Sunday, April 22, 2018

Easter 4 - God has a Dad's Heart

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

I admit to some confusion over Jesus’ words this morning. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” I’m not entirely clear on what he means. Who are these other sheep? How can they listen to his voice but not already belong to this fold? This passage makes me think of another one in John, where Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” (John 14:2). And earlier, where he says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) All of these passages together seem to say that Jesus is looking beyond the circle of Jews in Israel, and possibly even beyond the community of Christians for whom the Gospel of John was written. These passages together seem to say that God intends to bring all people, including non-Christian-believers, into God’s presence. Universal salvation.

Except... except that in the same Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And in the verses right before our reading for today, Jesus says that he is the gate to the sheepfold and that “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” (John 10:7,1) And in Acts, we just heard Peter say, filled with the Holy Spirit, “There is salvation in no one else [but Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given by mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) All of these passages together seem to say the opposite, that Jesus is concerned only with Christian believers, and that those who do not profess Jesus as their Saviour are judged and condemned and either cast out or left behind when the time comes. Not-so-universal salvation.

Now, for a long time in the church, the contradiction didn’t really bother too many people. Before globalization was a word, in places where everyone was Christian except for a small minority that everybody ignored anyway, people didn’t give much thought to “heathens,” as they called them. A few good-hearted people worried about the souls of those in faraway countries but, by-and-large, Christians could live their entire lives without meeting anyone of a different religion. Martin Luther, for instance, never met a Muslim (or Turk, as he called them), even though he had quite a number of opinions about them. He certainly wasn’t in any distress about the possibility that God might not welcome them into God’s presence when they die.

This is not the case anymore. At least not for us, who live in Calgary. The reality is that many of us care deeply about people who are not Christian: family members, dear friends, good neighbours, co-workers. We love people who may have once been Christian but no longer consider themselves such, or are avowed atheists, or practicing agnostics, or active members of other faiths. These people who do not belong to our fold, or to any fold at all, are people we hold close in our hearts, and so it can cause deep distress to think that when they die, God will keep them out. In fact, just on Thursday, I saw a newsclip on CNN of a little six-year-old named Emanuele who had a chance to ask Pope Francis a question, and Emanuele’s father was an atheist and had just recently died, and Emanuele, with deep concern, asked the Pope if his father was in heaven with God. 

This question of what happens to non-Christians can no longer be dismissed as irrelevant. It is something we as Christians must struggle with, because the struggle tells us not only who we are as a human family, but also who this God is whom we worship. It forces us to examine what we really believe about this God whom we say is love and this Christ whom we say brings life. It pushes us to ask ourselves if we really do trust this God in whose name we gather.

The church-at-large. around the world and through history, has three different responses to this question. I cant tell you which one is “right.” It is not given to us to know in this lifetime anything for certain––as Paul says, we see through a glass darkly. But as we look at these three responses, I encourage you to ask yourselves, “Which one makes me feel closer to God? Which one makes me trust God more? Which one makes me feel God’s love for me more?” These are the questions that always guide us, because they direct us to the heart of faith.

So, the first response, which has been the church’s historical response, is that all people must accept Jesus Christ as Lord in order to receive life. Essentially, only the baptized get to be with God after they die. This understanding is at the heart of missionary efforts, as Christians go out into the world to introduce Jesus to non-Christians. And I don’t want to be cynical about missionaries, even though in the past, they have too often worked hand-in-hand with governments to support colonialism. I believe that missionaries are truly motivated by concern and love for non-Christians. They do really want these “sheep that do not belong to this fold,” to be found and restored to the one flock under Jesus Christ. In the end, though, they firmly believe that only Christians are saved. If you love someone who is not Christian, you need to work at converting them, otherwise you will be separated forever when you die.

The second response, much more common today, is the extreme opposite, and it is that God saves everyone, without question. God made everyone, God loves everyone, and so God saves everyone. And I like this––I like that it emphasizes God’s love for the world. I want this to be true, except it’s not. At least it’s not for Christians. Our Christian belief states, without doubt or compromise, that God loves us through Jesus Christ. Christ is essential to God’s love for us. Christ’s death and resurrection are an indispensable part of God’s relationship with us. If not, if God is able to save us all without Christ, then everything about us as Christians is pointless. It’s great for those we love who aren’t Christians––not so good for us.

The third response is not particularly new, it’s just not particularly wide-spread. And that is that God saves everyone through Christ––that Christ is indeed the way, the truth, and the life––but that each individual’s acceptance, or even awareness, of that truth is irrelevant. Essentially, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fully divine and fully human, was a once-and-for-all cosmic event that affected all of time from the Big Bang to whatever happens at the end, and redeems all of existence from every single person on our tiny earth to whatever alien life might be present on the very borders of our universe. And that this salvation that God has accomplished through Christ is so final and so ultimate that not even our ignorance of it or doubts about it or refusal to believe in it or our belief in something else entirely can change the reality that it has happened. Out of deepest love for all of Creation, God has saved us through Christ, and those we love who aren’t Christian. It’s done. Nothing can change what God has already done through Christ.

