3rd Sunday of Easter
THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
Acts 3:13-15, 17-19 | 1 John 2:1-5a | Luke 24:35-48
May your people exalt forever, oh God, in renewed youthfulness of spirit so that rejoicing now in the restored glory of our adoption we may look forward in confident hope to the rejoicing of the day of resurrection. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
CONVERSION, it’s one of those words we use all the time. In the spiritual world, we talk about leaving one vision, one way of seeing and entering into another, and there’s a mystery to it, because if we think that it’s up to us to discern what is the old thing that we need to leave and the new thing we need to embrace, if we’re trying to figure that out ourselves, we’re on shaky ground. The issue is what the conversion is really about is not going from a bad person to a good person or from no religion to religion or from a religion that doesn’t claim to be the only religion — you move to the one that claims they’re the only religion, but it’s more a conversion from illusion to truth, from a lie to the truth. And when you look back to the story of salvation history, it begins with a lie, in terms of God’s relationship with human beings. Adam and Eve, these beautiful creatures that were made by God, who looked at them and said they were so, so good. The story is that they were in the garden, and they were told not to do something, and they did it anyway. So what I find shocking, in a way, that many religions will take that event and say, “There. That’s why human beings are depraved and, at their core, kind of evil, because of the sin of Adam. So we’re no longer good, but we’re sort of wicked inside, dirty.” Then religion has to come along and save us from that and cleanse us from that.
I don’t think it’s about being dirty or evil but rather being ignorant or filled with wisdom. So I think the story of Adam and Eve that we should ponder and wonder about is how does this story describe to us the struggle we have with sin. There are two things in the story that are so important. Number one, God’s curse did not go to Adam and Eve but rather to the serpent who lied. It seems that God had an understanding of the vulnerability of Adam and Eve so that they could easily be swayed by an illusion that seemed to promise what they knew they longed for deep inside them, to be good, to be like God. That sounded so good to them, even though God said, “No, no. Don’t go this way. Don’t go the way of the tree of the knowledge of evil.” And what was the lie that the serpent told them? That is, “If you will live autonomously from God, he will be so happy, because you’ll show him that you have the stuff that he wants you to have. And then also, what you need to understand is, if you’re going to be in charge of the world, then you need to have something called an understanding of good and evil. So what you can do,” the serpent said, “Is you can divide the world into good and evil. You decide that, and then you will choose what’s good and what’s evil.” When you look at human nature, it is amazing how many people can be involved in something that is terrible, and they say, “What? What? It’s not terrible. I think it’s good. My business practice is good. So what if I squeeze as much money out of the poor as I can? It’s good business.” Human beings have that quality of being able to decide, and that’s living in ignorance. So if you understand that, sin is not necessarily an indication that a human being is corrupt at its core but that he’s living in a lie.
Then when Jesus did the most amazing act of forgiveness on the cross, he made it clear that, why he could forgive and what was in his heart is a realization that the people who were doing this were really good people struggling to become who they thought they should be, following the law like they were told to do. At the same time, they rejected life. They rejected him and instead chose to release Barabbas. Interesting thing about Barabbas’ name; ‘Bar’ means ‘son of’ and ‘abba’ is the word that Jesus used for his relationship with God. So in a way they were screaming out, “Free the sons of the father. Free us.” Isn’t it funny? They had no idea. That is another ignorance. They didn’t know what they were saying. They were saying, “Condemn the person who is there to bring me life, but please release us. Please release us. Please release human beings.” Interesting. They were getting what they screamed out for, forgiveness, understanding.
So what was happening to Jesus on the cross, he was looking at all these people, and he said, “Father, I forgive them. I see now what you see. They don’t know what they’re doing. They have no idea what they’re doing.” In their hearts and in their minds, they thought they were doing the right thing, and mostly they were the victims of the crowd or victims of those who stirred them up. They became sort of victims. What is that saying? That’s saying that, when we look at sin as not something that is revealing the corruption of human beings but a weakness that we have, then we can stay with this image that Jesus gives us, over and over again, of, “Please, don’t judge anyone, and forgive everything they do.” Don’t judge them means don’t judge the quality of their essence. We have to judge people about — he’s late, or he’s early, or he smells bad, or he doesn’t. Those are judgments, but we’re talking about is this man valuable, is he worth something, is this woman good. Don’t ever think that you on your own can look at a human being and know everything about them to decide that they are worthless, and yet we do it over and over again.
So when it comes to sin, what we have to realize is that the core of sin is ignorance, and the core of forgiveness is seeing past that ignorance and not blaming the person, condemning them, filling them with shame and fear of punishment. That doesn’t work. It never did work. What does work? What is it that Jesus came to do when he said, “You must forgive others, and you must do what I do”? So we are learning that, if we’re going to be a person in this world that doesn’t get caught up in returning sin for sin, which that’s what sin does that’s so insidious. If someone’s bad to you, you’ll be bad back to them. They hurt you; you’ll hurt them. Sin begets sin. Something’s got to stop that vicious cycle, and so what is it? It’s truth — truth, no more lies. That is the gift that God has given to you and to me to deal with sin.
