Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Grace? Grace.” (Hebrews 10:14-18)
November 18, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The bestselling author Mitch Albom recently finished his most recent book, The Next Person You Meet in Heaven (2018). The premise of this book, like its prequel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003), is that in heaven you meet five different people who predeceased you and who had a major impact on your life, even if you were unaware of it, and who teach you something specific that gives you clearer perspective on what happened during your earthly life.
In The Next Person You Meet in Heaven, the protagonist is Annie, a newlywed who on the day after her wedding was on a hot air balloon ride with her new husband Paulo. They collided with some powerlines, and her husband died, but she survived. However, Annie had a near death experience during which she met her mom Lorraine in heaven.
Annie’s father had left her and Lorraine when Annie was a little girl. One evening Lorraine and her boyfriend took Annie to an amusement park called Ruby Pier and left Annie to fend for herself. But there was a tragic accident that resulted in Annie having her left hand severed. Although her hand was surgically reattached, she was very embarrassed by the scars, and always wore long sleeved shirts even in summer to keep her scars covered.
After Annie’s accident, her mother Lorraine was wracked with guilt for not being there to keep Annie from getting hurt. From then on she overcompensated and became a suffocating overprotective mother, and this resulted in Annie deeply resenting her and leaving home after her high school graduation. When Annie finally reconnected with her mother, she was dying of cancer. Lorraine died before Annie and her were fully reconciled, which unfortunately is not uncommon in families. This time, Annie was the one wracked with guilt.
But during her near death experience Annie meets her mom in heaven, and something very significant happens. Mitch Albom writes:
In the blue river of the afterlife, Lorraine cupped her hands and lifted water up, watching it pour through her fingers. “This is your heaven?” Annie asked. “Isn’t it beautiful? I wanted serenity after all the conflict of my life. Here I enjoy a calm I never knew on earth.” “And you’ve been waiting for me all this time?” “What’s time between a mother and her daughter? Never too much, never enough.” “Mom?” “Yes.” “We fought a lot.” “I know.” She took Annie’s left hand and guided it into the water. “But is that all you remember?”
Annie felt her fingers floating and her mind doing the same. In the water’s reflection she saw only loving scenes from her childhood, countless memories, her mother kissing her goodnight, unwrapping a new toy, plopping whipped cream onto pancakes, putting Annie on her first bicycle, stitching a ripped dress, sharing a tube of lipstick, pushing a button to Annie’s favorite radio station. It was as if someone unlocked a vault and all these fond recollections could be examined at once.
“Why didn’t I feel this before?” she whispered. “Because we embrace our scars more than our healing,” Lorraine said. “We can recall the exact day we got hurt, but who remembers the day the wound was gone? From the moment you woke up in that hospital, I was different with you, and you were different with me. You were sullen. You were mad. You fought with me constantly. You hated my restrictions. But that wasn’t the real reason for your anger, was it?”
Lorraine reached down and clutched Annie’s fingers. “Can you break that last secret? Can you say the real reason for your resentment since Ruby Pier?” Annie choked up. Her voice was barely a whisper. “Because you weren’t there to save me.” Lorraine closed her eyes. “That’s right. Can you forgive me for that?” “Mom.” “Yes?” “You don’t need to hear me say it.” “No, I don’t,” Lorraine said softly. “But you do.”
Annie began to cry again, tears of release, blessed release, the expulsion of secrets bottled up for years. She realized the sacrifices Lorraine had made before and after that day at Ruby Pier…She thought about her mother’s small funeral, and how much of Lorraine’s life had been surrendered to protect Annie’s. “Yes, yes, I forgive you, Mom. Of course I forgive you. I didn’t know. I love you.” Lorraine placed her hands together. “Grace?” “Grace.” “That,” Lorraine said, smiling, “is what I was here to teach you” (148-150).
As you know, we talk a lot about grace here at Christ Church, because grace, God’s one-way unconditional love in Jesus Christ, is the heart of the gospel. Moreover, grace is directly connected with forgiveness, which is not only the central theme of the passage I just read, but is also the central theme in today’s New Testament passage from the Letter to the Hebrews. In this passage the writer refers back to an Old Testament prophesy from Jeremiah (31:33-34) and underscores the central place of forgiveness in the gospel:
For by a single offering (Jesus) has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin (Hebrews 10:14-18).
