Preached on 4/22/2012 at St. Andrew’s, New Paltz, NY
When I consider our readings for today, I see questions around perception and identity.
In the first reading, witnesses to a miraculous healing by Peter believe that Peter alone was responsible for the event. Or, as is said in the Buddhist tradition, they confuse the finger that points to the moon for the moon itself. Hence, Peter needs to correct their perception.
About our second reading, W. Hall Harris III writes that Christians in a community known to John “…were facing a threat from false teaching, a threat which was both serious and which appears to have arisen from within…
The purpose of John’s letter is to strengthen and encourage them. To remind them to be faithful to the apostolic teaching about Jesus and of significance of their identity as children of God, in the face of these false teachers. This letter both encourages and exhorts…”
Finally, in our gospel today, we see confusion and fright as the disciples attempt to make sense of what they see. Afterall, Jesus’ death was the end of the story, wasn’t it?
And, in these readings, we also hear themes of sin, repentance and forgiveness. Why?
In my view, it is because we forget ourselves – we forget who we really are. We lose ourselves in the heat of the moment. We also forget God, or we do not recognize God’s presence and power.
Hence, we are sinful. But we are sinful not in the hellfire-and-brimstone sort of way. I understand sinful to mean “missing the mark”. And we miss the mark because of our inescapable humanity. Thus, repentance and forgiveness are requirements on this spiritual path we call Christianity.
First, let’s look at repentance. The more I read, the more I come to see that it is a practice not a one-shot deal.
Repentance comes to us from the Greek “metanoia”. In the book, The Fifth Discipline, The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, we read that metanioa…
“… means a shift of mind. The word has a rich history. For the Greeks, it meant a fundamental shift or change, or more literally transcendence of mind. In the early Christian tradition, it took on a special meaning of awakening shared intuition and direct knowing of the highest, of God….eventually translated as “repent.”
One of my favorite authors, Cynthia Bourgeault, says that metanoia is going beyond the mind you have and into the larger mind. When we go beyond our normal way of seeing things, into a more God-like, unified view, we no longer focus on the typical bifurcations. We become more apt to see the ”both/and” and less likely to only see the “either/or” in any situation. Cynthia goes on to say that this is the way to understand some of the most confounding parables of Jesus.
We know that our tendency is to fall into habits of mind or behavior that reflect our needs for comfort, or safety, or control, which are often in response to fear. Habits that say “I am right, she is wrong”; ”We are good, they are bad”; “our church is the real way to worship; theirs is hocus-pocus”
These habits of mind and action become our default settings. They can be so powerful, that we may find ourselves reacting in “old” ways when faced with totally new situations.
We know, from brain science, that patterns are ingrained and powerful because our brains have literally grown specific neural connections to support them. They are like neural ruts. And, so, as we travel, our mental wagon wheels end up right back in them again.
So repentance is a constant process….meaning, we get into our ruts and then attempt to get out of them again. Every day. We strive to go from our “small mind” into the “big mind”. As St. Paul said, putting on the mind of Christ.
We also know, from the practice of cognitive behavioral therapies, and, from the application of the 12-step recovery methodology, that there are ways to re-route our thinking. To build new pathways in our brains that support new ways of thinking and support new ways of acting. In fact, in 12-step practice you will often hear people witness to a “power greater than themselves” that has accomplished for them what they could not accomplish on their own. Cynthia Bourgeault maintains that the Centering Prayer practice goes a long way toward rewiring our brains to be more Christ-like.
And what would repentance be without forgiveness?
Forgiveness is key because of our human condition. We are not always in the mind of Christ, are we? Nor are others in our lives. We all fall short. We all miss the mark.
None of us are able to accept Jesus’ invitation to cast the first stone, because none of us are exempt from the human condition. None of us are blameless.
We, like the disciples in the gospel, sometimes suffer from a deficit of vision. We are not always able to see God in our very midst.
We, like the witnesses to Peter’s miraculous healings, may misplace our focus. We may miss the moon because we’re distracted by the finger which points to the moon. For example, we may let Sunday worship stand in for a transformational relationship with God. Or, we are unable to remain humble as Peter was – meaning, we give ourselves credit for what we could not have accomplished without God’s grace.
Or, we, like the Christian community in John’s letter, may be split by different viewpoints, and unable to see through to the truth.
Forgiveness begins when we acknowledge the truth of our human condition and bring God into it. It allows us to gracefully acknowledge the times we miss the mark, and to set our relationships (with God and others) right again.
I have experienced some powerful forgiveness events, which have released me, and others, from the constricting bonds of resentment and anger that held us firmly in deadlock. Bonds that held us to a particular time and place and event, in the past. Bonds that also colored our dealings far into the future.
Perhaps you have had similar forgiveness experiences. I hope so.
For me, then, the cycle of forgiveness and repentance is ongoing and necessary. It is our salvation.
Through it, we urge ourselves and others on to a higher plane of existence. Through it, we act as though we are children of God – brothers and sisters of the same Divine parentage. Through forgiveness and repentance, we continue to grow into the stature of Christ. Which is, after all, why we are here.