True witness means experiencing both repentance and forgiveness

  • April 10, 2012

Third Sunday of Easter (Year B) April 22 (Acts 3:13-15, 17-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 2:1-5; Luke 24:35-48)

Terrible things are often done not by evil people but quite ordinary ones who believe that they are doing the right thing. Peter confronted the crowd with the knowledge that they had rejected and killed God’s Holy and Righteous One — the very Author of life. These were very religious folks bent on preserving their traditions and the purity of their religion. The trouble is, zeal and fanaticism are no guarantee of clear understanding or moral and spiritual correctness. They are often a smokescreen for fear and uncertainty. We can point to countless examples in Christian history, and for that matter in the history of practically every religion.

By raising Jesus from the dead, God ratified everything that Jesus had said and done and proven how wrong people had been about Him. Peter’s speech recognized this paradox as he proclaimed that they had acted out of ignorance.

We often are ashamed and humbled at the stupid things that we have said or done because it seemed like the right thing at the time. As we examine our collective history, we often are horrified at intolerance, cruelty, bloodshed and bigotry of the past. We cannot rewrite or erase our personal or collective past. So what can we do? Peter was insistent: repent — admit that you were wrong — and turn to God for healing, cleansing and forgiveness. The crowd was given another chance, this time with eyes and minds open.

John Paul II’s trip to Jerusalem was a moving example. He placed a written prayer in the Western Wall asking God’s forgiveness for the many ways in which Christians had mistreated and persecuted their Jewish brothers and sisters over the centuries. It is only by sincere repentance that we can avoid making the same mistakes. One can only hope that our repentance over the scandals tearing the heart out of the Church is also profound and sincere. So much was done (or not done) out of ignorance and fear. As with all sin, denial is the only thing that can prevent us from receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness. 

In an ideal world people of faith would not sin. The author of John’s letter was a realist. He recognized that people will fall and assured his audience that they had an advocate with the Father — the righteous Jesus who died for the sins of the whole world. Again, the problem is denial and hypocrisy. Many claim to know Jesus and to be people of faith — it’s so easy to say. One glance at the world and the Church is convincing proof that this is not always the case. There is an epidemic of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” — taking God’s mercy totally for granted without lifting a finger to change. There are no shortcuts to God. If we truly know the Lord, we will obey His commandments. The core of these commandments is compassion, mercy, justice and non-violence.

The appearance of Jesus before His disciples must have been a great shock. They didn’t know what to think. Their feelings ranged from fear and doubt to joy and hope — and back again. They had to be reassured in concrete and graphic ways that it was truly Jesus and not some sort of ghost or apparition. Jesus also assured them that His suffering, death and resurrection had not been a fluke or some terrible accident — it was all prophesied in the Scriptures. The early Christian community struggled to understand the crucifixion as well as the identity and role of Jesus. They did this by reading what we call the Old Testament through the lens of their experience of the risen Lord.

In line with the two previous readings, Jesus charged His followers with the mission of preaching both repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all nations. Humanity was given another chance — a chance that we have not used very well. We seem to have great difficulty with learning from our mistakes or even remembering our own histories. The mission still stands for those who claim the name of Jesus but in order to be true witnesses we must have experienced both repentance and forgiveness. The time for denial, excuses or blame-shifting is long past.