Sunday, April 30, 2006

It's Still Easter and It's Still Lent

House of Prayer Episcopal Church
Year B: The Third Sunday of Easter
April 30, 2006

Acts 4: 5-12
1 John 1:1-2:2
Luke 24: 36b-48
Psalm 98: 1-5

It’s Still Easter and It’s Still Lent

It’s great to be back at House of Prayer for the Third Sunday of Easter. I don’t know about you, but actually it feels like to me that Easter was quite a while ago. We’ve moved on to the next thing. I’m finishing (OK, starting) term papers and getting ready for exams. The stores have long since discounted the chocolate bunnies and even the peeps. Easter, it seems, has been put away for another year. But in the Church, at least, it’s still Easter. It’s still Easter.

Today’s readings give us a very dramatic before and after picture. Or, actually I guess I should say they give us a dramatic after and before picture. In the first reading from Acts we find the apostles Peter and John imprisoned by the Temple authorities for healing the sick and publicly teaching that Jesus is the Messiah who has risen from the dead. Questioned by the most powerful men in Jerusalem, the lowly fisherman Peter boldly tells the priests that Jesus, the man who they handed over to Pilate to be executed – the stone that was rejected – has become the cornerstone. This Jesus who was killed as a common criminal, has become the way to salvation. To speak that way to the chief priests must have taken a lot of courage! Remember, both Peter and John knew very well that if the religious establishment could get rid of Jesus, they could just as easily get rid of these two nobodies.

But in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel we have a very different picture of the apostles. Not much courage or boldness here – more like fear and confusion. It’s still Easter – it’s Easter night. Earlier in the day, remember, Luke tells us that Mary Magdalene and the other women found the empty tomb, and heard from the two men in “dazzling clothes” the most amazing news – Jesus is risen! Of course, when the women told the men what they had seen and heard, the guys were understandably skeptical, but, to his credit, Peter runs to the tomb - where he finds only linen cloths. His Lord was gone. Could it be true? Could it really be true? Could Jesus really be risen from the dead? It’s still Easter.

Then Luke tells a wonderful story of Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They don’t recognize it’s Jesus at first, not until he breaks the bread and vanishes from their sight. It’s my favorite passage in the Bible and I’m tempted to preach on it right now, but this morning all we need to know is that these two disciples don’t actually make it to Emmaus. No, they turn back to Jerusalem and tell the other followers of what they have seen and heard. Jesus is risen! We saw him in the breaking of the bread! It’s still Easter.

This is where today’s reading from Luke picks up. Try to imagine yourself as one of Jesus’ followers right now – especially one of Jesus’ male disciples. These guys had really let down Jesus. I’m sure Jesus was disappointed, but he probably wasn’t surprised. He knew their weaknesses better than anyone. Remember what had happened in the garden the night he was arrested? The disciples couldn’t even stay awake for Jesus. And when the going got really tough, the disciples got going all right. According to Luke, they abandoned Jesus to die alone on the cross. As Luke rather politely puts it, “all his acquaintances, including the women who followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”

Now, I’m going to guess that the amazing news that Jesus had risen, the reports that people had actually seen Jesus and talked with Jesus, would, yes, make the disciples wonder and hope, but this news would also make the disciples very uncomfortable and even afraid. I mean, the feelings of guilt must have been intense. Think for a moment of a time that you really let someone down. Still feels terrible, doesn’t it?

So now imagine you abandoned Jesus in his great moment of need. You left him to hang on the cross to die alone, to die the most shameful death, to die nailed to a tree as a common criminal. And now it seems somehow that Jesus has risen from the dead. I’m not sure that I could face Jesus, or would want to face Jesus, after all that has happened. What if Jesus is angry? Who could blame him? What if Jesus now rejects us because we failed him, abandoned him, rejected him, in his greatest moment of need? I am sure the disciples were very sorry. I am sure the disciples repented for what they had done, or for what they had not done. I am sure the disciples hoped, somehow, for forgiveness. It’s still Easter.

And then late that night Jesus appears. “Peace be with you,” he says. It seems to me that those simple, beautiful words are meant to immediately let the disciples know that, yes, they are forgiven. Although he has every reason in the world to at least be angry, Jesus instead offers peace. But, notice that Jesus does not pretend that nothing has happened. How uncomfortable it must have been for the disciples to see those wounds. To see the nail marks in his hands and feet. To truly face what had happened. To be reminded of the real pain and suffering of Good Friday. But, although they can’t, and shouldn’t, forget what has happened, the disciples who were filled with sorrow and repentance are forgiven by Jesus.

