Witnesses of These Things
I hope you'll bear with me while we do something a little different than usual. I want to look at the exact same passage Paul Miller preached on last week, alongside our readings for this week. I want to do this in order to continue what we began last week, at our congregational retreat. And because I've long thought that this passage at the tail end of Luke's gospel is essential to understanding what it means to be the Church, what it means to embody the gospel. It is the bridge to the Book of Acts where we see the disciples trying to live out what they've come to know about God, about the world, about each other, in and through Jesus. I think these verses are the foundation that can give shape and form to the work that was begun last weekend, of considering where God is calling us to take our next faithful step.
I want to start with my favorite line in the whole passage: While in their joy they were still disbelieving and wondering. That combination of utter joy and not quite having a handle on things is something that I think should be basic to the Church. As the disciples stand in the presence of Jesus Alive, raised from the dead, they are clearly caught up in something that is, by any familiar standard, too good to be true. We, who gather in the name and presence of Jesus Alive, are caught up in something that is, by any familiar standard, too good to be true.
Sometimes, I think, we try to explain the life right out of the gospel; we try to make it clear and reasonable and much less embarrassing than it is. As one popular scholar has proclaimed, there is no intellectual obstacle to Christian faith, for us enlightened, modern folks! We just have to turn it and look at it the right way, with the right academic lens, and then all the complications fall away. Hogwash. The gospel has never made sense. People standing in the presence of the risen Jesus don't nod their heads in understanding. People in league with the risen Jesus realize they are caught up in something too good to be true. While in their joy, they were disbelieving and wondering.
This doesn't mean that we're supposed to be mindlessly sappy, or relentlessly happy. It means we're learning to take seriously the kind of God we've got: the kind of God who can turn the disaster of Good Friday into the wonder of Easter Sunday; who walks with us even in Saturday's dark valley. We've got a God who interrupts our talking about the possibility of resurrection, the possibility of death's destruction, the possibility of something other than the way things are, a God who interrupts our talking about stones rolled away and empty tombs, and stands among us, alive. We've got a God who stands among us, in all the muck and wonder of the world, the kind of God who ignores our locked doors, walks through our fickle faith, and says, "Peace be with you." And the world is new.
Let's pray: Living God, open us up to You, to your Word, to your Spirit. Come among us and speak your wild peace; fill us with a longing to know you more, so that we can make you more fully known. We pray in the name of Jesus Alive. Amen.
One of the things that came up a number of times, last weekend, was something that's been really significant for U Hill in the past: the language and image of (Good) Friday, (Holy) Saturday, (Easter) Sunday--that pattern that makes up the fundamental structure of Christian life. I'd heard a bit about how this had been used, but I don't think I'd realized how important it was for many of you, how formative that language and framework has been for this church over the years, and I want to apologize for not taking it more seriously.
Thinking about that, means that I've been thinking about our passage this morning in those terms. I think what's true is that everyone in the world knows about Friday and Saturday. Everyone in the world knows about the sin and death of Friday--the brokenness and pain of the world. No one manages to avoid that forever. In our own lives we've known betrayal and heartbreak and death. On some level, everyone knows about Friday.
I would contend that everyone in the world knows something about the longing of Saturday--that deep-down wish that things were other than they are: only the most callous or oblivious person can make their way through the evening news without something in their soul yearning for something more, something other. Sometimes it feels like all we can do is shake our heads and carry on, as well as we're able. I think that everyone catches glimpses of that "other and more," but I don't know that I've ever met anyone who at some point or another hasn't known that Saturday feeling expressed by the disciples on the Emmaus Road, who had hoped that things would be different, but they're still waiting and longing.
Everyone knows something about Friday and Saturday. Under the current conditions, it's unavoidable that we would get an education in Friday and Saturday. What the Church knows something about, what the Church is born to bear witness to, is Sunday: the wild, too-good-to-be-true Good News that in the presence of Jesus himself, crucified and risen, we are not doomed to an endless back and forth between Friday and Saturday. Sunday brings the promise that our Good Shepherd will lead us through the valley and into lush pastures; we will be satisfied by living waters.
