Scripture Readings: Acts 5:27–32 | Psalm 118:14–29 | Revelation 1:4–8 | John 20:19–31
“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” (Acts 5:30-31)
Happy second Sunday of Eastertide everyone. Last week we celebrated the Resurrection of our Lord, and today we’ll take some time to reflect on this world-changing reality.
I’m not just talking about changing our subjective worlds… how we might see and understand things personally… but objectively… how the reality of Christ’s resurrection has been re-shaping world history… impacting how the human story has played out. The resurrection of Jesus Christ truly has changed the world for good… not the least through one of its most precious gifts: that is, forgiveness.
Our current culture has developed a deep concern for justice: for uncovering truth, exposing evil, and seeking to set things right. This concern has been aimed towards individuals: calling out hypocrisy, and the hidden sins of celebrities, authorities, and those with influence and power. This uncovering of hidden sins can be seen within Christian circles as well as in the wider world. In recent years, many well-known and respected Christian leaders have been called out and have faced consequences for their misconduct or abuses.
In addition to addressing individuals, this thirst for justice has also been channeled to combat corrupt systems too: to challenge and seek to undo things like systemic racism, and sexism, and all sorts of ways that our societies have been structured to benefit one group, and to oppress others. As those who are called to love God and to love all of our neighbours in all that we do, we Christians are on the hook for this as well. We too need to be asking ‘How have we been a part of these problems? And how can we take real steps to help start making things right’?
And then there’s the evil at work that’s even bigger than individuals, or systems: the hell of war, where peoples and nations tear each other, and themselves apart. Of course, today we think of the horrors of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and the hundreds or thousands of Ukrainian men, women, and children being brutally slain. In the wake of this truly unjust conflict, international war crimes investigations are now under way, seeking to make known the full truth of these atrocities… in the hopes of one day holding those responsible to account.
In these and so many ways, we’re rightly sick of evil having its way in our world. And personally, I think it’s encouraging that there are so many earnestly seeking justice and truth, especially among the younger generations… eager to drive out evil in all of its forms.
And yet, I’m also reminded of a sobering quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize winning Russian author, who shared with the world the horrors that he and millions of others faced under Communist rule in the Siberian slave-labour camps. In speaking of the impulse to wipe out those who do evil once and for all, he writes: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” His words echo those of St. Paul in his letter to the Christians in Rome: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23).
Aleksandr and St. Paul remind us that Good vs. Evil is not a battle of Us vs. Them. It’s a battle that rages inside of everyone.
Though this confession may seem like defeat, it’s in this light that the Gospel, the Good News makes it’s hopeful message known: for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s overwhelming victory… but not in the way we often envision bringing evil to an end. After all, Jesus wasn’t raised to wreak revenge on those who had murdered Him… to crush those who had perverted justice, and brutally destroyed His beautiful life. The victory of Easter is not that God has come in righteous power to slay His sinful enemies in return for all they had done. Instead, the radical claim of the Gospel is that God’s righteous, resurrecting power is aimed precisely at His enemies… at sinners… in order to save them.
The world-changing conviction of the Church is that the Risen Jesus brings forgiveness of sins through the precious offering of His own blood.
To see this claim in action, let’s turn to our reading today from the book of Acts:
Our reading jumps right into the action, with the Apostles of Jesus, led by the Holy Spirit of God, facing off against the Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas, and the other religious leaders of Jerusalem. Actually, this wasn’t the first time this had happened. Back in Acts Chapter 4, Peter and John had been arrested “because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead.” (Acts 4:2). But despite their threats and warnings, Peter and John would not stop speaking about the Good News of Christ’s resurrection, and were eventually released.
After this, the Christian community kept growing, and many were being healed by the Apostles and the work of God’s Holy Spirit through their faithful witness. And then, in Acts Chapter 5, the High Priest and those with him had all the Apostles arrested, but in the night, an angel opened the prison doors and set them free, telling them to go to the Temple and keep teaching others about Jesus. Finally, they have the Apostles arrested a third time, which is where our reading today picks up the story… with the High Priest trying in vain to stop the Apostle’s mission. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” Caiaphas cries out, “yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” (Acts 5:28).
You are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.
Maybe we can hear echoes from the first pages of the Bible, and the story of Cain and Abel, and the first shedding of innocent blood, and Cain’s attempt to avoid responsibility for his sin. These echoes resound through all of human history, as we have, time and again, turned on one another… and all innocent blood calls out for justice, and for God to respond.
