Season of Forgiveness

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
April 15, 2018
The Third Sunday of Easter—Year B

Acts 3:12–19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1–7
Luke 24:36b–48

Duccio di Buoninsegna-Appearance while the Apostles are at Table

Appearance while the Disciples Are at Table —Ducchio di Buoninsegna

My Friends: If we post-moderns often find it difficult and challenging to appreciate and to understand fully the events described in the New Testament’s narratives about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, imagine the astonishment and consternation of those first witnesses to these things.  Our reading this morning from the Gospel according to Saint Luke is made even more pointed and dramatic when we recall the incidents that immediately precede and follow it.  When Jesus suddenly appears in the midst of his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, he finds them already in excited conversation around his earlier appearances to a handful of them on Easter morning and subsequently to two of them on the road to Emmaus that evening.  Then, following the incident described in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus brings his motley band of followers to Bethany—just beyond the Mount of Olives—blesses them, and, to their great astonishment, is taken up into the full presence of God before their very eyes, no longer restricted by time and space and matter.  Imagine the massive assault upon the ordinary hearts, minds, and imaginations of these disciples as a result of these unprecedented events and all of this extraordinary talk about what came to be described as Jesus’ “Resurrection” and his “Ascension”!

 

And who can blame them?  While the foundation of the Christian faith is—and always will be—the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, thoughtful witnesses and apologists for this same faith have recognized for over two millennia that the accounts in the four canonical Gospels of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are carefully crafted, highly symbolic accounts of the absolute conviction among Jesus’ earliest followers that God had vindicated his “suffering servant” and triumphed over death by raising Jesus “from the dead.”  Human language strains to express the reality of God’s great triumph over our last great enemy:  Death has been “swallowed up in victory.”  These bold theological narratives go beyond the bare facts to serve deeper truths that can only be expressed by analogy, metaphor, and story.  No one witnessed the Resurrection itself; in most of the post-resurrection appearances, Jesus is not even initially recognized by his disciples.  And yet, these disciples were absolutely certain on reflection that Jesus had made himself really and truly present to them following his Passion and Death, often through actions and circumstances similar to those of his ministry among them.  And such “real presence” often happened as they grappled with their sacred Scripture—the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible—and gathered together for the “breaking of the bread and the prayers,” (BCP) all the while continuing to worship in the Jerusalem Temple as faithful and observant Jews.  Like us, they may have prayed, in Saint Paul’s words, “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing in his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, that if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”  And Jesus seemed keen to oblige them!

So, is it any wonder that Jesus’ first word to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel is “Shalom,” “Peace be with you”?  I think that I can safely say that all of us here this morning would be relieved and reassured by such words if Jesus were suddenly to appear—in his “spiritual body” and bearing his physical wounds, no less—to us gathered in this church on this morning.  It would not be very long before each and every one of us were to experience the whole range of emotions cited by Saint Luke in today’s Gospel: fright, terror, doubt, perhaps the conviction that we were seeing a ghost, and maybe—just maybe—some joy and wonder mixed with sheer disbelief.  Then again, thoroughly modern epistemological skeptics that we are, so steeped in the narrow thought-patterns of our culture and the social and behavioral so-called sciences, we would likely conclude that we were just having a severe and hallucinatory “grief-reaction” to the traumatic death of a beloved friend.  “How can this be,” we might ask concerning our altered state of consciousness in the “real presence” of our risen Lord.

DSCN8420 copy for JoshNow, before we slide too quickly down the slippery slope of fruitless guilt and self-deprecation over our own doubts and confusion concerning the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, let us remind ourselves that Jesus knows these things about us just as surely as he knew that most of the disciples to whom he appeared in this morning’s Gospel had run just as far and as fast as they could, in several different directions, following Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane because—we are told elsewhere in the Gospels—they very much feared their own arrest and execution as the devoted followers of an alleged Roman criminal.  Jesus knew exactly where to find them afterwards: cowering and silent in their fear and doubt and confusion.  Even though these disciples had actually lived with Jesus for as many as three years; had witnessed his “signs and wonders” firsthand; had heard his teachings from his own lips; and had seen every one of his dark forebodings concerning his Passion and Death “according to the Scriptures” come to pass, they were still not expecting the Resurrection “according to the Scriptures” of what looked to them like a very dead Messiah.  Doubtless, these disciples also knew all about the long-held Jewish messianic expectations and Pharisaic teachings concerning the “resurrection of the dead,” but they simply could not imagine that this Jesus, this charismatic and itinerant Jewish sage from Nazareth, might actually be God’s “anointed One”; the “first-fruits of those who had fallen asleep”; the innocent and vindicated “suffering servant”; and “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the whole world,” fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham that he would “be blessing” to the whole world and become “the father of many nations” through God’s covenantal love for God’s people Israel.  Had these Jewish followers of Jesus forgotten, in the words of Saint Paul, that “salvation is from the Jewish people”?

