Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Experience of the Risen Jesus: Solidarity, Forgiveness and Community

Sermon preached on Easter Day, April 24, 2011 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: John 20:1-18

I began Lent by asking the question, “What is your relationship to Jesus?” Along the way since then I’ve put the question a couple of different ways. “What does it mean to have a relationship with Jesus?” “How can you have a relationship with Jesus?”

I’m going to summarize what I had to say each week in a sentence:

Baptism has already put us into a relationship with Jesus, whether we are conscious of it or not, a relationship that Jesus wants to have with us.

In reading the story of Nicodemus and Jesus from John 3, we learned that it is OK to come to Jesus “by night,” that is, it is OK to come to Jesus in our anxiety, fear, or doubt.

The story of the man born blind and Jesus in John 9 showed us that we are worthy of relationship with Jesus, and the greatest sin may actually be excluding people from God’s fellowship.

The story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus in John 11, taught us a difficult, but ultimately hopeful, truth: we have to die in order to be in relationship with Jesus. We have to let go of our control over everything in our lives and let Jesus give it back to us as a resurrected gift.

Finally, last Sunday, in having to come to terms with Jesus’ passion and death, we found Jesus showing us a God who is in absolute solidarity with us.

Now this morning, this glorious morning. Perhaps it dawned on some of you who have heard that sermon series, “Oh, the Jesus to whom I have to relate is the risen Jesus.” What does that mean? Lots of things, but I’ll stick with three.

The Gospel writer John’s Easter story was only half read this morning. We’ll read the second half next Sunday. In the second half of the story one reality of the risen Jesus comes to the fore: he remains wounded, the marks of the nails in his hands and feet and the gaping wound in his side. Why is this important and what does it have to do with our relationship with Jesus?

It means that the risen Jesus is still one of us and still in absolute solidarity with our woundedness. Humanity was not a disguise that God took on for thirty-three years and then shed as soon as he died. God and humanity are one eternally. Jesus and we are one, period. And it’s not just our woundedness with which Jesus is in solidarity. He is also in solidarity with our joy. As St. Irenaeus said in the 2nd century, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

Second, Jesus is in relationship with us as the embodiment of forgiveness. He greets Mary Magdalene with compassion, but also asks her to tell “my brothers.” He means the disciples, of course, at this point eleven of them, all who had turned tail and run. What the Jewish and Roman authorities did to him was bad enough, but he had also been betrayed, denied and deserted by those he loved.

And next week in the second half of John’s Easter story we will see that when Jesus comes among them his first words are not “where were you?” or “How could you betray me?” but “Peace be with you. God wants to send you just as he sent me. I give you a share of God, the Holy Spirit, to do this work. And your greatest power is forgiveness.” (John 20:19-23, my translation)

Oh, ho! You say. Here is finally the bait and switch. The risen Jesus comes to us as forgiveness and that means we’re going to have to be given a list of our sins.

I think the word “forgiveness” had a much bigger meaning to Jesus than we normally attach to it. We think of sins as breaking the law, either the state’s law or God’s law. Forgiveness for Jesus is about relationship, it is a step toward reconciliation and liberation. I’m going to say something now that may be heretical, so cover your ears if you don’t want to hear it.

I do not think that Jesus much cares about our sins. What he cares about is whether or not we’re ready to leave behind whatever keeps us from relationship with him, and accept his forgiveness, which is to accept his acceptance.

Third, Jesus knows our name. That doesn’t seem like much, but it is a big, big deal. Everyone of you knows the feeling of walking into a group of people who know you, but no one can remember your name. Intended or not, it is an act of radical inhospitality.

I had a bishop once, James Montgomery of Chicago, who was legendary about remembering people’s names. As someone in the ordination process, I traveled with him to a few parish visitations. Everywhere we went he knew almost everyone’s name, and in some cases their children’s names and where they now lived. “Fran, how is Susie doing at Penn State?” It was amazing. And his successor, Frank Griswold, had a bad time of it at first, because he simply could not do that, which meant that many people experienced him as “cold.”

Jesus is like Bishop Montgomery (he would be embarrassed to hear me say that). He knows your name and he is interested in your life. He is sometimes portrayed as the cold, aloof judge, certainly not someone you would have a drink with. But in fact he is someone you would have a drink with, and probably many. You can talk to him easily and conversationally (even if cannot see him, by the way).

So the risen Jesus is in absolute solidarity with our humanity, including our woundedness. The risen Jesus is the very embodiment of forgiveness. The risen Jesus knows our names.

I had a powerful experience of this once; it was my introduction to the Risen Jesus who is solidarity, forgiveness and community. I hope none of you will be put off by it. But it’s time I told it because it was a fundamental part of my faith journey. I don’t think I’ve ever told this story to my family, or parts of it even to John!

Six weeks into my first year of seminary, a long, long time ago, I accepted an invitation to have dinner with the seminary musician. He had a house down a little from the student housing. He was young, but wise beyond his years. By the time I left the house to walk home, my life had changed irrevocably. I knew I was gay. I knew I had always been gay. For the first time my life made sense. It was thrilling, and I was terrified.

I walked up the hill to the student housing with a sense of presence beside me. Could I dare believe it was Jesus? I went not to my room, but to a friend’s. I began to tell him my story. “Wait,” he said, “I’ll be right back.” After about 15-20 minutes he came back, but he wasn’t alone. He had brought with him five other gay students, some of whom I was surprised to see.

Then I told my story, not just what happened at the musician’s house, but at least the previous ten years of struggling with this thing. And Jesus was there in solidarity with my humanity as it was in that moment Jesus was there to reach out to me in forgiveness and unconditional love. Jesus was there in healing community. I have rarely felt the presence of Jesus more strongly than I did that night.

There would be rough days ahead, but I left that room with a fundamental peace in my heart about who I was. I left resurrected.

Now that was a “coming out” story but that was not why I told it. I told it because it was a Jesus story from my life. And I bet you have one too. I bet you have a resurrection story. A story about a time when you knew God was with you in a time of trial. A story about how you were sure you could never forgive someone, but you did, or you did something that you thought you would never be forgiven for, and you were. A story about how you accepted something about yourself. A story about how a community of mutual respect and dignity in some way saved your life.

Give thanks for those stories, and the people who are in them who were a gift from God, and don’t be afraid to tell that story to someone else who needs encouragement to look for their own resurrection story.

And don’t forget the real message of today:

The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.

Let us be fully alive together.

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