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Posts Tagged ‘forgiveness’

A sermon based on John 20: 19-23

The very first worship service of the Christian Church took place in the evening of the first Easter Sunday. The gospel of John says that the disciples were gathered “in the house”. All the earliest churches were house churches. The followers of Jesus would gather in someone’s home. They would tell the stories of Jesus; they would share the meal as Jesus had given it to them; they would pray together. That was the shape of their worship.

As John tells it, the first worship service wasn’t much of a service at all. There were no announcements about upcoming fundraisers and programmes. Even though it was Easter, there were no special anthems sung by the choir. The worship leader didn’t say, “Christ is risen!” and the people didn’t respond, “He is risen indeed!” There were no joyful shouts of “Alleluia!” In fact, the congregation seemed to be having trouble getting past the Prayer of Confession.

That morning, some of the women had brought news of having found the tomb empty. They told of messengers telling them that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Mary said that she had actually seen Jesus and that he had talked with her. He had told her he was “ascending to the Father”, whatever that might mean. However, when the disciples gathered that evening, they locked the doors behind them.

They were afraid of the Judeans, the religious authorities. They were troubled. They were troubled not just by events in the world around them; they were troubled in their own hearts and minds. You can imagine that they were still reeling from the loss and the grief of Jesus’ death just a few days previous to this. They were confused about the reports from the women at Jesus’ tomb. I may be reading too much into it, but they were probably enveloped with a sense of failure and guilt and shame for having deserted Jesus. William Willimon called this, “the church of the sweaty palms and shaky knees and firmly bolted door. . .  All who were there had gotten an “F” in following Jesus. (You Call This A Church?)

The worship service seemed to have stalled there. They couldn’t get past the Prayer of Confession.

Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, Jesus shows up. He pronounces the “Assurance of Pardon”, the “Assurance of Grace”. He says, “Peace be with you.”  He could have said, “You guys really messed up.” He could have said, “Shame on you. I thought we were friends. Where were you when I needed you?” He didn’t. He said, “Peace be with you.”

He showed them the wounds in his side and hands. Then, he said it again, “Peace be with you.” The disciples were experiencing everything except peace and Jesus offers them this great gift of God’s mercy and grace.

He offers it not just in the first church service on the first Easter. He offers it to us every Sunday. We gather together and we bring with us the trouble that we have been carrying all week long. Most of the time we keep the trouble locked behind the closed doors of our hearts. We keep it hidden, but it is still there.

There’s trouble in the world — in the streets of London, England; in the refugee camps in the Sudan; in the sea between North Korea and Japan; in the Arctic where the ice cap is melting at accelerated rates.

There’s trouble in this neighbourhood where people are grieving the death of someone they love and parents are worried about the drug addictions of their children; and young people search for a reason to live.

There’s trouble in our own hearts and minds: the fears and worries; the regrets and sense of failure; the guilt and shame that haunt our souls.

We bring all that with us into worship. In the Prayer of Confession, we tell the truth about it to God.

Some churches no longer have a prayer of confession in their worship services. “That’s too negative,” they say. “We don’t want to make people feel bad. People come to church to feel good.”

The point of the Prayer of Confession is not to make people feel bad. The point of the Prayer of Confession is to make a space where we can tell the truth about the troubles that makes us afraid. It gives you a place where you can tell the truth about the things that you have done that cannot be made right. It gives you a place to speak the guilt and shame that is crippling your soul.

Together, we tell the truth and we offer all of it to our crucified and risen Lord. Then, we listen. We listen for his offer of forgiveness, he release from the burden, his “Peace be with you.”

The Prayer of Confession proclaims: You don’t have to keep carrying your guilt. You don’t have to keep letting fear drive your life. You don’t have to let shame hold you in its grip. Failure doesn’t need to turn to into a victim. Jesus went to hell and back to free you from all that. With grace more powerful than death, God takes you old life and gives you a new one. You can begin again, in a different place. You can move down a different path. You are no longer a victim. You are no longer “guilty”. You are forgiven and graced and redeemed and made new and set free.

I read once about a prison chaplain who had on his desk a framed photograph of a Christmas pageant. There were angels in white robes, holding candles and bringing “good news of great joy”. There were the shepherds kneeling and looking like they were frightened. Except, the characters in the photograph were not children as we are used to seeing in Christmas pageants. The shepherds and angels in this photo were rough looking men. They were convicts — convicted of murder and violent crimes; criminals serving time in jail. Yet, there they were, men who had been transformed by Christ, acting out the story of the birth of Jesus. When the chaplain was asked why he kept the photograph on his desk, he said, “It reminds me of the awesome power of God to change us, to set us free, to give us new life.” (William WillimonPeople Don’t Change — Do They?”)

We proclaim that truth every Sunday. Sometimes you will believe it. Sometimes, you will be glad and you will worship Jesus and you will find your way into the new life he offers. Sometimes, you will hear the gospel and you will doubt it. You will say with Thomas, “Unless I can touch Jesus’ wounds, I won’t believe that a new beginning is possible.”

What do you do when you are in that space? You keep showing up, Sunday by Sunday. You “practice resurrection”. You practice resurrection until you experience resurrection in your life. You do the slow work of making a space where God can work: you tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” as best you can. You confess the trouble, the mess, the fears and the doubts. Then, you wait for the risen Christ to show up and say, “Peace be with you.”

