Pentecost of Forgiveness

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church, April 7, 2013.

John 20:19-29

One of my friends pointed out this week at my Bible study that in John’s gospel, this passage is Pentecost, the time when the Holy Spirit is given to the church. We know Luke’s version the best, from Acts chapter 2, when tongues of fire descend and the church receives the Spirit.  We don’t see tongues of fire in this passage, but Jesus appears in a locked room, where his disciples and followers have hidden, out of fear of the same religious authorities that killed Jesus.

Jesus offers his peace. He lets his disciples, the ones we never call doubters, touch his wounds so they can see for themselves. And he gives them his peace again, along with an instruction– As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

On the one hand, that is a nice statement, right? It shows Jesus’ confidence in this band of people hiding in a locked room…

Jesus could have gone and sent other people, presumably people with more courage, people who weren’t hiding, or whomever. But he’s sending his people. His friends. His disciples. The one who denied him 3 times in 8 hours even. His disciples. The ones who loved him until the end. Even Thomas, who isn’t there at that moment, but who will get his chance in a bit.

So this is good news. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. We are chosen and sent even with our human brokenness, not in spite of it.

But it might potentially also be troubling news. Because “as the Father sent” Jesus ended up leading to death on a cross. And at that moment, after just having seen the wounds up close and personal on their resurrected friend, they weren’t likely to forget it.

The good news of the gospel is that it is for you and I, flawed and loving disciples. The good news of the gospel is that it doesn’t always lead us down easy paths.

But the disciples aren’t being sent on this journey alone. As soon as Jesus has told them they are being sent out in to the world, he breathes on them. Now, if someone did this to you, you might find it odd, and you might offer them a tic tac.

But the word for breath is the same as the word for Spirit. In Greek, the word is pneuma. When someone has pneumonia, it is a breathing problem. In Latin, it comes to us as spiritus. In English, for example, to say the Bible is divinely inspired, means it has been divinely breathed.  You can see the connection between breath and spirit—without breath, we have no life, no spirit. And so the risen Jesus is offering them his Spirit.

It is our reminder that we need to be divinely in-spired, we need Jesus to breathe in our faces, to do the work we have been sent to do.

I know there are six more verses in our text still to go, but I confess that I read this next one and was stopped, dead in my tracks.

‘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.’

I’ve heard the verse before, of course. Heck, I’ve probably preached this text more than any other. If there is a week the youth director or seminary intern is going to be set free in a pulpit, it is the Sunday after Easter—doubting Thomas day, right? But I’d never before noticed these verses about forgiveness.

If you were to come to my office and talk about matters of forgiveness, I would counsel you to forgive someone who had wronged you, but for your own sake, not for the other person’s benefit.

Because, on one level, we know we can’t do anything to change someone else. Right?

A friend the other day said, “How can I talk about these emotional topics with my family members without them getting all upset with me and screaming insults at me?

And, while there are ways we can all remain calm, and use careful language, the reality is, if her family members are going to scream at her anytime she talks politics, then there isn’t really anything she can do to change their behavior. She can’t be responsible for people who are going to scream.

And so, while we always work for better relationships with those we love, we have to do so from the position of recognizing we can’t change them. We can only change ourselves.

And in some ways, forgiveness is like that as well. When we forgive people, it isn’t so they will magically change. We forgive them so we will no longer be holding on to the pain, the anger, the fear, to which we have been so tightly clinging.

But this passage reminds us of our connectedness in forgiveness.

‘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.’

When we let go and forgive the people who have harmed us, they are forgiven. When we don’t, they aren’t.
It is about repairing our own selves, which are connected to the others around us, those we forgive and those with whom we interact.

One of my favorite writers these days is Rachel Held Evans. She comes from an evangelical Christian church but has been questioning some of her tradition’s restrictions, particularly the role of women in the church. She does so out of love, truly seeking to understand. She has a keen mind and a searching faith. And not all people from her corner of the church like what she’s saying. So her Lenten practice this year was to turn the hate mail she has received into Origami. Here is a part of her reasoning:

“As much as I try to ignore the most vile of these messages, they can still be quite painful, and I think that’s okay. It’s important to grow thick skin, but I also want to keep a tender, open heart….which means unclenching my fists and letting some of these words hurt every now and again.”

So she spent Lent making origami out of hate mail. But she needed help, because origami is hard when you don’t know what you’re doing. And so people showed her how to do it. They learned it with her. They sat with her while she folded hateful words into sailboats and frogs and swans.

At the end of her Lenten Journey with turning hate into art, she said this:

“What I learned turning my hate mail into origami is that we’re meant to remake this world together. We’re meant to hurt together, heal together, forgive together, and create together. And in a sense, even the people who continue to hate me and call me names are a part of this beautiful process. Their words, carelessly spoken, spent the last 40 days in my home— getting creased and folded, worked over…stepped on by a toddler, read by my sister, stained with coffee… blacked out, thrown away, turned into poems, and folded into sailboats and cranes and pigeons that now sit smiling at me from my office window.”

And as I read about her experience, I thought of Jesus’ comments to his disciples.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

You and I don’t likely get hate mail the way she does.

But I bet we have people with whom we are at odds, people who have hurt us, or betrayed us, or who otherwise need our forgiveness. And the risen Christ shows up, when we’re hiding behind locked doors and tells us we are being sent out into the world. We are to forgive.  We are called out of our locked rooms to be sent into the world as visible signs of God’s love, just as Jesus showed us.

What a gift this is. Yes, forgiveness is hard work. It is never an easy task. But it is a gift. I don’t want to retain the sins of anyone. I can barely handle the weight of my own mistakes. I want to let theirs go, just as I hope people I have hurt can let go of my mistakes and sins.

We’ve added a new station in the prayer center. There is origami paper up there, and some directions about how to fold the paper. On this piece of paper, I’ve written about someone I need to forgive, and have folded it as instructed. It takes practice…

And that’s the best we can do, right?

So, the origami station is here for you. But however you make this work, I invite you to consider what it means for Jesus to give you his Spirit and send you out into the world as an agent of forgiveness and a witness of love.

There is too much for us to do and too much love to share for us to hide in an upper room. Peace be with you. And let’s go remake the world together. Amen

And here’s the video I showed at the start of worship.

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