Saturday, May 27, 2017

Year A, Ascension Sunday, Luke 24:44-53

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are called to proclaim two things to the world in Jesus name –
                                And Forgiveness.
These are the gifts Christ freely offers.
And as we ourselves have experienced these gifts, we are called to be witnesses, sharing with others our own experience that they may know, as we know, about the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.
But all this is harder to do, than it is to say.
The difficulty lies in our understanding of repentance and its relationship to forgiveness.
It all gets messy in the real world.
And it challenges our very understanding of the Gospel and everything that Jesus lived and died for.
Consider with me two examples of real life situations that we have struggled with as a Church.
The first is the whole matter of divorce.
40 to 50% of all marriages in our country end in divorce, and the rate is even higher for those in second marriage.
For many people, divorce is one of the most difficult things they will face in the course of their lives.  It can be a living hell to go through, and it affects not only the relationship between the husband and wife, but virtually every other relationship they are a part of as well.
Regarding divorce Jesus was asked if it was lawful.
Jesus response makes two things clear:
First, that from the beginning, God created us to be united together in marriage, the two becoming one flesh.  And he states “what God has joined together, let no one separate”. 
And secondly, he declares :
"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
Neither divorce nor remarriage are in accordance with God’s will. 
Or to put it differently, it’s not something God would wish on anyone.
Of course, very few among us want to experience divorce, either. 
But how do we respond as a church to those who are divorced?
What does it mean to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to those who have lived through the pain of divorce?
And given what Jesus says, can we with integrity as a Church offer our blessing to remarriage when Jesus explicitly calls such a marriage adulterous?
What does repentance mean for one who is divorced?
And how might we offer forgiveness to those who have faced this difficult and painful reality?

The second issue has been much more controversial for the Church in recent years, and as you might guess, it is the whole question of homosexuality.
Are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people welcome within the Church?
Some would maintain the traditional teaching of the Church that the Bible clearly teaches that homosexuality is to be condemned.  They will point to a few passages in scripture, and from those passages will lift up words like “abomination” to describe homosexuality.
Having said that there are a number of things to consider.
First, though homosexuality was common  place in the Greco-Roman world in which Jesus lived, we have no record of Jesus ever saying anything about it, unlike divorce, which he explicitly addresses.
And secondly, it is identified in Romans, not as a sin in and of itself, but actually as the consequence of sin.
Questions abound.
Is being homosexual sinful in and of itself?
Or is it only homosexual behaviors that are sinful?
And probably the most important question, are our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters anymore sinful than the rest of us?
We have always had gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in our congregations.
And as long as there were pastors, there have been some pastors who were gay, and in recent years since we’ve been ordaining women, lesbian.
The most recent controversy in our Church was over the decision to allow pastors in monogamous relationships to serve in our congregations.  After years of study and wrestling with this issue, we basically decided to allow it to be a congregational decision. 
This is the thing, and the controversy around the decision:
We know that all pastors are sinful, just as everyone is sinful.  None of us can claim to be righteous, if by righteousness we mean “without sin”.
The question that is debated though is if there is repentance. 
As with divorce, no one questions whether forgiveness is possible.  The issue is whether there is true repentance. 
What does repentance look like for a divorced person?
What does repentance look like for a gay person?
At issue in both these cases, and in fact in all of our lives, is what we mean by “repentance”.
There are two basic understandings of repentance.
Literally, “repentance” means to turn.  To change the course of one’s life.
One understanding is that true repentance means that we turn from our sin. 
If you want to be forgiven, the first step is to recognize your sin, and stop doing it.
Repentance means to stop sinning.
What does this understanding of repentance mean for one who is divorced?
True repentance in this sense would mandate that one seek reconciliation with one’s spouse.  And, if reconciliation is not possible, then one should live out one’s life single and not commit adultery by marrying another.
As far as the homosexual goes, repentance in this manner means that first one should one should first of all, do everything possible to curb one’s desire for those of the same gender, and secondly, refrain from engaging in any same gender sexual activity.  Celibacy, or marrying one of the opposite gender, are seen as the only options for one who is truly repentant.
The same sort of thing can be said for all sin, and for all of us, whatever our sinfulness may be.  Repent.
Stop your sinning.
Then, and only then, is forgiveness possible.
There is one major problem with this understanding of repentance.  It is not possible for any of us.
It might be easy, if there was only one thing to repent of.  For example, I did in fact repent of my drinking, and since that time, I’ve not picked up a drink.  But there are so many other areas of my life, of who I am, and what I do, that remain tainted by sin. 
Furthermore, if this is our understanding of repentance, what often results is that we can cause more harm than good.
For example, if a divorced person must seek reconciliation with their spouse, in order to be truly repentant, what becomes of their second marriage?  Do they have to divorce their second spouse, so as to be able to reconcile with their first? 
Or for example, should a gay or lesbian person enter into a traditional marriage?  How would you feel if you found out that your spouse was gay or lesbian?  Most of us would be deeply troubled by that. 
Our bondage to sin is so great, that even when we try to sin no more, we often sin all the more.
The other problem with this understanding of repentance is that if we were able to turn from our sin, we wouldn’t need forgiveness at all.

The second understanding of repentance is that it is a turning toward God.
We turn to God, to Jesus, to the only one who can truly forgive our sins.
To put it differently, true repentance in this understanding is to ask God’s forgiveness.  And in the asking, there is both recognition of our sinfulness, and a turning to God who alone can forgive us.
What does that mean for our ministry as a congregation?
I think it is this simple.
If someone walks through that door, they are turning to God, and are fully repentant. 
If someone kneels before the altar to receive Christ’s body and blood, they are turning toward the only one who can forgiven their sin, and are fully and truly repentant. 
It means that the divorced person who comes, has already come to true repentance.
It means that the gay or lesbian person that comes, comes as one who is repentant.
It means an alcoholic like me, comes with a repentant spirit.
Likewise for all our sins.
That we are here at all is itself, proof of our repentance.
And here in this place, we receive God’s complete forgiveness.  Then and only then, do we stand before the Lord as righteous people in his sight.
But what about our lives, do we just continue to sin and seek forgiveness?
The truth is twofold.
Yes we will continue to sin.  And God will continue to forgive.
But, forgiveness has a way of transforming the very fabric of our lives, in surprising ways.
Things will change.
We just never can predict exactly how.
All we can do is trust in the Spirit of God who brought us here in the first place.

May this peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen

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