Practicing Resurrection: Forgiveness – a sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

Practicing Resurrection pastordawnOur first reading was the traditional gospel story for the Second Sunday of Easter in which we heard the story of Doubting Thomas for John 20:19-31. This was followed by a video in which Richard Holloway retells the story of Peter’s denial and the encounter between the resurrected Jesus and Peter. You can view the video here . This was followed by the gospel reading from John 21:15-20

Listen to the sermon here

It has been said that, “The shortest distance between a human being and truth is a story.” It has also been said that the greatest story ever told is the story of resurrection. Like all really good stories, the story of resurrection has been told over and over again as storytellers attempt to convey the truth. We have heard Easter’s story of resurrection so many times that you would think the truth of resurrection would be obvious to us all. Yet, we struggle to find truth in Easter’s familiar story. Some of us have been shaped by this particular story. Some of us have built our lives around the truth that others have reported to us about this story. Some of us have rejected this story and filed it with all the other idle tales in which we can find no truth. Some of us have moved on from this story convinced that there is no longer any truth to be found. Some of us love to hear this story because it takes us back to familiar truths that inspire a nostalgic sense of well-being. Some of us, are determined to wrestle with this story until it releases all the truth that it harbours in, with, and between the lines which calls us toward a new way of being which we long to embrace. I myself, I am a wrestler. Like Jacob of old, I wrestle with this familiar story, determined to get from this ancient tale not just truth but an inkling of the Divine who dwells in, with, through, and beyond all of our stories.

The anonymous gospel storyteller, who we know as John tells Easter’s resurrection story in a particular way, determined to reveal the truth that dwells in him and among the people with whom he dwelled. One of the things that we 21stcentury truth-seekers are particularly fond of is deconstructing stories. We love to take stories apart, dissecting every line, examining each and every detail, each and every word so as not to miss a single nuance of the author’s intent. We are also skilled in the imperfect art of attempting to place stories back into their historical context,  so that we can establish exactly what was going on in the first century lives of the story-teller and his listeners. We look to the historical context in the hope that we can determine the original meaning of the story. Convinced that history can tell us what the story-teller cannot, we wrestle with the facts, as best as we can determine them, so that we can be sure that the truth we thought we knew is more than just the summation of our mistaken interpretations.

Together, we have wrestled with Easter’s story of resurrection and together, I must say, that we are pretty good wrestlers. We have deconstructed this story, we have applied the historical-critical method, we have approached it from all sorts of angles and employed the best 21stcentury scholars to aid us in our struggle to wrestle the truth from the piles and piles of dogma, which have been heaped upon it. But this morning, I’d like to approach Easter’s story of resurrection from the perspective, not of wrestlers determined to find the truth, but rather as people touched by the story itself. But even though we are not going to wrestle, like Jacob of old, we run the risk of being touched and even wounded by the truth as the Divine One is revealed and we are compelled by our wounds to walk in a different way.

Before we begin to meet the old friend which this story has become to many of us, I want to alert you to some lines from Easter’s story which have the power, if we let them to touch us in such a way as to take our breath away.

“locked for fear”

“peace be with you”

“if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

“peace be with you.”

“Do you love me?”

“tend my sheep.”

“Do you love me?”

“Tend my sheep.”

“Do you love me?

“Feed my sheep”

“when you get old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will put a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go.”

“Follow me.”

“You are to follow me.”

“Do you love me?”

So, with our new-fangled ways of wrestling with the text, set to one side, let’s try an old tried and true method of finding the truth which a story reveals. It is a method which Jesus himself is reported to have used. It consists of simply putting one story beside another story.

So, as I’m heading off to Belfast this evening and my mind is full of Irish lore, let me put an Irish story beside Easter’s resurrection story to see what can be revealed. There were these two Irish guys named, let’s see Paddie’s too predictable and Sean is too easy, how about we call these two Irish guys, Fergus and Connell. An so, Fergus and Connell were good friends, the best of friends and one day they were walking along the seashore when they started to argue. The argument became so heated that Fergus slapped Connell across the face. Connell didn’t retaliate. Instead he took a stick and wrote in the sand, “Today Fergus slapped me.”They went of to the pub and over a few pints and a wee touch of the nectar, they made up. A few months later they went for a swim in the sea. Connall’s foot became entangled in some seaweed and he couldn’t free himself. The sea was becoming rougher, and Connell began to panic. “Help!” he called, “I’m drowning!”

Fergus, who was a particularly strong swimmer, heard his friend’s cries for help and swam over to him. Fergus disentangled Connell’s foot and then pulled his half-drowned friend safely back to the shore. When he had recovered, the grateful Connell found a hammer and a chisel and carved into a rock, “Today Fergus saved my life.”

