Epiphany 5C Sermon (2001)

5th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11;
Luke 5:1-11; Isaiah 6:1-13


This morning’s gospel tells us about the first time Jesus called his disciples. I say “first time” because this time didn’t really stick. Jesus had to call his disciples a second time. They didn’t follow him all the way the first time: they ran away when he was arrested. They didn’t follow him to the cross. So Jesus had to call them a second time when he rose from the dead.

Why didn’t Jesus’ call stick the first time? Our First Lesson this morning uses important imagery: Isaiah is called to be a prophet to people who have eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear. That is a very important theme throughout scripture — namely, that what God wants to get across to us is something we have a real hard time seeing and hearing. It was no less so with Jesus. Jesus quotes these lines from Isaiah when his disciples ask him about his teaching in parables: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.'” (Luke 8:10) Well, the disciples were good to remember what Jesus said here, because they didn’t really understand it any better than anyone else. They looked without perceiving and listened without understanding until the Risen Jesus came to them and called them again. What stands in the way?

I’d like to suggest something that stands in the way, beginning in a strange way: with an episode from TV this past week. The show isn’t that important, but for those of you who might have seen it, it was an episode of “Once and Again,” a show about the coming together of two divorcee families. Grace, the mother’s teenage daughter, is the most straight-laced of all the kids. And she has a girlfriend who is romantically involved with who potential step-brother. The three of them find themselves over at the father’s apartment, and Grace, very uncharacteristically, swipes some glitter make-up cream from off her potential step-sister’s dresser. The step-sister notices right away and is very upset. Matters are compounded for Grace in that her friend becomes the more natural suspect, since Grace herself is so straight-laced.

She and her friend are sitting in literature class the next day, and the teacher is talking about Edgar Allen Poe. He is asking what theme really stood out for Poe — what feeling or passion really was behind a lot of his work? Pause. The class is silent. No one is answering. The teacher asks again, and, all of a sudden, Grace blurts out real loud, “Guilt!”

Guilt. It was the right answer about Edgar Allen Poe for Grace’s teacher. It also was the right answer for Grace, because she had a bad case of it. I think it might be the beginning of a right answer for us, concerning what often blocks our eyes and ears from hearing what God has to say to us. I used this TV show example of it as something relatively non-threatening, because guilt is hard to talk about. If we talk about our feelings of guilt, then we have to talk about the things we feel guilty about. And that’s the thing we least want to talk about. We never want our guilt to find the light of day. These are the things we want to stay hidden. Someone else’s guilt, that’s fine. In fact, it’s one of the most important ways we have of keeping our own guilt hidden from ourselves — namely, keep pointing at someone else’s.

But this is what couldn’t happen when the Risen Jesus came to the disciples on Easter, or when he knocked St. Paul off his horse on the road to Damascus. They couldn’t keep things hidden anymore. Their own guilt came into the light. Yet I want to suggest that this is also the first step to having our eyes and ears unstopped to finally get what God wants us to get.

It is often difficult to appreciate this aspect of the Resurrection. Easter is a joyful celebration for us, so we forget that the first Easter was also a very frightful experience. Being confronted by the Risen Christ was not an initially joyful thing. In our Second Lesson, St. Paul describes the experience of the Risen Jesus appearing to many of the disciples and apostles, but also lastly to himself. Listen again:

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

Do you sense the guilt involved? He had been a persecutor of the church! When Jesus appeared to Paul — then called Saul — he knocked him off his horse, temporarily blinded him with light, and said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Nailed! Guilty! Do you think that was a joyful experience? No, of course not. It was a frightening, troubling, guilt-inducing experience.

Was it much different for the other apostles? Think about it. They are obviously lost in a terrible grief. Their friend and teach has not only been executed, but their dreams of being saved by the Messiah are dashed, too. But isn’t there something more? Was it just grief that they felt? How had they behaved when their teacher and friend had been arrested? They ran away. They abandoned him. Peter denied knowing him three times. No, they were also guilty. Do you see? Our Risen Lord first appeared to the disciples and apostles not as something to rejoice about, but as someone who would confront them mired in terrible guilt. Guilt.

And fear! When we feel guilty about harming someone, we also fear their presence. They might reveal our hidden guilt. Even worse, they might get even! Vengeance! Isn’t that our most common response to being harmed? The disciples had let Jesus down at his most needful moment. Paul had persecuted the church. Now, the Risen Jesus stood before them. What would he do? Get even? Yes, they were afraid. They were mired in guilt.

So what did Jesus do? One of the most common sorts of Easter stories in the gospels are the ones where Jesus comes into the locked rooms of the disciples’ fear, and he says to them, “Peace be with you!” That is definitely not vengeance! “Peace be with you,” he says. And Jesus doesn’t formally speak words of forgiveness to them, but his presence among them with words of peace speaks volumes about forgiveness. He does not have to say, “I forgive you.” He is standing before them, their Risen Lord, and instead of somehow getting vengeance, he is saying, “Peace be with you.”

In John’s gospel, it’s even more amazing. Listen to this:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)

Here’s that second calling of the disciples, and it’s absolutely amazing! His disciples who had abandoned him and denied him are sitting in a locked room, grief-stricken, afraid, and feeling guilty as sin, and the Risen Jesus pops in to visit them. You and I would have, at the very least, sacked the whole lot of them. We would have fired them — ‘You good-for-nothing, fair-weather friends, you failed me! I never want to see you again! Now that I’m risen I’m going to get myself some new disciples, some real disciples, someone who will follow me through thick and thin.’ That’s what you and I would have said, right? But not Jesus! No, it’s incredible! Not only does he not sack the sorry lot of them; not only does he not return for vengeance; not only does he come instead with peace; but he hires them to go out into the world extending the word of forgiveness to others!! And, some time later, when Jesus goes out to hire the person he wants to take this message of forgiveness to the ends of the earth, he hires Saul, one who is guilty of killing some of Jesus’ first messengers. Is Jesus crazy?

No, of course not. He’s the Son of God, and so he definitely does things different from what we would. To spread a message of forgiveness, he hires not those who appear blameless or somehow most worthy. He hires those who truly know that they themselves have been forgiven.

You and I are called as disciples of Jesus. Why? Because we are somehow better than others? No, the job description for being a disciple of Jesus begins with knowing how wrong you are, with knowing how much you are forgiven. It begins by recognizing our own guilt and then having the wonderful experience of being forgiven for it. Life can begin anew! There is a joy in being forgiven, and that joy is knowing the life-giving power of being forgiven.

Our Risen Lord comes to us today once again in the Holy Sacrament of Communion. He comes to say to us, “Peace be with you.” Not only that, he comes to call us. He comes to hire us to help spread the news. He comes to ask us to extend this word of healing, life-giving forgiveness to others: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” Oh, yes, there’s also this second part about, “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But after you yourself have had your sins forgiven, could you really retain the sins of another? You see? Jesus has hired the right people, after all. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Zion Lutheran,
Racine, WI, February 4, 2001

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