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Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Easter

First Reading: Acts 4:32-35

32Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.


Psalm 148

1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights. 2Praise him, all you angels of his; praise him, all his host. 3Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. 4Praise him, heaven of heavens, and you waters above the heavens. 5Let them praise the name of the Lord; for he commanded, and they were created. 6He made them stand fast forever and ever; he gave them a law which shall not pass away. 7Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps; 8Fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, doing his will; 9Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars;

10Wild beasts and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds; 11Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the world; 12Young men and maidens, old and young together. 13Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name only is exalted, his splendor is over earth and heaven. 14He has raised up strength for his people and praise for all his loyal servants, the children of Israel, a people who are near him.  Hallelujah!


Second Reading: 1 John 1:1-2:2

1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — 2the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — 3that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 21My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.


Gospel: John 20:19-31

19On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” 24Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” 26Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.


Can You be a Nocturnal Christian?

“You have the right to remain silent.  Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.  You have the right to an attorney.  If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.  Do you understand these rights?”  If you’ve ever seen a Cop show at the movies or on TV, you’re familiar with what’s known as the Miranda warning.  Despite popular opinion, this “right” isn’t from the Constitution or common law, but it was a product of the Supreme Court’s fertile imagination.  Be that as it may, it’s the law and it’s a law that says you have the right to remain silent.

Ironically, one of the victims of the Miranda opinion was Ernesto Miranda himself.  This rapist, whose conviction was overturned by that famous Supreme Court case, was stabbed to death in 1976 in a Phoenix bar, and the cops arrested a suspect in the killing.  He wanted to confess, but after being read his Miranda rights, he refused to talk, and he was never convicted.  My Hindu friends would call that Karma: I would respond that it’s the “Law of the harvest.”

While serving as a police officer in Anchorage, Alaska, I read these rights to several people being placed under arrest, and while I may or may not agree with it, it is the law.  Of course, in the case of the Miranda warning, we’re talking about a secular law, rights we have as citizens of this country.  However, there’s a spiritual law that needs to be considered.  It’s a law that I think holds a much higher consequence.

In our epistle reading for today, St. John is addressing Christians in Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey, and he makes it clear that confession is not only necessary, it’s good for the soul.  It’s a familiar passage: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But, [but], if we confess our sins…”  It’s a passage that not only explains the human condition, it also gives us a promise: “if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all righteousness.”  Want to be forgiven?  Confessions is required.  This rule not only applies to our sins against each other, but our sins against God.  To be forgiven, one must confess.

Harry and Sally met, fell in love, and wanted to get married.  However, they each held a dark secret that they were afraid to share with each other.  Sally had a terrible case of halitosis, or chronic bad breath, and she always kept mints and mouthwash on hand.  Always alert to never reveal her problem, she was always careful to keep her mouth shut when she was close to Harry.  On the other hand, Harry had a bad case of bromodosis, or smelly feet.  He would never take his shoes off in public and was always in fear of what would happen once he got married.

Eventually, Harry proposed, and Sally accepted, but both remained anxious about the honeymoon and their life together afterword.  Both were still afraid to reveal their secret and therefore, neither could bring themselves to tell the other their tragic secret.  The day of the wedding came and after the reception they headed off for the honeymoon.  That evening, at the resort, they began to unpack and dress for bed.

Harry, at the last minute, ran into one bathroom and vigorously scrubbed his feet.  Sally ran to the other bathroom and vigorously brushed her teeth.  They came back and sat on the edge of the bed.  Sally, realizing she could no longer put off the inevitable, knowing she would have to tell Harry her terrible secret, she slid over very close to him and said to him, “Harry, I have a confession to make.”  He said, “Sally, I know what it is, you’ve eaten my socks.”

