the way you see the world. Something you have read may have sent you ever so slightly or maybe even dramatically in a new direction. The relationships which nurture your soul will have done what relationships do- shift and change and develop in some way.

And then we gather and we hear the prayers and readings, and hopefully they will already be sparking some new intimation of where the Spirit is leading and prompting you. I have been looking at the readings this week and trying to allow them to connect with my life and the life of this community as I go about my work. Often when I do this a theme comes through, and I follow this, drawing on the writings on the subject from wiser heads than my own.

In this season of rejoicing in resurrection, you may be alarmed that this week the theme that I kept circling around from the readings is the idea of sin. In the Acts reading we hear of the need to;

Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.

Rather disturbingly in the first epistle of John we are told;

No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.

And finally in the Gospel we are told that we are to be witnesses that;

the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.

We in this season of Easter celebrate that we are resurrection people: forgiven and empowered to be Christ’s body in the world. We are the beloved children of God, to use the beautiful, familial language of John’s letter. This is the work of God- a rebirth to acceptance and a new innocence. Yet this does not mean we forget the means through which this new innocence is born. Rather, the forgiveness which is at the heart of this new life is the source of our joy. In the reminder of our baptism at the beginning of these Easter services we have a ritual, symbolic enactment of that forgiveness.

There is ever a tension around this idea of sin. That which has been conquered in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is disturbingly tenacious. Resurrection is always beckoning, but we can find ourselves resistant. The challenge can seem too great and our guilt too much of a familiar companion. The love of the world and our place in it, our desire to succeed or shore up our personal empowerment or sense of security can leave us clinging to the ways we have always known, even if there remains no life in them. Everywhere in our social, political and religious systems as much as within ourselves we find patterns of greed, self-protection and self-promotion. The letter of John tells us that no one who abides in Christ sins, and that no one who sins knows Christ. If, knowing our own weakness, we are tempted to despair when we read these words, we should be reassured by words earlier in the same letter that say, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” There is hope, and, praise God, it is not all down to us.

But there needs to be some kind of double move. We need to be awakened to our sin, not so that we become afraid of divine retaliation, but so that we may know the greatness of the love of God; while we were still sinners Christ died for us. We face our sin not for fear of a punitive God but so that we see the truth of a love big enough that all of our betrayals amount to nothing as they drop into that ocean of mercy. Indeed in that ocean we may finally recognise that the sins that loomed large in our own minds were not only small, but, like all sin, desperately unoriginal and of no surprise to God.

The God revealed in the Risen Christ, however, is full of originality and it is small wonder the disciples were taken by surprise. Despite some of those disciples present in the room having already encountered the risen Jesus, the text tells us, “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” Perhaps the betrayals, grief and loss of the previous days meant the disciples did not dare to hope again. It is not like all the past has been wiped away- indeed, in his address found in the Acts reading, Peter does not mince words but says, “you rejected the Holy and Righteous One…. you killed the Author of life”. A stark reminder in case any might want to defend themselves or make light of their complicit involvement in the violence that took Jesus to the cross- a message for both Peter’s audience at the temple and to our situation today where we too are a part of patterns of scapegoating violence and suffer the violation of what is sacred.

We need to tell the truth and allow our guilt to be exposed, but not before Christ has come speaking the shalom of God into our fear and shame. Wherever we begin the courageous journey of facing all that we are, we are met joyfully and wonderfully by the reality that God’s grace has arrived before us and forgiveness is already offered. God will always beat us to the party. Jesus appears amongst us, often at the most unexpected moments, and his first word is “Peace”.

What happens next in this strange resurrection story in Luke’s Gospel is part of the double move we need to embrace if we are to live into the shalom of God, and be, as Jesus commands, witnesses to these things. After offering peace Jesus shows them the scars of his violent crucifixion so that they may know that this is not a cancellation of the past but a transformation of it, and that nothing we can do places us beyond grace. James Alison calls us to wonder about the meaning of the  crucified and risen one asking;

What type of life is it that is capable not of cancelling death out, which would be to stay on the same level as it, but to include it, making a trophy of it, allowing it to be something that can be shown to others so that they be not afraid?

This is what we are called to witness. We are children of God because we are children of resurrection whose sins are revealed to be no barrier and indeed even propel us towards the God whose love is bigger than any of our repeated failures or betrayals. Not only the readings today but the collect reminds us that ‘by being raised from the dead you restore to humanity all that was lost through sin.’ The mercy of God knows intimately all that we have lost, so often through our own fault, and yet declares us not only whole, but holy. What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we are now, is forgiven and set free.

Let us not merely believe in resurrection but be resurrection people. May we, knowing all that has been lost, have the courage to bring our whole selves in trust to the one who bears the scars and yet invites us with joy to join him around the table. May we witness by our lives, the grace we have received, showing the same mercy to others and speaking that surprising word of peace so no one need any longer be afraid.

+Amen.

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