That’s why we share the peace of Christ every week. We practise with our voices and with our bodies the peace that Christ gives. We practise living into what Jesus says is God’s own truth about our lives. We practise trusting that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is at work in our lives too, forgiving sin, making all things new. We practise until, one day, Jesus enters the locked doors of our spirits. Then, we know we are forgiven. We know we have received the underserved mercy and grace of God. You know God’s peace is setting is setting you free and you can begin again. Thanks be to God.

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“Resolutions Worth Keeping”

A sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday.

Mark 1: 4-11

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? Did you resolve to lose weight? To get out of debt? To learning something new? Have you kept your resolution so far? What do you do when you fail to keep your resolution? Do you hit the restart button and start again?

I don’t know what time of year it was when John the Baptizer showed up in the wilderness but it sounds like he knows about the drive that pushes us to make New Year’s resolutions. He knows about the desire to improve our lives. Mark says that the John shows up in the wilderness places of our lives proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.

“Repentance” and “forgiveness” are about making changes in our lives so that we can experience more life, a better life, a blessed life — life in all its fullness. John has something larger in mind than just losing a few pounds or exercising more. Mark says John’s message is the “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ”. Before we are through Mark’s gospel, we shall have been caught up in a great adventure. We shall have experienced a life lived with such courage and passion and hope that the whole world is changed and transformed.

When John calls you to repent, he is not scolding you for bad behaviour. He is not talking about your moral failures and telling you to behave better. John calls you to repent, to turn around, because God is on the move in the world. God, the ruler of history, is about to do something new and, if you want to get in on it, you have to get ready.

You repent when you say, “I refuse to settle for merely holding on. I refuse to cling to a past that is familiar and comfortable but is now disappearing. There is no life in that.”

I have heard someone confess that kind of repentance. She did not use that language, but the action was there. She was ninety years old. In the past, when I had visited her, she talked about her church: how she liked the old hymns and the old liturgy and the dressing up for worship. She did not like all the new changes that were being made in other churches. Then, her church died. There were no young people. There were not enough people or money to keep it going. She joined with another congregation. The ushers wore jeans. Music was played on keyboards and rhythm instruments. The minister did not preach three-point sermons. It was not what she was used to. It was not what she liked in a worship service. However, this time, she said, “There are lots of young families. There are lots of activities going on.” She liked the ‘life’ that was present, even though she still missed the old familiar ways. She was glad that there was ‘life’. That’s repentance.

Repentance is saying, “I refuse to frame my life by despair.” Despair is a common response these days. We face huge challenges and there are no easy solutions in sight. Many people believe that the future is bleak. They feel that there is nothing to hope for, nothing to live for. Repentance says, “I refuse to give up expecting that God will do a new thing. I refuse to stop looking for signs that the risen Christ is on the premises, bringing new life where death seems to prevail.”

To repent is to go out to the world wasted by violence and greed and to turn your life consciously and intentionally toward hope. Mark’s gospel says that hope is not a concept or an ideal or some power of positive thinking. Hope is a person: the person of Jesus who shows up unexpectedly in the midst of your ordinary life with the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Whatever God is up to in Jesus, that is our hope.

The Church has now entered the season of Epiphany. Epiphany begins on January 6th, when the Church marks the visit of the magi to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. On the first Sunday of Epiphany, the church marks Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Epiphany begins with God’s voice saying, “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” (Mark 1:11, The Message)

The season of Epiphany will end on Transfiguration Sunday when the Church heads up a mountain with Jesus and again hears God say, “This is my Son, my Beloved. With him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 17:5) From that place, Jesus will head to the cross and the culmination of his ministry here on earth. Jesus’ life is framed by God’s word to him: You are my Beloved.  Jesus is beloved at the beginning. He is beloved at the end. Every moment in between is bathed in the love of God.

To repent is to turn, consciously and intentionally, day by day, towards the voice that also call you “My beloved.” It is to keep remembering that that is who you are. You belong to the One who calls you “My beloved child.”

That was the truth that was proclaimed at your baptism. It is the truth that undergirds every moment of your life. It is your most fundamental identity: “Beloved of God”. Nothing in all creation can separate you from that great love.

This is not a love that is tame or comfortable. It is a love that is powerful beyond our imagining. It plunges you into a life shaped by God’s grace. The psalmist tells us that the voice of the God who calls us Beloved shakes the mountains. It makes the desert shake. (Psalm 29)

Karl Barth once said that it is not God’s wrath that you should be afraid of, but God’s love. God’s love will change you. It will change your world. It is God’s love that will set you free from destructive habits that diminish your life. God’s love will lead you into developing the courage and commitment you need to become the kind of person who lives life to its fullest.

God’s love draws you into God’s new creation. God’s love plunges you into the great adventure of trusting radically in the living Christ so that you find your place in God’s salvation work in the world. The world is not without purpose. Our lives are not pointless. You and I can live in hope.

It all begins with soaking in God’s great love for you. It all begins with your receiving the grace of God that Jesus brings. It all begins as you surrender to the mystery of the Holy Spirit blessing your life.

Will you repent? Will you turn from anything that makes you disbelieve that God loves you with a deep, abiding love? Will you turn day by day toward the life-giving embrace of Jesus Christ? Will you receive the Holy Spirit’s work to claim your true identity as God’s beloved child?

Those are resolutions worth keeping.

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