Sermon: Forgiving Others for God

April 8, 2018: Second Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31

The fact that Thomas had to be somewhere else on that first Easter evening, rather than in that locked room with his friends, ended up giving us a lot to talk about. There’s the matter of what is doubt and what is belief. There’s the question about how people with different experiences can come to believe the same thing – Thomas, after all, asked for nothing more than his friends had experienced of the risen Jesus. There’s no sign that any of them did any better at trusting Mary Magdalene when she brought the news – which gives us the sexism of the first century and the twenty-first century to talk about.

Yes, there’s a lot there. The biggest challenge of all, however, is hidden in plain sight, towards the beginning, before the Thomas story gets rolling. It’s Jesus’ words: “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.”

If you forgive, people are forgiven. Not just by you – but by God.

This, as much as anything, is what Jesus meant by saying that he had given his followers the keys to the kingdom of God.

Forgiveness here has to have a somewhat narrow definition. We often think about forgiveness as an emotional process: “I forgive you” means that I want to have the same or better relationship that I had with you before. “I forgive you” means that I have, or intend to, release any anger I feel because of something you did that hurt me.

This is what people mean when they advise others to forgive, and say, “You’ll feel better.” Forgiveness in the heart does, in fact, lift a noticeable burden from the spirit. “I forgive you” helps me breathe easier in forgiving, and hopefully does the same for the one being forgiven.

That, however, is not what Jesus talks about here. There are plenty of things that can be delegated from one living being to another, but not responsibility for emotions. I can do things that will might make you feel one way or another, better or worse, but it’s not reliable. I can do the same thing twenty times and you might feel differently about it each way. Jesus could not give us the power to make God feel any particular way.

What Jesus could do was give us the authority to make decisions on God’s behalf: decisions about the consequences of sin. “There’s the sin,” said Jesus. “You get to decide whether God imposes the consequences or not. The choice is yours. What will it be?”

It might not be as awesome as making God feel all fuzzy inside, but that’s still an astonishing power. Someone sins against God, and I get to decide whether they have to endure the consequences of that?

And we let this get lost in the story of Thomas. When we find ourselves with the power of forgiving others for God.

We have the power to forgive others for God.

If this sounds odd to you, it is part of our daily life. In our society, we delegate the authority to do justice on our behalf to other people: police, prosecutors, attorneys, judges. While we can settle at least some of our own disputes, there are some which we have delegated to government: those things we call crimes.

And those people, the police and prosecutors and attorneys and judges – they get to decide both what is just, and what should be forgiven. They get to do so regardless of the wishes of the person who has been harmed. In 2016, a California judge sentenced a convicted rapist to six months in prison. You may remember the case. The victim read a powerful statement to the court that starkly illustrated the hollowness of the sentence. You may have read it.

She saw clearly what the jury had, and what the judge had not: the rapist had not repented, had not apologized, had not sought forgiveness. He was receiving forgiveness from the justice system – but he had not sought it, and did not receive it, from her.

We have been given the power to forgive for God. Not for other people.

This is a crucial distinction, and one the Christian Church has not, on the whole, made very well over the centuries. In the ordinary way of things, we tend to think of God as having the last word on everything, and that’s true. But we also tend to think of God as something like the Supreme Court, who can and does overturn the rulings of the not-quite-so-supreme courts. “You don’t wish to forgive this person who hurt you?” says God. “Well, so there. They’re forgiven. I did it, and you can’t undo it.”

I do apologize for making God sound more like a sulky five-year-old and less like a Supreme Court justice.

But God does not work that way. God forgives on God’s behalf, but you and I have to forgive on our own behalf. And we cannot forgive on one another’s behalf. God may have delegated the authority to forgive, but you haven’t given that power to me. My neighbors haven’t given that authority to me. The person living on the far side of the world hasn’t given that authority to me.

I can offer forgiveness on God’s behalf. But if someone has something against me, I still need to make it right with them, and ask their forgiveness. God won’t do that for me.

Jesus himself advised, as Matthew recorded it in the Sermon on the Mount, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

The gift to which Jesus referred was almost certainly a sin offering, the sacrifice made at the temple to ask God’s forgiveness. Jesus’ warning was that God’s forgiveness comes after human forgiveness.

It’s almost as if everyone, not just Christians, have the power to forgive sins for God…

How would we live in the world if that were true, if everyone had the power to forgive sins for God? Wouldn’t that encourage us to make our apologies, offer our repentance, do our very best to avoid harming others, do even better at making up for our failures?

Wouldn’t that encourage everyone to do the same for us: work with us to do good together, to apologize to us, to repent with us, to lift each other up when that road of righteousness gets so hard to follow?

The more I think about that possibility, the better I like it. I don’t know if it’s true. But what a wonderful way to live.

I think I’ll live as if it is true, and if it isn’t, perhaps it will be if we live it together.

That leads to the Jesus’ final phrase, translated in the New Revised Standard Version as, “…if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” In the original Greek text, the sentence isn’t that clear. The word “sins” isn’t repeated, and the word “retain” is sort of a stretch. The grammar is funny, too. So Sandra Schneiders suggests (as quoted by Mary Hinkle Shore) that a better reading is, “‘Of whomever (possessive genitive plural) you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven to them; whomever (objective genitive plural) you hold fast [or embrace], they are held fast.’”

That is: you forgive sins, and now you embrace. You forgive sins, and now you hold fast. You forgive sins, and now God embraces you both.

I’ll never read that passage the same way again. I am so amazed at this vision of friends embracing, over and over again, and each time held gently, firmly, and lovingly in the arms of God.

You have the power of forgiving others for God. You have the power to embrace those you love. You have the power of inviting God’s embrace for yourself.

You have the power – we have the power – the universe has the power – to ask the living God to embrace us all.

Thanks be to God.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

As usual, there are differences between the prepared text above, and the recording. Variety is a good thing!

The image is “The Incredulity of Thomas” (a popular artistic theme in Europe for centuries) found in the Psalter owned by Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, who was both Queen Consort of France and then England, and died in 1204.

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on April 8, 2018

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