Monday, April 20, 2015

We Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins

A sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

Jesus said to them, "Thus it is written, 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, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things."

Peter said, “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out."

Every Sunday we pray the Prayer of Confession asking God to forgive us. Then again, in the middle of the Eucharist, we say the Lord’s Prayer and again we confess our sins and ask God to forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And, every Sunday when we say the Creed, we claim to believe in the forgiveness of sins.

The forgiveness of sins is no less audacious or incredible than any of the other things we affirm in the Creed. It is no more obvious that sins are forgivable than that God exists in the first place, or that Jesus is the presence of God in our midst. But we affirm in the creeds and in our liturgy that forgiveness grounded in the grace of God is woven into the very fabric of reality. It is among the things in which Christians must believe.

It is not obvious that sin is forgiven or even forgivable. Not all philosophies or faiths put much store in forgiveness as such. Except for Judaism, it was not part of the philosophical or religious systems of the ancient world.

It is still not obvious that forgiveness is at the heart of things. Vengeance and retribution is a much more common theme in most of our entertainment. And our political discourse.

Fundamentally, we prefer the idea of karma and payback. It seems more natural.

In a dialogue between some Buddhist monks and some Christian monks an episode was discussed about a group of French monks had gone to Algeria to serve the people there.  In the 1990’s Algeria was caught up in a bitter civil war where foreigners had been warned that if they were caught by certain factions they would be killed. These monks stayed anyway and were captured. Their beheaded bodies were found some days later, along the side of a road.

One of the Buddhist monks suggested that this was irresponsible on the part of these Christian monks. Staying when they knew the realities only presented those who killed them with the likelihood of accruing yet more bad karma that would then affect their next life and perhaps the next life until they managed to turn the karmic cycle in the other direction.

The Christian monks responded that in the Christian understanding forgiveness (grounded in the grace of God), not karma, is the governing principle of the universe. Even those who killed the monks were not beyond God’s forgiveness.

In an interview, Bono of the rock band, U2 had this to say about grace:

Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you sow, so you will reap” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

Assayas: I’d be interested to hear that.

Bono: That’s between me and God. But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep shit [I edited that last line in the actual sermon]. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.

Karl Barth, writing about God’s love for us in spite of our sinfulness, says, “God always casts the bridge across the chasm. God’s love always casts a bridge across the chasm. God’s love is always a light shining out of the darkness.” Jesus is that bridge. Jesus is that light. Jesus comes embodying the love and welcome of God – welcoming sinners; inviting them and challenging them; and, receiving them into the new creation that God is breaking forth on the world in his presence. Jesus embodies the forgiveness of God, coming with arms outstretched to embrace all who will turn, all who will come. All that is needed is that turning and that receiving – repentance.

We know that when he came with his arms outstretched to receive the world in the name of his Father, the world nailed those arms to the cross. It is in the passion and the cross that God in Christ enters most profoundly into our situation, entering into the tragic and suffering realities that we have inflicted and that are inflicted upon us.

God in Christ enters into the sin and suffering of the world forgiving, justifying, and transforming. It is only for us to receive it. We could not expect it. We cannot earn it. We can only receive it.

Dorotheos of Gaza was a monk in the sixth century who, among other things, oversaw the infirmary at his monastery.

Dorotheos had an assistant whose name was Dosithy. Dosithy was an earnest monk who desired to please Dorotheos and God. But Dossithy sometimes became impatient with his patients and would get angry and abuse them verbally.

One time in particular he had done that and after he had gotten over his anger and was convicted of his sin, he began to weep and despair. Some of the other monks went to Dorotheos and told Dorotheos.

Dorotheos called Dosithy to him and he asked him what was wrong.

Dosithy said, “Father, I have sinned. I have abused my brother.”

Dorotheos said, “So, Dosithy, you took it upon yourself to judge your brother? You got angry at your brother and abused him? Did you forget that he is Christ? And, when you cause him to suffer you cause Christ to suffer?”

Dosithy, continuing to cry, said, “Yes.”

Dorotheos said, “There, there Dosithy. You are forgiven. Get up. Let us begin again from now and let us be more attentive and God will help us.”

Dosithy wiped his eyes and went back.

Some time later, Dosithy in tears comes again to Dorotheos and, again, Dorotheos says, “Up now, Dosithy. Get up. Start again. You are forgiven.”

And again and again Dosithy fell and Dorotheos said, “Get up. You are forgiven.”

I belive that God engages us like Dorotheos engaged Dosithy. He does not find excuses for Dosithy. He does not minimize the seriousness of the offense. But, once Dosithy admits the wrongness what he has done – repents and confesses – Dorotheos declares Dosithy forgiven.

Bernard of Clairvaux said once, “The difference between the damned and the saved is that everyone, except the damned, gets up and stumbles on.”

It is not obvious that forgiveness is at the heart of things. But, thank God, that is what we affirm. We believe in the forgiveness of sins. There is nothing about you or about your past that is beyond that forgiveness.

Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things."

Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.

Get up. Let us begin again from now and let us be more attentive and God will help us.

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