Again, that doesn't mean that we deny our intimate knowledge of Friday and Saturday: we still sing our songs of lament, still pray our prayers of longing loudly and boldly. In fact, we're able to lean into those moments and seasons more fully, to give real voice to them, because we don't have to pretend that I'm ok and you're ok, all the time. But we do it in the company of the One who is the first-fruits of something altogether new, something taking shape here and now, in the lives and bodies of people called to live in the death-defying ways and means of God for this world. The Church knows as well as anyone how to give voice, and lean into Friday and Saturday--it's a great gift to see the world so clearly. But we're called, as an Easter people, to bear witness to more: to the truth that Sunday is coming, Sunday is here.
And in these last verses of Luke's gospel, Jesus gives us new framework, Sunday language that gives us some hints at what it will look like to bring our joyful disbelief at what God has done to life; what it will look like to give shape to the deep down knowledge that the gospel is too good, and that it is true. Jesus says that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed everywhere, to the ends of the world; and that we, who would be his disciples, are witnesses of these things. We are witnesses of repentance and forgiveness of sins; which, I admit, doesn't sound altogether as exciting as it is. We need to unpack these words that are almost hopelessly churchy, and not particularly (or at all) useful outside sanctuaries and sometimes not even inside them. But they are essential to what we're called to do in this time and place.
Let's start with repentance. The Greek word that we get it from means to change our minds, or go in a different direction. But I think that the way Jesus uses it is more interesting than that. The scholar, N. T. Wright, points to a story about the first century historian and politician, named Josephus, who was working and writing about 30 years after Jesus. Josephus was Jewish, but friendly with the Romans, who were in charge of everything at the time. He tells a story about being sent by Roman authorities, to go to Galilee and sort out an uprising, lead by a rebel named Jesus--apparently a common name for troublemakers. To make a long story very short, when Josephus finally gets a face-to-face with the rebel, he offers him a deal, saying essentially, "If you will repent and believe (or trust) in me, everything will be fine."
That should ring a bell for anyone familiar with the gospels. It's awfully similar to Jesus' first sermon: Repent and believe: the kingdom of heaven's at hand! Repentance is more than a subtle change of heart or mind; it's more that feeling badly for things we've done. It's a reorientation, a new political alignment, a whole new way of being in the world. It's giving up one way, for another. When Jesus tells us that we're witnesses of repentance, he's saying that we are to be the evidence that his will and way in the world is true; the topsy-turvy political arrangement he preached is true. Repentance is what happens when Jesus walks in and says, Come, follow me; come do what I do, and we drop what we're doing and do it. Repentance is discipleship: allowing ourselves to be transformed and renewed, no longer conformed to the pattern of the world, but shaped by Jesus; a people becoming more and more like Jesus.
To be a people of repentance is to be a people who are growing in trust that what Jesus wants for us, what he's leading us to is, without qualification, life that is truly life (1 Timothy 6:19), life in cahoots with the God who makes and sustains all things, life in the way of the One who makes all things new! To be a people of repentance is to trust that Jesus calls us ever and only into life and life abundant (John 10:10)--even if his way challenges what we're used to and comfortable with; it's to learn, in prayer and in Scripture, to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, the One who gives everything to be with us and for us, over and above the noise of the world, and to follow him where he leads.
To witness to repentance is to witness to the abundance we discover, a new and unexpected abundance that wells up when we learn to say with our whole selves, (as I heard Ed preach once) The Lord is my shepherd; I don't need anything else. When that happens, when we learn to trust that that's true, then the kind of self-giving, the lavish generosity, the unflinching grace, the newness and wholeness that Jesus calls us to, becomes not just something we yearn for, but the reality we begin to live in. People of repentance bear witness to God's way of abundance: the overflow of God's hope and peace and joy and love for the world, in Christ.