And yet, Jesus, the compassion and “salvation of God” incarnate, disregards and forgives all of this fear and doubt and betrayal.  He comes to this obtuse band of deserters huddling together in fear and despair and silence, not to scold or to criticize them, but to forgive and commission them to extend his ministry of reconciliation that, according to Jesus in today’s Gospel, “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in [my] name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”  The “good news” of today’s Gospel is that Jesus appears to them not in anger, but with a greeting of “Shalom!” Peace be with you!”  And just as he did with the two despairing disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus once again opens their minds “to understand the Scriptures” and to eat “in their presence”—just as he does every time we gather together in his name with thanksgiving at the Holy Eucharist “in memory of Him.”  In the narrative of this morning’s post-resurrection appearance, Saint Luke is reminding Jesus’ disciples—then and now—that the risen Jesus does these very same things—forgiving us, opening the Scriptures to us, sharing a sacred meal with us, and sending us out into the world—whenever and wherever “two or three are gathered in his name.”  We are living in communion with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ at this very moment, during this sacred liturgy.  If we do not experience the “real presence” of the risen Christ right here and right now, we will not encounter him anywhere else!

zephaniah-3-14-17-prophetic-art-painting-Gwen Meharg

Zephaniah 3:14-17, by Gwen Maharg, drawneartogod.com

My sisters and brothers in Christ, these are the “Great Fifty Days” of Eastertide:  the time of the great forgiveness, the season of reconciliation!  Those sins of which you and I have repented are now forgiven because, on the far side of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s mercy and divine commission are always waiting for us.  But we also know from hard and bitter experience how very difficult it can be to accept God’s forgiveness and to rise to the great vocation of our Baptismal Covenant by going to that new and different and often frightening place to which God is always calling us for transformation, individually and as a Christian community, into missionary disciples and evangelists, even with all of our doubts and limitations.  It’s worth noting that in the passage following today’s Gospel lection, Jesus takes his disciples right from their table fellowship to Bethany to where he blesses them and ascends “to the right hand of the Father.” (BCP)  They then return to Jerusalem and the Temple “with joy,” which is where we find them this morning in the Acts of the Apostles: filled with the Holy Spirit; healing the sick; offering forgiveness and reconciliation in the name of Jesus; and proclaiming the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ until he comes again.

 

So, during these Great Fifty Days of Easter, let us continue to pray for the wisdom to discern the new and different life, and the new and different places, to which God in Christ may be calling us as forgiven sinners. Let us pray for the strength and courage and faithfulness to go there, following in the bold and risky footsteps of that first small band of forgiven executioners and deserters, always declaring with them “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, and what we have seen with our eyes, and what we have looked at and touched with our hands concerning the word of life….” (1 John 1:1)  We can do this if we are willing to embrace what might be described as Jesus’ first “beatitude” for this new eon in salvation history, a beatitude addressed to Thomas in last Sunday’s Gospel according to Saint John:  “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  AMEN.

Advertisements

Pay attention!

Homily for Sunday, April 1, 2018
Easter Day
John 20:1–18

empty_tomb-Saint_James_the_Greater_Catholic_Church_(Concord,_North_Carolina)Long before John crafted his resurrection story—an 18 verse masterpiece that includes an empty tomb, a missing body, a foot race, angelic messengers, a woman weeping, a case of mistaken identity and a joyful reunion—the Holy Trinity was wondering how to best script and cast the resurrection story. Continue reading

Crushing Disappointment

Homily for March 29, 2018
Maundy Thursday

Next to the blackboard in the Latin classroom at Newton South is a poster with the quote that some say is the most beautiful in all of Latin: “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit”, which means: “Perhaps one day the memory of even these things will bring pleasure.”  The quote, from Vergil’s Aeneid, is delivered aboard ship by Aeneas to his companions after a series of crushing disappointments: the long and tragic war with the Greeks, the death of Aeneas’ wife as she and Aeneas fled Troy, leaving their homeland, arduous sea journeys, the failed founding of not one but two cities, plagues, the jealousies and intrigues of the gods, and finally—the circumstance that led to Aeneas delivering his famous line—as they drew near to Italy so that Aeneas might found Rome in accordance with a prophecy, jealous Juno sent a devastating storm that sank some of the fleet and drove the survivors away from the coast:  “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit,” said Aeneas then to his companions.  “Perhaps one day the memory of even these things will bring pleasure.”

