Sunday, April 11, 2010

Second Sunday of Easter

John 20
19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”

Perhaps you know this experience: Somewhere, someone says something to you, and a vast verbal chasm opens up, and for the life of you, you cannot respond. Words flee, and you are, as the Spanish say, mudo.

Lacking a good comeback, you go home, home being the place where all good comebacks come to life. Yes, you, like everyone else, find the best possible response at the moment when it is the most useless. Delayed Response Syndrome, or DRS is a serious condition that most suffer with some regularity. There is no cure.

Related to DRS, in the same family of phenomena, is that last bit of advice you wish you had remembered to give. The car pulls away and you think to yourself “Ah, why didn’t I tell then about the speed trap in Church Street, or why didn’t I tell them that all the road work in the city is happening in front of Terry’s house.”

How could you forget to tell them? Don’t worry, they will find out soon enough when they get a ticket no more than a block from the hospital and the officer says “didn’t you see the posted limit is 30 along here?” And I was tempted to say “but officer, I did’t think my car did as little as 30.” I don’t want to talk about it.

So the sister to Delayed Response Syndrome is You Didn’t Say Syndrome [YDSS]. It is also common, and also found in today’s lesson. It seems that even Jesus has moments of YDSS, and I think I can show you.

“Peace be with you,” he said. “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.”

He shares a greeting, he breathes on them and pronounces the “little Pentecost” gift of the Holy Spirit, and then says the thing he wished he had said as the car pulled from the driveway. How do I know this? Because a greeting and a blessing would be more than enough for these frightened disciples, a greeting and a blessing more than they could possible take in at this moment.

But there was more to be said. Jesus has this one chance to underline something, to teach the one thing that will go down in scripture as the thing he said when he reappeared, the thing he said when the greeting and the blessing were through, the thing he said because it just needed to be said. And what did he say?

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The Lord’s Prayer
The Prodigal Son
The Unforgiving Servant
Forgiving seven times seventy

Jesus practiced and taught forgiveness throughout his earthly ministry, he wove forgiveness into parable and story, and he even spoke forgiveness from the cross, saying “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.” And yet, and yet, he took the very moment to say the thing he wished he had said, to say the thing he said all along. He made forgiveness the message at the moment the eleven were listening most carefully, and he said it before he picked up any other topic.

I think what I’m trying to say is, it’s important. Placement and sequence are a vital part of understanding the scriptural record, because words and stories were placed for a reason. And the reason, in this instance, is human need.

William Countryman wrote these words: “What God says to you in Jesus is this: You are forgiven. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is the message Jesus spoke and lived.”

Countryman goes on to explain that God may have said it more simply, may have said “you are loved,” and it would still have been true, but it would have been ambiguous. And this is why: If God says ‘you are loved,’ we naturally read in ‘you are loved if you are good,’ or ‘you are loved for the most part, except those parts of you that I cannot love.’

Instead, Countryman insists, God says something quite unambiguous:

“You are forgiven.” What this means is, “I love you anyway, no matter what. I love you not because you are particularly good nor because you are particularly repentant nor because I’m trying to bribe you or threaten you into changing. I love you because I love you.*

What he’s getting at here is what we might call The Problem With Love. The problem with love is that most often, it is practiced by humans. Yes, we experience God’s love everyday, the sun rises and sets, the seasons unfold, the earth’s bounty is ours, but at the end of the day, the most direct experience of love we have, is the love we experience from those around us.

And as a practitioner of love, I, like you, am imperfect. I’m a little more loving when things are going my way, I’m a little more open when the world seems a friendly place, I’m a little more generous when I’m convinced everyone has the right intentions. In other words, I’m human. And I know that you are human too, not for any reason in particular, except I know.

So forgiveness is the message that Jesus spoke and lived, and there is a problem with love. We could end there, but I think there is one more idea to consider, and that is The Problem With Forgiveness.

Now, Michael, you might say, you just spent a full five minutes convincing us that there is no problem with forgiveness, that the problem is with love, and now we’re ready for cookies. No cookies yet. There is a problem with forgiveness, another reason Jesus made it the first important thing he said, and here is the problem: There is always an argument against it, there is power involved, and too many refuse to practice. Actually, that are three problems, so I will take them in turn.

The first problem is can be summarized thus: There is a problem with forgiveness because there is always some extreme example that cannot be forgiven. Insert the name of any historical bad person here, and say ‘surely [they] don’t deserve forgiveness,’ or ‘we know that [what they did] cannot be forgiven.’ This may be true enough. We cannot know God’s capacity to forgive, and so we cannot really make a response to the first problem with forgiveness. We see through a glass dimly, and like the older brother, we puzzle at God’s capacity to forgive.

The second problem with forgiveness was one that Jesus addressed that day. After his resurrection, among his friends once more, he said, “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” In other words, forgiving someone gives you a measure of power, insofar as forgiving someone releases them from something that they might otherwise remain in bondage to. If you cannot forgive, something remains outstanding, something is incomplete. And while incompleteness and ambiguity are also human themes, Jesus felt compelled to make sure the remaining disciples understood that withholding forgiveness has implications for everyone involved.

The third problem with forgiveness is the same reason there are so few Wayne Gretzsky’s and so few Glen Gould’s: we usually forget to practice. Forgiveness is not a life skill that comes preloaded like Windows Explorer, it is something that we practice all life long. Forgiveness is not part of the original design parameters, it is quite the opposite. The human way is hold grudges and nurse hurts and remember slights, not automatically forgiving the same. We continually fall short of God’s intention for our lives, we are forgiven, and we can, in turn, return this forgiveness to everyone around us. It may seem like a logical, multi-step progression, but it is hard, and it requires endless practice.

I’ve spoke too long. I’ve made a case for forgiveness, then described three perfect counter-arguments. The problem with forgiveness is that it remains too high on God’s priority list for us ordinary humans to cope. We fall short, we try harder, and we fall again. Fortunately for us, we have hope: “What God says to you in Jesus is this: You are forgiven. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is the message Jesus spoke and lived. This is the message that the Risen Christ whispers in our ear every moment of every day: You are forgiven.

*Good News of Jesus, p. 5.


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