So how do we know which of these three understanding is the “right” one? As I said earlier, which is the one that leads you to trust God more? This is not a rhetorical question––the right one is whichever one draws you closer in love and trust to God. Which is the one that allows you to entrust those you love to God’s care? That reassures you of God’s love for you through Christ? We know that God’s basic orientation towards all of Creation is one of goodness and love and abiding care. Scripture tells us this over and over again. God wishes us all to be saved. God wishes us all to be cared for by a shepherd who would lay down his life for us. God wishes us all to have light and life in the midst of darkness and death. God delivers us all from evil. All of these truths can be asserted without doubt. And so all we can do is trust in God’s love for us, and in God’s love for those we love. And this is the truest act of faith and the worship of Christ––to trust completely in the God who sent him, the God who saves through him, and to commend those we love to God’s care.


So, Emanuele, the little six-year-old who asked Pope Francis if his father, an atheist, was in heaven now? When Pope Francis heard his question, he called him forward and hugged him close, and then said to everyone there, “Do you think that God could leave him far from him? Do you think this?” And then he said, “God has a dad’s heart.” God has a dad’s heart. We know that our hearts are full of love for those in our lives who aren’t Christian; God’s heart even more so. God loves the ones we love even more than we do, for God made them, and Christ died for them. And so we can trust Jesus when he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” and when Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, says, “There is salvation in no other name but Jesus.”  Both can be true, through the grace and love of God through Christ that passes all understanding. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Easter 3 - Shame and Peace

Acts 3:12-19; Luke 24:36b-48

So here we are, in the middle of the Easter season, which, by the way, is seven Sundays long, so that it is a full week of Easter. And Jesus comes to the disciples and says, “Peace be with you.” But to be honest, after hearing our reading from Acts, I’m not feeling very peaceful.

As you’ve seen, I get pretty uncomfortable with texts in our New Testament that bash “the Jews,” seeing as how Jesus was one of them, along with Paul and Peter and all the first disciples and founders of the church. We heard a number of them in the Gospel of John during Lent and Holy Week, leading up to Easter, and now we have another one in Acts, which particularly troubles me: We have the apostle Peter, seemingly out of nowhere, launching into an aggressive accusation against those who are at the Temple the same day as he: “But you [meaning the Jews standing there] rejected the Holy and Righteous One, ... and you killed the Author of life.” And it’s not the first time he says this. Just one chapter earlier, he says to the Jews, talking about Jesus, “this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.” Peter lashes out at them, accusing them not just of killing Jesus, but of using Roman hands––unclean hands––to get away with it. He accuses them not just of murder, but of being complete hypocrites as they do so.

Now this is all bad enough, particularly because it oversimplifies what happened, and because it has led to Christian pogroms against the Jews throughout history. But what really bothers me about it is that this is Peter making these accusations. Peter, Jesus’ lead disciple, who took out a sword and cut off a soldier’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane, who denied Jesus three times after Jesus was arrested in order to save his own skin, who didn’t believe that Jesus was risen when the women told him that they had seen the risen Christ. Peter was no saint, so to speak. He was violently impulsive, he abandoned his leader in a crisis, and he was so full of himself that he wouldn’t take anyone else’s word until he saw it himself. (Hey, isn’t there another disciple like that?) If there’s anyone who should be judged for the way they acted towards Jesus, it really ought to be Peter. It’s one thing to act that way towards your enemy, but towards your friend? And this after Jesus tells them to love their neighbour as themselves.

But maybe that’s what’s going on here. Maybe Peter doesn’t love himself. Maybe Peter is quite aware of what he’s done. Maybe Peter lies awake at night agonizing over his abandonment of Jesus, replaying in his mind that whole evening and the next day, imagining that if he had it to do all over again how he would have declared his loyalty to Jesus over Rome and been up there on that cross instead of Jesus. Maybe Peter is so consumed with his own guilt and hypocrisy that he is unable to forgive himself and so he lashes out at others for theirs.

It’s not that I want to psychologize Peter, it’s just that it’s a fairly common experience in life that we tend to accuse people of what we ourselves feel guilt or shame over. This is especially true for things we’ve done that we’re ashamed of––the whole nature of shame is that it affects us so deeply that we can’t even directly explore the things that cause us to feel shame. Guilt is feeling bad about what we’ve done, while shame is feeling bad about who we are. Internalized guilt becomes shame, and that’s when we stop being able to think about it. We become unable to think about the terrible things we’ve done because they seem to us proof of the terrible person we are. But shame persists, and it surfaces in our criticisms of others. We deal with our shame by focusing it on someone else. We judge others the way we are secretly judging ourselves. We handle our disappointment and judgment and hatred of ourselves by moving it to a disappointment with and judgement and hatred of others. 

