Year C, Easter 7 (Propers of the Ascension)
June 2, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations…” Thus it is written.
So last week I had to make a correction clarify the difference between love and like. This week I need to make a second correction. That was not part 2 of 2 of a sermon series on love, it was part 2 of 3. I am pretty sure this is 3 of 3.
Today we are using the readings for Ascension, which is always the Thursday 40 days after Easter. Ascension is not a moveable feast. But since like 2 people came to the service on Ascension day, I thought I should at least mention it. It is one of the principal feasts of the church. And, an added bonus, the heart of the matter of Ascension is the work that Jesus leaves for the disciples, for us, which fits perfectly as part three in our series on love and forgiveness. Jesus’ parting blow, His last instruction He gives as He leaves this world is to Forgive. (Well repent and forgive, but we’ll stick with forgiveness).
Briefly on Ascension. The Ascension is the second part of a three-part cycle that marks the transition of the world in the Christ event. In Easter as unforgiveable a death one can imagine, God forgave, and in forgiving them, forgave all of us, for everything, and the love of God poured forth extravagantly and definitively. Even death itself was no match for the power of God’s love from the Cross.
The Ascension marks a second phase of God’s pivot from an embodied, physical incarnation in the world to a spiritual one. And as He ascended He gave His final instructions. Following His mandate to love as God loves given at the Last Supper, He completes the teaching, directing the blossoming church with the mission “that repentance and forgiveness is to be proclaimed to all the nations…” That’s Ascension.
The final Easter feast is the Feast of Pentecost. The same creative, redemptive love that raised Him from the dead and raised Him up to heaven brought the Holy Spirit of God’s love here amongst us. It resides in the mystery of the Church, meaning that is resides in the heart of every Christian, planted there in the sacrament of Baptism through the mystery of the Church. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we may fulfill our God-given mission here on Earth. That’s a thumbnail sketch of the Feast of the Ascension, and her Eastertide brethren.
OK, on to forgiveness. Let’s recap the past two weeks. 1. We are commanded to love as Jesus, as God loves. 2. Love is hard. (Most people are hard to love some of the time, some people are hard to love most of the time). 3. To love as God loves, we need to love the whole person, warts and all (as opposed to liking someone where we can ignore or overlook icky bits). 4. To do that, to actually love a whole person, we need to forgive them. Of everything. Just like Jesus did. That brings us to today…
The love of Jesus Christ pouring forth from the Cross changed everything because in that moment Jesus, God incarnate, treated as poorly as a person can be treated, forgave everyone everything. We were in that moment saved, restored to right relationship with God, the universe and everything just as we are. You, the full you, all the full broken and sinful yous in the world were/are right with God. That changed everything.
Hmmmm… then why is this world, why are we still a mess? That shooting on Friday in Virginia Beach? High Crimes and Misdemeanors in the highest levels of government. Left-Right conflict bringing down the governments of Israel and the UK in the same week? Goodness gracious. If we are forgiven, shouldn’t everything be all right? Really, if this is being saved I’d hate to see what hell and damnation looks like. Well, it all comes down to what it means to be forgiven.
Like last week, I’ll point out the punchline of the sermon. To be forgiven has much, much more to do with the one doing the forgiving than it does with the one being forgiven. That is the key to the Commonwealth of God, that is the holy resource behind the ministry of forgiveness given by Jesus: forgiveness is about the forgiver, not the forgiven. You see, it was not that our relationship to God was restored through the ministry of the Cross, but that the path to restoration has been cleared by God for God. Now it is on us.
Of course there are many aspects of forgiveness, many meanings, multiple levels and forms. Forgiveness is dicey stuff because a lot of evil has been done to a lot of people by a lot of people. People, you, have suffered, do suffer at the hands of others. Forgiveness is no small matter. It concerns your most intimate self. What I am speaking of here is in principal, the religious and theological principal of forgiveness, which might occur only in the fullness of time. The actual road to forgiveness is yours and yours alone. No matter your path, God in Christ with the Holy Spirit is just waiting for you whenever you are able.
Forgiveness is very personal, very interior, so let’s start of conversation in the abstract. Let’s start with how God forgave us. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Quite a sentiment after someone just drove nails through your hands and feet. Even after what we did to Jesus, even while we were doing it, Jesus, God forgave us and keeps on forgiving us. Where are we in that equation? Do we need to repent, to change anything, do or stop doing anything to receive God’s forgiveness? No. The doctrine of Grace teaches that the love and forgiveness of God is unearned, underserved and is offered radically to all. We are forgiven always and everywhere of everything, of every sin. What is one of the classical definitions of sin? Distance from God, the relationship is disrupted. If that sin is forgiven, the relationship can be restored. Forgiveness of our sin is all about God, it is all God’s doing.
So if we are so forgiven, why are we not all in perfect union with God? Well, because what forgiveness does is remove barriers. It clears the barriers for the transgressed, for the wronged. We are not in perfect union with God because now, whatever barriers exist between us and God are not God’s, they are ours, we the sinners’. God’s barriers to us went away in our being forgiven. That is what forgiveness is, it is clearing away barriers, clearing away the junk belonging to the forgiver.
