Sermon, April 27, 2014
Remembering Forgiving and Healing
Phil Campbell, Northern Light United Church, Juneau, Alaska
Jeremiah 6: 14
14They have treated the wound of my people lightly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
John 20: 19-31
19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”
26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.
This morning I invite you to think with me about forgiveness. Along the way, I will suggest some things about forgiveness that differ from the way I was raised to understand it; they may be different for you as well.
Return with me to this morning’s text. In verse 22 we read that Jesus breathes on the disciples, and in so doing, grants them the capacity to retain and forgive sins. This word, “breath,” is used only here in the New Testament. Breath is mentioned sparingly in the Hebrew Scriptures as well. Breath is present at creation; God breathes into the earth creature, the Adam, and creates a human being. Likewise, in Ezekiel, God breathes into the dry bones and they live. God’s breath is what makes us human, and God’s breath is what makes forgiveness possible. So, there is something both divine and human about forgiveness. The Spirit’s breath does not grant only the ability to forgive, however. Did you notice the intriguing directive? After receiving the Holy Spirit, the disciples are empowered not only to forgive sins; they are also given the capacity to retain them. “If forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This retention notion is not something we speak of often. The job of being a follower of Jesus is to forgive, isn’t it? That is what Christians do, right? What’s up with retaining? Is it sometimes our job to retain the sins? The text doesn’t say retention is necessarily bad, as in “If you happen to retain sins, then watch out, because they will be retained, but that’s really a bad thing.” It just states it – if you retain them, they will be retained. We talk a lot about forgiveness, but retention? Is there ever a reason to retain? Is that ever called for? How does retention relate to the forgiveness? And what does any of this have anything to do with the story of Thomas and his desire to see Christ’s wounds before believing that this risen one was the crucified one?
Regarding retention, I suggest to you that there may be times to retain sins until forgiveness is possible. There may be times when circumstances have to change before forgiveness can be entertained. This is so not to punish the offender, but to assure the safety and the healing of the one who has been violated. It may be that forgiveness requires repentance. Forgiveness might call for cessation of the offense and an expectation that the violation will not only cease, but that it will not be repeated. Until then, the sin may have to be retained.
In keeping with the connection between retention and forgiveness, I offer a different definition of forgiveness that might broaden our understanding. The definition comes from the work of Claremont School of Theology emeritus professor Margaret Suchocki. Her definition of forgiveness is “to will the wellbeing of all parties, both those who have violated and those who have been violated.” To will the well being of all parties. This involves creating conditions in which everyone’s wellbeing is possible. By framing forgiveness this way, Suchocki suggests that forgiveness is a much more communal undertaking than we tend to think of it. Or at least the way I had been led to think of it. Popular culture views of forgiveness define it as an individual transaction. One way to pray the Lord’s Prayer is as a ledger sheet of individual entries. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I forgive your trespass because I want you to forgive my trespass. It’s a “tit-for-tat” exchange. Let’s call it even.
What if instead, we are called to create communities of forgiveness, not just produce individual instances of forgiveness? Have you ever considered that all the pronouns in the Lord’s Prayer are plural? We don’t pray, “Forgive me my trespasses as I forgive that lousy, no-good, so-and-so over there who trespassed against me.” We don’t pray that. We pray “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There is a collective dimension to forgiveness. We are called to become a communities where forgiveness is practiced. Communities where the wellbeing of all parties is manifest.
This communal understanding opens up new, transformational possibilities. It is not all on me, or all on you. Rather, together, we learn how to live in a different way that makes it possible for us to move into the future. Archbishop Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness reminds us of this. Forgiveness is necessary in order move into the future, but declaring this so still begs the question of what it means to forgive. I believe that the verse from Jeremiah that I asked Carol to read, and Thomas’ insistence on seeing the wounds of the crucifixion, are components of forgiveness that make a future of wellbeing possible for everyone.
In Jeremiah’s time, the nation of Judah was about to fall. The nation was crumbling, done in by injustice and disregard for the poor. But the positive thinking crowd would not face this fact. They insisted that everything was going to be fine. Don’t worry, don’t think about bad things, just ignore it. Or get over it. Just say, “Peace” and there will be peace. Just say, “All is well,” pretend like all is well, and then it will be all well. Cool, right? Just like that. Everything is okay now. Forgive and forget. Move on. Jeremiah said, no. He told the people that they are dealing with their wounds lightly, or carelessly. They were denying the extent of the injury. Who cares if there is no peace? Say there is and it will be so. “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
Easter is sometimes preached in similar vein, but Thomas reminds us that this not the Easter message. Sometimes Easter is preached as, “Sure, they did some bad things to Jesus and he was up on the cross for three days and it probably didn’t feel very good, but Easter is here now and everything is fine, right?” Forget about all that bad stuff. The crucifixion was so last week. Good Friday is history, just bask in the Easter glow, and pretend like all is well. Forget about the wounds of Jesus. Heal them lightly, carelessly, just be happy.
