Practicing Resurrection: Forgiveness – John 20.19-31

April 27, 2014 – 2nd Sunday of Easter

Last Sunday, Easter Sunday, we heard the first half of John chapter 20. This morning we hear the second half of John chapter 20. Part of it takes place on the evening of the day when Mary Magdalene and the other disciples discover the tomb where the body of Jesus had been placed a few days earlier is unexpectedly empty. And part of it takes place a week later.

READ John 20.19-31

After v. 29: I don’t think that’s criticism of Thomas. I think that’s the writer of John explaining his context: the late first century church that has heard the stories of Jesus from those who actually knew him and now they struggle to know how to go on without Jesus being with them as he was after the resurrection. //

So the writer of this gospel says to the people for whom Jesus is not there physically: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Unlike our Easter celebration last Sunday, the first Easter observance is not one of joy and exuberance. It is unexpected and confusing and by evening the disciples are afraid. Not just the eleven but the faith community that followed Jesus.[1] They are afraid of the religious authorities who have announced that anyone who acknowledged Jesus to be the Christ–the Messiah–would be expelled from the synagogue. (9.22) You might remember hearing that in the story of the man born blind back in chapter 9.

Jesus appears in the room even though the doors are locked and says, “Peace be with you.” It’s an ordinary greeting but now it has added meaning. Back in chapter 14, Jesus promised the disciples his peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” he said. “I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” Jesus said to them (14.27) when he was preparing them for his departure. And now as promised he gives them peace.

Then he commissioned the gathered disciples for their ministry. “As God has sent me, so I send you.” I want to say, “Jesus, do you really know what you are doing??” All through John’s gospel, the writer makes clear that God has given all things to Jesus and that everything that Jesus does is what God does. Jesus came from God to do the will and work of God and to make God known to the world. Now Jesus sends the community of disciples to continue the work God sent Jesus to do. That’s a lot of responsibility! And I have a bad feeling about how it’s going to go for the disciples. I don’t think they’re going to do it very well. But back in chapter 14 when Jesus is talking with them about what it will be like when he leaves them, he says, “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” (14.12) And here he is trusting them to do just that.

Commissioning this band of disciples, Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit (this is Pentecost in John’s gospel)–the community of disciples will not be doing the work of God on their own–they will do it through the power of the Holy Spirit. And then Jesus gives them the ministry of forgiveness.

Now this statement of Jesus “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” has been used in crazy ways to prop up church leaders throughout history as being the only ones who can absolve people of their sins.

I want to say this commission from God to forgive sin is the work of all of us–every single member of the community of followers of Jesus–but not because we have some greater power to grant (or withhold) forgiveness. You and I are called to live a life of forgiveness because that’s part of how we love one another as Jesus loves us. Do you remember the conversation of Jesus with the disciples when he washes their feet? “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (13.24). And forgiveness is an essential part of love.

This sermon is titled “Practicing Resurrection.” Too often we think everything hinges on belief. That we have to believe certain things as followers of Jesus. But believing is not the whole deal. In fact, sometimes it is not even the most important part.

I read an article recently by a guy named Jon Sweeney who wrote about growing up in “the traditional Protestant way”—a tradition many of us grew up in—which taught us to believe that “believing, all by itself, was transformative.” That believing the right thoughts–and probably saying them out loud in confirmation class or at some other point in our lives–would save us.[2] Now, as Jon Sweeney writes about his life, instead of putting all the emphasis on his mind believing certain propositions, he looks more at his life and how his religious tradition shapes him. He’s a practicing Catholic and says, “Even when I can’t explain precisely why, I kneel as I enter and leave church.”[3] “If I want to understand someone’s religious life, I don’t ask them what they believe [I ask them] what they do.”[4]

That’s what seems to matter about resurrection. Is it something we believe–and then what it is we’re supposed to believe–or is it something that transforms our lives and changes us? Even if we can’t exactly explain how or why. That’s not to say don’t think about things or that thinking doesn’t matter. One of the things I like about being Presbyterian is we have a long history of cultivating the life of the mind. But that’s not the whole story.