Trite example. Driving down the road someone cuts me off. I’m all ticked off fist or finger shaking in the air. They keep on driving not even knowing that anything happened, that they need forgiveness while I am contemplating road rage. If I forgive them, it is my feelings that are dispensed with, my anger, my rage. They are just bee-bopping along on the way to Market of Choice. Forgiveness is about the forgiver, not the forgiven.
Forgiveness is about clearing the books. When I forgive you, I owe you nothing anymore. You owe me nothing anymore. That trespass isn’t forgotten, we ought not forget trespasses, particularly the egregious ones, but forgiven, the sin it is no longer a thing, no longer something I give my energy to, my attention to. It is not that you are letting them off the hook, I know I get so stuck there. “They were wrong! They deserve my scorn, my rath, God’s justice, not a get out of jail free card.” But it is not letting them off the hook, it is letting you off the hook. The blame, the link of the sin to the sinner is severed and you are free, you the forgiver.
You don’t even need to tell someone they are forgiven. In some cases there should never be contact with the offender, that can be dangerous physically, psychologically and spiritually. But you clearing their hold on you in your memory, their psychic, spiritual hold on you, you are free. That is the essence of forgiveness.
There is immense freedom in being unburdened of the debt of others, being unburdened of the weight of another’s trespass. Too many thing happen to us that were not our choice, not our fault. But things can’t unhappen. And you, with the power of the Holy Spirit of God’s love can unburden yourself, cancel someone else’s debt and be free.
We’ve all been wronged, sinned against in some ways. Some of us have long histories of suffering and trauma. Some of us have been more fortunate in that realm. Betrayals, violations, intrusions of all sorts… you alone know the injuries you have suffered, you suffer from. What you do with that hurt, if forgiveness is even on the most distant horizon, that is not for me (or anyone) to say. There are no shoulds about forgiveness being proclaimed here. And there is no path offered here, either. The path to forgiveness winds through our most vulnerable, fragile selves. Betrayal, violation, trespass travel the main line into our hearts and minds and bodies and can hurt us, wound us, can lay us bare, can be the realization of our deepest fears, can cause us to question our own worth, cause us to blame ourselves for someone else’s sins. The path to forgiveness is the path of Jesus Christ, but as Christ did not at least intend to walk His way alone, we needn’t be alone in it either.
As we don’t want to conflate love and like, we don’t want to conflate forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is removing barriers to relationship. Reconciliation is restoring relationships. Forgiveness is the property of the sinned against, the trespassed, the holder of debt. Reconciliation is the property of the sinner, the trespasser, the debtor. The wronged’s role in reconciliation is, if possible, if desired, to consent to reconciliation. It is the sinner’s responsibility to initiate reconciliation, the sinned against may choose to accept it, or not. If they try try to reconcile, if they honestly repent, if the sinner changes their ways, that can make them more forgivable, but it is not about them, it is about you.
A priest’s office gets a lot of traffic in regards to forgiveness. From both sides, needing it, and figuring out how to give it. That’s the thing about forgiveness, we’ve all forgiven and been forgiven. We’ve all not forgiven and have not been forgiven. The human condition! My door is always open. Although I talk a lot when I am out and about, when that door closes, I am a pretty good listener. Therapists can be very helpful. Trusted friends and loved ones. A spouse or your mother (unless either one are one of the variables in your forgiveness equation). It is your journey, but it is not one to make alone.
There’s another resource we have, a sacramental tool. One of the very underused resources of our catholic faith is the Rite of Reconciliation, confession. The power of the rite, in the act of baring one’s self to God in the presence of another… there is no better practice of the art of forgiveness than seeking it yourself, and from someone (God) who has forgiven you already. It is a good place to practice. In the sacrament of reconciliation, we don’t actually receive God’s forgiveness, we already have that, what we receive is God’s reassurance that we can, in the words the of the rite, put away that sin, clear it from our souls so that we can then attempt to reconcile with the offended party, be that party God or some creature we share this life with. You can see the barriers, your barriers, the ones you have erected between yourself and God melt away. Then you can accept the forgiveness God offers so lavishly.
I am going to end with an old story, maybe you’ve heard it before. It sort of sums up the vocation of forgiveness that Jesus gave to us as He ascended into heave to the right hand of God the Father. Maybe I should have started with this. Maybe it is all I should have said…
There were two monks, an elder and a brand-new novice who went on a journey from one monastery to another. They found themselves walking through a town after a rain storm. At a street crossing, there was a deep puddle, and there was a rich woman standing there scowling. She did not want to get her fine shoes wet and muddy. The old monk offered to carry her across the puddle. She hopped on his back and he carried her across. Upon putting her down she huffed, and muttered something about showers and walked off. The two monks continued on their way.
Hours later, the novice, whose mind had been churning over the rich woman’s rudeness, couldn’t hold the silence any more. “I can’t believe her! You carried her across that puddle and she didn’t even say thank you!”
The older monk stopped, looked at him, and said quietly, “Why are you still carrying her, I put her down hours ago.” AMEN