I know that a positive outlook is important. Research suggests that optimists live longer (if truth be known, it really irritates me that they do). But I don’t think faith is the same thing as optimism. We cannot sweep trauma under the rug and make it go away. No, faithfulness is not optimism, but it is hopeful. Hope is different. Hope means the capacity to live joyfully with the full knowledge of the difficulties, challenges, and pains of existence. It does not mean denying them. This is the way Thomas calls us to live. He is given a bad rap as a doubter. But his “doubting” can be seen as insistence that the wounds of the crucifixion not be healed lightly. He wanted to remember and deal with it. It is also true, of course, that those in subsequent generations cannot literally see the wounds. Jesus says, “Blessed are those of you who trust in me who have not seen.” But he does not say, “Blessed are those of you who trust in me and pretend like the wounding never occurred.” He doesn’t say, “Blessed are you who get over it and suppress the memory of the wounds.” That is how Easter is sometimes preached, but that isn’t the message.
I am suggesting that the only way into the future of forgiveness is to deal honestly with the circumstances that require the forgiveness. John the Baptist came preaching a baptism for the repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance is sometimes thought of as, “If you feel bad enough, then I’ll forgive you. If you really know what a rotten, no-good weaselly person you are, then God will forgive you and maybe I will too.” But repentance is not about that. Repentance is about change. Repentance means to turn. It is not about feeling sorry per se. It is about living life differently. In a community of forgiveness repentance is required, not to make someone feel bad but to equip violators to live differently. That is how the wellbeing of all parties is manifest.
Different living is still needed. It is Eastertide, but the body of Christ, the images of God, are still being crucified. Every day. In Mali, and the Sudan, in Syria and Palestine. You name the country and there is found there pain and death and destruction. In dimly lit corners of communities across the globe, the crucifixion still occurs.
This Thursday, at the request of the State Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, I will host a training session for Juneau faith leaders. We will gather in the Fellowship Hall. One of the reasons it is important to train faith leaders is that some who have been violated have been mis-taught about forgiveness. Some have been told that if they are in an abusive situation, they need to forgive their abusers, and that what it means to do so is to stay with them and continue to be abused. But that is not forgiveness. That does not will the wellbeing of all parties. That does not establish a community of forgiveness.
The only way a violator can heal is to stop violating. This means acknowledging that they have violated. The only way for one who has been violated to heal is to face that they have been violated, and to know that is it not their fault. The only way for resurrection to happen is through the crucifixion. To acknowledge the wounds and to heal from them not lightly, but deeply, profoundly, and thoroughly. Healing from historical trauma is like this. Alaska Natives whose cultures have been decimated and who have been oppressed and abused are survivors of historical trauma. This is not a wound that can be healed lightly. They were forbidden to speak their languages, cut off from cultural sustenance and told that their ways were of the devil. This trauma runs deep. When careless healing is attempted, the wound is passed from generation to generation and true healing is thwarted. European invasion of this land has resulted in genocide and those who are the heirs of this legacy need to face this reality and commit to change the institutional and structural racism that continues to infect our communities. We must repent of implicit as well as explicit notions of white superiority. The wellbeing of all parties must be attended to so that all can live as the people God is creating us to be. We can’t just declare peace and pronounce forgiveness when there is no peace and there is no change.
But it is also true that this is not the end of the story. Healing can happen. Resurrection can happen. Communities of forgiveness that attend to the wellbeing of all can be established. Resurrection didn’t just happen long ago. It can and it does happen now! We can live as the people of God, as communities of wellbeing for all people. Communities where violators are held accountable, but not for purposes of vengeance. We don’t remember violations in order to punish, but we remember in order to change, in order to live differently, in order to break the cycle and to heal the wound deeply. Communities where those who have been violated are safe from continued abuse, and also freed from internalized oppression. Internalized oppression is one of the awful things about historical trauma. Historical trauma continues to inflict its toll even when the overt abuse ends because the oppression has been internalized. After the violation, after the violence, after the life-denying experiences have stopped, the one violated is still controlled by these things. The evil work of the violator continues. Suchocki says that one of the horrors of violation is that there is a merging of the violator and the violated. And even when they are separated, the one who has been violated still lives with the consequences of that violation. Forgiveness includes learning how to let go of that so that the violated one can live into a different, resurrected future. The community needs to step up and demonstrate that such abuse will no longer happen. This is not light healing. This is no, “It is over, so get over it.” No; deep healing means full disclosure.
What, then, is needed for the healing to begin? What do we need to do together? There is another part of the John text that offers insight into what makes it possible to move together into a future of healing and forgiveness. Recall where the disciples were when Jesus came to them and said, “Peace be with you.” They were huddled in fear behind locked doors. Thomas, who insisted on remembering the pain of the crucifixion and dealing with the reality of its implications, was the only one not hiding fearfully. Fearful people can’t forgive. Fearful people can’t heal. Ending fear is not as simple as saying, “don’t be afraid anymore,” of course. There are plenty of places and circumstances that produce valid reasons for fear. Collectively, as a society, we need to do what we can to diminish the fear and assure safety. This is what it means to be communities of forgiveness that will the wellbeing of all parties. We also need to face our fears individually and realize that sometimes fear holds us in its grip even after the source of fear has been removed. Fear continues to do its work because we’ve internalized it. Forgiveness can free us from that. Forgiveness can frees us on the inside and enable us to live differently. Some of you have heard the adage that not forgiving someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. The inability to forgive eats at our insides. This is not an either/or but a both/and. We create communities of safety where forgiveness is possible, and we discover the individual capacity to forgive. The wellbeing of all is sought and together we move into the future.
The gospel is not forgive and forget. The gospel is remember, forgive, and heal, together. Live in habitations of peace and joy, in possibility for new life where the wellbeing of all is willed. We proclaim again this day that it is possible. Christ is risen, and so too can we rise. May we do so. Amen.