First Congregational Church
April 21, 2013
Fourth Sunday after Easter
"Forgiveness and the Holy Spirit"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A burglar goes to a house late at night and starts robbing it. He is just getting going when he hears a voice say “Jesus is watching you.” He stops for a minute, but soon continues on. Again he hears “Jesus is watching you.” He discovers the speaker is a large parrot. He smiles to himself and continues on; a third time the parrot says the same thing. Frustrated the burglar turns around and says, “Be quiet you dumb parrot! What’s your name anyhow?” The parrot replies, “Clarence.” The burglar laughs, “What kinda people name their bird Clarence?” “The same kind who name their Rottweiler Jesus!”
For those who wish to engage in the mental challenge, there IS a connection between that joke and this morning's message. But it may take a bit to figure it out. So as it has been said, "And now for the rest of the story."
Maybe it's because Easter was so early this year, but it doesn't seem quite right to just up and leave it. So the messages since then have - at least to me - have had a feel of still sitting or standing around that empty tomb, like after after church or after a rehearsal - the afterglow - if you will. There is fellowship in that "after" time, and so it is with this morning's scripture passage.
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Thank you, Polo. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm continually fascinated at how God seems to "arrange" certain things. I think it was sometime before Easter that I came across a sermon by one of my favorite preachers, M. Craig Barnes of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After hearing him speak the first time at a sermon conference, I feel in love with his preaching, which was pretty much a bonus because he was tall and quite handsome with this wonderful rich voice. He's also really bright, so when I come across something by him, I usually take a couple glances.
This particular sermon used the passage that Polo just read, but it may have been written for the Sunday right after Easter. It was a sermon on forgiveness, and I figured that maybe there was someone else besides myself that struggles on occasion with this topic. So I tucked the sermon away for this week, thinking that if it still seemed to fit, then go God! It seemed that God had plans.
There is great irony to read that the disciples were locked up for fear of the Jewish leaders just days after hearing of the citizens of Boston, Watertown and surrounding cities being locked up in their own homes for fear of one who might harm them. It would be really interesting to know how homes there were where Jesus came and stood among the residents and said, "Peace be with you!" (Note the exclamation point.) That's one of the things that made me go "hmm" this week.
Another thing was that I've had a pile of books on my desk this week; possibilities for future book studies. I have a tendency of stacking them from the biggest on the bottom to the smallest on the top. The one on the top that has been staring at me all week is an older one written by Rabbit Harold Kushner, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." Not very impressive by itself, but then, Friday I received a email sermon that I get most every week by a pastor suggested to me by one of the church family. So guess what the title of the email sermon was? "When Bad Things Happen to Good People."
There are times in life when things come together in such a way, we know there is no way they were brought together by human coercion. This was one of those weeks. But then I also have to add the other place where my heart has resided this week, and that's with those who are lonely, depressed, anxious, overwhelmed, under-funded, and just plain tired. It's been a rough week for a lot of people. And the direction of this message is fairly different than what I thought it would be this past Tuesday.
There are a lot of folks, a fair number here, that have been locked behind doors this week, in rooms of fear, paranoia, uncertainty, and a great host of other jailors - real, psychological, emotional and even spiritual. To all those people, Jesus still comes - even if you don't sense it, and stands before you, and says, "Peace be with you!" (Again, note the exclamation point.)
Jesus showed the prisoners-of-fear his hands and his side. Jesus shows us his vulnerability and reality in the person sitting next to you, who just may have been cured of cancer, or healed of one disease or another, or relieved of a vast variety of burdens.
What's really interesting about our passage at this point is that Jesus could have left things as they were. But as they were celebrating his resurrection and were probably overwhelmed with relief, Jesus says again, "Peace be with you!" (Again, with the exclamation point.) It's very interesting that in our "fear" and in our "joy" Jesus says "Peace be with you."
My favorite scripture passage is Philippians 4:7. But verse six has to be heard or understood before you get to seven. "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." And here's verse seven: "And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."
That peace, which passes all understanding, be with you! (Exclamation point.) (You know, God, a rush of wind right now would be so cool.) And with his next breath, Jesus breathes on them, commissioning them with the Holy Spirit and gives them the "statement" about forgiveness.
So check out what Rev. Handsome had to say about Jesus' action. "Jesus gave us the mission to forgive the sins of others for our own sakes. We thought we were locking out the people who could hurt us. In reality, we were only locking ourselves into smaller and smaller rooms. You may have thought you were “retaining” their sins, as the text says, but God will forgive them anyway. The retaining you do by refusing to forgive and holding onto the sins of those who hurt you is only retaining yourself in the small room of your wounded heart. You are then retaining the identity of being a victim."
He goes on. "The word the NT Greek uses to convey forgiveness is aphienai. It means to release or to free. We think forgiveness is a heroic act because we are freeing the person who hurt us, but it is really our own freedom that we are gaining. Forgiveness frees us from the power of the wounds we have experienced. It frees us to come back to life. In the words of the late ethicist Lewis Smedes, “When you forgive, you set a prisoner free. Then you discover that the prisoner was you.”
If you think of all the "pieces" that have been mentioned today as a jigsaw puzzle, and even though you group like pieces for easier assembly, all those parts still belong to the one puzzle. So forgiveness has a place in the same puzzle where the Boston manhunt has a place and those struggling with emotional and psychological stuff. And that may seem like an overwhelming "understanding" - at the very least. And I think it's important not to confuse forgiveness with guilt and fault.
Of great relief - at least to this heart - is that we do not forgive all by our little lonesomes. Jesus didn't breathe the Holy Spirit onto the disciples because of a little burp. He breathed on them the same powerful Holy Spirit that was there at the creation, bringing beauty and life out of chaos. He breathed on them the same purposeful Spirit that commissioned Jesus at his baptism - before he went to work - binding us to him in yet another fashion. He breathed on them the same healing Spirit that allows us to remember the scars on his hands and side that have already done the forgiving.
Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people - if we are going to go on to the judgmental limb. Good things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. And in his "inspired" wisdom, Rabbi Kushner reminds us, "Absence of suffering in our lives is not necessarily an indication of personal righteousness. It is evidence not of God's approval, but of God's mercy."
He also says, "When bad things happen, our response tends to be either to turn in upon ourselves, or to turn to God. To turn inward may seem to be the natural thing to do, but its result is often bitterness. And with bitterness there is inevitably loss of vitality and spirit. It is, in some measure, to die. Is it not true, that we turn to God, or we "perish?"
God may not prevent the calamity, but God gives us the strength and the perseverance to overcome it. Where else do we get these qualities which we did not have before? Our passage reminds us that it is the unique combination of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And the group of disciples remind us that we have each other, that great cloud of witnesses that can help us hold on, help us remember that even in our times of suffering and sorrow, confusion and anger, relief and rejoicing, that God's peace stands among us, even when we least realize it, allowing us to do things we think and believe are beyond our capabilities. Let us pray.
God of all days and moments and feelings and situations, we thank you that on that evening of that first day of the week, just like we are together, you came to stand among the disciples in their locked room of fear. Remind us that we can reprogram old tapes and memories with the gift you gave the disciples: "Peace be with you." Remind us that although injustice and unrighteousness has been around just about as long as humanity, longer has your justice and righteousness, mercy and grace been around. Help us to take up our calling - most especially when we don't feel up to the challenge - to do what you have need of us to do. And most especially, God, remind us that we don't do any of this alone, but through you and your Holy Spirit. For all your answers to prayer and enablement to accomplish what we do, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.