According to this passage, Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus’ “single offering” of himself means you are forgiven by God, and that “where there is forgiveness…there is no longer any offering for sin.” Do you believe that?
Forgiveness was at the heart of Jesus’ earthly ministry. One of the earlier miracles Jesus performed involved a paralytic whose friends carried him to a house where Jesus was healing people. They could not get to Jesus through the boisterous crowd, so they carried their friend up onto the top of the roof, broke a hole in the roof and lowered him down to Jesus. When Jesus saw this, what was the first thing he said? Jesus looked at the paralytic and gently said, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). Of course Jesus also healed him physically, as he later said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and go home” (Mark 2:11). The paralytic had not asked for forgiveness, but apparently from Jesus’ perspective it was more important that the paralytic knew he was forgiven than it was to walk.
And it is the same with you.
Later in his earthly ministry Jesus was at a house party a Pharisee was hosting. Many of the guests were the wealthy movers and shakers of the community, the “town and gown” set. During the meal a prostitute who had experienced God’s forgiveness through Jesus’ ministry walked right up to Jesus in the middle of this party and started weeping and bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears. Then she took the most valuable possession she has, an alabaster jar of perfume, and broke it open and poured it out on Jesus’ feet. The others there were indignant, in disbelief about her audacity. But Jesus said, “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.” Then in the same way Jesus had done with the paralytic, he looked at her and said, “Your sins are forgiven…go in peace” (Luke 7:36-50).
Again, it the same with you. Your sins are forgiven.
I suspect some of you still doubt that you are forgiven by God. Perhaps you think God is still keeping score on your life, meticulously recording in his book every time you mess up in one way or another. But because of Jesus’ “single offering” on the cross, because “there is no longer any offering for sin” scripture assures you that God has forgiven you, that in Jesus you “have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of (your) trespasses according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on (you)” (Ephesians 1:7-8). Grace? Grace.
In response to God’s forgiveness we are called to forgive others. This is probably not a new concept for you, but it something of which we all need to be reminded. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted,” scripture tells us, “forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
There is one more aspect to this forgiveness. Back to Mitch Albom for a moment…his first and most famous book is Tuesdays with Morrie, which recounts conversations he had with Morrie Schwartz, a sociology professor who had impacted his life many years before. Morrie was dying, and so for fourteen straight weeks on Tuesday morning Mitch flew from his home in Michigan to New England, visited with Morrie that afternoon, and then flew back to Michigan that night. Here’s what Morrie told Mitch on the twelfth Tuesday: “Forgive yourself before you die. Then forgive others…There is no point in keeping vengeance or stubbornness. These things”—he sighed—“these things I so regret in my life. Pride. Vanity. Why do we do the things we do?” (164). Morrie continues:
“It’s not just other people we need to forgive, Mitch. We also need to forgive ourselves.” Ourselves? “Yes. For all the things we didn’t do. All the things we should have done. You can’t get stuck on the regrets of what should have happened. That doesn’t help you when you get to where I am. I always wished I had done more with my work; I wished I had written more books. I used to beat myself up over it. Now I see that never did any good. Make peace. You need to make peace with yourself and everyone around you…Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Don’t wait, Mitch. Not everyone gets the time I’m getting. Not everyone is as lucky” (166-167).
On Good Friday Jesus died to atone for your sins, to ensure that you are forgiven, completely—no exceptions, no qualifications, no disclaimers. Right after being nailed to the cross Jesus prayed for forgiveness for the world and for you, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). When it comes to sin and forgiveness we often do not know what we are doing…but God does, and God has chosen to forgive.
Maybe, like Annie in The Next Person You Meet in Heaven, there was a time in your life when you got really hurt, and there was not someone there to save you. If so, chances are you remember the exact day you got hurt. And perhaps like Annie you are ashamed of the scars that wound left you, and you are always wearing metaphorical long sleeve shirts to keep those scars hidden, even in the summer.
What you do with your scars is up to you, but the Risen Jesus has never tried to hide his scars from Good Friday, his scars from the exact day he got hurt and was wounded for your transgressions. In addition to the other people you will meet in heaven someday, you will meet the One who died to save you.
“By a single offering (Jesus) has perfected for all time those who are sanctified… there is no longer any offering for sin.”
Jesus’ words to the paralytic and the prostitute are his words to you, “Your sins are forgiven.” That is the good news of the gospel.