Eternal life: Can you live it?
I’d like to talk with you this morning about three issues:
- The first is sin: Can you avoid it?
- The second is forgiveness: What makes it important?
- The third is eternal life: Can you live it?
Sin, forgiveness, eternal life. Three issues for this morning. Three issues all the time.
1. Sin: can you avoid it?
When I hear this morning’s Gospel lesson, I imagine myself sitting on a bench in a small park in the tiny village of Capernaum, where Jesus lived and taught, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in Palestine. Annie and I got to go there together in 2020, just before everything was closed down because of COVID. It was the first time I had ever been there in my life: a lifetime of studying Scripture and imagining all the places in it – and then, for the first time I saw real places to replace the very fanciful pictures I had conjured up in my mind.
Sitting under the trees in that small park in the tiny village of Capernaum, I could feel, I could imagine those twelve young men, called apostles, sitting there, listening eagerly to Jesus teaching them. “You have heard that it was said in ancient times,” he said, “You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”
A powerful statement. Jesus extended the condemnation of murder to a condemnation of being angry with a brother or sister. In doing that, he indicted everyone present – including all his young disciples. They were all in danger of what he called “the hell of fire.”
Well, that would have been enough for one day. I continued to imagine what it had been like sitting in that garden listening to Jesus. Now, in my imagination, as the twelve young men continued to sit there, two lovely young women were walking by on the path, just behind where Jesus was standing to teach. The eyes of the potential disciples followed them.
Jesus continued his teaching: “You have heard that it was said in ancient times, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Bingo. 12 for 12. All convicted. First it was anger. That was bad enough. But now it is improper desire for a woman — lust.
Jesus had simply put forward some of his most fundamental psychological and theological teaching: External offenses, he taught, are rooted in interior, spiritual issues: murder, in anger; adultery, in lust. Because of this, no one is exempt from a conviction of life-threatening sin. All have broken the Ten Commandments. All are sinners. “If you could solve the problem by ripping out your eye or cutting off a part of your anatomy,” he went on to say, “go ahead.”
Not everyone murders. But everyone is angry. Not everyone commits adultery. But everyone is lustful. The law only speaks to some of the ways murderous and adulterous urges are acted out. So what does that mean in practice? If you want to heal humankind, you have to go for healing the heart, not just preventing destructive external behavior – and everyone’s heart needs to be healed.
What the young disciples saw that morning in Capernaum – and what you and I must see if we have any self-awareness – is that sin is ubiquitous. It is universal. And at least partially, it is involuntary.
Every once in awhile, in unguarded ecumenical moments, I like to tell my other Christian friends, especially the ones from more fundamental churches, that am glad to be an Episcopalian – because Episcopalians just basically believe in sin. I belong to a church founded by a morally corrupt king who wanted to get a divorce. There’s nowhere to go but up. At best the Episcopal Church is a church full of recovering sinners, working at repentance.
Sin: can you avoid it? I don’t think so.
2. Forgiveness: What makes it important?
In this picture Jesus has just drawn, divine forgiveness is absolutely essential. Otherwise, everybody is going to hell, since everyone sins.
Forgiveness is the partner of repentance, but not always in the way we may think. In the case of Jesus’ message, forgiveness precedes repentance. Since you have been forgiven, don’t you want to repent?
Think of those young disciples sitting in that park with Jesus. What is going through their minds as he is teaching them? As they become aware that anger is the spiritual root of murder, — that it places them in danger of hellfire, what are they doing? Are they trying to justify their anger? To erase it? To tell themselves they didn’t really feel it? Or will they get to work with repentance, as I believe Jesus wants them to.
The only thing that makes true repentance possible is the promise of forgiveness. Repentance is not being sorry. Repentance is accurately identifying the problem. Jesus’ teaching is not about guilt. If it were, everyone would be guilty all the time. Jesus’ teaching is about sin and reparation.
The only way that people can bear to accurately identify sin and wrong is if they know they are forgiven. Then your heart and mind can look dispassionately at the situation; see what has happened, see what belongs to you, to someone else, to your ancestors, to your enemies.; see what can be done to bring about justice and healing.
The issue of our time – perhaps the issue for all of Richmond’s two and a half centuries, but certainly the issue of our time – is race. For a number of years, and especially for the last three years, I’ve been working with white Richmonders – actually, just as often with white Henricoans and Chesterfieldians – on the issue of race. Based on my experience, I can say this one thing for certain: white guilt is one of the biggest barriers to healing and reparation. I can walk in a room and half the people are mad at me already because they feel ready to be attacked and are determined to feel not guilty. Almost as difficult as the angry folks are the ones who are determined to feel personally sorry about everything.
But repentance is none of those things. Repentance is listening. Praying. Thinking. Observing. Learning. Assigning causality but not drumming up guilt. Telling the truth about what has been and especially about what is. And then asking what can be done about it. The people who can engage in true repentance are the people who can assign fault accurately, even to themselves, without dissolving in guilt and shame. Because they know they are forgiven, they are empowered. Forgiveness precedes repentance. Repentance becomes reparation.
Here’s the secret about Jesus. Here’s what it means to us that he went to the cross without hatred: Jesus is in the pre-emptive forgiveness business. If he represents God, then God is in the forgiveness business, from the opening of the day to closing. God already knows everybody’s a sinner. What can he do about it?
Sin: can you avoid it? Forgiveness: what makes it important?
3. Eternal life: Can you live it?
The issue we’re dealing with is not whether or not you are a sinner. You are. The issue is not whether you will go to heaven you die: you will.
The issue is whether or not you will live your eternal life now.
The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent, and believe there’s good news. Repentance is about seeing. It’s about the life of love and service – what Jesus calls “eternal life.”
As many of you know, my wife Annie has been going through chemotherapy for breast cancer. The prognosis is hopeful. Many of you have gone through this, and some are right now. It is hell – but unlike previous decades, there is real hope for healing. What Annie and I have learned is what an incredible community of love and support surrounds us – so many in this church. It is indescribably humbling and encouraging. That life in the spirit, life in community, life in hope and prayer — It feels like eternal life.
This morning’s window on gun violence is also an essay in the eternal life of service and prayer:
- This morning we are praying for persons who have been murdered. Our prayer is, first of all, the weekly common sharing of God’s agenda. God is praying too. We are praying together.
- Some of us are addressing gun violence and gun control with whatever political effort we can.
- Others are working both with ourselves and with others on the inner and outer causes of murder and violence – so directly identified in Jesus’ lesson today. — seeking to minister to otherwise crippled lives made vulnerable by inner or outer abuse or poverty.
- Still others are dealing with other community issues, only touching gun violence in prayer. They know that all issues of justice and community are related.
- Every act of service in cooperation with the Holy Spirit is an experience of eternal life.
Repentant people learn what they can about their community. They ask what is it they can do. And they do it. This repentant life is about prayer. It is always about love and community and forgiveness. It is always about service in God’s great act of reparation. When we find it in ourselves, or we find ourselves in it, it is what Jesus calls eternal life. It is forever life. Put it on letter after letter, day after day – like that forever stamp they sell at the Post Office. Eternal life is a present-day thing.
Can you avoid sin?
Why is forgiveness important?
Can you not live eternal life?