So, what does it mean to be witnesses of the forgiveness of sins? Sin is a complicated and troublesome thing. I'm reading a book right now with the jaunty title Sin: a History, which traces the different ways that the Scriptures and our spiritual ancestors who wrote them understood and dealt with the problem of sin. But for my money (as I've often said before) the best way to understand sin is as a breakdown of the relationships that make us human. To be human is to be in relationship; sin distorts our relationships. The actions that we tend to think of as "sinful" are, at root, a relationship problem, of one sort or another.
If we return to the Genesis story, that's what we see. Just after Adam and Eve eat from the one tree they were told not to, God comes into the garden looking for them, desiring just to be with them. And they're hiding in a bush. Their unwillingness to let God be God, their desire to be as gods for themselves, to do as they see fit (that's the temptation), results in fear and separation from the One who made them and loves them; whose very breath enlivens them. Sin breaks down our relationship with God.
And Adam and Eve realize for the first time that they're naked. Shame enters the story. Sin breaks down our relationship with ourselves, our ability to be our best selves, to really believe that we are fearfully and wonderfully made; that we are objects of divine delight, made with divine purpose.
And Adam blames Eve, the one who was supposed to be his partner in the God-given vocation to care for creation; the one who was supposed to be his companion, the antidote for loneliness. Sin breaks down our interpersonal relationships.
And Eve blames the snake, which is symbolic of what's to come, the breakdown of our relationship with the rest of creation--an undeniable reality, these days.
To be an Easter people, a Sunday-oriented people, to be witnesses of forgiveness, then, means that we are people learning to live in the truth that in Christ, God has overcome that first breakdown, from which all others flow. In Jesus we see the lengths to which God will go to bridge the divide, to find us again, to restore us to our image-of-God-selves; we see that nothing in heaven, earth, or hell--not even death--will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
When that relationship is repaired, the others begin to follow suit. Shame is overcome: we are people in whom God delights; people created to bear the divine image of love and creativity and joy to the world. To paraphrase Leonard Sweet, delight is God's mother tongue, and it's the language that made us. What would change if we trusted that?
When we find ourselves in the presence of Jesus Alive, and we see the lengths to which God will go to be with us and for us, we become much more equipped to build and rebuild our relationships with our neighbors: the conditions are set for us to do the essentially human work of loving God and loving our neighbors with all we've got. And not just our human neighbors! To bear witness to the forgiveness of sin is to recall our God-gifted work of being signs and symbols of God's love and care for all things; God's delight in all God has made. What would change if we trusted that?
What does it mean for the Church, for us as Christians to truly bear witness to forgiveness--to the truth that in Christ God was reconciling all things, that in raising him from the dead, God overcame even the most insurmountable division? It means we have more than just a sort of "live and let live" attitude, which can be a kind of self-righteous indifference to others. And it doesn't mean that we all become just exactly like one another, or try to make everyone look like us. When Paul says that in Christ there's no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, I don't think he means that in Christ we become a homogeneous blob. We don't cease to have any differences. I think it's more like when we hear a choir in perfect harmony. When that perfect chord rings out, our first response isn't to dissect the music; it's to bask in the wholeness of the sound. I think that to bear witness to forgiveness of sins is to let our lives ring in tune with heaven, and to invite others into the music.
So, what if we translated "repentance and forgiveness of sins" to "abundance and harmony"? What if together we really dove into that, allowed a holy abundance beyond imagining, a most-beautiful harmony, to be the conditions under which we continue to think about who we are as individuals, and as a congregation being shaped in the will and way of Jesus, for this time and this place?
Obviously, I haven't plumbed the absolute depths of this too-good-to-be-true reality that we are called to proclaim; that we, as U Hill, have been set here, at UBC, in 2018, to bear witness to. But I'd like to keep working at it together. I'd like to make it our task for at least the next year, just to see what God will do. (What do you think about making these things our touch-points?) I'd like to think and imagine and dream and pray and pray and pray about how it is that God has equipped us specially, specifically, individually and together, to grow in joyful disbelief at this thing we've been called to proclaim--to give flesh and bone, breath and muscle, to the truth and wonder that we are called to live in abundance and harmony with the God whose death defeating power is at work in and among us, in this time and this place. Because we are witnesses of these things!
May it be so. Amen.