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The Way Forward

The Reverend Jennifer L. Adams-  April 7, 2013 – April 2C:John 20:19-31

Just a week ago we were celebrating the culmination of Holy Week and Triduum services.  We gathered last Saturday around a fire in the dusk of the new Sabbath, lit candles, proclaimed ‘The Light of Christ’ and continued  to surround ourselves into the night with sights and sounds of resurrection.  Fire and light, flowers and bells, joy-filled music and alleluias.  Followed by a festive dessert feast.  The next morning was packed and the proclamation, “He is risen!” was said and sung and proclaimed throughout the entire celebration. That’s how we do Easter here at Grace.  It’s the Sunday that makes all other Sundays.

BUT this morning we’re reminded that Holy Week and Easter and the days following weren’t at all like that for the disciples.  There were no big church services for them, no packed pews, no big, beautiful music.  They didn’t have lovely liturgies or long processions or seemingly endless desserts.  They were huddled together behind locked doors because the last couple of weeks had for them been a mess of tragedy, trials and betrayals. They’d lost a friend whom they were beginning to believe might be the Messiah and despite reports from the women they were still grieving and confused and not at all sure what their next steps would be.

Besides the whole experience of trial, death and empty tomb hadn’t exactly brought out the best in any of these guys.  Judas has betrayed the group while they were praying in the garden. Peter, “the rock” and leader of this group, had denied Christ publically three times, thereby also denying his fellow disciples which couldn’t have come easy to any of them.  Thomas was nowhere to be found at the beginning of the passage we just heard, perhaps too busy or too scared or still too angry at it all to be there with them huddled in the house.  And from all appearances, there was no one (except for maybe the beloved disciple) who had risen to the challenges of the last couple of weeks.  So that first Holy Week and Easter weren’t about bells and alleluias for these guys.  It was about loss, fear, confusion, betrayal and experiencing  themselves and the guy across the room at what had to be nearly their absolute worst.

So maybe it’s no wonder that the first thing Jesus did after he entered through the locked doors was to offer them peace.  “Peace be with you,” was the first thing he said and if there was ever a room full of people who needed it, it was these guys. Then Jesus, showed them his wounds, showed them his hand and his side and maybe because he knew they needed it again, said “Peace be with you.”  Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  And then I imagine that the Spirit filled up that locked up, anxiety-ridden, confused place as resurrection met Pentecost in the gospel of John.

Now what happened next was really important too.  Through the Holy Spirit, God gifted the disciples with something to help them make their way in this world and what he chose to give them is revealing.  Given the situation which was already hostile and going to get more so, you’d think God might have armed them with swords or at least armor; or in the interest of non-violence, maybe God could have filled their minds with extremely effective arguments to turn the hearts and minds of the leaders whom they were soon to bump up against.  I’ve said before that invisibility cloaks would have been nice, then they could’ve preached and run with no problem.  Or maybe the ability to turn water into wine would’ve come in most handy. Then the disciples could have offered proof that the stories they were telling were true.

But the Spirit came bearing none of those kinds of things.  Instead what God gave them in order to be able to move forward in faith was himself and the power to forgive. Our Lenten study was right on.   Without forgiveness the disciples would’ve stayed stuck right where they were, one huddled little group of frightened people unable to move forward at all.

Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  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.” So when it came to “arming” these guys for the days to come, the power to forgive was the most important power of all.

Now luckily they could practice on themselves before they took the show on the road.  Philip could forgive James,  Nathaniel could forgive Bartholomew, Matthew could forgive Philip, and Andrew could forgive Simon and Thadeaus. . . or something like that.  They could all forgive Peter who would have to forgive himself too and eventually they’d all have to forgive Judas.  Then when Thomas returned, Jesus would take the lead  in forgiving him.  So from this very early moment, forgiveness wasn’t just a power to use out there, it was something the disciples needed to keep close at heart while working with each other and while learning and growing themselves.  If they were going to continue as a relatively unified people that had a sense of what it takes to be whole, then they had to be able to forgive each other too.  And so the Holy Spirit gave them that gift and Jesus reminded them that it was more important than anything else God could give them.

And that’s true of us too.  And forgiveness is related to resurrection because it essentially presents us with another kind of reality; forgiveness opens up new life in the here and now in ways that nothing else can.  The expected responses of punishment, retribution and exclusion are replaced with mercy and the offering of peace.  Which doesn’t mean that forgiveness is easy. With forgiveness those who offer it are as vulnerable as those who are give it and so there’s work and sometimes risky work involved.  But unlike any other approach, forgiveness gives everyone involved a shot at coming out more whole than they were before.  New life is allowed to break in.

And so if we are to build up anything in ourselves and within our community, it would be this power.  In our recent study we connected forgiveness with the season of Lent, but hear it too as a gift with resurrection at its heart.  Practice receiving and giving it here. Forgive each other and yourselves. Receive the Holy Spirit and know that through its power our lives will be changed and the world around us will be too.