April 27, 2014: John 20:19-31

April 27, 2014

Year A, Easter 2                                                        

During my first year of seminary, I had to read a book called We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families.  It was about the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.  There are two main tribes in Rwanda: the Hutus and the Tutsis.  They lived in relative peace, often as neighbors. The Hutus made up 85% of the population.  In 1994 Hutu extremists began a plot to wipe out the entire Tutsi population.  It is estimated that 800,000 Rwandans were killed in a matter of months, the majority were Tutsis.  Seventy percent of the Tutsi population was killed. That book was one of the most painful things I have ever read.  It primarily covered what led up to the genocide, the killing itself, and then a very brief aftermath. While I think about that book every time I see an article about Rwanda, I have not read much about it until this week.

Just this week I saw a piece in the New York Times magazine called, “Portraits of Reconciliation.”  This piece ran on the 20 year anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda.  It was here that I read more about what came in the years after the genocide.  When the killing and looting finally ended, the Tutsis (the tribe that was almost obliterated) returned to their homes to find that they were living next door to people who had brutally murdered their families and driven them out.  As you can imagine, this was a difficult way to live.  There were court trials and some of the people who had committed the atrocities were sent to jail, but they eventually got out if they were convicted at all.  The justice system was not equipped for this kind of mass slaughter, and it certainly could not help people emotionally.

A Roman Catholic group aptly called “Pax Christi,” [1] stepped in and introduced a totally different model, reconciliation.  They[2]worked with small groups of Hutus and Tutsis and counseled them over many months.  At the end of the program, the perpetrator would formally request forgiveness from the victim.  If forgiveness was offered, the perpetrator would present the victim with an offering (usually food and banana beer).  

I often wonder what it was like for the disciples to see Jesus after they had abandoned him and denied him.  It probably had not occurred to them that they would see him again, certainly not so soon.  Jesus was aware of their angst and guilt and started with a fairly standard greeting, “Peace be with you.”  But then he followed it up with something a little new.  “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.”

It might seem strange that he did not tell them that they were forgiven.  They had committed some pretty egregious sins. One would think they needed that forgiveness.  If you were here on Maundy Thursday, you might remember that Jesus had already forgiven his disciples when he washed their feet.  He forgave them before they even knew that they needed to be forgiven.  So he did not have to tell them again. Now he was commissioning them to proclaim God’s forgiveness to other people.  We forgive one another in one sense, but when there is a sin that is committed, it is only God who can forgive.  What we do is tap into that that forgiveness.  We proclaim that forgiveness…which you would think would be easier to do than the actual forgiving…but it’s still pretty hard.

Each portrait in the Times’ piece depicted two people: the person who had perpetrated the crime and the person who had suffered from that crime.  One of the pictures depicts a man who killed a family and the mother of the family sits right next to him.  One story was about a woman who was chased from her village.  She became homeless and insane.  She returned to find her home destroyed.  Her husband was gone and she had to care for her children.  One of the men who looted her home asked her forgiveness.  She granted it (although not easily) and he brought 50 people, many who had committed atrocities during the genocide, and rebuilt her home.  In the interview the woman said, “Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.”[3]

When she compared herself to a dry stick, I was reminded of a line from Psalm 22 that we heard on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  “My strength is dried up like a potsherd.”  A potsherd is like an old piece of pottery you might find in the ground.  Sometimes we all feel that dryness.  It’s that feeling of being brittle and weak, like we might fall apart at any moment.  Or maybe we are just thirsty, in need of something to sustain us.  The thing that quenched her dry body and heart was the freedom to forgive.  Once she forgave, she was able to find peace and share that peace.

It is no wonder that Jesus brought both peace and a challenge to forgive when he came to the disciples.  He knew that they would need to share this message of forgiveness with others because it is not something that comes to us naturally.  It can be a very hard thing to do.  I have always found the line “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained” to be a little strange.  Does that mean that we can withhold God’s forgiveness?  Of course not.  We cannot control who God forgives.  But we can withhold forgiveness in the sense that when we refuse to forgive, we hold on to that sin…we retain it.  We become like a dry stick, brittle and weak. 

            When you look at the portraits, and I encourage you to do so, you will not see warm and fuzzy images.  Most of the people look pretty awkward. Some have become close, but most have not.  Part of the reason they forgave was because they had to live with these people.  It was the only way they could survive.  We think that when we forgive, when we share God’s forgiveness that it will be easy and natural.  Usually it’s not.  That dry and brittle feeling might stick around for awhile.  When Jesus returned, he made sure to show his disciples his wounds.  Even though he was back from the dead, he still carried his wounds.  Forgiving others…forgiving ourselves does not erase the wounds, it transforms them into something else.  Sometimes that transformation will take longer than 3 days….maybe longer than 3 or 30 years.

            The man who looted the home of the woman I quoted also spoke of the process of reconciliation.  He said, “I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am like any human being.”  It is amazing to me that we can lose our humanity.  People can take it from us; sin can take it from us.  At least it feels that way.  But God never takes away our humanity.  That is God’s gift to us.  We are created in God’s image and no one can change that.  We tarnish ourselves and we tarnish others, but God’s image is always there, waiting to shine through.

            It made me smile when I read that part of the reconciliation process is for the perpetrator to bring an offering of food and banana beer. I thought, that seems like a pretty pathetic offering in comparison to what they did.  Then I thought of what we offer to God on Sundays.  We bring wine and bread.  We might bring some food for the local food pantry, and then whatever money we can spare.  This is the offering we give to Jesus for his sacrifice on the cross.  At least the food they offer in Rwanda is fresh!  Those wafers are the most stale bread you can imagine. 

But that’s not really what the offering is about is it? Psalm 51 says, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart.”  The banana beer and wine is nice, but what God really wants is a contrite heart and heart ready to forgive.  A broken and contrite heart might feel brittle and weak to us.  To God, it is the most beautiful and powerful thing we can offer. 

[1] http://www.paxchristi.net/member-organizations/rwanda/193
[2] Association Modest et Innocent (AMI) was the specific group that worked in Rwanda.