It’s still Easter. In fact, repentance and forgiveness is a powerful, central part of the Easter story. And it’s a powerful part, or should be a powerful part, of the church’s message today. Notice in today’s gospel how Jesus describes the mission of the church – uh, that would be our mission, yours and mine – “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all the nations…” Repentance and forgiveness of sins. I wonder how much attention the church actually gives these days to repentance and forgiveness. And yet Jesus says proclaiming repentance and forgiveness is the mission of the church!

The disciples must have been amazed and very relieved to hear Jesus call for repentance and offer forgiveness. So it turns out that yes, it’s still Easter, but in a sense, it’s still Lent too.

You know, I love the church seasons as much as the next person. I like when we shift our focus in Advent and Lent, Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. I like when we change colors, prayers and music. I like that we get to see all the beautiful vestments and altar hangings that we’re blessed to have here at House of Prayer. But, there’s a danger if we take the seasons too literally. We can end up dividing our faith into boxes – sort of like the boxes where we might keep our Christmas or Easter decorations. You know, well it’s Lent so let’s open up the “Lent Box” and take out the awareness of our sinfulness and need to repent, and God’s ever-willingness to forgive us. Repentance, that’s a nice decoration for Lent. And when Lent’s over we put repentance back into the “Lent Box” and it’s out of sight until next year. Because, now it’s Easter, so let’s crack open that box, move the bunnies and baskets out of the way, take out the alleluias, the joy, the sense of Jesus with us even now.

Well, if that’s what we do then maybe we would be better off getting rid of the seasons, or maybe just celebrating all the seasons all the time. Sure, the different colors in church might clash and not look so nice, (and I guess the altar guild won’t be happy) but mixing the seasons together would be a reminder that yes it’s still Easter, but in a sense it’s also still Lent. Yes, hopefully we experience the joy of the resurrection, but at the same time hopefully we also can still feel our sinfulness and need for forgiveness. All year long – not just during certain seasons.

This is important because at the center of Christianity is transformation, a change of heart. That’s what the disciples experience as they move from fear and failure to courage and confidence. Peter’s heart is transformed by Jesus’ forgiveness. He goes from being the man who cowardly denies Jesus three times to being the man we read about in the Acts of the Apostles today – boldly telling the priests and the scribes that Jesus the messiah has risen from the dead. What a powerful transformation – what an amazing change of heart! And the transformation doesn’t just happen once. Through prayer and by trying to live the Christian life, year after year season after season, it grows and deepens. That’s the power of Christianity! And that power, the power of the Holy Spirit, is available to all of us right here, right now in the House of Prayer!

How does this transformation start? I think there’s only one way, and that is through repentance. Admitting the times we have failed, the times that we have abandoned God and abandoned our brothers and sisters. Turning to God and asking for forgiveness. In today’s epistle reading from First John we heard such a hopeful message, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Even if it scares us, and if we’re being real it should scare us, we can repent and offer our confession to God. And we can do this with confidence because we know that God is ready always to forgive – in fact, it is God who is calling us to repentance and forgiveness. And Jesus is saying to us right here and now as he said to the disciples long ago, “Peace be with you.”

Just as that repentance and forgiveness transformed the apostles from a bunch of cowards hiding in a locked room to bold people risking and sacrificing their lives to proclaim Jesus as messiah, so we too will be transformed. Our hearts will be changed. That’s the power of God working through us – transforming fear and death into hope and new life. It’s still Easter and it’s still Lent. Thanks be to God!

Someone who understood the need in our lives for both Lent and Easter was our new friend Lancelot Andrewes, the 17th Century English bishop we reflected on this morning in the spirituality group. I will close with one of his beautiful prayers, which I hope can be our prayer today:

Let us pray.
Blot out, O Lord, as a thick cloud of night our transgressions
and as a morning cloud our sins,
make us children of the day and of the light,
grant us to walk chastely and soberly as in the day.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin.
Keep us from the arrow that flieth by day,
and from the sickness that destroyeth in the noonday;
deliver us from the hand of the hunter and from the noisome pestilence;
from the evil of this day keep us.
Today salvation and peace be to this house.
O let me hear thy loving kindness, for in Thee is my trust;
show Thou me the way that I should walk in,
for I raise my soul to Thee.