April 23, 2017
Second Sunday of Easter, 2017
Donna G. Joy
Acts 2:14A, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
In a world where conflict is often dealt with litigiously, the central theme of forgiveness within the Christian message is one that we need to celebrate and incorporate into the very fabric of our own lives, so that - through us - others may recognize the sense of peace that comes with forgiveness. This message of forgiveness is found at the very heart of our Gospel reading this morning, which is part of a series of John’s post-resurrection stories that centers on Jesus’ appearance before his frightened disciples. The first part of today’s Gospel - which focuses on Jesus forgiving his disciples - takes place on Easter evening; the second part takes place a week later when Thomas is present; this sermon is focussing on the first part.
So, on that first Easter evening a small group of Jesus’ disciples are huddled together after Jesus’ crucifixion, just a few hours after they’ve heard the news that he has risen from the tomb where his body had been laid. It seems that the Jesus movement, which began with great promise in Galilee, has been defeated. His disciples are filled with guilt, grief, and disappointment. They are low in spirit. They are terrified.
This story is an appropriate text for what has been traditionally called, “low Sunday”; that is, the Sunday following Easter Sunday. There are not as many of us gathered here as last Sunday. Today we have - not the great throng of Easter, but rather - the “faithful few” present here on the Sunday after Easter.
As we pay attention to this particular detail of this Easter evening story within the current Anglican context, we may – in some sense – resonate with it. At the risk of sounding somewhat dramatic, we might say that Anglicanism (along with most of the mainline traditional churches) has been through two or three decades of decline in which a sense of despondency has been evident. We have collectively declined in our membership by millions overall, and the numbers of decline continue to rise. The majority of our churches are in decline, and few are growing. Many are worshipping in half-empty churches.
I have, on occasion, been called on to help parish priests and congregations address their deep concerns over this growing decline. And in such situations, I have often heard a great deal of blaming. I have heard congregations wrestle with such questions as: perhaps this decline would have been avoided if only their clergy had worked harder; or if the laity had been more courageous and enthusiastic about sharing their faith with others; or if everyone had been more diligent about inviting family members, friends, and neighbours to come to church; or maybe if they had been more hospitable... For about three decades now when Anglicans gather to discuss the church, there often is more blaming that there is visioning for the future. And I suppose, as we think about this, we might realize that the church has often behaved much like those first disciples all huddled together on that Easter evening. Even though Jesus had – at that point – risen from the tomb, that group of terrified disciples was still firmly engulfed in Good Friday. The darkness had overwhelmed the light.
As a bit of an aside, with all this in mind, one becomes acutely aware of how blessed we are at St. Peter's to be engaged in a plan that is celebrating our gifts as we prepare for the future. I see the light of the risen Christ breathing new life and new possibilities into this parish.
We can’t know this for sure, but I am imagining that there must have been a lot of blaming going on as that first generation of disciples sat together on that night. Imagine how Peter must have felt – after all his grand declarations of fidelity and courage, when the going got tough he got going... He, like the others, ran away. But it wasn’t just Peter... They all abandoned Jesus and fled when the soldiers came to take Jesus away. It wasn’t only Judas who betrayed Jesus; they all betrayed Jesus at various stages along the way.
And yet, here is the amazing thing that happened to them in the depths of their guilt and despair: It was to this despondent, blaming, pitiful, weak little band of disciples that the Risen Christ appeared. He came through their locked doors and rejoined the very ones who had so terribly forsaken him. I see these locked doors as not just the door to the building in which they were gathered; I see them as the doors to their hearts and souls that were tightly locked with fear, hopelessness, and dread. And what did he say to them? “Peace be with you.” True peace requires the absence of fear. True peace requires forgiveness, both given and received.
Imagine how Jesus’ first words of forgiveness were received by the disciples. John tells us that they were terrified; and maybe they were terrified not only out of fear of the soldiers and the collaborators who had put Jesus to death, because the crucifiers could now be looking for Jesus’ followers as well. Perhaps they were also afraid of Jesus. It’s not hard to imagine his message that night to have been, “Where were you when I needed you the most? All that I did for you and you chose to turn away when I so desperately needed your help. You call yourselves disciples?”
