Reconciliation Self-ward – the starting point
A video of the sermon may be seen here
The Easter sermon series aims to explore different ways in which God reconciles with us and with the world through the risen Christ. Today we begin at the starting point: our own reconciliation with ourselves and with God.
Let us begin with today’s encounter between the resurrected Christ and his disciples. As we just heard, Jesus appeared to his disciples in the flesh. In a totally predictable and not surprising response, the disciples were terrified. At first, they thought that they were seeing a ghost.
Jesus rebukes them and asks: “Why are you frightened?” Being terrified of this never-before seen supernatural act, seems to me the natural response. I imagine that if I had been there with the disciples and this Jesus-looking being appeared out of nowhere, I would be terrified myself.
Next, Jesus asks them, “why do doubts rise in your hearts?” Again, it’s easy to doubt because what you’re seeing defies the natural order of things. Had I been there, I would’ve had doubts like the disciples did. I still have doubts in my heart. I think it is normal to feel that way. It can’t be helped.
I have been a Christian most of my life; I have gone through many Holy Weeks and Easters, and every year one is confronted with the same questions: What really happened during that first Easter? Why was Jesus recognized by some and not by others? What did he look like? The disciples went through a whole range of emotions during these encounters: they were joyful and disbelieving but mostly terrified. I’m sure it must have been very difficult to grasp what was going on. It is very difficult for us, thousands of years removed from those events, to grasp what really went on.
In my own faith journey, years ago I gave up on the idea that in order to be a good Christian I had to believe that the story of the resurrection must be a historically provable event. Because that’s not the point. The point is that whatever happened that first Easter was so special that it changed the hearts and minds of all those disciples who witnessed the risen Christ. They had a first-hand experience of something that was earth-shattering and life-changing. And we are here because of their witness and their work.
According to Luke, Jesus came to his disciples, asked them to touch him, to look at him, and to feed him. It was their experience of this transformed Jesus that allowed them to understand who they were in this new context, and what their mission was. As per Jesus’ instructions, as we heard today, their mission would be to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. He reminded them that they had witnessed these things, namely, the passion and resurrection of Christ. So it was the whole Jesus story– his life and death and his resurrection that prepared the disciples (and us by extension) to be witnesses and to carry on the mission that Jesus started.
Jesus asked his disciples to go out into the world and proclaim the good news of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations beginning from Jerusalem. It is very important to understand that Jesus’ mission starts in Jerusalem with the Jewish disciples of a Jewish Messiah. This work of compassion, of repentance and forgiveness is the same message that God gave through the prophets of old to the people of Israel, and now it must reach everyone, all the nations beyond Israel. But it had to begin at home.
Charity begins at home, as the old saying goes. Charity, love, has to begin at home, in other words, with ourselves. It is remarkable that when Jesus came to his disciples he was insistent that they see him as an embodied person. He had been resurrected–he could have proved his continued existence in many different ways, I imagine, but he chose to make them patently aware of his physicality—of the fact that he could be touched and that he could eat. What is more personal than one’s own physical, touchable body? What is more human than the need to eat?
This was the way that Jesus chose to connect with his friends again. The way I see it, by inviting them to see him in his resurrected humanity, Jesus gave the disciples a very important message: That it is in human form that one is to carry out and carry on the mission of God in the world. All the forgiveness and reconciliation from God that is to come out from Jerusalem, which was the city of God, is brought out into the world and realized by human beings in their human bodies.
They were no angels, these disciples; they were flawed individuals, full of doubt and fear, and Jesus knew it. But they were also filled with joy and with the Spirit of God. That’s what Jesus wanted them to know and remember. He opened their minds so that they could better understand. He told them that they should not be afraid or have doubts because he was leaving the Spirit of God with them. This was an empowering Spirit.
