Monday, May 09, 2011

We Are Free

Jeff St Easter by paynehollow
Jeff St Easter, a photo by paynehollow on Flickr.

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!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

~John 20

It’s interesting to me that out of all the things that the Risen Christ might have said, maybe did say to his cowering in fear disciples, that out of all the blessings, out of all the charges that he could have given, that the one that the author of John reports is about forgiving and retaining sins.

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

I’ve always wondered what he meant by that. And I’ve shied away from ever really preaching about it because on the surface it kind of sounds like the Risen Christ was giving the church the power to forgive or to not forgive sin, to decide who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is unclean, etc. And I, for one, have not been very happy with the church’s record in that regard.

I grew up believing that God didn’t forgive you until you said a special little “please forgive me of all my sins, Jesus” prayer, which meant that the large majority of the non-Southern Baptist world, having not said that particular prayer, was left unforgiven. I’m exaggerating about that a little bit, but not much.

But what I’ve realized along the way is that this statement isn’t about the church’s power to forgive sin or to not forgive sin. It’s about Christ’s power to forgive sin, and about the church’s power through Christ to proclaim the forgiving love of God, and to live as forgiving and forgiven people.

Martin Niemoeller talks about Easter as the “unexpected act of the living God, which interrupts and runs counter to the uniform rise and fall of the world’s rhythm.” Talk about running counter to the uniform rise and fall of the world’s rhythm — some of us experienced that this week, didn’t we, when our world was cheering over the death of Bin Ladan, and we were saddened, or if not saddened, concerned, or if not concerned, at least ambivalent over the violent death of, yes, we can say it, one of God’s children.

I attended part of a conference at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary on Monday morning, and there was a part of the worship service where people were voicing prayers aloud, and as I was struggling to find words to express a prayer about our response to the death of Bin Laden, someone else simply prayed, “God, give us the courage to forgive our enemies.” It was perfect, and I was grateful to be in a setting where people were seeking to love, seeking to not gloat, to not rejoice in the demise of another, however dastardly that other was. I was grateful to be in a community where the uniform rise and fall of the world’s rhythm was interrupted by a great jolt of forgiveness.

Of course, it’s easier to gloat, to not forgive. But thankfully, Craig Barnes reminds us that “we are not on our own for this. Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit before he called us to forgive. The work of the Spirit is to bind us into the work of Jesus Christ. What this means is that we disciples are not called to produce forgiveness. We’re called to be the priest pronouncing that which has been produced on the cross...”

Jesus’ charge to the disciples was to carry on the work that he had started. I am thinking of the woman caught in adultery. The crowd was ready to stone her, but Jesus said, “Let the one among you who has never sinned cast the first stone.” I am thinking of the story of when Martha came out of the kitchen madder than a wet hen because Mary hadn’t been lifting a finger to help cook, and Jesus defended Mary. “Mary has chosen that right thing,” he said. And later, when Judas jumped all over Mary for wasting an expensive bottle of perfume to annoint Jesus, and once again Jesus defended her.

It seems to me that one of the things that Jesus did consistently through the Gospel of John was to give people the benefit of the doubt, to take what others saw as “sin,” as “shortcoming,” as “uncleanliness,” and to reinterpret it.

In the story of the woman caught in adultery, he didn’t downplay the seriousness of the woman’s sin, but he did put it into context for everyone there: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Yeah, okay, she sinned, but really who hasn’t? And in the stories of Mary, with Martha, and with Judas, he reinterpreted Mary’s actions, which were seen as negative by others in both cases, Mary should have been working in the kitchen, fulfilling her role as a woman, right, and Mary shouldn’t have wasted so much money on one lavish act of love, right, he reinterpreted her actions, and pronounced them good, pronounced her good. “Wherever the gospel is preached, she will be remembered.”

And it strikes me that while the forgiveness that we usually talk about is, I will forgive you for what you have specifically done to me, that it’s broader than that. It’s an approach to the world, it’s a lavishness, a liberality, an automatic giving of the benefit of the doubt. It’s a willingness and not just a willingness, but a habit of going deeper, of looking beyond and beneath, of seeing people, not just in light of what they’ve done, of how they’ve screwed up, but through the eyes of someone who truly loves them...

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

If we look at people through a stingy, judgmental lens, we are retaining their sins, accentuating their failures, perpetuating their sense of shortcoming. But if we look at people through a lens of grace and tenderness and love, then, poof, it’s no longer their shortcomings that are foremost in our minds, and maybe, just maybe not in their minds, at least for awhile, either.

What is that verse in 1st Peter? “Love covers a multitude of sins.”

Of course, we can proclaim forgiveness, live in a spirit of forgiveness and grace and still not seem to make much a difference in the lives of those around us. But we can be assured that the one place that it will make a difference is in our lives.

In his book about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Process, Bishop Desmond Tutu tells the following story: A recent issue of the journal ‘Spirituality and Health’ had on its front cover a picture of three U.S. ex-servicemen standing in front of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. One asks, “Have you forgiven those who held you prisoner of war?” “I will never forgive them,” replies the other. His mate says: “Then it seem they still have you in prison, don’t they?”

Bishop Tutu says that forgiving does not mean forgetting and it does not mean condoning. It does not mean minimizing what happened or not taking it seriously. And I would add that it does not mean going back to an abusive partner or putting yourself in a situation where you will be used or taken advantage of. What it does mean is, says Tutu, is “drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence.”

Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of scripture, The Message, interprets it like this:

"If you forgive someone's sins, they're gone for good. If you don't forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?"

Craig Barnes, again, says, “If we do not forgive those who hurt us, the only alternative is to retain the sins. To retain means to hold, and to hold onto hurt is to lock ourselves into the identity of victim. In the words of Lewis Smedes, ‘When you forgive you set a prisoner free. And then you discover that the prisoner was you.’"

On Easter, Karen mentioned the movie that some of us had gone to see the day before, “Of Gods and Men,” about nine Catholic priests who chose to remain at their monastery in Algeria even though they knew that their lives were in danger due to a rebel-led insurrection against the government. In one of the most on the edge of your seat scenes, the rebels, who had previously executed a number of foreigners in the same town, force their way into the monastery to demand medical care and supplies.

Brother Christian, the leader of the priests, refuses to send the elderly doctor with them, saying that he is too feeble to make the journey and that they can come to the clinic instead. He also refuses to give them medicine, saying that their supplies are low, and that the villagers need them. The rebel leader says, “You have no choice.” And Brother Christian, knowing that he could be shot to death any minute, replies, “Yes. I do.”

The people of the Risen Christ know that we always have a choice. Not in what happens to us, but in how we respond. We can choose to love, we can choose to walk the second mile, we can choose to turn the other cheek, we can choose to forgive, we can choose to live powerfully as the people of the Risen Christ, defined only by love, controlled only by love.

We have a choice. We are free.

Excerpts from yesterday's sermon by Pastor Cindy


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