Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Sermon Low Sunday 2013

Acts 5:12-16
Revelation 1:9-13,17-19
John 20:19-31

I’ve just finished re-reading, after many years, Mary Renault’s trilogy of historical novels about Alexander the Great: Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games. The last is set after Alexander’s death, as the great empire that he built and the harmony of peoples he strived to achieve disintegrates in old feuds, greed, revenge and murder. And it seems as though the shade of Alexander and other dead characters is hovering behind the tragic events as they unfold. 
One of the motifs in the series is the common belief of the ancient world was that the dead needed to be treated carefully. They hadn’t ceased to exist but were in a gloomy underworld, which was nowhere near as nice as being alive, and they tended to be regretful and rather cross about it. And if you had wronged them in life, or neglected to offer the due sacrifices after their death, then you had reason to be afraid of them. 
And that of course is the basic idea underlying many ghost stories and supernatural thrillers in our own day. These seem to have a perennial appeal.
This idea of death perhaps reflects our human expectations. Revenge is a deeply buried instinct. If we could come back and haunt someone who had done us wrong, isn’t that just what we would do?
But today we have heard an account of the appearance of a dead man which completely undermines that expectation. The disciples in the upper room, like John on the Isle of Patmos, see Jesus. Jesus, who had been betrayed by one of his friends and handed over to the lynch mob. Jesus who had been killed, in public, in the full view of the crowd. He was dead and buried. Those were the definitive facts, decisively closing off, for ever, any further human possibility for this man Jesus. He was gone.
And they saw him. That group of disciples, friends who had run away or stood back, who had denied they knew him, failed to defend him. That group who were gathered in a locked room, in fear for their own lives, in case their association with the dead man should bring the same fate on themselves. They saw him.
He came and stood among them in the closed-in place of their fear, and said to them: “Peace be with you.” That first word of greeting undoes all their fear. The message of the risen Jesus is peace. And even as he shows them his hands and his side, the wounds of his death, there is no reproach, no blame, no hint of vengeance. His greeting is peace. And they are filled with joy. 
Jesus has not come back from death into this life, this old way of living. Rather, he has as it were emerged from death on the other side. He has passed into the eternal deathless life of the Father. Jesus, who died, is now entirely alive with the loving, vivacious, uncontainable life of God.
And Jesus comes to his disciples from beyond death to share that life with them. To give them the good news that beyond death there is not gloom, or fear, or vengeance. Jesus the Risen One is now the gateway to the life that the Father lives, eternal life, overflowing with love and forgiveness and joy. And he longs to share that life with his disciples, with all of us, with his Church in every age.
So Jesus gives to those disciples in the upper room his promised gift of the Holy Spirit. This scene is the ‘Pentecost’ of John’s Gospel, the gift of Divine life to the disciples, their empowering for the mission on which he is going to send them. So Jesus breathes on the disciples and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit. 
He breathes on them. This is an act of creation. It echoes the second creation story in Genesis chapter 2, where we read that:
The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
That first gift of the breath of life made inanimate matter into living beings. But that gift does not last for ever. Biological life, good and wonderful as it is, returns sooner or later to the dust from which it was made.
But in the resurrection of Jesus the new creation is revealed, and the new creation is eternal, because it shares the life of God. Once again the Lord God breathes on his people, but this time gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit, not the breath of biological life but the breath of God, God’s own life, eternal and indestructible. 
In John’s gospel it is Jesus’ dying and going to the Father that opens the way for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has burst through the great barrier of death that held humanity captive and so has opened the way to the Father. 
From now on, then, we are to live the life of the Spirit. We are to be dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ. Of course that is not to deny the goodness of this present creation and this passing life. But it is transitory. It will come to an end. The life of the resurrection, life in the Holy Spirit, is eternal. In the Holy Spirit human nature, made from the dust, is lifted beyond itself and deified, made one with God. And that is God’s gift to us that will never be taken away.
But it is a gift with a purpose. The Holy Spirit was not given to that little group of disciples in the upper room so they could keep it to themselves! No, they are sent. Sent into all the world, to complete the work that Jesus began. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And that work, that mission, is peace, reconciliation, the forgiveness of sins. Because that is what the world so desperately needs. True peace cannot come about through a balance of terror, but only through the new life of the Holy Spirit. True forgiveness is a new beginning, a new creation, coming to us as a gift from beyond the worst that human beings can do. Jesus was the innocent victim betrayed and murdered and who comes back to his disciples from beyond death breathing forgiveness and love as a gift. 
From now on there is nothing that cannot be forgiven. There is no-one for whom there cannot be a new beginning. There is no-one who is outside the power of God’s new creation. There is nothing that is not included in the mission of the Church, which is to spread the peace and forgiveness that come to us from the heart of God. 
And if we are told “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”, that does not give us permission to preach a partial gospel, or to exclude anyone from the good news. Is it not simply to say that from now on it’s up to us? That if we don’t go out and proclaim the forgiveness of sins, it won’t get done. 
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Peace, forgiveness, eternal life in the Holy Spirit. That is the message, the good news and the gift that we bear. And it is our unending joy in the risen Lord to live that life ourselves and to share it with those among whom we are sent.

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