The disciples and all human beings share the Holy Spirit, the divine breath, given to us by God and empowered by Jesus as his parting gift. We all carry within us what mystics call a divine spark, the ground of being, the spark of the soul. The problem is that, like the disciples, we keep forgetting that we are already one with God, that this God-given spark is and has been there all along. And so we need to be reminded of it, constantly.
Mystics throughout the ages have known that we are one with God, and in their writings they remind us of our unbreakable connection with the divine. They exhort us to meditate and contemplate, so that through constant prayer and silence we can reconnect with God and learn to know ourselves.
Learning to know ourselves means accepting our reality, confronting our fears, feeling the pain for our losses, but also experiencing joy, beauty and pleasure. Many of our problems in life emerge from being unwilling to face reality as it is. We lie to ourselves and pretend that things are not the way they truly are. We also beat up on ourselves. We are harsh and mean to ourselves, and often project that self-loathing out into the world without even realizing it. We criticize others for doing many of the things that we also do.
Every single day we learn about yet one more mass shooting or another police officer killing a person of color. There is so much fear and hate in the world! Our hearts are broken on a daily basis. There are many fellow human beings who cannot or will not face the frustrations of life, so they resort to violence against themselves or others. Thousands become addicted to opioids or to other drugs because they cannot or will not face their pain, either physical or psychological. They have lost their connection to their divine spark. And the consequences are disastrous.
As many of you know, St. Mark’s has a centering prayer group that meets almost every morning to meditate and contemplate. The purpose of meditation and contemplation is two-fold: to reconnect with God, to be in the divine presence, and to learn to know ourselves. Regular practice helps us to achieve both.
Centering prayer calls us to set our intention in God as our ground of being. The time of silence allows us to watch our thoughts and feelings as they parade through our minds, and over time we learn to know ourselves more and more deeply. At first we may be doubtful that something is really happening, but as we practice more, our hearts and minds become more open to the reality that we are one with God and one with each other. We begin to experience the human connection that exists among all beings. Everyday, as we sit in silence, we see how our thoughts and feelings are ephemeral, but the thing that always remains there at the center is the ground of being, the divine spark that opens our hearts. When our hearts are opened, we experience great love and compassion which we first direct to ourselves.
All mystical traditions tell us that we are to first direct the love and compassion that we have toward ourselves. We cannot give love and compassion to others, we cannot ask others to repent and change their ways, we cannot forgive others or ask others to forgive if we haven’t first loved, repented, changed and forgiven ourselves. That is what it means to reconcile with God and with ourselves. It means that we do the hard work of learning to know who we are, that we change in ourselves what needs to be changed, that we are loving, compassionate and forgiving to ourselves because we understand that a little piece of God lives in us. Once we remember this, that we have God’s Spirit within us, that we are one with God in Christ, then we can go out into the world and act accordingly.
In centering prayer we have been reading about Julian of Norwich, a mystic and anchorite who lived in the 14th century during the great pandemic of her times: the bubonic plague. Her message is very relevant to us today. Let’s listen to her advice:
“God wants us to forgive ourselves and let go of this unreasonable despondency and these fearful doubts. We often fail to see God and then we fall into ourselves and feel there is something wrong with us—that we are perverse and responsible for the entrance of sin into the world and all subsequent sins. These feelings affect us mentally and physically.”
“Astonishing and stately is our soul—the place where our Lord lives. Therefore God wants us to respond . . . rejoicing more in God’s complete love than sorrowing over our frequent failings.”
Julian hears God saying: ‘Do not accuse yourself too much, allowing your tribulation and woe to seem all your fault: for it is not my will that you be heavy or sorrowful imprudently.’ “God wants us to forgive our sin instead of falling into a false meekness that is really a foul blindness and weakness due to fear.”
Julian’s words eloquently sum up what we need to do to reconcile with God and with ourselves.
When the risen Jesus came to his disciples, his first words to them were “Peace be with you.” Shalom, the Hebrew word uttered by Jesus, is more than a greeting. It means not only peace but also harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. It means reconciliation and unity with God.
So, my friends, Shalom be with you today and ever.