Because if it all stays up in our heads, who cares? If it doesn’t transform our lives, what’s the point?

The last line of one of the hymns we sang last Sunday has stayed with me this week. We sang, “Christ is risen, Christ is present / making us what he has been: / evidence of transformation / in which God is known and seen.”[5]

So we practice resurrection. We practice living in the way of the One who said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” How do we practice? One writer says, “By loving one another as Jesus loves, the faith community reveals God to the world; by revealing God to the world, the church makes it possible for the world to choose to enter into relationship with this God of limitless love…The faith community’s mission, therefore, is not to be the arbiter of right or wrong,” handing out forgiveness depending on who’s worthy of it, “but to bear unceasing witness to the love of God in Jesus.”[6] That’s how we practice resurrection.

Now that sounds great as long as love is a happy feeling and no one steps on your toes in your happy parade. But Jesus’ charge to us is to forgive–that’s how we bear witness to the love of God in Jesus. By forgiving. Which is fine until it is you who gets hurt, wronged, betrayed, lied to, mistreated, abused, slandered or maligned. You get what I’m saying?

Forgiveness. It is one of the hardest things we are called upon to do. And it is a practice of resurrection. A sign of abundant life. We don’t do it on our own power. God gives us the Holy Spirit so we might be able to forgiven. And it still isn’t easy.

Let me say that forgiveness is not about saying harm you have suffered doesn’t matter. Forgiveness is not saying, “It’s okay” to someone who has betrayed you. Forgiveness is not saving someone who has wronged you from experiencing the consequences of their actions. Forgiveness is also not something that someone else can make you do. It cannot be coerced. Forgiveness is not a panacea. It is not a magic bullet.

Forgiveness can take a long time.

Forgiveness is giving life another chance and forgiveness can save your life.

Forgiveness is letting go. Letting go of the anger, the depression, the hopelessness eating you from the inside. You may have heard me quote author Anne Lamott before who says, “Not forgiving someone is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rats to die.”

Forgiveness can be between two people. Forgiveness can be between communities or nations.

Twenty years ago 500,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsi and Hutu Rwandans were murdered by fellow Hutu Rwandans. Approximately 20% of the Rwandan population was murdered and 70% of the Tutsi living in Rwanda.[7] These days, Rwandans are trying to come to terms with their communal trauma. Forgiveness and collective responsibility as well as justice for those who participated in the massacre are part of how the people of Rwanda are healing.

Their journey to forgiveness and reconciliation comes, in part, from the example of the people of South Africa who followed the brutal legacy of apartheid with concerted work not to simply follow one repressive regime with the next one.

“Forgiveness is not just personally rewarding” says Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It is what “allowed South Africans to imagine a new beginning–one based on honesty, peace, and compassion…For our nation to heal and become a more human place, we had to embrace our enemies as well as our friends. The same is true the world over. True enduring peace–between countries, within a country, within a community, within a family–requires real reconciliation between former enemies and even between loved ones who have struggled with one another.”[8]

Sometimes forgiveness does not involve the person who has wronged you. Maybe they have died or will never admit their part in hurting you or is a person with whom there is no possibility of reconciliation. Still you can extend forgiveness–even if the other person never knows it or will never accept it–forgiveness frees you to let go of the pain. We don’t do this because we are strong enough. We do it because Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit to transform our lives.

Jesus teaches us that forgiveness is an essential expression of love. It is not easy. But it is necessary. We cannot love without forgiveness and it is the first thing Jesus commissions his followers to carry on about his work. Forgive.

That is the hard work–but also the joy–of imagining a new beginning; of giving life another chance; of practicing resurrection.

* * *

[1] Gail O’Day, p846.
[2] Jon M. Sweeney, “What’s in a religious identity? Being and doing.” Christian Century, November 13, 2013, p31.
[3] Ibid., p32.
[4] Ibid., p31.
[5] “Christ is Risen” text by John L. Bell and Graham Maule, (c) WGRG, Iona community, 1988.
[6] O’Day, p848.
[7], accessed April 26, 2014.
[8], accessed April 26, 2014.


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