The truth is, as humans affected by the fall in the Garden of Eden, we were born in sin and therefore, are sinful by nature.  We all have faults; we all sin.  This is a fact, but it’s not an excuse.  St. John acknowledged this when he wrote, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:10).  The Biblical patriarchs, the people we look to as examples of Godly people, all sinned—Moses, Abraham, David, Peter; they all fell short of God’s glory.  But the reason we look to them as examples is that they all acknowledged their sin, and they did it by following the principle laid down in this verse.

In one of my college classes, they used to show movies in a lecture hall that was tiered at a steep angle down to the front of the room.  You’ve probably been in a movie theater designed like this.  As soon as you enter the door from the rear, you must go down an aisle of steep stairs.  Once I arrived late, after the movie had begun.  As I tried to find a place to sit, it was so dark I nearly tripped trying to negotiate the stairs.  I ended up practically crawling on my hands and knees, groping my way to a seat.

At the time I realized that the people around me were laughing, but it didn’t occur to me that they were laughing at me.  That is, until I was seated and watched as the next group of people entered the darkened room.  By when my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and I could see them carefully feeling their way around as if they were blind.  And, yes, it was funny.  It taught me to show up early, before the lights were turned down!

One of the ways that we divide creatures in the animal kingdom is by whether they naturally function best in the dark or in the light of day.  Some animals can see things in the dark that you or I couldn’t begin to see — like owls.  We call those animals nocturnal.  We human beings aren’t nocturnal by nature, but our eyes can adjust to the darkness well enough that we can find a seat in a darkened movie theater if we’ll wait a few minutes.

This brings me to an important question, and bear with me after I ask it.  Are you a Christian?  Now, this may seem like a ridiculous question coming from a Lutheran pastor in a Lutheran congregation on a Sunday morning in the midst of Christian worship.  In this context, perhaps it is silly.  However, this prompts an important follow-up question.  How do you measure your faith?  How do you test your relationship with God?  If a person who isn’t a member of the church family asks you to produce evidence for your claim of being part of God’s family, how do you respond?

We all know that God’s saving grace is freely given, but there’s more to being a Christian than simply accepting God’s grace in faith.  Accepting God’s mercy is a life changing event.  Let me repeat that: accepting God’s mercy is a life changing event, and by definition, confession is the turning around from the sin that’s been committed.  What St. John gives us in his first letter is a test, a means of measuring our fellowship with God.  I realize that none of us cares much for exams, especially when it comes to our faith.  We would rather shy away from the subject.  We like to plead a kind of spiritual fifth amendment, knowing only too well that anything we say might incriminate us.

We want to abuse Luther’s words, repeating out of context I might add, that if we sin, we should sin boldly.  But this is an outright abuse of what Luther was saying.  Luther knew St. Paul’s statement, “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means! (Romans 6:1-2).  This is why John will not let us get away that easily.

What John offers is a test we cannot avoid.  We can’t hide; we must face up to it.  The question on the test is: Do we walk in the light as God is in the light?  Or, do we walk in darkness deceiving ourselves that what’s done in the darkness isn’t seen?  The answer to this test question is very important, because if we choose to walk in darkness, we cannot claim fellowship with God.

In John’s first epistle, he’s addressing people who are trying to live as nocturnal Christians — those who have become so accustomed to living in the darkness that they may not even realize it.  John wants his readers to know that it’s absolutely impossible to call yourself a follower of Jesus while living in darkness.  “This is the message we have heard from [Jesus] and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).  It calls to mind the opening to John’s gospel where he introduced Jesus as the light that shines in the darkness, the light no darkness can overcome.  But this time, when John introduces his theme of light and darkness, he’s also applying it to those who are professing to be followers of Jesus.

When John wrote his letters near the end of the first century, he may well have been the last breathing apostle.  He lived through a time when this new religion, that came to be called Christianity, was being formed.  People were sorting it out as they went.  Much of what we take for granted as basic Christianity 101 was still emerging: how to worship God, appropriate ways to support one another in community, the doctrine of the Trinity, the mystery of the incarnation, what, if anything, was required to gain admittance to the church.  It all had to be hammered out by the Christian community under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  And often before orthodox theology was established, there were disagreements.

