That was the title of my sermon this week. The sermon text is John 20:19-31. My sermon had nothing to do with doubt it was about forgiveness. It's what you get for listening to the Spirit...I guess. I was already to preach this week about Thomas…you know “doubting Thomas”. I think that guy gets a bum wrap sometimes. I believe that faith and doubt are inseparable and have said so on many occasions. I think that it is unrealistic to think that you or I will be 100% certain about our faith 100% of the time. I know I have doubts; my guess is you have doubts, Mother Theresa had doubts, Martin Luther had doubts, even Jesus had doubts. This week I doubted that the Holy Spirit was with me, doubted that it would move me to find the message in this text that God was calling me to share, the message that I needed to hear.
Then I sat down with a group of people and we talked about this passage. I didn’t realize that I needed to hear a message of forgiveness and be reminded that for the author of the Gospel of John forgiveness of sins was at the heart of the community of believers. I found this quote from a retired pastor, theologian and author, Lamar Williamson, Jr., who I have had the pleasure of breaking bread with on many occasions.
“The context in the Fourth Gospel is the Johanine understanding of the church: a community of believers in Jesus, bound together only by his command to love and serve one another. This word of the risen Lord in the present text can therefore be read as descriptive: if members of the community forgive one another their sins, those sins are forgiven and the community is living from and in the Spirit of Jesus; but if members of the community harbor grudges and resentment toward other members who have sinned against them, then those sins remain to spoil the bond of unity, and the Spirit of Jesus is no longer resident in the community…the forgiveness of sins in John is an essential component of life in a community whose life breath is the Holy Spirit of Jesus, alive and well in and among its members.”
The forgiveness of sins is an essential component of life in community whose life breath is the Holy Spirit of Jesus, alive and well in and among its members.
That’s sounds good enough.
If members of the community harbor grudges and resentment toward other members who have sinned against them, then those sins remain to spoil the bond of unity, and the Spirit of Jesus is no longer resident in the community.
That makes me uncomfortable, I certainly don’t want to think about something that I do contributing to the Spirit of Jesus no longer residing in the community. Jeesh…that’s a tough pill to swallow.
For John, however, it’s not about a remarkable music ministry, young people who are engaged, or even fabulous preaching; it’s about the words of Jesus “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.”
Well that sounds easy enough…right? I wish!
I certainly struggle with my own “grudges” and “resentments”. This week 29 West Virginia miners were killed in an explosion at the Upper Branch mine in Raleigh County, WV. The worst coal mining disaster in 40 years. I didn’t know any of the miners or their families, however they are still part of my family. As my father used to repeat to me “Nobody messes with my family.” Right now today I hold a lot of anger towards Massey Energy, the coal company that owns the mine, and specifically Don Blankenship, its CEO. You may have never heard of Don Blankenship before this week, but I can assure you that I have and I have held my anger towards him and his continued business practices for years. I won’t go into all the details <if you like to know more we can get coffee, you might want to block out a significant amount of time> needless to say I’m angry and I have been for a while. I’m really not sure if I’m ready to let go of my anger towards Mr. Blankenship, I’m sure he doesn’t care what I think. How to I balance justice and forgiveness? Certainly there should be consequences for his actions; do I need to be the one to ensure those consequences happen? How can I forgive this man for the things that I believe he is responsible for when families, my family is still grieving the loss of their loved ones from what seems to be a preventable tragedy.
I don’t know the answer to those questions and I’m sure there are NO easy answers, what I do know is that Jesus says, “Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” I am called to model the example of Jesus to forgive in the face of those that appear to be unforgivable. That is hard stuff. Who am I to tell YOU to forgive, I don’t know your pain, I don’t know the hurt that you have been through. The thing I do know is that “if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
The paraphrase of the bible called “The Message” puts it another way, “if you retain the sins of any what are you going to do with them?”
Steven has talked about one of his favorite writers, Anne Lamott, who happens to be one of my favorites as well, says in her book “Traveling Mercies”, “not forgiving others is like eating rat poison and expecting the rat to die.”
The other day I was twittering with a pastor friend of mine about this passage and he said, “forgiveness says, "I'm not going to allow you to push my buttons any longer. You have no claim over who I am." While retention of sins says, "I give you power over me, to burden me with expectations and perceptions that are not who God is creating me to be."
I certainly allow Don Blankenship to push my buttons and because I do I allow him to hinder me from living as God created me.
There are certainly stories that are more powerful than mine, stories that challenge us more deeply. One such story I read in the book that we studied as a Lenten group. I believe it shows the courage it takes to forgive and the power to heal that act can have on a person and a community.
[Hole in Our Gospel Story pg. 158]
Forgiveness is a beautiful thing, unfortunately it also can be extremely difficult.
Forgiveness is an individual process. I wish I had the answers that would make the pain go away…I don’t…all I can say with certainty is that God is with you, God is with us and we will need to walk together with one each other as we try and navigate the waters of what it means to live from and in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
As we welcome these new young people into our community we welcome them into our questions, we welcome them into our doubts, we welcome them into our faith, we welcome them into a community that attempts everyday to live from and in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. We pray that they will help us model what it means to be a community of believers that do not hold grudges but forgives the sins of any.
I pray that I have the strength, I pray that you have the strength, I pray that we have the strength to do the difficult work that Christ calls us to knowing that he will continue to meet us, like Thomas, where we are, he will continue to respond to us before we speak, he will continue to stand with us, to prop us up, to walk with us away from the things that hold claim on us and hinder our ability to live into all that God has called us to be and towards the power of the unconditional love and compassion modeled by Jesus the Christ.
May it be so.