3rd Sunday of Easter • 4/19/15 • Leora Weitzman
Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48
“Everyone is born left-handed,” says a left-handed coffee mug. “You become right-handed when you commit your first sin.”
“We are born of God, we are God’s children now,” says John in his letter. “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil.”
This first letter of John has my head spinning. Last week, we heard from chapter 1: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” That would seem to make us children of the devil. But this week, chapter 3 is telling us we are God’s children, and that “Those who are born of God do not sin.”
Are we sinless children of God or sinning junior devils? Commentators have struggled to make sense of these conflicting statements. To me, they make more sense if I start, not with who I am over time, but with who I’m being in the moment.
Different kinds of actions spring from different inner states. When my heart feels fully enveloped and “abiding in Christ,” I am trusting, peaceful, and intuitive. I’m tuned in to the will of God and not afraid to follow it. Life-giving, loving actions spring from this inner state.
But I also have a survival-mode, controlling ego-mind, and when it’s in charge, I develop a kind of tunnel vision. I feel I have to fix everything myself and make sure that I’m safe. I feel driven, rather than inspired, to take certain actions. I blind myself to the hurtful impacts of my actions to avoid feeling bad about them. For instance, when I’m running late, I become a rude driver and cut across lanes, and I tell myself no one noticed and that I’m justified by circumstances. My actions are then flowing from what St. Ignatius of Loyola called “the Enemy of human nature” rather than from the “good Spirit.” I’ve become a little child of the devil.
Ignatius grew into a connoisseur of what he called the Enemy and the good Spirit when a war injury confined him to bed for many months. He wanted to read tales of battle heroics, but all he could get his hands on was stories of the saints. He noticed that although the battle stories were fun and exciting to read, they left him empty and unsettled. In contrast, the boring saint biographies left him peaceful. This noticing was a way of “listening with the ear of the heart,” as St. Benedict would say.
Ignatius developed the idea of discerning spirits by their aftertastes. If I write to a friend or go for a walk and then feel light and peaceful afterward, then I know the inspiration came from the good Spirit. If I play around on the computer and then feel empty or agitated, the impulse came from the Enemy. If I were to play around on the computer and then feel peaceful afterward, that would mean it was the good Spirit guiding me, perhaps so I would take a break or learn something I needed.
Ignatius called the aftertaste that feels empty or agitated the “serpent’s tail” by which we can recognize the fleeing Enemy when it’s disguised itself as a good and holy motive. For instance, I’ve given unwanted advice, telling myself I’m trying to be helpful, when my real motivation is to feel wise or useful. Afterward I don’t feel as good as I thought I would. That letdown is the serpent’s tail. (With all due apologies to real-life snakes, with whom I’ve had friendly encounters, I’ll continue for now to use this mythical, archetypal serpent’s tail as a symbol.)
In our first reading today, Peter says, “you asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life.” Beyond the historical reference to Barabbas and Jesus, this is a description, writ large, of the choice we make every time we follow an impulse from the Enemy of human nature and squelch a life-giving nudge of the Holy Spirit. On a collective scale, this image of asking to have a murderer given to us, while we kill the Author of life, could describe our choice to retain a lifestyle that pollutes and depletes resources while we kill, bit by bit, the Earth we live on.
It is absolutely essential at this point to hear the words of hope that come next. “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.” We made a mistake. We didn’t see the serpent’s tail. We just saw convenience and comfort. It was a mistake. And it’s OK. God will use it. “In this way God fulfilled what God foretold through the prophets, that the Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.” Or as Julian of Norwich heard Jesus say, “Sin has its place, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
I don’t mean to suggest it will be easy. Our mistakes do seem to cause suffering. The experience of suffering—our own and others’—challenges our basic sense of understanding the world and being in control. So does the act of turning to God and accepting forgiveness. Repenting challenges us to change our ways and allow our mistakes to retrain us. I know I often make the same mistake over and over before I fully see and admit that I myself have been causing the outcome I didn’t want. And even then, the path to developing a better habit is paved with further mistakes.
Do we have time for all these mistakes in relation to the Earth? I don’t know. I do know that when Peter says, “you killed the Author of life,” he continues, “whom God raised from the dead.” What this might literally mean with regard to the Earth I have no ability to imagine. But I do know that there are no Christian tragedies. No tragic event is ever the very end of a fully Christian story. The last word is not the Crucifixion, but the Resurrection.
In the long run, in the story of our souls, the learning and growth that happen may be more important than the tangible results. I don’t mean that some creatures could be used for the learning of others, but that somehow all creatures might in the end find ourselves, together, more consciously immersed in the resurrected Christ. Again, I have no sense concretely of how this could come about—except that it will take our daily fidelity to the “good Spirit” as we turn again and again from our mistakes back toward the Author of life.
And that it will come not through our doing alone. There is our part, and there is God’s. Luke and Acts today contain stories of miraculous events. What we would have seen had we been there, I don’t know. But Luke clearly wants us to understand that God can do things we would have thought impossible. We needn’t take his word for it. In his words, “You are witnesses of these things.”
You, we, are witnesses that God brings new life from suffering, often with greater depth. Nothing is wasted with God. Everything is redeemed. How do I know that you know this? This is not a church people come to because they’re good at doing what they’re told. If you’re here today, you’ve had some experience that’s drawn you here. You have glimpsed how God works. You are witnesses of these things.