Which I think is what Peter is doing. His deeds of denial and abandonment were awful and he seems to have felt that deeply. We know that after the resurrection, Jesus had to tell Peter three times to take care of Jesus’ sheep, because Peter seemed unable to believe that Jesus would want him to do such a thing. And so this, combined with Peter’s lashing out in our readings from Acts, makes me wonder if Peter was unable to forgive himself for his denial and betrayal of Jesus, if he felt a deep and abiding sense of shame over his behaviour. And it makes sense to me that if he was unable to forgive himself, and was ashamed of betraying Jesus, that he would externalize that and be unable to forgive anyone else, either. That he would transfer his own shame to other Jews around him, and accuse them of rejecting the Holy and Righteous One and killing the Author of life when indeed, it was he himself he was really accusing. In one context or another, we all do this.

But Jesus offers us an alternative to this interplay of shame of one’s self and accusation of another. In place of the spiritual and emotional and psychological death that feeling shame brings to us, Jesus offers us new life that is rooted not in ourselves, or in our actions or inactions, but in Christ. Specifically, in Christ’s death and resurrection for our sake. Because of Christ, we are forgiven and healed. Because of Christ, guilt and shame no longer determine who we are. Instead, the righteousness and holiness and goodness of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, determine who we are, and determine that we are children of God.

And this disrupts shame and accusation because once we accept that we ourselves are forgiven, we can forgive others. Once we consider ourselves loved and accepted, instead of guilty and shameful, we can then move onto to loving and accepting others, even with all their guilt. When Jesus says that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves, it is very clear that this is rooted in loving ourselves. This is not a call to become selfish, but rather a call to accept what God in Christ has done for us. To believe, actually, in Easter. To build our entire lives and our entire self-image and all of our relationships on the central claim of our faith, that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God forgives us all our sins and redeems us and that there is nothing we can do that is stronger than that forgiveness and redemption. To refuse to forgive ourselves, to be ashamed of ourselves, to fail to love ourselves becomes, then, a denial of what Christ as accomplished in Easter. It is putting the power of our sinfulness above the power of God. 

  But God’s power, shown to us in Easter, is the true power. And God’s power removes our guilt and our shame and forgives us and makes us God’s beloved children. And this is the peace that Jesus brings. This is why Jesus appears to the disciples in our Gospel reading, which, remember, is still taking place on the same day that the tomb was discovered empty. This is less than three days after the disciples of Jesus all fled and left him to die, and the shame of their actions would no doubt have been incredibly high. And Jesus appears amongst them and the first thing he says is, “Peace be with you.” Be at peace. The disciples are not to be troubled by what they have done or left undone. They are not to be troubled, or feel ashamed, by who they have been up to this point. Be at peace.
Jesus says the same thing to you. “Peace be with you.” Jesus wishes you to be at peace, to experience the peace of being forgiven and of believing that, because of the cross, you truly no longer have anything to be ashamed of. Jesus Christ is not ashamed of you. He does not wish you to live in the anxiety and trouble of guilt and shame. He wishes you to live in peace, believing that he has forgiven you and died for you.

Now Matthew 5:24 tells us that before we “leave [our] gift at the altar,” we need to first be reconciled with our brothers and sisters. It leaves us with the impression that we must forgive and be forgiven by those around us, to be at peace with them, before we can come forward and receive God’s forgiveness. This Bible Verse is the reason we share the peace of Christ with one another before the offering. (See, all of our liturgy is actually rooted in Scripture.)

But there’s an important thing that happens right before you all share the peace with one another. And that’s that I share Christ’s peace with you. I tell you first, in person, that Christ has come to you and forgives you and wishes peace for you, so that you can then do the same for your neighbour. You are reminded that you are forgiven, and in the peace of that forgiveness can then extend forgiveness and peace to one another. You are freed from self-accusation so that you can be freed from accusing others. You are reconciled with God through Christ first, and then to one another. 


I wonder what the church’s relationship with others would have been like if Peter had truly forgiven himself for what he had done. If he had been able to offer compassion and forgiveness to others instead of accusations. But more than that, I wonder what our relationship with others might be like if we truly forgive ourselves for what we have done in our own lives. If we accept that Christ really means for us to be at peace with ourselves and if, out of that, we then extend that peace to others. I suspect it would be Easter resurrection for the entire world. And so my prayer for you, today and always, is that you truly feel that, through Christ, you are forgiven, and that the peace of Christ be with you, always. Thanks be to God. Amen.