Forgiveness is Self-Preservation: John 20:19-31

April 23, 2017

Year A, Easter 2     
 April 23, 2017

            On March 28th of 2010, Conor McBride shot his girlfriend of three years.  Conor and Ann had been fighting for over 38 hours and he simply broke.  He immediately regretted it and turned himself in. When her parents were notified, their first question was whether Conor was with her in the ICU where she struggled for her life.  They were shocked to learn that the boy they considered a son, was the one who shot her.   When Ann’s father (Andy) sat with his dying daughter, he felt her say, “Forgive him.”  He said “No,” but he kept hearing the voice of his daughter telling him to forgive the man who shot her.  After four days on life support, her parents realized they would have to let her go.  Her father later said, “I realized it was not just Ann asking me to forgive Conor, it was Jesus Christ, and I hadn’t said no to him before, and I wasn’t going to start then. It was just a wave of joy, and I told Ann: ‘I will. I will.’ ”[1]

            As Andy described what happened, he mentioned that the wounds on his daughter reminded him of the wounds of Jesus Christ.  Apparently she put her hands in front of her face when her boyfriend raised the gun, giving her wounds on her hands and her head.   The author of the Gospel of John reminds us of the scars that Jesus bore when he appeared to his disciples after his resurrection.  He showed them his hands and his side. The scars on his hands were from the nails.  His side bore the mark of the sword that pierced him.  There is no reference to scars on his head, but we know that his head was undoubtedly wounded when the crown of thorns was forced onto his head.  Even if those scars were not present, the disciples would have seen them in their mind’s eye as they looked at the risen Christ for the first time.

            The Gospel of John says that the disciples were hiding for fear of the Jews.   I have a hunch that they were hiding from more than just the Jews.  Remember that when Jesus appears to them this first time, they have already found the empty tomb and Mary Magdalene already reported that she spoke to the resurrected Christ.  What do you think they were more afraid of, the fact that he was dead and gone, or the possibility that he was alive and they would have to face him?  The disciples had not performed very admirably in the last days of Jesus’ life.  Peter had denied him.  Most had abandoned him.   To make matters worse, instead of combing the streets looking for Jesus, they were now hiding in a locked room.  Yes, they were hiding from the Jews.  They were the Jews and they were hiding from their own shame.

Suddenly, Jesus appeared in the room. Before anyone had time to react, he proclaimed, “Peace be with you.”  With those four words, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then he breathed on them.  Normally, I am not too keen on people breathing on me, but this was not just any breath.  This was the breath of God, the Holy Spirit.  With it came joy, hope, and forgiveness.  “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.”  With this breath and these words, Jesus was not only forgiving them, he was giving them the authority, the responsibility to forgive others.  All of that makes sense to me.  What does not make sense is the part about retaining sins.  Did Jesus mean that the disciples could withhold God’s forgiveness?

            Ann’s parents did more than just forgive Conor, the man who murdered their daughter.  They visited him in prison every month.  They worked with Conor’s parents and the district attorney to minimize the sentence that was given to Conor using a model called “restorative justice.” This was not easy for anyone, but they felt that was what Ann would have wanted, and what God was asking of them.   When asked about it, Ann’s mother said, “Conor owed us a debt he could never repay. And releasing him from that debt would release us from expecting that anything in this world could satisfy us… I think that when people can’t forgive, they’re stuck… Forgiveness for me was self-preservation.” 

            The disciples weren’t just literally stuck in a locked room.  To some degree, their hearts were locked, buried in a place that was so deep, it was only the breath of God, the forgiveness of God that could bring air to their suffocating lungs.  With the forgiveness of Jesus, they could start coming up for air.  However, it could not end there.  Jesus was forgiving them, so that they could proclaim that forgiveness to others.   Being forgiven only got them half way there.  They might have come up for air, but if they wanted to truly open their hearts, they would have to forgive others.

            We often think that in forgiving others, we are making some sort of sacrifice, or giving them a gift.  Yet that’s the thing about gifts, they are only good if you release them.  Furthermore, we do not own this gift. It is God’s gift.  He just asked us to share that gift with others. A theologian wrote, “When you forgive you set a prisoner free. And then you discover the prisoner was you.”[2]

            I believe that is what Jesus meant when he said, “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  If we choose not to forgive someone, we then take on their sin.  And unlike Jesus, we cannot absorb sin without having it affect us.  Another word for forgiveness is “to free” or to “let go.”  In giving us the power to forgive, Jesus gave us freedom, from not only our sins, but the sins of others.  If we don’t use that gift, we will find that while we might not be stuck in a locked room, we might as well be.  Because when we hold on to all of that sin, all of that shame, all of that anger, then our hearts are locked.  Do you think the disciples stayed in that room after they received the Holy Spirit…the breath of God? No, they opened that door and they claimed their freedom.  I think that most of us have little locks on our hearts.  We have them to protect us…but really they are just imprisoning us.  It’s time to open the doors. It’s time to claim our freedom.