A sermon for the Third Sunday in Easter, based on Bible readings: Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36-48
I don’t usually like telling stories that generalise nations or peoples, so I am going to try to tell this sensitively. When I was living in Iran, we had several friends from West Africa, also studying there. My friend from Sierra Leone didn’t like going out much. Whenever we would go out, in a group, with other women from Iran, we would always be on the receiving end of stares. Now I had grown accustomed to this a little myself – but nothing to the extent in which she suffered. The city we were living in was a place of pilgrimage – and so many people from villages around would travel there in order to say special prayers or even ask for cures of the woman saint whose shrine was at the centre of the central mosque. These villagers had not seen much of the world outside. They would stand and stare, almost in a state of shock, at my friend whose skin was very dark indeed. And then she would be standing next to me, who was a few shades paler than most Iranians. The husband of another friend of ours, also from West Africa, would tell us that whenever he would go into a restaurant a crowd would gather around – curious to see a black man eating. They had no intention of being rude – but that is the thing with unconscious racism, no one means to be rude; but simply by treating someone different from how we would treat anyone else, we are setting them apart. We are making them special in some way – and that ‘special’ is not always easy to live with. There is something in that behaviour that de-humanises, either by demonising or by setting on a pedestal.
One of the things deeply discomforting about this impending election has been the manner in which so many are being set apart – as if they are somehow ‘special’, whether it is in holding up being white and British, native, if you like, as somehow being more entitled, or setting apart the immigrant – the darker the skin the more alien they become. As if being from somewhere else means they are less entitled to employment, human rights, equal treatment before the law, health care, or just the right to live a decent life. There is a loss of human decency in this political campaign that is extremely unsettling for the soul.
As counter, there have been a number of posters in the media and in advertising. These are pictures of health workers, doctors, firefighters, solicitors, judges, all kinds of professional people in the care industry who have served others, even saved lives – and yet each one is an immigrant. It is said much of the NHS would fall apart if it were not for carers from abroad.
What has made me think of this has been several phrases in our readings this morning. In the reading from Acts, there is the reminder from Peter to the people of his time, that it was they who were responsible for the persecution of Jesus, they who chose to have him killed. And yet Peter offers a way out. This man who had himself denied Jesus and been offered forgiveness, offers the same to others. He is a reminder that each of us, is culpable in some way for the suffering of others. He recognises that it is all too easy to get stuck in the guilt of that realisation – and that the only way out is to seek redemption, to seek forgiveness.
The First Letter of John celebrates in the forgiveness freely given, celebrates that we are all children of God. It reminds that Jesus was sent to remove sin – and that can only happen when there is forgiveness. Holding onto grudges, and holding on to guilt, both keep sin alive – a festering wound that spreads infection, pain and suffering. The only relief comes through forgiveness, to forgive hurt and failure and cowardice.
When Jesus stands among his disciples, I can’t help but think of my friend, who everyone stood around and stared at. There was a kind of disbelief at what they were seeing – in their eyes they were seeing someone like them and yet not like them, someone set apart. What must it have been like for the disciples to see the man they had loved – and yet run away from at the hour of his greatest need of them – how must it have felt for them to see him face to face? To look into his eyes? And most of all, to be greeted with a grin and a word of ‘Peace’? Along with the joy of seeing him, there must also been a huge twinge of guilt and grief, of shame. And it is this guilt that made them pause, that made them hold back.
And yet here he is telling them he is here, he is facing them, he doesn’t even mention forgiveness, for his forgiveness is already there – it is everything about his person. He tells them to come on, touch me, see that I am here, I am human – so human in fact that I’m really hungry. What have you got that I can eat?
I remember an interview with the author Maya Angelou years ago. She was asked what it was like knowing people such as President Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. She replied that they were ordinary people, the same as everyone else. That it does them no favours to put them high on a pedestal where no one can reach them. She said they had doubts and worries and faults just like anyone else. They just happened to make courageous decisions at extraordinary times. If we put them high on a pedestal then we make their courage inaccessible too. It means no one else can be like them. But everyone has the potential to be like them.
Jesus is telling his disciples – look, you have the capacity to do what I have done. You have the capacity to bring forgiveness to the world, to bring forgiveness to Jerusalem, to bring forgiveness to the whole of humanity. This had to happen to me, to suffer pain, to be betrayed and to die – so that you might see that all can be forgiven, the worst that humanity can throw at us, can still be forgiven, must be forgiven.
One of the most extraordinary books I have recently read is ‘The Book of Forgiveness’ by Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho. They write about the Truth and Reconciliation commissions in South Africa, but they also write about the more mundane occasions in life too – when each of us are hurt, and each of us hurt others, about the times we learn to forgive, and about the times we must seek forgiveness – even if it is from within our own selves.
They write: ‘I would like to share with you two simple truths: there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness. When you can see and understand that we are all bound to one another – whether by birth, by circumstance, or simply by our shared humanity – then you will know this to be true, I have often said that in South Africa there would have been no future without forgiveness. Our rage and our quest for revenge would have been our destruction. This is as true for us individually as it is for us globally.’
I would propose the same is true for us in our current climate of fear, of a media and politicians who seek to sow fear of one another rather than learning to work together towards a better world. We divide to our own cost, to the cost of our children and to the cost of the future of the nation they all claim to seek to serve. It is a brave politician in this climate of fear that seeks to support the outcast and the marginalised, who recognises we are all children of God, regardless of country of origin, colour of skin, or faith in ones’ heart. Our survival as a nation relies not on fear, but on hope, on forgiveness, and on coming together.