Everyone who had the flu this past winter would probably agree: if you could do something to prevent it, that would be better than any medicine you could take to make you feel better. No matter how good the treatment for an illness might be, no matter how effective the medication, doing something to avoid becoming ill in the first place is far, far better. It’s the old saying: “An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.”
That’s somewhat similar to what John tells us in our second reading today when he says, “I am writing this to you so that you may not commit sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father…who is expiation for our sins.” In other words, it is better not to sin in the first place. That is because sin produces disorder in God’s creation, all of which he created to be in harmony with everything else. Sin harms or sometimes even severs our relationships with others and most of all with God himself. And it creates suffering. However, we do have a remedy for sin: Jesus Christ, the Advocate with the Father of whom St. John speaks. Jesus came into the world because sin had entered into God’s creation and introduced disorder and suffering. Jesus came to restore order to his creation, to put an end to suffering, and to restore the relationships between people, and between God and the human race.
So you could say that, if sin is the disease, then Jesus is the cure. It would be better never to sin, i.e. never to contract the disease. But because of our fallen human nature, we do fall into sin. And so God sent his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to heal us. However, like most analogies, at some point it is kind of limited. I say that because the relationship with Jesus is there for us regardless, even if somehow we had never sinned. For example, the Blessed Mother by God’s grace was preserved from sin, even from the stain of original sin. As a result, her relationship with Jesus was perfect. So Jesus can’t be limited to a kind of medicine that is only for restoring sinners to spiritual health. He is certainly that, but even more than that.
Also, Jesus doesn’t just restore us to spiritual health – also known as a state of grace – he also promises to transform us, to make us more and more like himself, which spiritual writers often refer to as divinization. Jesus became man so that we might become like God.
Another way this analogy is limited is that, sometimes we get better even if we don’t take any medicine. The illness just kind of runs its course and then the body defeats it and we recover. But with spiritual illness, the only way to return to spiritual health is through Jesus Christ. It doesn’t just go away on its own or through our own power.
Now, having pointed out the limitations of this analogy, I would like to make use of it again because it is still useful. If sin is the disease and Jesus is the cure, we have to avail ourselves somehow of the cure. If you’re seriously ill, you go to the doctor. Perhaps you need an operation or antibiotics or major treatment or hospitalization or whatever. But you have to do something – you have to take some kind of action in order to get access to the cure or the medicine you need.
Sin has entered into the world, and so God the Father sent his Son to restore what had been lost because of sin. Jesus came to give us the gift of God’s mercy, of forgiveness. God has taken the initiative, the first step to restore us to health. But we do have to take action in order to avail ourselves of this cure. We have to do something in order to receive this gift. That is where repentance comes in. Repentance is the action that we have to take in order to receive God’s forgiveness. Repentance and the forgiveness of sins – the two go together; you cannot have one without the other. That is the kerygma; that is the Gospel message.
All three of our readings today focus on this dual theme of repentance and forgiveness. From the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles: “Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.” From our second reading from the first letter of St. John, which I’ve already quoted: “If anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ. He is expiation for our sins.” And from the Gospel, the words of the Risen Jesus to his disciples: “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations.”
How do we accept this gift of God’s mercy and forgiveness? First, we have to acknowledge our need for his mercy. We have to cultivate self-knowledge and self-awareness, so that we can become aware of those thoughts, words, and deeds that lead us away from God. That’s where a brief examination of conscience at the end of each day would be useful. Also, at times we may get criticized by others, whether it’s by a boss or co-worker, a friend, roommate, family member, maybe sometimes even a complete stranger. Our first response is usually defensiveness. But I would suggest, don’t automatically dismiss it. Mother Teresa – someone I can’t imagine criticizing – said that when she faced criticism, she would reflect on it to see if perhaps there were a degree of truth in it. If not, she would give thanks to the Lord for being able to share with him for a moment the humiliation that he experienced. But if there were truth in it, she would use it as an opportunity to grow and to become a better person. And the better the person knows you, the more they might know what they’re talking about.
To receive God’s forgiveness, then, we need to recognize that we’re not perfect and that we need to be forgiven. We also need to feel some sorrow or contrition for our sins. And, we need to have some kind of purpose of amendment, i.e. I did this, I acted this way, perhaps I hurt someone through my words or my actions, but I do not want to be this kind of person, I do not want to do this again. Acknowledgement of our need for God’s mercy, contrition, and a purpose of amendment or a desire to change – that’s what is needed in order to be able to receive the gift of forgiveness. And I would encourage you all to avail yourselves from time to time of this beautiful sacrament of reconciliation, when we receive that forgiveness. It is a gift waiting to be received.
Once you’ve been forgiven by God, sometimes it is necessary to work on forgiving yourself. As often as the guilt over past sins presents itself, we have to remind ourselves that God has forgiven us. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves again and again that, yes, God forgives. I too can be forgiven. There is no sin too great for God’s mercy. Through the power of his death on the Cross, Jesus washes us clean of our sins. Jesus’s death and resurrection are the cure that restore us to spiritual health and lead us to eternal life.