And here in Acts, God does respond through the Apostles empowered by God’s Holy Spirit. But rather than calling for blood in return, for revenge, they boldly share the Good News they had been entrusted with: that Jesus Christ, was raised to life by God… to bring repentance to Israel… including those who had Him murdered, to turn them back to God, and to bring them forgiveness of sins!
Acts 5:29-32, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” The High Priest didn’t want Jesus’ blood on him. But Jesus’ blood was actually how God intended to rescue them.
Blood has long held a deep significance for Israel. It represented life, and in their atoning sacrifices, those meant to deal with the sins of God’s people and renew their closeness with God, blood of the sacrificial animal was shed and offered up on behalf of another. These sacred sacrifices, performed by their High Priests, involved the confession of Israel’s individual and communal sins… of humbly refusing to try to justify or hide their evil from the eyes of the Living God, and instead own up to their failures. In this light, blood then became not only a reminder of the guilt of the people, but also a sign of their pardon and restoration by the mercy of God.
Back in Acts, the High Priest and religious leadership were resisting their opportunity to own up to their responsibility for Christ’s murder. They were not willing to acknowledge their share of the blame, or to change the course they had set in rejecting the now risen Lord. In their own words, they didn’t want Christ’s blood to be on them. But the Apostles had come to understand that it is precisely by the blood of Jesus that God is calling all people, including Israel, to a new beginning: that Christ’s blood alone brings true pardon and peace with God… the seeds of new life for all who will receive it… for Jews and Gentiles alike. As the full quote from St. Paul reminds us: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3:23-25).
The Apostles themselves had encountered this forgiveness from the Risen Lord, who despite their desertion, denials, and doubts, offered them His peace and pardon. And so the Apostles, and with them the whole Christian Church, throughout the ages and around the world, refuse to keep silent about this Good News: Christ’s blood does not bring condemnation, it brings redemption! Believe it!
And this is to be our response. To believe this world-changing message… not only for ourselves, as we live lives of repentance, turning to God our Heavenly Father, and in Christ finding freedom from our sins and failures… but also to believe that this is the means by which God longs to bring freedom to all. Not by covering up sins, or by dismissing their destructive force… but by helping us all come clean… to turn from our old ways and pursue justice and truth… and to discover God’s resurrection power, mercy, and love… to see Christ risen from the dead in order to fix our world’s fractured foundation. To overcome our evil, and offer us new life.
The Living God raised Jesus Christ from the dead to bring us repentance, and forgiveness of sins. How might this kind of forgiveness take shape in our world today?
Here’s one deeply Christian response: Desmond Tutu, who died this past December, was an African Archbishop in Cape Town, South Africa, and an outspoken activist and opponent of the racially oppressive Apartheid government in South Africa. After its fall, Desmond Tutu was charged to head up their Truth & Reconciliation Commission, which sought to find a path forward for their very divided nation apart from revenge, violence and bloodshed. The following words are his, excerpts from an essay written in 2004:
“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking, but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing…
We have had a jurisprudence, a penology in Africa that was not retributive but restorative. Traditionally, when people quarreled, the main intention was not to punish the miscreant but to restore good relations. This was the animating principle of our Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For Africa is concerned, or has traditionally been concerned, about the wholeness of relationships. That is something we need in this world —a world that is polarized, a world that is fragmented, a world that destroys people. It is also something we need in our families and friendships. For retribution wounds and divides us from one another. Only restoration can heal us and make us whole. And only forgiveness enables us to restore trust and compassion to our relationships. If peace is our goal, there can be no future without forgiveness.”
Today is Easter Sunday for all our Orthodox sisters and brothers… which includes the vast majority of Christians in both Russia and Ukraine.
What might it look like for God’s gift of repentance and forgiveness to be at work in Ukraine in the days to come? Or in the many countries where violence continues to rage?
We don’t yet know. But let us pray that God’s resurrection power, His mercy, love, and forgiveness may be at work turning darkness into light, and bringing new life to all.
I’ll end now with these words from the book of Revelation from this morning’s reading. Though spoken long ago, they echo through the ages to us today:
“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 1:4-6)
 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Abridged (Toronto, ON: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), 75.
Desmond Tutu, Forgiveness (Online Article found here: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/truth_and_reconciliation).