This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him. But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it.
You will show me the path to life, / fullness of joys in your presence, / the delights at your right hand forever.
As we begin our annual post-Easter reading of Acts, we hear Peter, who had fearfully denied Jesus on the night of his arrest, courageously proclaiming the truth of Jesus’ being raised from the dead. The Acts of the Apostles is the story of the effects of the Resurrection on Jesus’ followers and the proclamation of its truth and its implications for the whole world. It is striking to hear Peter lay before the people, without mitigation, the truth of their guilt for Jesus’ death. He declares directly that they killed Jesus. But, then, he tells them that their guilt and evil is not the end of the story. “But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it.”
To live in the light of the Resurrection of Jesus is to understand that our own evil and sinfulness are not the last word. It is impossible for Jesus to be held by death because the ever creative and life-giving love of God is stronger than death. The Resurrection of Jesus attests to the truth of things, that despite our tendency to believe that our mistakes, failures, and even sins are somehow permanent in their results, God’s love and so life cannot be bound by them. The deeper truth, as Psalm 16 reminds us, is that wherever we find ourselves at any given moment God desires to show us “the path to life.”
Often we don’t see the path to life because we are mired in the experience of our own guilt and despair. What is the difference, as our scriptures present them, between Peter and Judas? Judas despairs, a despair that is a form of pride. It is actually a manifestation of pride that we well know. It is the belief that we are so terrible, that the hurt we have inflicted is so permanent, that love and redemption is impossible, that life is somehow “held” by the power of our failure. We forget that the process and flow of God’s life and creative love always continues. We harden and reify our own actions at a moment in time, and feel as if the process of life has ceased to unfold.
When I was young, I would become so ashamed when I failed someone and so hurt when they failed me that I would move away from relating to others at the first sign of conflict, hurt, or failure. I could not begin to even intuit, let alone trust, that continuing relationship and love was possible in the face of my own weakness and failure. I still vividly remember, as a not so young adult, really hearing for the first time when a friend told me that for him relationships into which he entered were lasting. I had no idea, up to that point, that a person would or could continue to love me even when I failed or hurt them, and, on the other hand, that I could risk forgiving and continuing to love those who had hurt me.
As I later entered into some longer term counseling relationships with others, I learned this truth of the Resurrection even more clearly. Counseling is, above all, a relationship and, because of this fact, it will involve all the aspects of any relationship, including misunderstanding, failure, and hurt. Yet, when we acknowledge the failures and continue ‘to process” them, the result can be an even more effective working relationship. To learn that we need not flee but rather to stay with and work through our failings in love and relationship, we begin to deepen in our trust in life, in forgiveness, in the Resurrection.
As Psalm 16 tells us, life is a way and a path. it is continual movement and change. It is of the nature of our false form of life to reify reality, to see our life as a series of discreet and largely disconnected events. By doing this we tend to block the flow of deeper life and change. We forget the basic lesson of Heraclitus, that we never step into the same river twice. We also forget that we are never the same person who twice steps into the river.
Avoidance of difficulty and conflict is always a sign of our inability to trust life and so to trust the love of God for us. We very often don’t keep alive the dialogue and relationship with each other because we fear rather than trust the outcome. We do not face ourselves because we fear that we are no more than our failures. We do not seek forgiveness because we are convinced that what we have done is unforgivable. On the other hand, we do not forgive because we fear that forgiving the other the wrong they have done us will somehow leave us empty. We do not trust that if we stay engaged with life and others that God will show us ‘the path of life” and “fullness of joy in [God’s] presence.”
Peter does not mince words with the crowd. He tells them that it is by facing the stark truth that they killed Jesus that they can come to know their true place. That place, on the one hand, is one of humiliation, yet it is also the place from which we come to know the love of God that cannot be held by our failings. Unlike Judas, Peter was able to trust and so to believe that love is stronger than death and even his own denial. He could live honestly with his own complexity, that he could both love Jesus and deny him. Our love, unlike God’s, has of its essence qualities of failure and the need for forgiveness. Our path to the fullness of joy is obstructed by sinfulness and sadness. God’s raising of Jesus, however, signals to us the truth that there is a love that cannot be held by our sin and death, by our failures and vulnerabilities.
It is no accident that the initial proclamation of the Resurrection begins with the call to acknowledge our sinfulness. It is in our profoundly mistaken attempts to kill off the love that is always disturbing our lives that we come to know our own powerlessness against it. We would establish a false way of living that would ignore our own truth and our own sin because we mistakenly fail to believe in the truth and power of eternal life. Yet, that resurrected life always continues to disturb us, to summon us to forgive and be forgiven that we might again be shown “the path of life and fullness of joys in your presence.”
You have arrived at your true home and the wonders that are there for you; you don’t need to wander around looking for something more. You stop running. In Zen, this is called samatha meditation, which means “stopping.” When you can stop, your parents, your grandparents, and all your ancestors in you also can stop. When you can take a step as a free person, all your ancestors present in every cell of your body are also walking in freedom. If you can stop running and take all your steps freely like that, you are expressing the most real and concrete faithfulness, and devotion to your parents and ancestors.
I have arrived, I am home
in the here, in the now.
I am solid, I am free.
In the ultimate I dwell.
This meditation verse helps you to be able to dwell solidly in the present moment. Hold fast to these words, and you’ll be able to establish your presence solidly in the present, just as when you hold on to a railing while climbing stairs, you never fall.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Breath, p. 30