But that’s not what Jesus chose to say. Instead, he offers them peace. Instead, he offers them forgiveness. Indeed, there was plenty of blame to go around. They were all, every one of them, not just Judas, betrayers of Jesus in one way or another. They had all refused to believe what he said and they had all refused to obey his commandments and follow him on the way to the cross. And yet, the Gospels all agree that these were the very ones to whom Jesus returned. And with that, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” Jesus breathes on that group of trembling, terrified, guilt ridden disciples and this is a sign of the new creation: Jesus is now empowering those weak kneed disciples to carry on his work – among themselves, and beyond. Jesus has accomplished the defeat of death, and has now begun the work of new creation: a world where hatred is overcome by love and forgiveness.
When God came looking for Adam in the garden (Genesis 3:8), he and Eve heard the sound of him at the time of the evening breeze. Now, on the evening of the new creation’s first day, a different wind sweeps through the room. The words for ‘wind’, ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ are the same (this is true in both Hebrew and Greek). This wind is the healing breath of God’s spirit which has come to undo the long effects of primal rebellion. And this takes us back to the moment of creation itself.
In Genesis 2:7 God breathed into human nostrils his own breath, the breath of life, and humankind became alive; alive with God’s life. Now, in this new creation, the restoring life of God is breathed out through Jesus, making new people of the disciples, and through them, offering this new life to the world. And the result is that peace with which they are enabled to perform the extraordinary task of sharing this gift with each other and the world.
They (and we) are to pronounce, in God’s name and by his spirit, this message of forgiveness. Into these terrified, guilt ridden disciples who are caught in their own despair, Jesus breathes this new creation, and pronounces peace. He offers them forgiveness. Their relationship with Jesus was resumed only by Jesus’ act of forgiveness, because there can be no true and lasting relationship without it.
Of course, forgiveness was at the very heart of Jesus’ ministry. Remember all those times were Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus keeps extravagantly, preemptively announcing forgiveness. Most of the people he forgives never repent or say they are sorry for what they did or the way they have lived. Jesus forgives them.
And Jesus commands us to forgive as well; Jesus has told us that we are to forgive our enemies. When he taught us the Lord’s prayer, he did not encourage us to bring all of our aches and pains and needs before God in prayer. Rather, he spoke of forgiveness, of forgiving those who trespass/sin against us. He urged us to forgive those who hurt, betray, and abandon us. And when he hung on the cross, he looked down upon us and pronounced, “Father, forgive them...”
And now on Easter evening, Jesus is practicing what he preaches. His first Easter action is to return to his disciples. He is forgiving his enemies – his worst enemies - who happened to be his closest friends. He forgives them perhaps because he knows that there is no way for them to be his disciples without constant forgiveness. He forgives them because forgiveness appears to be the very nature of God. I would say this, and I would say it most emphatically: if you are going to try to be a disciple of Jesus, if you are going to try to be faithful and obedient in following him, then you had better become accustomed to receiving a lot of forgiveness. Most of us have many, many opportunities to need and rely on a God who forgives sinners. Baptismal vow: "Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?" (Whenever, not if ever...)
And the very good news, for this Sunday after Easter, this Sunday when we hunker down with all of our failures, and all of our mistakes, all of our guilt and blaming, behind the closed doors of the church, the good news is that we have a God who not only comes back to life on Easter, in his glorious resurrection, but who also comes back to his betrayers and gloriously forgives us. Therefore, we can go on. We can get out and go forward – with the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us - in our faith, in our discipleship, in our visioning for the church’s future. We can courageously follow Jesus, because he will not let us be trapped by our failures. Jesus gives us what we need to be his disciples. That first Easter night, he commissioned us, he breathed upon us with his Holy Spirit, he forgave us, and he continues to forgive us.
Every step of the way, with each faltering, stumbling step that we take, he forgives us. That is the great resurrection message.
Christ is risen!
We are forgiven.
We are forgiven indeed. Alleluia!