3rd Sunday of Easter

Preached April 15, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

On Easter Sunday I spoke about the spooky quality of Jesus’ resurrection, a spooky quality that we are presented with in today’s Gospel. Indeed, the disciples think at first that they are seeing a ghost. When finally they are convinced that Jesus is really there and really alive, the experience is still out of this world, this is the man they had seen crucified who is now standing before them alive. Yet, as I also said on Easter Sunday, this is not a bad spooky, but a good spooky. This is beyond the ordinary course of human life in this world, but this is also what is most truly just and right.

It is the ordinary course of this world that is out of order – and we know it, though we are often resigned to it – Jesus’ resurrection shows us how things should be. We are not meant to die, but to live.

Today’s Gospel though does not end with the mere appearance of Jesus to the disciples. Jesus’ resurrection is a new beginning, a new beginning for humanity, the beginning indeed of a new kingdom, a kingdom to which we are called to belong.

Jesus opens the minds of the disciples to understand the Scriptures. This understanding is summed up in these words: That the Christ should suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Then he commissions the disciples as witnesses of these things.

We need to know meaning of the title ‘Christ’ and what really is involved in the ‘forgiveness of sins’.

To say that Jesus is ‘the Christ’ is to say that he is the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. To say that Jesus is the Christ is to say that he did not appear out of nowhere, but he is the one whom the people of Israel had been taught to wait for. To say that Jesus is ‘the Christ’ is also more specific, it is to say that he is the promised son of David to whom an eternal throne is given.

Then angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary, The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Lk 1:32-33)

Jesus, however, does not reign from earth, but from heaven. To preach forgiveness of sins in his name is to invite men to submit to and enter into his kingdom. We see that taking place in today’s 1st reading from the Acts of the Apostles, but we can understand today’s reading better if we see it as a continuation of what took place on Pentecost.

On the day of Pentecost, the first public proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, Peter preached to the crowds in Jerusalem: Let the whole house of Israel know for certain the God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:36) When the crowds, struck with a spirit of repentance, ask what to do, Peter tells them, Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38) About three thousand were baptized that day.

So what really is meant by ‘repentance’ and ‘forgiveness of sins’? We tend to think of this on a purely individual basis, but that only shows us how far removed we are from the biblical reality.

In the Book of Numbers Moses tells the people, Anyone who sins defiantly … insults the Lord and shall be cut off from among his people. Since he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, he must be cut off. He has only himself to blame. (Nm 15:30-31) Note that belonging to the Lord is inseparable from belonging to his people; a person could not sin against the Lord without at the same time being ‘cut off from among his people’.

Yet, during the time of the Old Testament, something terrible occurred, the whole people of God sinned against the Lord and was, in a way, cut off. This was represented in a dramatic fashion with the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and the exile of the people from the land, promised by the Lord, the sign of their belonging. The sign of forgiveness then would be the return from exile and the rebuilding of the Temple.

By the time of Jesus there had been a partial return and a new Temple, but their was still a deep sense that something was missing. That something missing was most of all embodied in the people’s subjection to the foreign pagan power of Rome.

When the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream he told him: You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. (Mt 1:21)

The Christ does not enter into his kingdom by overthrowing Roman rule, but by expiating sins through his death and resurrection. In the New Testament, the resurrected body replaces the land and the temple of the Old Testament.

Now after his ascension into heaven ‘forgiveness of sins in his name’ means faith in him in response to the preaching of the Apostles, led by Peter, and submission to his rule, which takes place first of all through the reception of baptism at the hands of the Church. Forgiveness of sins involves integration into the new people of God, the people of Jesus.

Very often we think of sin as being just an individual affair; neither God nor his people enter into our awareness. Very often we think of sin simply as “I did such and such and that was wrong.” Or, “I hurt so and so and that was wrong.” We want to be forgiven so that we can go on with our life.

In truth, sin moves us into isolation, into a profound loneliness. Sin is a private reality that separates me not only from God, but from others. Sin leaves me with my private dirty secret, my private hidden shame. Sin is anti-communion.

We saw that already in the very first sin: Adam and Eve hid themselves from God amid the trees of the garden and they hid themselves from each other with the fig leaves of their lies and their mutual blame.

When Jesus sends his disciples to preach forgiveness of sins in his name he is revealing that complete reconciliation with God takes place through submission to himself in faith and integration into his people, the Church, supervised by Peter and his successors.

The beginning of sin is turning away from God. We turn back to God through faith in Jesus Christ. The result of sin is the alienation of human beings one from another. The healing of sin means entering into the communion of the people of God.

For those of us who are here today, who have been baptized, the work of reconciliation has been begun. We are all here bodily, but we still fail to keep God’s word, we still commit sin, we still need to be purified by the Blood of Jesus Christ. We still need the sacrament of reconciliation. We also still need to learn to see our sin fully in the light of our relation to God through Jesus Christ and our communion with his people in the Church.

We can measure our progress by our degree of real communion with God’s people. That means concretely our bond with the people of this parish here in which we live, which makes the Church visible to us here and now; our bond with the Church in this Diocese, beneath Bishop Cary; our bond with the Church throughout the world, beneath Pope Francis; indeed, our bond with the Church throughout history, represented now by the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory, and our bond with the head of the Church, Jesus Christ, our King, represented on earth by his ministers, and present to us really, truly, and substantially in the Holy Eucharist.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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