On 19th April, the third Sunday of Easter, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 4, Acts 3:12-19 and Luke 24:36-48.
I wonder, what is the worst mistake you’ve ever made? What makes you cringe with embarrassment when you remember what you said or did at some time? What event or action overwhelms you with sadness or regret as you consider the outcome? How often have you revisited the event in your mind and thought: ‘If only I …’? There is often the accompanying thought that things will never be good again, life is blighted forever.
Steve Chalke tells the story of a young man called Nathan. A young man in his 20s, he asked to meet Steve after he had given a talk in a high security prison. He told Steve: “I’m a murderer. End of story – full stop. I have wasted my life.” He’d got involved with gangs for his own protection when still young. Eventually, when he was 17, he was involved in a fight between his gang and a rival gang. Each carried knives. In the midst of the fight a youth whom he had known in primary school came towards him with a knife. Nathan stabbed first and the youth died. He told Steve Chalke that it was too late for him, but given the chance he would have liked to have helped other youngsters avoid the same mistake as he had made.
Reflecting on the story he had heard, Steve suddenly realised that people get stuck in their stories. They have failed, blown it, not measured up, wasted opportunities and the only ending is a full stop, a brick wall, nowhere to go. They are controlled by the past and that blinds them to any vision for the future. Steve quotes Proverbs 29:18: ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’
Jesus came to live among us to change that sad story, to open possibilities which once seemed closed. We hear how Jesus appeared among his disciples while the two from the road to Emmaus encounter were telling their incredible story – “Jesus is alive! We’ve seen him. We knew him in the breaking of the bread.” Suddenly there among them stood Jesus himself.
It’s not difficult to understand the disciples’ terror as someone suddenly appeared among them. The natural assumption would be that this was a ghost – something that Jesus soon demonstrated was false by eating some fish. That Jesus was alive once more obviously took some believing. We’re told that not only were those gathered frightened, they were also doubting. They were full of joy but also barely able to believe what they were seeing. You can almost imagine them pinching themselves to check they weren’t dreaming.
In this story there is even greater reason for joy than the knowledge that Jesus had risen from the dead. Through the resurrection Jesus proved everything else he had taught during his three years of ministry was true. He proved that he really was God’s Messiah, the king, come to reign on earth. As Jesus said, all that was written about him had come true, including his suffering death on the cross and his rising from the dead. And then we hear the outcome of all that Jesus had done: repentance and forgiveness of sins were to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.
Jesus told his disciples that they were witnesses of all that had happened. They had seen Jesus suffer and die; they had seen him appear in a room with a new kind of body, able to pass through doors but also to eat fish. They were also witnesses to what life was like under the rule of King Jesus. They had seen him interact with people like the young man whom Steve Chalke talked to, people who had got stuck in their stories. They had seen how Jesus had got them unstuck and given them a new story.
Think how Jesus interacted with the people he met. The woman caught in adultery for instance. If she was caught in the very act of adultery, her guilt was not in question. She had blown it; the penalty was death. Jesus’s response was to face her accusers with their own sin and then to choose not to condemn her. He didn’t remind her of what she had done (she surely needed no reminding), nor did he pretend what she had done was right. He simply gave her a new start, a new story: “Go and sin no more.”
What about the man who was lowered on a bed into a crowded house? It was obvious he needed to be able to walk again but Jesus saw deeper than that. What he needed was forgiveness of sins, a way out of the mess his life was in: “Son, your sins are forgiven.” So when he took up his bed and walked, he walked with his head held high into a new future full of possibilities.
The woman at the well was gently challenged: “Fetch your husband.” She admitted that she had no husband. Far from condemning her, Jesus simply acknowledged the string of failed relationships she had had and her current living with a man who was not her husband. Suddenly, instead of coming to the well in the heat of the day because of her shame at meeting others, the woman ran off to tell everyone: “Come and see the man who has told me everything I have ever done!” She evangelised her whole community. She had a new story where she belonged, where the past was done with and the future beckoned.
Think also of the thief on the cross. He acknowledged that he and the other thief were getting what they deserved. They had committed crimes, their lives were literally over, wasted, finished. But in turning to Jesus and asking to be remembered, even at that late hour, the full stop in his life became a new future: “I tell you the truth. Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus said his disciples were witnesses to these things. What do witnesses do? When they take the stand in a court of law they promise to ‘tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’. Witnesses are also expected to rely on their own experience. Hearsay evidence is not admissible. They have to be able to answer questions about what they have seen and heard. That’s what Jesus was asking of his disciples. They were to tell it as Jesus had told it, to tell the story of how Jesus had acted, to tell how he had fulfilled all that was written and to offer repentance and forgiveness in his name.
It is the witnessing of Jesus’ disciples (and that includes us of course) that allows others to hear the truth and, as John said, the truth sets us free. Free from the old story of our lives; free from dead ends and despair; free to hope and to live.
A little later we hear Peter talking to the people of Jerusalem after he and John had healed the lame man. Peter knew what it was like to have made a huge mistake in his life. He denied Jesus three times even though he had earlier protested that he was ready to die for his Lord. Understandably we hear that Peter wept bitterly when he realised what he had done. Later, Jesus restored him, not by going over Peter’s mistakes again, but by giving him the opportunity to reiterate his love for his Lord. Peter of all people knew what it was to have a dead end turned into a new future.
Peter is able to acknowledge that the people and their leaders arranged to have Jesus, the Author of Life, murdered. I don’t think there can be much worse a mistake than murdering God’s Son. However, Peter acts as Jesus would have done. He doesn’t labour the point but accepts that they acted in ignorance. The people don’t have to be stuck in the story where the long awaited Messiah was killed and God’s plan thwarted. As Jesus had said, repentance and forgiveness of sins was available to all and they could walk into a new future as no doubt many did on that day in Jerusalem.
The same is true for us of course. We don’t have to be stuck as a result of bad choices, stupid actions or deliberate wrong behaviour. There is a tendency nowadays to avoid the idea that there is such a thing as sin. I think that’s a mistake. As John said, ‘If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’ Admitting that we have fallen short of God’s best for us and accepting the truth sets us free, allowing us to repent and to begin a new story full of hope and possibilities.
I didn’t tell you the end of young Nathan’s story, did I? The prison guards were leading him away after his brief chat with Steve Chalke when Steve suddenly asked them to wait. He said to Nathan, “You passed the interview.” Nathan and the guards were totally confused. Steve went on to explain that there was a job waiting for Nathan if he wanted it when he got out of prison, working as a youth worker with Steve’s organisation Oasis! He gave Nathan his contact details.
I’ll give you the rest of the story as in Steve’s own words: ‘We stood in silence for a moment. I watched as Nathan’s body language slowly changed. His story had been subverted. His full stop had become a comma. There was another clause to the sentence; another paragraph to the chapter; another chapter to the book – and it was called hope.’