This passage comes up in the lectionary on the Sunday after Easter, but I saved it for today...
I was remembering this week the very first time I preached at a church I served as a director of Christian Education and youth ministry. L., the pastor, was so kind to give me the opportunity. I was so eager to “get it right,” and I worked so hard on that sermon. I researched, I wrote, I researched some more; I probably spent about forty hours on it. And then I preached it. And then, a few days later, L. and I sat down to talk about it.
She was so kind. I was so eager. And that is a great combination, because I was able to hear the heart of her critique and remember it:
Too much. Too many. Think, “everything but the kitchen sink.”
Too much “stuff” was in my sermon. Too many points were in my sermon. L. said, kindly, “There were maybe six or seven sermons in there. You only need to preach one at a time.” It’s a classic new preacher move: you’re not sure when you’re going to get to preach again, so you put everything imaginable in there. All Jesus’ words! All your ideas! All the commentators’ commentary! But all that results in is a kind of overwhelming seven-course sermon that leaves everyone in need of some Gaviscon and a nap.
And so, ever since that conversation 15 or so years ago, I have been very diligent about trying to write just one sermon at a time, with just one main point.
Sometimes, it is really hard to do that. Today, for instance. Our passage from the gospel of John, one that is normally presented on the Sunday after Easter, contains so many important themes and ideas. Here, in rapid succession, I will share with you some rabbit holes I’ve chosen not to go down in the pursuit of this sermon:
What, exactly, were the disciples afraid of?
What is the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body, that he both has the wounds of his crucifixion and can walk through closed and locked doors?
If Jesus is giving the Holy Spirit, does that mean that Pentecost and Easter are happening simultaneously here?
Whose twin is Thomas, anyway?
All, fascinating and potentially important points. All worthy of exploration! But I am going to be disciplined. I am going to be the “not-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” preacher today. I am going to talk about one thing. Well, two. But they’re related.
I am going to talk about wounds, and forgiveness.
Jesus comes to be among his friends, his frightened and hiding friends, after a week we can only begin to imagine. The word “whiplash” comes to mind—the arc of this week beginning with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, in which he is welcomed as a hero, on the verge of a great victory. He is hailed and feted and festooned with palms. And five days later, after a meal with his friends in which he lets them know pretty clearly that the end is near, he is hauled off as a criminal, tried before civil and religious authorities, including a governor, and, finally, taken to be executed, to be crucified. And then, wham, the roller coaster takes another whiplash-inducing turn and Jesus is not dead in the tomb but alive in the garden and talking to Mary Magdalene. And then, hours later, that same night, he is here.
Here, in this room with his terrified and perhaps now utterly confused friends. He is showing them his wounds. And he is telling them about forgiveness.
So, let me state the obvious. There are lots of people in this room who have been hurt, and there are lots of people in this room who have done the hurting. Jesus, of all gathered here, would be the one with the most compelling case against forgiveness, and it’s not surprising that, 2000 years later, someone has written a series of books in which Jesus does things like make people explode by just looking at them.[i] I understand the impulse. Jesus has been betrayed by one of his closest friends. He has been abandoned or denied by the rest of them. He has been tried, convicted and punished for crimes he never committed, and his punishment has been the most severe and painful imaginable. If anyone in this room has the “right” not to forgive, if we want to put it in terms of “rights,” the winner would be Jesus.
And yet. Here he comes, mysteriously appearing right in the midst of the fear and the hiding out.
First, Jesus shows them his wounds.
Next, Jesus says “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Then, Jesus breathes into them, in the exact same way God breathes into the man in the Garden of Eden, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
And then, Jesus talks to them about forgiveness.
Let’s take these things one at a time. First, the wounds. I have always assumed that Jesus shows his wounds to his friends as a kind of proof of his identity, sort of an ancient Near Eastern equivalent of dental records. But I think the wounds serve another function as well. If you don’t have wounds, you don’t have a need to forgive anyone. Forgiveness, by definition, has to be given by those who have been harmed. Perhaps Jesus is indeed doing a “See, it’s really me!” kind of thing here. But he is also, I believe, presenting his credentials for his teaching on forgiveness.
“Peace be with you,” Jesus says. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In other words, I am about to give you the very same task given to me by God. And to help you with that task, here: I give you the Holy Spirit. I breathe into you, life.
Here is what Jesus says next:
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. (John 20:23, New Revised Standard Version)
Here, in this darkened and fear-filled room, on the evening of the day of resurrection, Jesus tells his friends that the task before them, THE task for Christians ever after, is forgiveness. If you forgive those who harm you, they will be forgiven. If you don’t, well, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “what are you going to do with them?”
What ARE you going to do with them?
Have you ever fantasized about what you would do to those people you don’t want to forgive? Oh, I have. And, I’d just like to say, my particular pathology in this area, as has been pointed out to me on more than one occasion, is my need to demonstrate that though I am the one who has been wronged, but I will rise above it. Nobly.
And that, dear ones, is absolutely no one’s definition of “forgiveness.” That is all about ego. That is all about pride. That is all about wanting to win.
Forgiveness is a letting go—of the need to rewrite the past, of the need to be right, of the need to be the injured party.
Forgiveness is a letting go— of pride, of ego, of self.
At the same time, forgiveness is an embracing—of a new future, a new freedom, a new life. It is often said, but I think underappreciated, that the greatest benefit truly goes to the one doing the forgiving. Gary Renard, in “The Disappearance of the Universe,” writes, “There will always be only two choices: your true home with God, and separation, or individuality.” Guess which of these choices is the one arrived at through forgiveness? Forgiveness is the choice to be in our true home, with God, and not just in the world to come, not just as a ticket to paradise, but right here, right now. Our true home is with God, every minute of every day. And that is why Jesus has unleashed the Spirit: to give us the power and the ability to do the forgiving. Receive the Spirit, says Jesus, and forgive one another.
Christians are not the only ones who know this, by the way. I Googled the phrase, “breathing forgiveness,” and when the results appeared, there were links from Christians, but also from the Hindu tradition, the Jewish tradition, the Native American tradition, the Buddhist tradition, the Islamic tradition—and more still. We Christians don’t have a corner on the forgiveness market. Every great system of attempting to understand God and be in communion with God recognizes the essential nature of forgiveness for all of us, for all our healing.
It is morning, on the first day of the week, and we are still breathing in the fragrance of the resurrection and the Holy Spirit. There are lots of people in this room who have been hurt, and there are lots of people in this room who have done the hurting. Jesus, of all gathered here, would be the one with the most compelling case against forgiveness, if he cared to make it. But Jesus abides in the heart of God, at all times, and Jesus invites us to be there, too. But first he shows us his wounds, and he lets us dig all around in them, like Thomas. And when we do that, when we look at those wounds, and see them, and even probe them and touch them, we know ourselves. We, the wounded. We, the wounders. We, the hurt ones. We, who do the hurting. We, who need to forgive. We, who need to be forgiven.
Life. Forgiveness is all about life. New life. Better life. Real life. As hard as it is. As painful as it is. As liberating as it is. As exhilarating as it is. Forgiveness is new, and real, and better life, in the heart of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.