The Power of Forgiveness


April 23, 2017 — Second Sunday of Easter

Rev. Alison Quin

Today’s Readings:

The Power of Forgiveness

“When it was evening on that day. . . “ It is still the day of Jesus’ resurrection in today’s reading from John.  In the morning of that day, Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’ tomb, found it empty, ran and told the other disciples and returned weeping, only to encounter the risen Lord.  But when she told the other disciples that she had seen him alive, they didn’t believe her.

It is understandable—how could they believe something so incredible until they experienced it for themselves?

They were still reeling from the shock and horror of his death.  And they were afraid.  They were hiding in a house, behind locked doors, afraid of the Jewish leaders who collaborated with the Romans to have Jesus arrested and executed.

What did the disciples talk about while they hid in the house?  I imagine they talked about their grief and pain at losing Jesus, and their crushed hopes. Perhaps they talked about how to slip out of Jerusalem unnoticed, so they could go home to Galilee.  Maybe some of them spoke of revenge against the Romans or the Jewish collaborators.  After all, it was only a few days earlier in the garden where Jesus was arrested that Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant.

They were locked behind those doors, but they were equally locked in by their emotions—pain, fear and anger.

But the locked doors could not keep Jesus out.  He came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you,” not once, but three times.

Jesus fulfilled the promise that he made to them at the Last Supper:  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The peace that he gave them was the assurance that despite all the pain and harm that the world inflicts, despite the crucifixion, God’s love, embodied in Jesus, is alive and standing in their midst.

This is the peace he offers us, and it gives us courage, not just at the hour of our death, but throughout our lives.  As one commentator put it, “It applies at every point where we fear that God’s goodwill for the world’s well-being is a pious dream, out of touch with the chaos and hatred of everyday life.  For the one who offers the words of peace is the very one who has endured the brunt of that chaos and hatred, yet now stands in their midst—risen, indeed!”[1]

Immediately after this gift of peace, Jesus sends the disciples out on their mission:  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

He breathes the Holy Spirit into them, again fulfilling a promise he made at the Last Supper:  “I will ask the Father and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. “

This scene recalls God’s breath at creation, giving life to the world, and life to human beings.  It also recalls Ezekiel—when God breathes new life into the dry bones of Israel, after defeat and exile.

The Spirit empowers the disciples to go out into the world, and share the good news—the forgiveness, and healing and new life that God has given to us through Christ.

One of the chief ways that we share the good news, and bear witness to the risen Christ is by forgiving others.  Jesus tells the disciples “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The church has sometimes interpreted this passage as authorization to decide who should be forgiven and under what circumstances, and what penance should be imposed.  But I don’t think that is what Jesus meant at all.  God offers forgiveness to all.  Our job is to make that offer of forgiveness known far and wide, and to live as people who have been forgiven.  We do that by forgiving others, generously and consistently.

Jesus’ statement expresses the reality that extending forgiveness heals the wounds caused by sin—the harm done to the victim and the harm experienced by the wrongdoer.  Failure to forgive, on the other hand, leaves both parties wounded and bleeding.

Refusal to forgive is perhaps is the ultimate locked door, keeping us stuck in our hurt and anger and fear.  In forgiving, we are liberated.

There was an extraordinary example of forgiveness this week—perhaps you saw the interview on CNN with three of the children of Robert Godwin, who was killed on Easter Sunday for no reason, by a man named Steve Stephens who just snapped and shot him and posted a video of it on Facebook.

The very next day, Anderson Cooper interviewed three of his adult children, and asked what they would say to the man who killed their father.  One of the daughters, Debbie Godwin, said:

“I believe that God would give me the grace to even embrace this man.  And hug him.  . . . It’s just the way my heart is; it’s the right thing to do.  And so, I just would want him to know that even in his worst state, he’s loved, you know, by God, that God loves him, even in the bad stuff that he did to my dad.  That he’s still loved.  And that he has some worth while, even though he’s gonna have to go through many things to get better, there’s worth in him.  And as long as there’s life in him, there is hope for him too.  I do believe that.”

Another daughter, Tonya Godwin, said, “The thing that I would take away the most from my father is he taught us about God, how to fear God.  How to love God.  And how to forgive.  Each one of us forgives the killer. . . We want to wrap our arms around him.”

Debbie:  “We absolutely do.  I honestly can say right now that I hold no animosity in my heart against this man.  Because I know that he’s a sick individual.  I know that because of his sickness, whatever evil overtook him that caused him to do this to my dad, it’s not him.  It wouldn’t be something he would typically do, and I promise you, I could not do that, if I did not know God.  If I didn’t know Him as my God and my savior, I could not forgive that man.  And I feel no animosity against him at all.  Actually, I feel sadness for him.  I do.

Tonya:  We’ve lost our dad, but this mother lost her son.  . . . It’s just what our parents taught.  It’s not just that they taught us, they did it.  They lived it.  My dad would be really proud of us, and he would want this from us, and he would say, ‘Tonya, forgive him, because they know not what they do.”

This extraordinary witness shows us what it means to have faith, to trust in the risen Lord.  They have opened the locked doors of their hearts, and received the peace that Jesus offers, the spirit of God that enables them to live without hatred, or anger or fear.  In turn, they offered to release the man who killed their father, who is held captive by his own darkness.

Friends, we have been offered the key to life and freedom.  We have been given the peace that passes understanding—the assurance that God’s love will prevail over sin and evil and death.  God has breathed the Holy Spirit into each one of us—empowering us to live without fear, breaking through every locked door that holds us back.  May we bear witness to the good news by forgiving others, and releasing them from the powers that hold them captive.

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 2, p. 398 (D. Cameron Murchison).