Jesus Rises

We are called to be a people of second chances… This very idea undergirds all that we say as a community of faith: forgiveness, grace, and mercy are our watchwords. At our community Sunrise Service this morning, we heard about the incredible recovery ministry at Brookhaven United Methodist, whose whole purpose is give a second chance to the rawest of the raw, to those who have fallen to addiction’s alluring draw.

And yet, that very notion, that mercy and grace are gifts to all, is downright countercultural. It seems like we live in a time when the very idea of giving someone a second chance is treated as a kind of moral weakness. I’m not sure that’s a particularly unique characteristic of this moment and place in time, but it does feel as though we are more aware of the clay feet of our cultural idols than ever before.

One manifestation is our cultural obsession with scandal. And our public figures give us plenty of reason to be scandalized! In politics, we can hearken back to the moral failings of Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich. More recently, we can point to New Jersey’s Jim McGreevey and his affair with his male security adviser, or South Carolina’s Mark Sanford surprising us with the news that the Appalachian Trail goes all the way to Argentina. It seems that our public figures’ lust for attention turns out not to be the only lust in their lives. And if we’re honest, we tend to revel in hypocrisy that their private lives reveal.

And it’s not just politics where these things happen. The church, sadly, is home to its share of scandalous public secrets. Whether we go back to the very public collapses of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart, or to the more recent embarrassments of Ted Haggard out in Colorado or Eddie Long here in Atlanta, it appears as though those who pride themselves on telling everyone else how to live are the very ones with secret lives going against everything that they preach.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “There are no second acts in American lives,” a quote which has become famous for being famously wrong. Clinton and Gingrich are still political forces in our country. Mark Sanford is making a comeback in South Carolina politics. Tammy Faye had a successful secular TV career. Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard, and Jimmy Swaggart are still in ministry, though less publicly. Eddie Long still pastors New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, though he remains under a shroud of suspicion. Second acts, actually, seem to be par for the course. And those second acts tend to look a lot like the first acts, leaving us to wonder if anyone ever learns anything when they fall from grace.

And yet, as our Biblical history reminds us, we are called to be a people of second chances…

Peter is, perhaps, one of the clearest examples of second chances. In the garden late Thursday night, Peter was valiantly defending his Christ. But in courtyard early Friday morning, he was already denying him. Falls from grace don’t get much more obvious than that. It may not as shocking as Judas’ betrayal, but it is spectacularly galling in its own special way. And yet, by the time we read of Peter in our lesson from Acts, he has been emboldened by his encounter with the risen Christ, and has risen to become a pillar of the early church. Even so, he still gets it wrong; and so we find him here, admitting the error of his ways. He had been zealously preaching the gospel as though it were an exclusive club, denying a place to Gentiles in favor of dietary and ritual purity. It takes a parting of the skies and the very presence of God to convert him. And our lesson this morning finds him telling the gathered crowd: “God shows no partiality.” All may take part in the promises of the gospel, regardless of parentage or tribe.

Given his personal history, it seems fitting that Peter is the bearer of this message.

Peter made a cameo appearance in the Easter story as well, as one of two disciples who sprint to the empty tomb. But it seems that neither understood the full extent of what just happened. That role, instead, is left to Mary Magdalene. She is the first witness to the risen Christ. She is another in a long line of Biblical characters who know what it means to be given a second chance.

We are called to be a people of second chances.

Here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, we love to get involved in ministries that live out those second chances. In our Habitat builds, we partner with other churches and new homeowners to help them move from the challenges of poverty to economic sustainability. In our Food Pantry, we give groceries to families who are not on anyone’s radar screen, and so are most in danger of slipping through the system’s cracks. And at Journey shelter, we take an active part in the lives of men who find themselves with nowhere else to go, journeying alongside them as they move from the streets to self-sufficiency.

But here’s our Easter morning reality-check: are we really any different? We may have advantages that give us cushion from the kind of immediate needs that these ministries serve. But the truth is, deep down, each of us needs to know that second chances are possible. We may be fortunate enough not to face the kind of humiliation that public figures do; but all of us, in ways great and small, need to know that life does not end in our moments of failure.

We live with the legacy of broken relationships: parent, child, neighbor, friend, husband, wife…We let down those whom we love. We do the very thing we know we should not; and we fail to do the very thing we know we should. We speak carelessly, leaving deep wounds and vicious scars. We lust. We desire. We covet. We objectify and dehumanize. We are Peter, denying Christ. We are Mary Magdalene, living in the shadows. We are people who need second chances, sometimes more than we are willing to admit.

And here’s the thing: they exist! Second chances are there for the taking! While it seems that most of the famous stories of disgrace and scandal mean only a temporary hiatus from the public eye, there are those who take their public humiliation as an opportunity to be reborn.

Those of you keeping score at home may have noticed that I mentioned Jim McGreevey earlier, but didn’t say anything about what has happened to him. An apparently forgettable documentary about his fall from grace just came out, but the story it tells is one we ought to hear. You may remember McGreevey’s resignation as governor of New Jersey in 2004, as he came clean in a press conference about his affair with a male advisor on security matters. His marriage, not surprisingly, ended in divorce, and his political career was just as dead. After intensive counseling and therapy, McGreevey wound up in seminary. He began pursuing ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. That bid was rejected, however, as his recent personal history with titles and power gave the church a good reason to be cautious, if not suspicious. But that rejection turned out to be a gift, McGreevey readily admits. Now he runs a program for women at the Hudson County jail which, it turns out, is called “Second Chance.” And as he talks about his work, he describes it in about the most religious terms I can imagine: it’s a “sacred place, a level of awareness, to try to follow God’s will in my life day in, day out.”

Do we believe in second chances? What is yours? Where is it that you can race to find, beyond all possibility, an empty tomb? Where is it that you can encounter the Jesus who rises from the dead? Where is your garden? Where is your sacred space, your reason and need to follow God’s will in your life? You may not have faced a personal scandal, but each of us knows, deep down, that we need to hear and see and believe in the promise resurrection in our lives.

The funny thing is that it has been there all along, right before our eyes! It may look like the gardener at first, but look again. Jesus rises so that we might know that our second chance is real.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!