Sermon on John 20:19-31 for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year B, April 12, 2015
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
A week ago Thursday, our Maundy Thursday service was wonderful. We were all together, people from both services who do not see each other that much. We reflected on the miraculous nature of us, the church; one community made of people who were strangers to each other, the first time we entered these doors. But strangers have become family, and that is what we are.
This week, at our Wednesday supper and program we watched a short video then had an engaging discussion. The theme was a new perspective on so called “Doubting Thomas.” We talked about doubt, which we all experience.
But we also reflected on the fact that Christ found Thomas, despite his doubt, and that Christ comes to each of us, despite all of the barriers we have put up; our locked doors, our fearful hiding from the truth, our doubts. Christ finds us.
The Passed Over Line about Forgiveness
So, since we already processed that part of this story, I would like to focus on one line that we did not look at much yet. It is a line that gets missed, since it goes by so quickly in this dream-like, deeply symbolic resurrection-appearance story.
It is the line Jesus says, when he first appears to the disciples in that locked room, before Thomas is present. Jesus said,
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Gallons of ink have been spilled on this, but I think most of it has been wasted. I think it is one of the simplest truths you can tell. And also one of the hardest. It is simply the truth that sins that we forgive go away, and sins we do not forgive stay.
Sins that we forgive are like balloons with the air let out; they lie lifeless on the floor. Sins that we do not forgive are like poisoned wells we keep drinking from, and stay sick on account of. As Ann Lamont says, un-forgiveness is like drinking the poison and waiting for the rats to die.
Forgiveness: the Heart of Christianity
Forgiveness is the heart of Christianity. Or, it should be. It is what Jesus wanted to be the heart of Christianity. It is so weird that it has been turned upside down. For so many, Christianity has been all about guilt and shame; fear of punishment, judgmentalism and condemnation; it’s quite bizarre, really.
No one would disagree that Jesus’ cross was the defining moment, and though people disagree about the details of how to understand it, every Christian believes the same thing: it is all about forgiveness.
Though his enemies were killing him there, Jesus said, “Father forgive them.” Instead of retaliating with violence, Jesus absorbed it. He stopped the cycle of violence.
The Story Context: forgiveness
The whole context of this gospel story repeats the same thing: Jesus shows up in a room full of the people who abandoned him in his darkest hour, the ones he has the most reason to resent, the ones who “threw him under the bus” as they say, and what does he do?
He says, “Shalom” – in his language. “Peace.” No retribution. Not even a reprimand. No groveling required. No penance. No promises to be better. In other words, with complete forgiveness to the ones who hurt him.
This should not have surprised anyone. He was the one who said “turn the other cheek, and go the second mile.” You can only turn the other cheek after someone strikes you once; you only go the second mile after being forced, against your will, to go the first one. These are the actions of forgiveness. This is at the heart of Christianity.
Knowing is not Doing
But there is a problem here. Just because Jesus said it, and even if we agree that forgiveness is recommended, it does not mean we can do it.
Jesus is the one who taught us to pray “forgive us our debts… as we forgive our debtors.” So, it is crucial that we forgive, which is what we assert, every time we pray that prayer. But who among us finds it easy? Who even finds it possible?
And yet, forgiveness is indeed crucial, for many reasons. Some of them are personal, some of them are public.
Personally, forgiveness is all about pain. If we never felt pain inflicted by others, we would have nothing to forgive. And the rule is, as Richard Rohr says, pain not transformed is transmitted. Un-transformed pain, in other words, unhealed, unforgiven hurts, get transmitted, both internally and externally. Internally, the pain becomes anger, resentment, bitterness, even depression.
Externally, unless there is healing, damaged people damage other people. Victims become victimizers. The abused become abusers. There is a broad range for all of these behaviors – from the people who are simply consumed with anger or depression to the short tempered who are unpleasant to be around, all the way to the violent and abusive.
How? Self-work: Spiritual Practices
So if it is crucial that the cycle stops, if forgiveness is so important, what do we do to get from our natural resentment and revenge-reactions to Jesus-likeness? To forgiveness?
It begins with self-work. It has to. This is what the spiritual practices are all about. So we spend time each day in spiritual reading, in prayer and meditation, perhaps yoga, and in honest self-evaluation.
There is just no such thing as a person who is able to forgive naturally or automatically. We are all too prone to living out of our false-selves, our egos, our small-selves or whatever you want to call it.
That self that gets all wrapped up in its own importance, it’s needs, its status, its expectations of how the world “should” go and how it needs to be treated. This is the part of ourselves that gets insulted, that gets our feelings hurt, that needs to have the last word.
