Sermon: "Peace and Forgiveness"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 4.32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1.1-2.2; John 20.19-31
When Judas brought a detachment of soldiers with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees to arrest Jesus, Jesus stepped forward and asked, “Whom are you looking for?” I suspect the translator made an error here, for we all know that Jesus would not have ended a sentence with a preposition! Jesus most certainly said, “Whom do you seek?” Those who came to arrest Jesus were so shocked they fell back. Jesus again asked, “Whom do you seek?” They replied, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” The author of the gospel of John, then wrote: “This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.’” Then Peter drew his sword, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. Jesus admonished Peter: “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18.3-11; NRSV). The disciples then deserted Jesus. Peter answered violence with violence. Bear in mind that is what one would normally expect, for we typically meet violence with violence. Despite having been with Jesus, Peter was still a product of his culture. Out of fear, Peter went on to deny knowing Jesus on three occasions. Having done so, he broke down and wept bitterly.
Today’s gospel reading picks up where last week’s left off. Mary Magdalene had visited the tomb only to find it empty. She then informed Peter and John; they raced off to the tomb. After they had examined the empty tomb and left, Mary remained and was weeping. Jesus then appeared and asked why she was weeping; she took him to be the gardener. When Jesus called her by name, she responded with “Rabbouni.” We then read, “Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her” (John 20.17-18; NRSV).
That evening the disciples were huddled together behind locked doors when Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst. One might expect he would ask the disciples why they had abandoned him at his darkest hour. But no, he said, “Peace be with you,” then he showed them his hands and his side. They rejoiced. Once again, Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” and added, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He then breathed on them and said, “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” (John 20.19-23; NRSV).
The word translated as “breathed” is the same word as used in Genesis 2.7: “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (NRSV). In Genesis, God’s breath brought physical life; in John, God’s breath brought “the new, spiritual, life of recreated humanity” (Haslam: http://www.montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/beas2m.shtml ).
But Thomas was not present. When Thomas was told “We have seen the Lord,” he said, “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” (John 20.24-25; NRSV). A week later, Jesus appeared once again and invited Thomas to do so. Thomas makes his confession: “My Lord and my God!” Jesus asked, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
The gospel of John has another chapter which scholars believe to have been appended, for this chapter ends with these words: “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” (John 20.30-31; NRSV). The phrase, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah” which immediately follows the story of Thomas raises an interesting question: What was it that Thomas found so difficult to believe? Was it the fact of Jesus’ resurrection or the fact that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah? Jesus’ manifestation as messiah did not fit the conventional expectation of a kingly messiah wielding power and might, one who would overcome violence with violence.
On both occasions when Jesus entered the locked room, he did not chastise the disciples for having deserted him. To the contrary, all was forgiven – “Peace be with you.” Jesus knew the pressures and the trauma the disciples had experienced. Rather than call them to account, he greeted them with peace. I suspect that Jesus knew their state of mind; that he understood their sorrow in having abandoned him. Each of them may have already prayed for forgiveness.
Our reading from 1 John also touches on forgiveness. It appears this letter is addressing some shortcomings for it begins with some strong declarations: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life … we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us” (1 John 1.1-3; NRSV). The author then addresses three shortcomings though the use of conditionals: 1) “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true….” 2) ”If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 3) “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1.6-10; NRSV). Did you catch the references to deception? “We lie,” “we deceive ourselves,” and “we make him a liar.” For true confession to occur, we must be confronted by the truth and admit to the truth. True confession involves sorrowing and repentance on the part of the one who has sinned against God or another person.
When someone has sinned against us, we are often advised, “You must forgive!” Such people mean well, but I think they fail to understand the true nature of forgiveness. The March 7th issue of the Living Church contains an article entitled “Forgiveness.” The author, Victor Lee Austin, cites Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral Theology at Oxford, as noting two components of forgiveness: compassion and absolution.
In compassion, we come to recognize the one who has sinned against us is flawed, just as we are flawed. We know we have come to have compassion for another when we can wish peace for them, when we can pray that they would experience the goodness and the peace that we wish for ourselves. I believe this is what those who say “You must forgive” may mean. As Austin points out, compassion “is one-sided…We can have compassion for, and offer compassion to, anyone who has sinned against us – the offender does not need to be sorry or repentant or anything else. Compassion thus is a letting go from our side, a certain humility that decides not [to] keep score …” Compassion reveals that we are ready to be reconciled.
But what is necessary for true reconciliation to take place? Absolution must follow, but for absolution to occur, repentance and confession are necessary. As Austin says, “When the sinner does repent and is willing to repair, then the victim should not withhold absolution.” With absolution, the process of forgiveness is complete.
Why is repentance and confession so necessary? If we skip that part of the process, the sinner may not come to the realization of the nature of the sin. Absolution requires accountability, and accountability is necessary for our personal growth and moral development. When we come to love as Christ loves us, we may recognize how the one who has sinned against us is sorrowing – such sorrowing is a sign of repentance even if the words have not been spoken. In such instances, we can model our response after Jesus Christ – we can say, “Peace be with you.” The very granting of that peace may give the sinner the wherewithal to make full confession. If the truth be known, I suspect that is what actually occurred when Jesus entered the locked room, appeared to his disciples, and said “Peace be with you.”
The love of Jesus invites us to unlock and open our doors such that the light of Christ might dispel our darkness. Only then can we leave the world of violence behind. The all-compassionate Jesus would have us experience peace that we might minister to those who are not at peace. What a privilege to be a disciple!