Fergus was bewildered, and so he says to Connell, “After I struck you, you wrote about it on the sand but today you chiseled words on a rock. Why?”

Says Connell to Fergus, “When someone hurts us we should record it on sand where the winds of forgiveness can erase it. But when someone does something good for us it should be recorded on rock from which it can never be removed.”

Now I like a bit of blarney as much as the next person, but this particular bit of blarney struck me as rather good.

“peace be with you”
“if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
“peace be with you.”
Forgive, let the winds of forgiveness erase the sins of the past. Sort of a long-winded Irish way of saying “forgive and forget”. Sure, we may need to be pulled by our belt-strap in order to get us there, because let’s face it most of us would rather not forget. We’re pretty good at holding on to our hurts. As for forgiving well we know we really ought to; after all, if Jesus can forgive Peter, we ought to be able to follow Jesus and do our best to forgive those who hurt us. Let the sands of time wash away the hurt and focus on the good stuff. Just forgive and forget.

Pardon my Irish, but, “What a load of bollocks!” Forgive and forget! Why I can still remember all those years ago, my dear wee Mom, towering over me, insisting that I say, “sorry”.  I don’t know how many times I was coerced into telling my little brother that I was sorry or how many times my little brother was coerced into saying he was sorry. But if you pressed my brother and I, I bet we could still tell you all about the horrible things we did to one another when we were kids. We haven’t forgotten. I haven’t forgotten the hurts along the way. I can still feel the pain of betrayals too numerous to mention. Nor have I forgotten the pain, which I have inflicted on others. I have been forgiven more times than I care to admit for travesties that I have perpetrated on people I love dearly. And I trust that I will not forget a single one of those travesties or the relief of the forgiveness, which has been heaped upon me. Forgive and forget? Bollocks.

“peace be with you”

“if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Once upon a time, I was taught to believe that forgiveness was something we simply had to do in order to ensure that ugly bad stuff didn’t fester. So, when someone says they are sorry, I figured I better forgive them or else. Maybe just maybe the sins which I commit may not be forgiven by that big faraway sky-god who might just apply the same kind of logic to me if I’m not careful. Or, seek forgiveness lest those sins go unforgiven, and I’d have to answer for them later. Better to just get to the forgiveness part so that we can get on with the forgetting part so all the hurt can just go away. Forgive and forget. “If you love me.” You’ll be just like Jesus who loved Peter so much that he forgave him the unforgivable betrayal. Once, twice, three times.

I deny him. I deny him. I deny him. The echoes of the cock’s crowing were ringing in Peter’s ears when without so much as a by your leave, Jesus forgives Peter. Or does he. I’ve heard the truth proclaimed from this story so many times that I can’t hear this story without hearing Jesus forgive Peter the unforgivable. Over and over and over again, I see my own weakness writ large in this story, because of my repeated failure to forgive, forget, move on. If you want to follow Jesus you too will forgive, forget about it. Move on.

In our efforts to follow Jesus we approach so many situations where people have been hurt and we begin by explicitly or implicitly trying to get them to forgive. Just like my wee Mom we hover over the perpetrators of pain and demand that they say that they are sorry, so that we can all move on. While saying we are sorry is as good a place as any to begin the healing process, there are times when the pain of our betrayal is too deep for us to bear and the very act of saying that we are sorry is beyond our reach. There are also times when if asked to accept an apology, the pain of being betrayed is so raw that we cannot even entertain the idea of accepting an apology. Forgiveness is not the end all and be all of healing. Healing is a complex process that takes all sorts of shapes and forms.

If we let Easter’s resurrection story touch us we may not be surprised that Peter, never asks Jesus to forgive him, but it may shock us to hear that in this story, Jesus does not actually forgive Peter and as for forgetting, well listen to what Jesus says: Simon-ben-John, not Simon Peter, not Peter the Rock, but Simon the son of John, a simple fisherman, “Do you love me more than these?”

“Sure” says Peter, you know that I’m your friend.” Are you kidding me? How can Peter expect anyone to believe that he is a friend? With friends like Peter who needs enemies? Peter ought to be on his knees groveling for forgiveness. Once more Peter is in denial. “You know that I’m your friend.” Prove it says Jesus:  “Feed my lambs.” “Do you love me?” Again, Peter just can’t help himself, “Yes Rabbi, you know that I’m your friend.”  Again, Jesus responds, “Tend my sheep.” Do something, if you are my friend prove it. “Simon son of John, do you love me as a friend would?”

Peter is hurt because Jesus asked a third time and so Peter goes on the defensive. “You know everything don’t you Rabbi. You know that I am your friend.” Prove it. Jesus drives home his point. “Feed my sheep.” 

