Sermon for Easter April 11, 2021
Four local preachers once met for a friendly gathering. During their conversation one preacher said,“Our people come to us and pour out their hears, confess certain sins and needs. Let’s do the same. Confession is good for the soul.” In due time all agreed. One confessed he liked to go to movies and would sneak off when away from his church. The second confessed that he liked to smoke cigars. The third oneconfessed that he liked to play cards. When it came to the fourth one, he would not confess. The others pressed him saying, “Come on now, we confessed ours. What is your secret or vice?” Finally he answered,
“It is gossiping and I can hardly wait to get out of here.”
They say that “confession is good for the soul,” but not necessarily for public discussion. How many times
have you made a private confession to a priest of the church? How many times have you gone into one of those dark confessional booths and laid bare your soul? If you come from a Roman Catholic background, such a practice is not novel to you. There are even some Episcopal Churches, which we refer to as Anglo- Catholic parishes, where private auricular confession is heard on a regular basis. It may be hard for some of you to believe, but I grew up in one of those parishes in Chicago, and I remember having to make my first confession the day before I was confirmed. Since back then confirmation took place in the third grade, and since all of us third graders in the confirmation class were not old enough to have committed any serious sins, we were given a long list of sins that we might have committed from which to choose. If anything, that list gave us ideas more of what to do, than to remind us of the bad things we had already done. That reminds me of the story of the Roman Catholic priest who had the students at the parochial school where he taught make lists of their sins before they entered his confessional. One week a young child came to confession and the priest heard him unfolding the list he had brought with him. The youngster began, “I lied to my parents. I disobeyed my mom. I fought with my brothers and...” There was a long pause. Then a small angry voice said, “Hey, this isn’t my list.”
In that wonderful gospel which we heard a few moments ago, and which we hear every year on this Sunday after Easter, Jesus came into the midst of his disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.” After their close friend and teacher had been arrested, put on trial, and crucified, the disciples were alone behind locked doors, and fearful of the Jews. All of a sudden Jesus appeared and said “Peace be with you.” After he had said this he showed them his hands and his side. This was really his way of reassuring them that, true to his promise, he had not deserted them, and that, in his words, he would be with them always to the end of the ages. Then Jesus sent them on a mission by saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Their mission was one of forgiveness. “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” With all this in mind, I would like to reflect with you briefly this morning upon peace, upon promise, and upon forgiveness.
“Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” How, then, do you and I find that peace about which our Lord spoke? In Belfast, Ireland, a Roman Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Protestant minister were engaged in a heated theological discussion. Suddenly, an angel appeared in their midst and said to them, “God sends you his blessings. Make one wish for peace and your wish will be fulfilled by the Almighty. The minister said, “Let every Roman Catholic disappear from our lovely island. Then peace will reign supreme.” The Roman Catholic priest said, “Let there not be a single Protestant left on our sacred Irish soil. That will bring peace to this island.” “And what about you, Rabbi?” said the angel. “Do you have no wish of your own?” “No,” said the rabbi. “Just attend to the wishes of these two gentlemen, and I shall be well pleased.”
That is not what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of peace. Peace often must begin with ourselves. Evangelist Billy Graham once said, “ Love is not a vague feeling or an abstract idea. When I love someone, I seek what is best for them. If I begin to take the love of Christ seriously, then I will work toward what is best for my neighbor. I will seek to bind up the wounds and bring about peace and healing, no matter what the cost may be.”
The late novelist and playwright, Dr. Wallace Hamilton, liked to tell of an Indian sheep farmer who had a big problem. His neighbor’s dogs were killing his sheep. It got so bad, that he had to do something. So he examined his options. First, he could have brought a lawsuit and taken his neighbor to court. Secondly, he could have built stronger fences so the dogs couldn’t get in. But he had a better idea. He gave some lambs to his neighbor’s children. When these lambs began to multiply and their little flocks began to develop, the neighbor tied up his dogs and the sheep farmer’s problems were over. As Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God.”
The words “Peace be with you,” were also meant to be ones of promise and reassurance to the disciples, who then realized that Jesus would never abandon them or forsake them, or leave them behind. The same is true for us today. The entire Easter story, which began last Sunday, is really God’s promise to us that He who raised Jesus from the dead, also watches over us and will not leave us. The problem is that we are surrounded by all kinds of promises in this mortal existence in which we find ourselves. Many of these promises are illusions; they are like desert mirages which appear to be water, but are in fact only a trick of sun, heat, and sand. When we head toward them, we move faster and faster, until finally we plunge headlong into them, and all we get is a mouthful of sand. These days advertising is the false spirituality of materialism, promising what it can never deliver. Even the slogans of advertising sound religious, using the language of ultimate concern: “GE – We bring good things to life; Coca-cola – It’s the Real Thing; BMW – The Ultimate Driving Experience; Bayer Aspirin – Bayer Works Wonders” In a culture of consumption, we sacrifice our souls for the mirage of glittering images, and all we get is a mouthful of sand. What are the real kinds of promises that Jesus would have us emulate in our lives? Here is one example.
