Last Sunday, Easter Day, the Risen Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene at the tomb. Imagine the courage it must have taken for her to go out to the tomb in the dark. Her courage is rewarded with an encounter with the Risen Christ.
And in this Sunday’s Gospel the Risen Christ appears again, this time to all those who were too fearful to venture out before dawn as Mary Magdalene had done. They’re even too scared to venture out in the daytime. We find them terrified, hunkered down behind locked doors.
And the Risen Christ appears to them, slipping in even though the doors are locked. The first thing Christ says to them is “Peace.” Why does he say that? Well, for one thing, “Peace” was a common greeting. But also he says “peace,” I think, to calm them. They’re shaking with fear – probably because the same authorities who crucified Jesus would now be out looking for his followers. And, in spite of the fact that Jesus had said that he would rise again, that was too spooky to be true. But … Mary Magdalene did say that Christ had appeared to her – had called her by name.
Let’s recall who these disciples are. They’re the “in crowd,” the inner circle. In the upper room at the Last Supper they’re the ones who assure Jesus of their determination to stick with him. Ah, but when night fell, and the soldiers came for Jesus, they all fled into the darkness. Judas wasn’t the only betrayer of Jesus. They all fled in fear.
It’s understandable, that fear. The soldiers came with swords and clubs. Violence is the way the Romans hold their power in Judea. But fear because of what Mary Magdalene said about Jesus?
Well, the Lord they loved is the very Lord they betrayed. So if he has really risen, they’re in big trouble. They can just imagine Jesus saying, “I had a fairly good view from where I was on Golgotha. I saw the soldiers – I saw my mother – but I didn’t see all of you. What happened to that ‘Jesus, we’ll stick with you’ that you promised earlier?
Ah, but what does the Risen Christ say when he appears to these pitiful, disheartened disciples? He says simply, “Peace.” With that he implicitly forgives them for their failure to be faithful.
Easter means not only that it is the nature of Christ to defeat sin and death, but also that it is of the nature of Christ to forgive. Last Sunday we celebrated the miracle of the Resurrection; this Sunday we celebrate the miracle of divine forgiveness.
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, wrote this: “When a Christian is asked whether it’s proper to forgive a terrorist bomber, the answer shouldn’t be – ‘of course.’ For one thing, it isn’t for just anyone to forgive someone who has injured another: it’s for the victim to forgive. And forgiveness can’t just be mandated as something to be done once and for all and straightaway [regardless of how the victim feels].
(This is my example now, not Williams’.) Junior – or Juniorette – breaks Big Sister’s $800 ipad that she worked and saved to buy. “Say sorry, Junior,” instruct the parents. And Big Sister is told to accept the apology, and the parents expect the incident to be over. Really?
Williams says: “Certainly Christians are told to forgive each other, but they should know better than most how long the job can take. They can say that it’s possible; but God forbid that they should try to force the pace for someone whose hurts they don’t know of firsthand.”
Case in point [again not Rowan’s]: When I was seven, an old guy who lived in the boarding house across the highway molested me – repeatedly – which I kept secret probably because he told me to – but also because my mother was going through a really rough time, and I didn’t want to add to her problems.
As I got older I began to feel guilty for keeping the secret, not because I had been protecting Mother, but because he was free to go on molesting little girls.
Years later I found myself faced with two problems as a Christian – forgiving myself for indirectly protecting a slimeball, and forgiving him for what he had done to me.
It took me close to 50 years to realize that at seven I couldn’t grasp the fact that by not telling, I was enabling a piece of lowly scum to continue to be scummy and slimy and victimize other little girls. The worldview we perceive at seven isn’t that broad, especially in a small town in the redwoods in the late 40s early 50s. No TV. We didn’t even have a radio.
So I was able to forgive myself. But him! That was harder. So. I had been to a clergy gathering in Elma, the focus of which was forgiveness. And driving home I realized that holding what he had done to me bottled up inside wasn’t healthy – and not Christian. So I said, out loud, to my steering wheel and to the windshield and to Highway 8, “I forgive Mr. Thomas.”
And what a reaction! The steering wheel, the windshield, and the highway remained the same, but I changed. It was as if a cement block, a big one, was lifted off my chest. It was an actual physical feeling. Now I think of him no longer as a slimeball scumbag. Now I think of him as a forgiven slimeball scumbag. And the episodes from those days no longer canker my memories or my psyche or my soul. In fact now I can use those experiences from the first rape to my moment of the levitating-cement-block forgiveness as a bridge to others who need to start letting go of ugliness from the past.
Let’s go way into the past now. Saint Augustine, who lived 1600 years ago is quoted by Rowan Williams. “In a sermon on forgiveness, . . . Augustine said, around the year 400, that sometimes people in his church omitted the phrase from the Lord’s Prayer that says ‘And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ They just left that phrase out because they knew they would be lying if they said it aloud.” They knew, says Augustine, that they were making a kind of covenant with God by saying ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others.’ Forgiveness is hard.
Now, back from Augustine to Rowan Williams. This is important, says Williams. Forgiveness should not be confused with leniency – or with making light of an outrage. A person may be forgiven by the victim, yet it will still be right for the perpetrator to serve out a sentence or somehow face the consequences of an action.
To say as we do in the creeds that we believe in the forgiveness of sins is to claim not that offenses don’t matter, nor that things can easily be made all right again, but simply that even the worst of our failures cannot shut a door to or for God. Failure and hurt can be reclaimed by God – and if we are made in the image of God, then it is possible for us too.
Whenever there is the miracle of forgiveness, it is almost like the miracle of resurrection. Though our relationship to God can be as good as dead – because of our sins – God, in the Risen Jesus Christ, forgives us, and we can begin again. It is Easter. Alleluia and Amen