IDENTITY AND DESTINY
Sermon delivered on the Second Sunday after Easter (Easter 2) the 19th April 2015 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Acts 3: 12-19 1 John 3:1-7 S. Luke 24: 36b-48
1 John 3: 2 "Beloved, we are God's children now; and what we shall be has not yet appeared, but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is."
Some time ago I saw advertised on the television a face cream, and it was being said that that cream was for those who were older than people who had acne, but younger than people who had wrinkles. This, of course, implied that the same company had products also for acne and for wrinkles, but wanted to make sure nobody was left out in between. Acne, I agree, does need something, but personally I quite like my wrinkles, or some of them anyway. Last week, we thought about the scars on a person telling his story, and in particular how Jesus was made known to his disciples after the Resurrection by the healed scars in his hands and feet and side.
Our wrinkles, in fact, are the small scars of our lives – the scars of the skin on a face that becomes lined by smiles, frowns, concentration or worry. We are recognized by these things, rather than by a face untouched by life – or perhaps they can make us unrecognisable to previous acquaintances if the wrinkles have been formed since they lost touch with us.
Considering today's Scriptures, we can see that they are all about recognition. In the Gospel, the risen Jesus comes among His disciples when they are gathered in Jerusalem, and the issue at first is how they can be brought to recognise that this is really the Lord. It would seem that recognition is hindered not only by the fact that they know Him to have died, but also by a change in His appearance. The Risen Lord gets His disciples to recognise Him by such means as doing things that were characteristically His actions, such as taking bread, saying a blessing, breaking it and giving it to them - or by showing them the marks of crucifixion on His body. It is important that they recognise Him not as a ghost, but as possessing flesh and bones – the Risen Christ is fully Man. Then there was the whole matter of the recognition of the truth of His teaching. When He was among them He had attempted to teach them many times that He would suffer and rise again, but their minds had always been closed to this. Now that it had happened, they needed to recognise His teaching in the events of their immediate experience.
RECOGNISABLE AS SONS OF GOD
So the first great issue of recognition was how they could be brought to recognise Him, both His Person and His teaching. But the next great issue of recognition was how they themselves might come to be recognised and recognisable as God's people. A little later in our Gospel account the Risen Lord teaches that the characteristic action of those that are recognisably His is to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in His Name to all mankind. No doubt there are many ways of proclaiming that wonderful release. In the first epistle of St. John, from which our second lesson was taken, St. John focusses on the recognisability of the people of God. St. John teaches that sin disfigures God's people and makes them unrecognisable as such. Therefore there must be a continual intention in God's people to remove sin from themselves. St. John says that our destiny is to be like God, to be like Jesus. We are children of God even now on earth through our baptism and identification by faith with Him, but even so, what we are now does not compare with our destiny, to be like Him when He appears, when He comes again in Resurrection glory. "Everyone who thus hopes in Him," St. John says, "purifies himself as He is pure." Purification is spiritual cleansing involving the removal of sin. Without that our destiny to be like Him cannot be accomplished.
I've recently read some words from a man called Andrew Murray, not the tennis player but a South African who died in 1917. He says, “We have not only Christ's life in us as a power, and His presence with us as a person, but we have His likeness to be wrought into us. The likeness to Christ consists chiefly in two things – the likeness of His death and resurrection (see Romans 6:5). As we sink down in humility and dependence and entire surrender to God, the power of His death works in us, and we are made conformable to His death. And so we know Him in the power of His resurrection, in the victory over sin, and all the joy and power of the risen life. He will maintain the life He gave, and bestow the grace to live as risen ones.”
FUNDAMENTAL IMPORTANCE OF THE ISSUE OF SIN
So whether we are thinking about the proclamation of the Faith to those still outside Christ, or the advancement of the Faith within the body of God's people, the issue of sin and cleansing is highly important, a core issue for any individual and for the society he inhabits. In our Lesson from Acts today, we see St. Peter adopting Christ's commission to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in His Name. We see St. Peter telling the Jerusalem crowds: "Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord." And first, Peter has said to this Jewish crowd, what they need to repent from is that they had delivered up Jesus, the Holy and Righteous One, the Author of life, and denied Him in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. They had acted in ignorance, but that sin would continue to disfigure them as the chosen people of God unless and until they repented of it. As the story unfolds we are told that many of those who heard this word did believe, the number of the men being as many as about five thousand; in contrast, however, to the resulting mindset of the temple authorities, who arrested St. Peter and St. John and held them for questioning.
SIN OR INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR?
Coming down to our world today, we have to say that the world is pretty much convinced that the removal of sin is not all that significant. The world in general may however consider it necessary to deal with the person who acts in what is regarded as an unacceptable or inappropriate manner, and the solution to that, it is sometimes considered, is external measures such as re-education (like what communist societies used to impose) or rehabilitation.
THE CALLING TO BE LIKE HIM
Yet the perspective of the Christian Faith about our destiny and our path to it shows us how significant and important the issue of the removal of sin is, and it is absolutely necessary that the Church herself does not get sucked into the opinion of many around her, as she is so tempted to do, that this is a non-issue, especially in a supposed “rights” culture. On the contrary, it remains the great issue, and this is because sin eats away at our identity as God's people. It disfigures us and makes us unrecognisable to God and to one another as His children. If there is sin, that is not repented from and unforgiven, actively disfiguring our lives, and if we ourselves are unforgiving, whenever God calls us and we try to answer, it is as if He had called to the wrong person because we would have started to have become unrecognisable to Him. On the contrary, our true calling, and all those to whom Christ is proclaimed, is that we will be like Him. The wonderful thing is that in spite of sin, we can indeed become what we are called to become, because of the grace of the Father and the Son. The repentance and forgiveness of sins being preached in His Name to all nations can be ours indeed, and ours to put into effect through forgiveness. When we come to receive His Body and His Blood, let us repent of sin with the assurance that He has power to blot it out. For walking in that hope and that purification, we will truly become recognisably His - like Him at His appearance in Resurrection glory.