Forgiven Forgivers

27 April 2014             John 20:19-31

10_9a0803a11675ae929c4cf4325be06f35I think it is no mistake that forgiveness is front and center as Jesus steps into the room the disciples thought they had locked tight.  It’s the same day as when Mary told them she had seen Jesus, resurrected.  Now it’s a few hours later, the sun is setting, and fear has crept in, locking them up.

Jesus does 4 incredible things when he enters the room.  Did you catch them?  He gives them peace, he sends them out into the world that they’ve locked the doors against; he gives them the Holy Spirit and he tells them they have the power to retain sins or forgive sins.

Hold out your hands in front of you.  Now make fists with both hands.  This is essentially the meaning of retain.  To hold fast to, to hang open-closed-handsonto.  Now open your fists.  There is no Greek work for forgiveness in the Bible, so releasing is what is used here.  You have the power to release, to not hang onto sin.

Ok, close up your fists again.  We know what it’s like to hang onto something we shouldn’t hang onto, right?  The white knuckled gripping. The fingernail marks in the palms of your hands.  The unnecessary strain. Guilt you’ve never been able to shake; a deep sense of unworthiness; or a grudge you hold for someone else’s actions.  Opening up our hands and letting go what ever it is that is not actually ours is powerful.  Or letting go of something that is only hurting us or hurting others.

But there is another layer here of holding to consider.  There is a holding to accountability here.  For example, confronting a bully so that the bully doesn’t continue to hurt others and that person’s behavior has an opportunity to be transformed. Saying that you’ve forgiven a bully without confronting the situation isn’t forgiveness at all – it’s enabling.

ForgiveLet me just tell you, I sat in a room with Lutheran pastors last week and we wrestled with this scripture.  Story after story was told around the table: stories of forgiveness; a story of an entire Christian community being held accountable for the sin of one; a story of 2 congregation members refusing to offer forgiveness to one another in the name of Jesus Christ during a worship service; a story of a man in Iran about to be publicly hanged for murder who was dramatically and publicly forgiven by the murdered man’s mother and saved from the noose. 

Releasing and retaining.  Releasing and retaining.

Our study was quieter that day, filled with the awe that is the power of the Holy Spirit to work in the midst of awfulness to bring about healing and reconciliation.

I began by saying I didn’t think it was a mistake that Jesus began with forgiveness in the first hours after his resurrection. He doesn’t tell them they have the power to forgive because they’re awesome. After all, these were all the folks who fled from him as he was tried and crucified—he knows better.  He doesn’t tell them they will find logic to aid them in their ability to forgive.  He doesn’t tell them forgiveness will be easy or come quickly.  No, Jesus breathed on them and says, 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.

breathThe Holy Spirit is caught up in all of this. It’s the power of the Holy Spirit that does it.  It’s the Holy Spirit of God that stirs up forgiveness and transforms lives.

We are a community of the forgiven.  Did you know that?  We can all agree that we are in need of forgiveness.  And each and every week, we are forgiven.  We say out loud and together what our sin is.  We sit in silence and confess our sin. And then, we are publicly pronounced forgiven.  I get to tell you the best news ever.  I get to tell you that it is Jesus Christ – not me, a pastor – who forgives.  And then we are then made agents of forgiveness!  We are called into the tough, tough work of practicing this very difficult thing.  It is one of our guiding principles of this community: we are called to grow together as disciples: to forgive, to teach, to love.  Because what Christians are so often famous for is fighting and lying and dividing and decidedly not forgiving.  I ask you, how on earth are we going to do it in our every day lives if we can’t do it here?  We are a community of forgiven people.  So this means that we are also a community of forgiving people.  


In her book, Pastrix, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber talks about forgiveness in stark contrast to her being right and to enduring a friendship sheNadia-Featured-Image knew wasn’t true or right for either of them.  She was allowing her old friend’s destructive behavior to continue without comment and she knew it was a chicken move. At this point, Nadia was new to going to a Lutheran worship service and had this to say about the power of truth in confession and forgiveness:

When someone like me, who will go to superhero lengths to avoid the truth, runs out of options – when I am found out or too exhausted to pretend anymore or maybe just confronted by my sister – it feels like the truth might crush me. And that is right. The truth does crush us, but the instant it crushes us, it somehow puts us back together into something honest. It’s death and resurrection every time it happens.

This, to me, is the point of the confession and absolution in the liturgy. When I first experienced it – the part where everyone in church stands up and says what bad people they are, and the pastor…says,‘God forgives you’  – I thought it was hogwash.  Why should I care if someone says to me that some God I may or may not really believe in has erased the check marks against me for things I may or may not even think are so-called sins?

But eventually the confession and absolution liturgy came to mean everything to me. It gradually began to feel like a moment when the truth was spoken, perhaps for the only time all week, and it would crush me and put me back together.

She then shares a bit more about the ending of a friendship and how she paid new attention in worship the next morning:

We have sinned by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

Saying the words that morning…I felt like I had just said the truth about myself, and it felt like that feeling I’d get in the backseat of my parents’ car when I finally exhaled after holding my breath through a mountain tunnel.

And then the pastor said, “Fear not, brothers and sisters, God who is full of grace and abounding in steadfast love, meets us in our sin and transforms us for God’s glory and the healing of God’s world. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, your sins are forgiven, be now at peace.”


thomasWe’re just like Thomas, aren’t we?  We need to touch those wounds in order to believe we are loved and forgiven.  To believe it’s real for us. We can hardly believe Jesus would love us and forgive us day in and day out.  We stare in disbelief as Jesus gets through the locked doors of our hearts, gives us peace, breathes into us the powerful and life changing Holy Spirit, and then sends us out to be forgiven forgivers. And so we put our fingers out and touch those wounds and we are crushed and then we are put back together. Forgiven.


Thanks be to God.