An Easter Sermon: Setting Aside and Letting Go
Preached by Graham Low on The Third Sunday of Easter at St Mary’s on 15 April 2018
Rowan Williams has recently drawn attention to what he regards as one of the most significant religious poems of the 20th century. It is called “I am the great sun” by the Cornish poet Charles Causley. It speaks of the crucifixion as representing our rejection of what is most genuine and most human in us. It speaks of the perils of not taking our lives seriously. It seems to me that this perspective links with what lies behind some of the great challenges facing the world at the present time. Syria, violent crime, child abuse, poverty and the uncontrolled power of the internet are just a few current examples. From various points of view we can see that we have reached a point where as a human community we just don’t know how to live. We need to ask the fundamental question: where will our health and life as a human community be found? As so often happens we are offered several pointers to answering this question within today’s readings.
The key words in our first reading are those of Peter: we are witnesses. Indeed these three words sum up the book of Acts, which is about the witness of those who are witnesses to the death and resurrection of Christ, but then also witnesses to the ongoing activity of his Spirit in the life of the new Church. This book shows how these twelve unlikely witnesses make the purposes of God known, through the Holy Spirit from a small Jewish sect to the founding of the global Christian church.
We need to turn back a short while as we look at the Gospel passage for today. For Jews the Passover is the feast of liberation, the anniversary of God freeing them from the yoke of the Egyptians. Easter is also a feast of liberation. The Galileans to whom Jesus preaches and offers healing are severely persecuted by the Romans, Herod, and even by priests of the temple. The disciples, convinced that Jesus is messiah, expectthat on the feast of the Passover Jesus will be revealed as a victorious king, as the psalms have predicted.But there is crucifixion instead of triumph, and the disciples disappear. All the effort of three years isdisplaced by depression and anger. On Easter morning the message from the women is seen as mere wishful imagination. But suddenly, Jesus is with the disciples. They are terrified, and think they are seeing a ghost. He simply says “peace be with you”. And then he looks at each of them with eyes of the deepest love and forgiveness. Inevitably they feel guilty because they have doubted that resurrection might occur. But Jesus simply says why? Look at my flesh and bones, which ghosts don’t have. The greeting of peace is a greeting of communion with the disciples, a greeting which shows complete forgiveness. And so we can see that Easter is a feast of liberation. It is a feast for and of the forgiveness of God. Forgiveness is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Liberation from guilt and shame has come to the disciples. Faith is restored.
In this passage Luke reminds us that Jesus loves each of the disciples and in turn loves each of us as well. He desires that we shall be fully loved and fully loving. He desires us to be Easter people, people of the resurrection, accepting forgiveness and forgiving others, again and again. But as I mentioned at the beginning we so often lose track of this message, even though it is so familiar. We are so immersed in worldly matters which cleverly and aggressively hold almost our whole attention: we seek to keep control, to become richer, to be successful, to maintain our pride, and so on. But Jesus confronts us with peace and forgiveness.
This is the very beginning of the witness of the disciples. Jesus goes on to say to the disciples “As the father has sent me, so I send you”, and he breathes on them saying “Receive the Holy Spirit”. And off they go as messengers of peace and forgiveness to everyone, particularly to those who may be enslaved in guilt, and to those who have lost any sense of direction in life, or even of what may be right or wrong.
I began with questions about the lack of vision in the world around us. The future seems to point towards ever more selfish consumerism. Sometimes forgiveness and love of neighbour seem to be altogether absent. So, I return to my opening question: where will our health and life as a human community be found? As a Christian community, as a resurrection community, we are called to point in a completely different direction, towards love and forgiveness. What steps, however small, may we take now as prayerful witnesses, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to point the world towards the love and forgiveness of God? May I suggest that we look again at the situations where we are holding back forgiveness. Let us look at what and why we are failing to forgive ourselves. And let us look again at any relationships with others which we have damaged, or have been damaged by, and for which forgiveness is called for. Maybe there is such a situation facing us at this very moment.
Reconciliation can take much time and effort – even a life time. It is about increasing our self-awareness, and avoiding taking sides. But the hope of, the possibility of reconciliation should never be completely abandoned. When we embark on a process of trying to forgive someone, or to forgive ourselves, we take a deep breath, and we turn our faces towards the past that we know we can’t change. This is not weak but strong. And the hallmark of the process of forgiveness is found in the word metanoia used in the New Testament: to set aside, to let go. So forgiveness is choosing what is inevitably a costly path – to freedom.
To challenge hardness of heart with forgiveness and love, to bring reconciliation, to bring freedom is our resurrection joy and call to witness. This is the new direction in which we are called to point the world. May we have the grace to allow the Holy Spirit to make us faithful as we seek to live in this way. Alleluia. Amen.