Booker T. Washington describes meeting an ex-slave from Virginia in his book Up From Slavery : “I found that this man had made a contract with his master, two or three years previous to the Emancipation Proclamation. Under the terms of the contract the slave was to be permitted to buy himself, and he promised to pay so much per year for his body. While he was paying for himself, he was also permitted to labor where and for whom he pleased. Finding that he could secure better wages in Ohio, he went there. When freedom came, he was still some three hundred dollars in debt to his master. Notwithstanding that the Emancipation Proclamation freed him from any obligation to his master, this black man walked the greater portion of the distance back to where his old master lived in Virginia. There, he placed the last dollar, with interest, in the hands of his former master. Washington wrote, “In talking to me about this, the man told me that he knew that he did not have to pay his debt, but that he had given his word to his master, and he had never broken his word. He felt that he could not enjoy his freedom until he had fulfilled his promise.” Now that is a true promise!
After Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” he said to his followers, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus was sending them forth on a mission and the purpose of that mission was forgiveness. He described it for them in this way: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” One of the great gifts of the Spirit is that of forgiveness. As members of Christ’s body, the Church, how do you and I exercise this gift of forgiveness, this gift of the Spirit, in our lives?
In the latter years of the reign of King Hussein of Jordan, who died in 1999 at the age of 63, a terrible tragedy occurred. Two Israeli schoolgirls were playing in a park called the Island of Peace, located in the middle of the Jordan River, right on the border of the two countries. While the girls were playing, a Jordanian soldier shot them both dead for no apparent reason. The news media flashed the story around the world with lightning speed. For a short while, it seemed that the fragile peace between Israel and Jordan could be broken. But then it became clear that the soldier was suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness and that he acted with no authorization from anyone. Apologies were made and accepted in diplomatic circles, and the world breathed easier. The story could well have ended there, were it not for King Hussein. Hearing what one of his soldiers had done, the king left his palace, and even his own country. He traveled to the humble homes of the families of the two slain Israeli girls. Entering each house in turn, King Hussein, who was used to having people bow before him, fell down on his knees. He bowed before the grieving parents. Then he looked up into their eyes and said, “I beg you, forgive me, forgive me. Your daughter is like my daughter, your loss is my loss. May God help you to bear your pain.” Nothing in the annals of diplomatic protocol suggested that a king needed to humble himself liked that. Ironically, a Muslim king gave the world that day a glimpse of how a truly Christian person might behave.
Forgiveness is never easy. Each day it must be prayed for, and struggled for, and won. That is our mission That is your mission and mine. As followers of the Lord’s Christ, you and I must understand that there is no length to which we will not go, to exercise this gift of forgiveness. We are, of course, reminded of Jesus’ words at another time and place, when in response to Peter’s question “How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him,” he replied “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” The late lay theologian, lawyer, and civil rights activist, William Stringfellow, in one of his writings, once described the endless efforts that are expected of us in our calling as forgiving Christians. He wrote, “There is no forbidden work. There is no corner of human existence, however degraded or neglected, into which Christians may not venture; no person, however beleaguered or possessed, whom they may not befriend and represent. Christians are distinguished by their radical esteem for the Incarnation, by their reverence for the life of God in the whole of creation, even and, in a sense, especially, creation in the travail of sin.”
So, on this day, as we hear once again our Lord say to his disciples, “Peace be with you,” let us remember that the peace which he would impart to us enables us always to work for what is best for our neighbor, binding up wounds and bringing healing no matter what the cost may be. That same peace is also Jesus’ promise to reassure us that the God who raised his son from the dead, will never abandon or forsake us in the daily living of our lives. Finally, on this day, we are reminded of our mission to bring forgiveness to the broken and imperfect world in which we live. This gift of the Spirit is what distinguishes us Christians from the rest of humankind, because our willingness to forgive others knows no limits. The message of this day, in Jesus’ own words, very simply, is this: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Amen.
A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Philip W. Stowell The Second Sunday of Easter April 11, 2021
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