Mount Feake CemeteryAs I consider Jesus at the institution of the Eucharist, which we remember this evening, I can’t help but think of all that had happened to Jesus to this point in his life.  Though at first Jesus had high hopes for his ministry and for making converts and for establishing the Kingdom of God, by this time on that Thursday evening long ago, it would have been difficult not to see his mission as a failure.  Gone were the crowds that had followed.  He had established no kingdom.  The religious authorities were closing in to arrest him.  One of his inner circle would soon betray him.  Another would deny knowing him, not once but three times.  The rest would desert him in his moment of need, and…  Jesus intuits, he knows, that he would soon die the painful and humiliating death of a criminal on a cross.  Imagine the crushing disappointment Jesus must have felt this evening… Continue reading

Unlocking Holiness

Homily for Sunday, March 11, 2018
Lent 4B
Numbers 21:4–9

key-2312481_960_720Origen of Alexandria, writing in the 3rd century, compared the Scriptures to a mansion in which the key to open the door to one room often lay in another.  So, for example, the key to open the door to the letter to the Ephesians might be in the book of Genesis.  Or the key to open the book of the prophet Amos might be somewhere in Paul’s letter to Romans, and so forth. Continue reading

The Physics of Scripture

Homily for Sunday February 11, 2018
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
2 Kings 2:1–12
Mark 9:2–9

Newton-Principles of Physics page 123The text on which I want to preach this morning is not one of the texts that we just heard, but it is a text very close to one of the texts we just heard.  And in just a moment I want to get to that text, but first, a bit of introduction…

Newtonian physics holds that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  For example, a rocket engine thrusts downward, and its payload is lifted upward.  The baseball is pitched toward the plate at high velocity, and a powerful hit launches it away at an even higher velocity.  We sit down on a chair, and the chair is able to hold us because it pushes up with at least as much force as that with which we sat down.  “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  The same might be said of Scripture.  For example, we know that when Moses goes up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, of course he is going to come down.  Or in the opening chapters of Genesis, we know—we just know!—that when God places Adam and then Eve in the garden, at some point God is going kick them out of the garden.  Or we know that even though the Psalmist might pass through “the valley of the shadow of death,” he is then going to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  And we know that in today’s Gospel lesson when Jesus and the disciples go up the mountain, they are going to come down.  The Scriptures are filled with the rhythm of action and reaction: in then out, up then down, dark and light, death and resurrection.  Such is the “physics” of Scripture. Continue reading

Ingredients for Joy

Homily for Sunday, February 4, 2018
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 40:21–31

Rilke-Arturo Espinosa, oil on canvas

Rainer Maria Rilke, oil on canvas, Arturo Espinosa

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in a letter to one Ilse Erdman, said about joy and creativity that:

 

Only in joy does creation happen (happiness, on the contrary, is only a… pattern of things already existing); joy, however, is a marvelous increase… a pure addition out of nothingness….  Joy is a moment… not to be held but also not to be truly lost, since under its impact our being is changed.

Joy is creative, and in this joy is different from happiness.  Galway Kinnell, the former poet laureate of Vermont, in one of his poems (“First Song”), wrote of the “darkness and… sadness of joy.”  Joy can be complex, often containing (in a strange way) darkness and sadness.  Which is similar to what the orthodox theologian Alexander Schmeman once said, that:

The knowledge of the fallen world does not kill joy, which emanates in this world, always, constantly, as a bright sorrow. Continue reading

On Father James’ Retirement

Homily for Sunday, January 21, 2018
Third Sunday after the Epiphany

James LaMacchiaToday we celebrate Fr. LaMacchia’s “retirement.”  “Retirement” in quotes, because while James is retiring, he’s not leaving: he will yet continue here at Trinity Parish as one of our priests.

The classic clergy retirement text is Paul’s departing speech to the elders at Ephesus in the twentieth chapter of Acts.  Paul and the elders are gathered at the beach, just before Paul boards ship to Jerusalem, and Paul tells the elders that they will never see his face again.  There are tears, and Paul—in a line befitting the preaching of the Great Awakening—pronounces: “I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole Gospel of God (Acts 20:26–27).”  That’s the classic clergy retirement text.  But it doesn’t seem to work for today, somehow… Continue reading