In the time of John, there was a strong movement called Gnosticism that presented a challenge to Christians.  The Gnostics were people who had trouble accepting the humanity of Jesus.  They couldn’t figure out how it was possible for Jesus to be God and for Him to die, so instead of accepting this fact based on eyewitnesses and faith, they rationalized it away.  One explanation was that God’s Spirit had temporarily taken over Jesus’ body at the time of His baptism, but it left again before He went to the cross.  Other Gnostics theorized that Jesus was never a real human being, but only appeared as one.  John was probably speaking directly to the gnostic influence on the early church when he began this letter by making it perfectly clear that he had seen Jesus with his own eyes and touched him with his own hands; Jesus is a real flesh and blood human being, fully human and fully divine.  Not half of one and half the other, but fully both.

One of the dangerous things about the Gnostics was that by separating the spirit from the body so distinctly, the things of God were relegated to the spiritual world, and they had nothing to do with physical reality.  This gave them permission to do whatever they pleased in the physical world so long as they remained pure in spirit.  John may have had the Gnostics in mind when he wrote about those who are walking in darkness, but it’s not hard to see that this little section about light and darkness has a lot to say to us as well when he equates living in the light to truth, and living in darkness to deception.

Have you ever noticed that romantic restaurants are always dimly lit, and often use candles as a light source?  That’s because people always look better by candlelight.  In the bright light you can see skin imperfections, scars, and wrinkles.  It’s all there.  But by candlelight, it’s more like looking at one of those glamour shots that the photographer has touched up.  It’s easy to hide imperfections in the dark.  Maybe that’s why it’s so attractive to us.  When we hide in the darkness, we don’t have to acknowledge our imperfections.  We can pretend they don’t exist.

If we stay in the darkness long enough, we can delude ourselves into believing that we’re nearly perfect — like people who are raised in a culture where the acceptable response to violence is always retaliation with more violence.  In the darkness they become so convinced that they’re right that they can’t see the truth.  This can be true for entire nations.  We all have our blind spots.

We consider ourselves compassionate people, but how often do we look at the homeless with a jaundiced eye?  We don’t consider ourselves as racists, but we look differently at someone of color.  We get angry with parents who abuse their children, yet we neglect our own.  We say we know sin when we see it … unless it’s a part of our darkness, and then we do everything we can to protect ourselves from the light of truth.  It’s like sitting around the campfire at night and someone shines a flashlight in your eyes.  The light only hurts your eyes when we’re in darkness.  If you’re sitting in the sunlight and someone shines a flashlight in your eyes, it doesn’t bother you.

John declares, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).  What sin are we hiding in the darkness?  Chances are it isn’t the one we’ll readily admit.  It might even be buried so deeply in the darkness that you can’t see it.  That’s why we need to see ourselves in the light, in God’s light.  We need to see ourselves as God sees us, and acknowledge our sinfulness.

If God was a disciplinarian who was out to zap us every time we stepped out of line, it might make sense to continue hiding in the darkness.  But the opposite is the case.  John tells us, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

What a joy it is to live in God’s light knowing that God loves us and freely forgives the penitent.  We’re not meant to be nocturnal.  God, in His love and mercy, frees us to be the people we were created to be, living in the light, without shame or fear.  If you’ve ever seen the Phantom of the Opera, you know what a tragic story it is.  It’s all about a man being held in bondage by fear and shame.  After being badly disfigured, the phantom looks hideous and is forced to live his life hiding in the shadows with a mask over his face.  He longs to be accepted despite this, to be seen in the light, to remove his mask, and have someone look him in the face and love him.  This is something that we all want.

Confession is required to walk in God’s light, and it’s good for the soul.  It means the difference between living in eternal darkness and living in eternal Light.  As disciples of Jesus and children of God, God’s grace is a free gift that’s ours anytime we walk away from the darkness and answer God’s call to bask in the light of His mercy and love.


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