The small self never forgives. The small self stews. The small self looks for chances to settle the score. The small self is an expert in self-justification. It demonizes the other.
And as Greg Boyle recently pointed out, demonizing the other is not only morally bankrupt it is always false, it is never the truth. Why not? Because people are not demons or monsters. They are just people, imperfect, wounded people.
Believe me, I’ve been to death row where the people there are called monsters. There are people there who did very bad things; but there are no monsters. Some are quite mentally ill. Some have been utterly redeemed and transformed.
So the first step in forgiveness is the self-work of spiritual practices. In spiritual practices, we connect with the Spirit of the God who loves us, who made us, and who made us to be grace-filled participants of communities of mutuality; communities who practice the spirituality of forgiveness.
We do not deny our pain when we forgive. We simply take the power away from our wounds to keep wounding us, or to wound others.
I mentioned Greg Boyle. I just heard him interviewed in “On Being with Krista Tippett.” Greg is a Jesuit priest who, for 25 years, has worked in Los Angeles in the most gang-infested and violent place in our nation. He has buried close to 200 people who have died violent deaths in that time. And yet, he has found paths to redemption; perhaps we should call them resurrections. Greg is the founder of Home Boy Industries which you may have heard of, which employees former gang members in productive work.
He told the story of a young man he called José, whose mother, at age six, told him he should just kill himself, he was such a burden. At age nine she abandoned him at an orphanage where he stayed for several months before his grandmother finally found him. He was often beaten severely. He used to have to wear multiple t-shirts to school, to disguise his open wounds, of which he was ashamed.
But after his own pain was transmitted to himself, through addiction, and to others, in ways that led him to prison, José found Greg, and Christ’s love, and redemption; a new start. And as he was telling his story, he let his hands touch his wounds – now scars – and said that he has now made friends of his wounds. “How could I help other wounded people if I did not make friends of my wounds?” – he asked?
Pain that is not transformed is transmitted; internally and externally. But pain transformed by forgiveness can transmit healing and hope.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
That is what Jesus did as he came into that locked room: he forgave them, saying “peace.” And he breathed his Spirit on them. All of this symbolizes in these dreamlike images the powerful truths of our faith. We have been forgiven. We are a community of the forgiven. And we can walk and live and breath in the Spirit of the risen Christ, as we live as a forgiven, forgiving community.
Just to be clear; forgiveness does not mean what happened to us was OK, or excusable. Forgiveness is not about pretending what is not true. It is not about forgetting what happened (though it may eventually lead to some forgetting).
Rather, forgiveness is simply not wishing for revenge. Forgiveness is wishing for the redemption and healing of those who wronged us. Forgiveness is the refusal to wish suffering and harm on the ones who may seem, to us, to deserve to suffer for what they did, as if their suffering would relieve ours (it never does).
Forgiveness is coming to terms with the pastness of the past, and letting go of its pain, so that we can live an unburdened, open-hearted present.
Forgiveness comes from a mature place of recognizing that a lot of people carry their pain in unhelpful and un-transformed ways. Forgiveness means we do not judge the way they carry it; we simply hope, pray for them, and we will do what we can, when invited, to be there for them.
Greg Boyle said
“The measure of the health of the community is how much people can stand in awe of the things that the other members have to carry, instead of standing in judgment about how they carry it.”
We do not know the burdens each other are carrying. You came into this room today with a history most of us have no idea about. If we did know, we may stand in awe of the weight that some of us have had to bear. But we do know what we ourselves have had to bear, and that knowing should give us ample reason to treasure each other and forgive each other.
We are a community of spiritual practices, and therefore, a community of forgiveness. What does it look like to be a community that practices forgiveness? It means we practice forgiveness wherever there is hurt in our lives.
Some time ago I heard a person speak of the necessity of forgiving God. It sounded scandalous at first. How could God have wronged us such that we need to forgive God? Of course, I later realized that what he meant was forgiving ourselves for having made an idol out of our own wants and desires, needs and hopes that we were holding God responsible for meeting. Perhaps that is where forgiveness starts.
We forgive ourselves for being fallible human beings, for getting it wrong, for living out of our small selves.
We forgive the world for not being fair, not being convenient, not being as we would like it. The older we live, the more we need to forgive the world for changing.
But most of all, we forgive each other, drawing a wide enough circle of compassion and forgiveness, that finally, no one is standing outside it.
Greg Boyle sums it up like this:
“All that we are asked to do and be in the world is what God is.” Forgiving.