“Follow me.” The hurt hasn’t gone away.  The struggle continues. Two friends locked in a wrestling match of their own. Struggling to find reconciliation. The work of forgiveness is ongoing. But it is the work to which we are called if we are to escape the pain of retribution. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth embodied a new way of being in the world. I bring that belief to my encounters with the stories that have been told about Jesus. I do not live in the first century. I live in the 21stcentury, so in addition to my belief that Jesus embodied a new way of being in the world, I also bring the things I have learned about what it means to be a human being. I have long since given up the ancient notion of our noble origins. We were not created perfect and placed in a garden to dwell with a god who chuck us out at the first sign of trouble. We have evolved over millions of years and who and what we are as human beings continues to evolve. We are incomplete beings, who from time to time make leaps forward as we evolve over time. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth embodied a giant leap forward in human evolution. Faced with the pain and hurt of life under an oppressive regime, Jesus could have chosen to live as others who had gone before him lived. Jesus could have taken up arms or demanded retribution. But he chose a different path; a way of being that embodied LOVE.

Do you love me Simon ben-John? Let’s find away. You can begin by caring for those I care for. You can begin by feeding those I love. You can begin by loving. The healing will begin not by forgiving, forgiveness will come out of the love we share for one another. In that love we will never forget.

We won’t forget the pain. In our pain we shall seek to embody love. Imperfect, struggling, love. That love will take all sorts of shapes and forms. That love will not allow us to forget or to continue to participate as victims. That love will take us as if we are being dragged to places we may not want to go.

I believe that Jesus embodied the LOVE that lies at the very heart of reality. The stories which have been handed down to us about Jesus illustrate that LOVE. To be involved with this LOVE is a daunting task. We may not want to go there. Some of us would rather wrestle a blessing out of that LOVE and move on. We have been told a different story, a story so far from the story that the gospel-storytellers told. We have been taught that it is all about the blessing. We have been asked to believe that it is all about believing that our sins are forgiven. So, we struggle to believe that we are forgiven either by living lives devoted to Jesus or by trusting in the grace of God to forgive us. And we worry about retain the sins of any lest they be retained, and we struggle to forgive sins so that we might be forgiven as well. And along comes Jesus and to ask over and over again: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? To which we respond over and over again, of course we do, but forgive us when we fail. We make it all about forgiveness because in the end that’s what we really want.     We want to be forgiven because in being forgiven we have been told that we will be loved, we will be included, we will be held, and all will be well, because all will be forgotten as we live happily ever after floating in some far-off heaven.

A third time I say, “Bollocks!” Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that forgiveness is not an important and precious gift which has the power to change lives. I’m just saying that forgiveness is not the be all and end all that it has been portrayed to be. Jesus and Peter may have forgiven one another. Jesus may have gotten past Peter’s betrayal. Peter may have forgiven Jesus for not being who Peter thought he ought to be. If they managed to forgive one another, I hope they never forgot what they had been through together.

Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Yes. Yes. Yes.

Feed my lambs. Care for those I care for. Love those I love. Do you love me? Then love them! LOVE them? LOVE them? For in loving them you love me.

LOVE is the be all and end all. LOVE the love that we see embodied in Jesus of Nazareth who when sinned against in the worst possible way asked only that those who had sinned against him find a way to love. Forgiveness is not the end we seek. Forgiveness is a byproduct of the work of LOVE. LOVE is where Jesus is leading us. LOVE that was embodied in Jesus and continues to live in, with, through, and beyond us. LOVE that lies at the heart of reality. LOVE that permeates life.

Jesus embodied a new way of being; a new way of living. A way of being that embodies LOVE, which in the loving of others we too embody. It may seem a whole lot easier to just forgive and forget. “The truth of the matter is, when you were young, you put on your own belt and walked where you like; but when you get old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will put a belt around you and take you where you don’t want to go.” This LOVE lies at the heart of what it means to be a human being. It is not easy. There will be pain. There will be wounds that will mark us. But in the loving their will also be healing, forgiveness, mercy, justice, and LOVE, so much love that you will have more than you need to tend the lambs and feed the sheep that you will encounter along the way.

As for Connell and Fergus, well the loving may indeed be better if we write our hurts in the sand and the carve our joys in the rock. But what will remain in the end is the love which Connell and Fergus shared, a love filled with hurts and joys. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Tend, feed, love those who I love.

“Follow me!” said Jesus to Peter, for the stories I’ve heard Peter continued to be Peter, loving Jesus, tending, feeding, and loving those whom Jesus loved. And when all the stories are told it is Peter’s love and Jesus’ love that lives on. And when your story and my story is told, it will be the love that we embody that lives on. May the Love that lies at the heart of all that IS, live in, with, through, and beyond you. Now and always!  Christ is risen!









2 thoughts on “Practicing Resurrection: Forgiveness – a sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

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