A Testimony of Forgiveness: A sermon for Ramsey Memorial UMC

John20:19-31

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.

 

Let’s imagine this incredible scene from the Gospel reading…. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors, they obviously do not want any visitors, when suddenly… Peace be with you”, says Jesus. I imagine they looked something like this picture: rather surprised, possibly dumbfounded, somewhat  soiled…

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To quote Pastor Deborah’s sermon from last week, it had not “dawned” on them yet. This is why we are told that Jesus shows them all his scars and then greets them a 2nd time, “Peace be with you” he says again. The first time he greets them as a Holy stranger, the 2nd time as their risen Lord. Let’s look at what he says next:

Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

“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.”

What an incredible and mysterious instruction…

I should tell you I have a special affection for the harder and more mysterious Biblical passages, because I don’t think we need to dissect every mystery in order to receive it’s intended message. There are many times when exegesis and inductive Bible study will reveal layers of deep meaning in the text, but particularly with the hard passages I have found that the word is still alive with the Spirit of God, and by giving it space, airing it out, and allowing it to breathe, it will speak to us.

That is what I hope to do regarding the great mystery of forgiveness, and what Jesus’ instruction means for us today. I will not tell you in black and white whether we can forgive one another’s sins, because I don’t know; rather I want us to look at the mystery of forgiveness, where it comes from, where it’s going, and how we give forgiveness our best effort as ones sent by Christ to do so.

There is a book that I greatly recommend to anyone who struggles with the mystery of forgiveness, it’s entitled “The Sunflower”, written by holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal. The book is summarized in three sentences written right on the front cover: “You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks you for forgiveness. What would you do?

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This situation really happened to Simon Wiesenthal. He was a Jew brought to a hospital at the request of a Nazi soldier. The soldier was so haunted by his crimes that he felt the need to confess them, and he asked Simon to forgive him on behalf of the Jewish people. Simon listened to the man’s confession, but he walked away without forgiving him. Simon has spent the rest of his life questioning that decision, and asking other people what they would have done in his place.   This book is his best effort towards forgiveness, and it includes responses by Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and many others regarding what they would have done in his shoes.

Truly forgiveness is a mystery, and perhaps our best effort begins with relinquishing control to that mystery. I believe that’s what Simon Wiesenthal did when he allowed his own story to be shaped by the responses of many other people, regardless of whether or not they agreed with his decision.

For us as Christians, relinquishing control begins with an acknowledgement of what Christ said to the disciples before telling them to forgive. He told them to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

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Truly I tell you, all Christian forgiveness is the work of the Spirit.

If it were up to us, without God’s help, we would forgive the way that any reasonable person would; we would forgive when the other person has earned it.

However, as Christians we know that we are not the originators of forgiveness. It precedes us and it does not belong to us.  Just like God’s love and grace, forgiveness was given to us while we were yet sinners, we did not earn it. It is by this reasoning and this reasoning alone that we do it, we forgive because we have been forgiven, we love because God first loved us.

Even the smallest acts of forgiveness and love are examples how the Kingdom of God is permeating this world. Not through impressive actions done by people in positions of human power, but small acts of forgiveness done by ordinary servants of God. This is the subversive power of the Gospel, that we are the declarers of reconciliation in our ordinary lives with the knowledge that the King of Kingdom of God is on his throne, and that his transforming love is working it’s way through this world in all the ways that no one expects, like yeast being worked into dough, like a mustard seed growing throughout our well organized gardens.

Reconciliation is the resurrection and transformation of a dead or broken relationship, and it is built upon a foundation of forgiveness. The work of Christ on the cross was the act of reconciliation to bring total transformation to our relationship with God, our relationship with each other, and our relationship to creation. Forgiveness is already in motion, my friends.  It precedes us, it has gone ahead, and we are invited to follow and participate, because Christ’s resurrection was a creation-changing event, not just a life-changing event for me. It set in motion a holy work of worldwide redemption, making all things new, and we’ve been called to join in that work of love and forgiveness, it’s through us that this has a snowball effect.

If we are not working with God in this great work of redemption… if we are not forgiving others as we have been forgiven, then are we in fact retaining something?  If we refuse to forgive then are we holding back something that is meant to run wild?  I’m inclined to believe that holding back forgiveness affects us more that it does the other person.   Have you heard that old saying about holding grudges? Holding a grudge is like me drinking poison and expecting the other person to die…

Sometimes, like in the case of Simon Wiesenthal and the Nazi soldier, forgiveness seems impossible. Sometimes a situation can drain so much life out of us that we don’t have the strength to forgive, sometimes we don’t even have the strength to hold a grudge and all we can do is put one foot in front of the other. But therein lies the hope, in those times when we are in desperate need of care, we can choose the path towards healing, we can choose to unburden ourselves, to cast off the yoke of control by surrendering to the mystery of the Spirit, knowing that healing takes time, and that forgiveness might take years. There is hope in the knowledge that we are not the pioneers of that path to healing, we are not the pioneers of the path to forgiveness. Those are well-trodden paths, and they are wide enough for the whole community to walk together.

When we come to the place of surrendering ourselves to that mystery, relying on the Spirit to help us forgive others as we have been forgiven, we are being agents of reconciliation in this world, seeking to transform the brokenness around us; and as participants in that holy work, each act of forgiveness is a testimony and a declaration of the resurrection of Christ, as He is the originator, He is the pioneer and great forgiver, He is the reconciler, and He is the King of the Kingdom of God here and now and forever.  He is the bringer of total transformation.

May we heed his words, may we be agents of reconciliation, may we surrender to the mystery, and may the forgiveness of Christ run wild with you. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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One Response to “A Testimony of Forgiveness: A sermon for Ramsey Memorial UMC”

  1. Marie Russo Says:

    Well done! We are very proud of you.

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