I thought it was a strong will that would be so disciplined that it would work so hard for perfection, that it would work so diligently to make sure we never, ever broke a law, and that’s what really was going on in the Old Testament, and that’s why God gave us Ten Commandments, and then man responded by adding 603. There were 613 laws governing the life of a good Jew, a good Israelite, and most people thought those were all about God’s laws, but they weren’t, only ten. If there’s anything I want to convince you of is, when you look at the Ten Commandments, don’t look at them as actions to be done, but rather as an indication of who we are to become. The Ten Commandments reveal our nature and human beings didn’t have anything like that.
In the last hundred years, think of what we’ve learned about human nature and what it really takes to move someone from one place to another, the insights we have into the brain, into the heart, into psychology, all of it. The advice that you would say 3,000 years ago, that if you’ve got somebody in the community that’s not doing the right thing or saying something that’s different, “Well, we’ll burn them in the piazza, and that’ll fix it. That’ll help everybody. Scapegoat him. Throw him out.” A lack of understanding of human nature is what, in a sense, was part of all those kinds of decisions in the past, and now we see through that kind of illusion or half-truth or lie, and we treat people differently. That’s grace, the truth, knowing, understanding what works. Dividing the world and dividing everyone in it into good and bad does not work. It’s a disaster. So what’s the other direction to go if we don’t have that? Discernment, reflection, wondering. There’s a thing that I love to teach people to do, and it’s called living with a nonjudgmental observer. Ponder things. Wonder things. When someone does something that seems so ridiculously out of balance from what they should do. Instead of condemning them, writing them off, making sure other people condemn them by criticizing them. What about pondering, wondering about it and just wanting one thing: that they stop being trapped in a lie and that the person they are is somebody that you want to nurture and give life to? When that’s your motive, your reaction to them is so radically different that instead of adding pain to pain, you’ll be adding something that will begin to break down the resistance to the truth.
So the key is always to be moving from illusion to truth, not from being bad to being good. I don't know if that makes sense, but I hope it does, because it means you’re going to the heart of what it is; where the work is really done. It’s in reimagining, converting the way you see things to a completely different way, and the way is called the new way. And Jesus came into the world to say, “I am the way, a new way, and I am the truth. And I’m life.” I don't know why nobody really told me how important the truth was when I was a very little boy, because all they told me about was what sin was, and it was hurting God. And then when I hurt God, God wanted to hurt me back, and so he wanted to send me to hell. I had this weird notion of sin as just like the biggest obstacle. Sin isn’t the obstacle. Ignorance is. Sin is forgiven instantly. That’s why Jesus said, “I forgive your sins. Don’t focus on your sins. Focus on whether or not you’re living in the truth. Do you really know who you are? Do you know who I am? Do you know who your brother is? Do you know who your sister is? Are you willing to trust that there’s something good in all of that? And if you can’t see it — if you judge it and condemn it, it’s probably because you can’t see it all.” That’s a very different way of being in the world that is filled with good and evil.
Then you realize, wait a minute, good and evil, nothing is perfectly good, and nothing is perfectly evil, in terms of the material world and the way we act on this planet. It’s both and. When I do something wrong, there’s something usually in it that’s not only not negative, but has the potential of a positive effect. In other words, our sins can be things that get us in trouble. At the same time, the sin can be the means by which we get out of that trouble, because we begin to experience what that choice means. And if we’re open and ponder it and wonder about it and think about it, we can say, “That’s insane.” I think when you realize the sins you choose that are supposedly the things that you can’t shake, you can shake them in an instant when inside you know — you know that that choice will never produce what it promises if it’s against our nature, if it’s against the Ten Commandments, a deep intimate relationship with God, relationship with our brothers and our sisters and ourselves, where we honor the life we have. We won’t steal. We won’t take from each other. We won’t kill each other. We won’t lie to each other. We won’t break promises to each other. We won’t want what each other has. That’s our nature. That’s the truth. Sin so often is basically forgetting who we are and who our brothers and sisters are, and buying into that lie. That leads to all the suffering and the pain that we keep longing for the world not to be caught in. All we have to do is, not fix the world, but just open our hearts to what is true inside of us. Then, we have done the work.
Father, your goodness is beyond our imagining. Your patience, your ability to forgive and forgive and then to forgive again, for all those choices that we make, that you long for us to turn away from; that you long to show us how destructive they can be to others. So bless us with that, first and foremost, awareness that you’re never interested in condemning us for sin or punishing us for sin, but only opening our eyes and revealing how great you are, because your only intention is to open our minds and our hearts to what is real and what is true. Inviting us to live in the world as you intended it to be. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.