April 12, 2015 Sermon

posted Jun 24, 2015, 11:31 AM by David Hawkins

"The First Gift of the Spirit"

*Gospel Reading: John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “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.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Sermon: "The First Gift of the Spirit"             Rev. David Hawkins

In today's scripture, we find the disciples - a week after Jesus died - locked in a room, huddled together in fear and grief. While there have been some sightings of Jesus, risen from the dead, these reports have been isolated, and to be honest, they sound kind of crazy. They’re just too good to be true. 

The reality is, the disciples aren't safe, and they know it. They're terrified of being arrested and killed. They're afraid of the Romans, and they're afraid of their people. There's no hope for them, and they're powerless to face the world.  

They're leaderless as well. Jesus himself has been killed. Peter, the rock, has denied even knowing Jesus. The other disciples ran away at the first sign of trouble. The only person that seems to have any hope at all is Mary, and that’s because  she thinks that she's actually seen Jesus. Which would be great, if it were true.

But for the rest of those terrified disciples, the fabric of their reality of the last three years has been torn apart. Their dream of a new Jerusalem, of a Messiah, of the Kingdom of Heaven has come crashing down around them, and they have no-one to turn to. They are crushed, persecuted, afraid, and alone. 

And that’s when Jesus comes to them. He comes - impossibly, unexpectedly - at the lowest moment of their lives.  

And in this moment of fear and persecution, he offers the most peculiar of gifts. It’s not a gift of strength or courage. It’s not a gift of prophecy or healing. Its not the gift of tongues or of teaching. The first gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives his terrified, hopeless, isolated disciples, is the gift of forgiveness. After a week of being terrorized by the Romans, of being ostracized by their own people, after this week of mourning the murder of their dearest friend and teacher, Jesus lets them know that they can forgive, if they choose to. 

Or they can choose not to forgive. 

If you think about it, they have every reason to hang onto their fear. They have every reason to be bitter about their situation. The odds are stacked against them. Their enemies are prowling outside the room.

The disciples have good reasons for distrust and anger. And Jesus knows it. He gives them a choice, to forgive, or to not forgive.

And then, just as quickly as he came to them, he’s gone. 

And then in walks our famously  doubting friend, Thomas. His friends try to tell him what just happened, that they just saw Jesus, but he's having none of it. Can you imagine how he must have felt? When Thomas last saw the disciples, they were paralyzed by anxiety and indecision. And while he's been out there risking his neck in the real world, they’ve had some sort of religious experience, sitting around here in the dark, hiding from the world? Yeah, right. 

We can understand Thomas. "Let's get something straight, guys," he says. "Jesus is dead. It was all a fake. We were duped. It was all for nothing. Our best shot now is to blend back into the crowd. To lie low for a while. We can't going around shouting that Jesus is alive, are you crazy? That would get us killed! 

"If you want to think that you saw Jesus, that's fine. But I'm not going to believe it until I can see him for myself. You can keep your hallucinations. I'll believe it when I can actually put my hands on him. Then we'll see who's real, and who's not. Those folks out there? Those Priests, who accused Jesus? Those crowd who shouted for his crucifixion? Those Romans who killed him? They're real. And they're coming for us." 

Thomas has every reason to be suspicious. In fact, his anger and fear is probably the only thing keeping him going after Jesus died. His skepticism is not a crisis of faith, it’s self defense. It motivates him. It makes him careful. It gives him the energy to keep going, when everything seems lost. 

But his anger doesn’t give Thomas peace. It doesn’t give him hope, or comfort. His bitterness does nothing to fill the hole in his heart where love had been. It doesn’t calm. It doesn’t create. It doesn’t restore his soul. It can’t. Because that's not what anger does. That's not how bitterness works.  

But then Jesus comes again, and this time he comes just for Thomas. Jesus lets Thomas see for himself pain that he had suffered, the shame he had overcome. Jesus lets Thomas see that there is more to life than anger. There is more to life than death.

