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Bible readings:

3 Easter Year B (April 19, 2015)                                      St James', Peace River

Who wants to be forgiven? It's not a trick question. I ask it in all honesty, because I don't think the answer is as obvious as we would like to make it out to be. Being forgiven is not an easy thing to accept. It's not even easy to accept that you need to be forgiven, because that means acknowledging that you've done something wrong. And it can be even harder to accept the forgiveness someone is offering you, because it shows their generosity and love in such contrast to your own failures.

There's a line in Psalm 130 that gets to the heart of the matter when it comes to God's forgiveness. It says “for there is forgiveness with you, and therefore you shall be feared!” There's a real truth there. We're afraid of being forgiven. We're afraid of being loved so much, that we will have to face up to our actions. One of my daughters, who shall remain nameless, shows me this on a daily basis. If you wrong her, she'll get mad for about five minutes and then let it go. But if you want to see her really raging, wait until she's the one who's done something wrong. For her, to be confronted with the need to be forgiven is a disaster of the worst proportion, far worse than anything else anyone could do to her.

I think I understand why that is. Not perhaps what she's feeling, but what I sometimes feel in that position. First, it is hard to admit that you were wrong. No, not that you were wrong, but that you are the kind of person who does wrong. I usually start off by framing my hurtfulness as a mistake: I didn't mean it, I didn't understand, I didn't realize what the effect would be. You see this framing in a lot of statements of apology these days: “I regret that anyone was offended by what I said or did.” In other words, I wasn't wrong, it just came out badly.

But the truth is there if we look deep enough: we are wrong. There is something wrong with us. It's called sin. And that's not something somebody else did to us; it's a real truth about who we are and how we choose to behave. We hurt people, sometimes because we choose to misuse our power over them, and at other times because we choose not to care enough about them. But it's very, very hard, to look back at a choice you've made and admit that that is what was going on.

And yet that is only the first step to forgiveness. The second step is hearing the person you've hurt say, I forgive you. It's going to be OK. I still love you. Those have to be the most ego-destroying and at the same time life-giving words we can hear. In fact, this is probably what drives us crazy about being forgiven: Why would anyone still want to love me when I have demonstrated my lack of love for them? When the pretence that I am always right has been broken, and I have come face to face with my own worthlessness – who are you to come along and tell me that I am worth something after all?

And that, in a nutshell, is the gospel. The good news of God in Jesus Christ. We heard it permeating all of the readings today. We started with Peter, using that remarkable oratorical strategy to win over new converts: blaming it all on them! “You rejected the Holy and Righteous One,” he says, “and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” Frankly I'm surprised that he got to finish that speech before a riot broke out. But just a few days after Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is still being poured out, only in a less visible way – poured out into the hearts of Peter's audience, helping them to come to grips with the fact that what he says is true. We all need that kind of help to recognize the truth about ourselves and our actions.

But then Peter drops the other shoe. In any reasonable moral system, we would be talking about punishment and rehabilitation. The wrong-doers would suffer the consequences of what they've done. And given that we're talking about God here, the consequences for Peter's listeners could go all the way through to thunderbolts and being turned into pillars of salt. If they're lucky, they, or perhaps their great-grandchildren, might one day discover that their punishment was over and God would smile on them again. But that's not what Peter says. Not at all.

He points to a man, lame from birth, who has just been told, “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” To see that man “walking and leaping and praising God” is evidence that Jesus is indeed the “Author of life”, but it's also a sample of what God now wants for his people: not misery and punishment, but life, relief, and joy. “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,” that's Peter's message. God is in the forgiveness business. Just as nothing we could do to kill Jesus would keep him dead; so nothing we could do to hurt God would keep him from loving us into life.

The other readings repeat that message. The first letter of John says that Jesus “was revealed to take away sins”, and that life in him is life freed from the power and constraints of sin. The gospel of Luke tells that one of the things Jesus taught his disciples after his resurrection is how to see his death as accomplishing the forgiveness of sins – and today he goes one step further, to say that the gospel of “repentance and forgiveness is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” So this really is another angle on what Easter is all about. The resurrection of Christ, God giving life back to him, and him alive back to us – that is God's “forgiveness business” in action.

But we should also call to mind that Easter is a present reality. It is not just about something that happened a long time ago: Jesus rose. If he was alive then, he is alive now, and the story is still going on in our lives and in our world: Jesus is risen. And that means the forgiveness business is still going on too. God wants you and me to have that forgiven life, and God wants our neighbours to know about it and come on into it too. God really does think we're worth it. So this is another Easter habit we can practise, because it does take some action on our part, even though Jesus has done all the heavy lifting.

The first part of the habit is simply to admit the truth, hard as that can be – getting it fixed in our minds and in our actions that acknowledging where we go wrong isn't an open door to embarrassment or shame, it's an open door to transformation and new life. And the second part of the habit is getting used to the idea that God really loves us. There is no time when we experience that more deeply than when we let God love us in the face of something awful that we've done. Yes, God loves you that much: to stay with you in your worst moment, to see your real self laid out from its height to its depth, and to walk with you through the misery, the challenge, and eventually the joy of becoming the person God created you and wants you to be.

Those habits do take practice. Work at them. Work at not having to be right all the time, if that's a problem for you. Or if it's the other way round – work at not being the person who always lets yourself be the one in the wrong, because that's not a way of life that's open to change and renewal either. Work at letting the ways that you're wrong be a step on the way to transformation. And most of all, practise being loved by God. There may be a depth in yourself that can't be reached by that message right now. But start small, and let yourself be taken by surprise. Where God's forgiving love sneaks up on you, make the conscious choice to let it in and not run away from it.

And if you know someone else who needs the new life that forgiveness brings, share it with them, but go easy! Remember first of all that you're in the same position they are – even Peter had to remember that, as he could never have stood up to witness to Jesus' resurrection if he hadn't first looked Jesus in the eye and been forgiven. Remember too, how difficult it is to accept that you need forgiveness. Not everyone you share the gospel of repentance with will realize, at first, that it is good news. Stay with them while they wrestle with the truth about themselves – love them then, just as you've been loved, not in spite of their faults but because of them. But as you watch people find the grace they need, remember that God is offering you the same thing. Little by little, and side by side, we can see one another revealed in Christ as what we truly are: God's children, loved into life, ready to abide in him.