And when Thomas sees the love that enabled Jesus to get past the betrayal, past the denial, past the scourge, past the nails, past the cross, past death itself, Thomas is finally able to let go of his own pain. He is finally able to believe in the promise that Jesus offers us. We can let go. Regardless of the anger, the fear, the vulnerability, we can let go. If we want to. It's our choice.

Think of all the different spiritual gifts that Jesus could have given those disciples, huddled together in that locked room. Any one of a dozen different spiritual gifts would have been helpful. And yet the first gift of the spirit that Jesus gives is the gift of being able to forgive. Or to not forgive. To let go of the pain of the last week, to let go of the trial, the torture, and the tomb. Or, to hang on to it. Jesus lets them know that they have a choice. And he then gives them the gift of his Holy Spirit to enable them to live with the choice they make. 

Forgiveness is a tricky subject. 

It's tricky, because this idea of forgiveness is used too often by the powerful to coerce the weak into accepting abuse and oppression in the name of Christian forgiveness. But forgiveness is not about the weak forgiving the strong for their abuses. Nearly every single mention of forgiveness in the Bible is framed in terms of the more powerful person in a relationship forgiving the less powerful.

Forgiveness is an act of grace, made from a position of strength, not weakness. It is an act that can be accomplished only by someone who has control over their own self. To compel or coerce forgiveness contradicts the meaning of the word itself. 

Jesus gives the disciples the opportunity and the space to do the impossible: to forgive those who killed him. He knows that if the disciples are to ever leave their locked up room, and bring the light of the Gospel to the whole world, they're going to have to forgive. But he doesn't tell them to forgive. He gives them the tools they need to make the choice themselves. He gives them His Spirit, His hands and feet, His presence, His strength. He gives them the gift of himself.  But he leaves the choice of whether or not to forgive to them.

Forgiveness is not the same thing as acquiescence. Forgiveness is not acceptance of the status quo, especially when the status quo is harmful, corrupt or unjust. Forgiveness doesn't mean that you condone or excuse the behavior of someone who hurts you.

Forgiveness is not something that should be assumed. Insisting that someone forgive because "it's their Christian duty," denies legitimate feelings of anger, hurt, fear, and pain that must first be acknowledged, affirmed, and addressed. The idea that the victim of a crime should simply forgive their attacker, without action to bring that person to justice is a perversion of grace, and is not the shalom that God intends for his children. 

To dogmatically insist on the forgiveness of the abuser, without addressing the physical, psychological and spiritual needs of the abused is not love, it's ideology. Jesus is not insisting that the disciples forgive. He is equipping them to do so. It’s not a commandment. It’s an invitation.

So I ask all of you, be careful with forgiveness. Be careful how you ask for forgiveness. Be careful how you suggest forgiveness. Be careful about forgiving. Be intentional about giving someone the tools they need in order to forgive. Forgiveness is complicated, and is not something that can be switched on like a light switch.

Forgiveness happens on its own schedule, when the time is right. It's painful. It happens when and how the Holy Spirit enables it to happen. It's not a duty, or an obligation. It's dangerous. It's vulnerable. And it's frightening. 

But, it's also liberating. 

Forgiving means letting go of the last bit of control that someone else has over you. When you let go of the anger and bitterness toward the person who has wronged you, you can begin to live a life which is not governed by the behavior of someone else. 

The reality is anger can be a very helpful friend in the immediate aftermath of abuse. It can give purpose and strength to a victim. But thoughts of revenge and expectations of perfect justice can turn to a corrosive bitterness and a search for revenge, rather than restoration.

Forgiveness breathes new life into your soul. But, like all forms of new life, it comes at a cost. It's not easy to forgive. It’s especially hard to forgive ourselves, when we know we’ve fallen short of our own expectations.

But our faith is not in our own ability to forgive. Our faith is in a Savior who has done what is necessary for forgiveness to take place. Our faith is in held his wounded hands. Our strength is found in his pierced side. Our hope rests in the breath of Jesus, calling for us to let go those things that weigh us down, in order that we might embrace his promise of new life with him and with each other.     

To the Lord who speaks to us,

and strengthens us,

and blesses us with peace,

be all glory and honor forever. Amen.