|Text: John 20:20-21
Jesus came and stood among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. After saying this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.”
One of the strangest and perhaps most counter cultural aspects of the Good Friday are Jesus’ words from the cross just moments before he dies. He is in extreme agony as the nails bearing his weight tear at his flesh and he gasps to fill his lungs with air; the crowds gathered on Golgotha are mocking with loud laughter and taunting him to come down from the cross if he is truly the Son of God. The soldiers are laughing and joking at the foot of the cross as they gamble for his clothes as Jesus was dying. Most of his disciples – his closest friends – are nowhere to be seen; they are afraid and scatter to find somewhere to hide. In excruciating pain and in his dying moments Jesus says, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing”.
When Jesus says, “Father forgive them” – the ‘them’ are all those who have been involved in his crucifixion – leaders of the community and the church, government officials, soldiers, disciples and friends – those who were mocking, jeering, taunting, gambling, hiding. The ‘them’ Jesus is referring to is every person who has had a hand in causing such extreme pain and torture. He prays that they would be forgiven.
That’s not supposed to be how things work – forgiveness in the face of so much hatred and shame. That’s not normal. Anger, hatred, abusive language, shouts about his innocence, cursing his tormenters – that would be normal behaviour.
Today we hear of when Jesus comes into the room where his disciples were hiding. They had deserted him in the Garden of Gethsemane, one had denied that he ever knew Jesus three times, others had said they were prepared to give up their own life for Jesus but in the end fear overcame them, not one of them stood up to defend Jesus and declare his innocence. Jesus’ first words to them are, “Peace be with you”.
Jesus had come back from the dead and cannot resume talking with them until he says exactly what he said on the cross to his tormentors and his failed disciples, “Father forgive them.” He puts their guilt and their shame and their fear aside and says, “Peace be with you” – “The peace of God that brings forgiveness and reconciliation and calmness fill your hearts and quieten your fear”.
These first words of the risen Jesus to the disciples are so much at odds with the way the world thinks of forgiveness. The way forgiveness works for most of us is like this, “Let the person who has offended me, say that he or she is sorry, then I might be prepared to offer my forgiveness”.
When Jesus appeared the disciples didn’t say,
“Oops, I guess we really let you down;”
or “I’m sorry we ran away when you needed us the most;”
or “I beg your forgiveness for not supporting you in your greatest hour of need – in the garden I couldn’t even stay awake and pray for you;
or “I’m sorry that when Judas appeared my confidence disappeared”.
Neither do we hear any reprimand from Jesus for their betrayal; no criticism of their absence to encourage and support Jesus.
There is none of that. Only “Peace be with you. I forgive you, now let’s talk”. These words indicate more than just peace of mind and the absence of fear and guilt. The peace that Jesus offers heals the desolation, the hurt and sorrow that Jesus himself must have felt as saw no sign of his closest friends from the cross. The peace Jesus offers heals the guilt, the fear, the mistakes and misguided loyalties of the disciples.
The peace that Jesus gives puts all of that in the past; it is forgotten and it’s time to start again. We often think that Jesus’ work of forgiveness was confined to the cross but it’s clear from the Easter appearances of Jesus that Jesus’ work of forgiveness continues after Easter. The first words he says to his disciples are words of forgiveness.
Today we also have this whole incident with Thomas who missed seeing the resurrected Jesus the first time. He can’t believe that Jesus could be dead one day and alive the next. It is impossible. It is illogical. It is stupidity at its worst. He had heard Jesus talk about this kind of thing happening and he had heard the eye witness accounts of his friends but he states firmly, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later Jesus appears again and this time Thomas is there and what are Jesus first words? “Peace be with you”. These are words of forgiveness and grace and Jesus treats Thomas the same way he treated the disciples on his first appearance – with grace and love. That’s enough for Thomas. Jesus offers to let Thomas touch his scars but there is no need. All Thomas needed was to hear Jesus’ words of forgiveness and healing. Thomas’ faith is the result of nothing but grace, the grace of Jesus Christ who did not wait for Thomas to “come to faith” but who came to him.
One day Jesus told a story about a farmer who had a fig tree (Luke 13:6-9). The farmer came looking for fruit. For three years he’s been looking for fruit and there has been nothing. “Cut it down!” he says. His servant pleads, “Master, let it alone. I’ll dig around it, give it a good dose of manure, and then let’s see what happens”. The word Jesus used for “Let it alone” is the same as “forgive it”.
“Cut it down!” That would have been the logical and right thing to do. However, the story ends with, “Master, forgive”. And that’s what Jesus does with us. When we are up to our necks in the muck and manure of sin or we have not been bearing the fruit that comes as a result of the love Jesus has shown to us, he could quite rightly say “Cut it down!” but instead he permits us to begin again with forgiveness and a new start. He did that with the disciples the first Easter and he does that with us.
No matter how you have failed in your walk with God, no matter how you have betrayed Jesus, remember what he said to those who had let him down so badly – “Peace, I forgive you. Sisters and brothers, I still love you”.
But it is not only the nature of God to forgive but it is also the nature of the Christians to forgive. “Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’” Jesus breathes on his disciples reminding them how God breathed into Adam and gave him life. Here Jesus is breathing over his new creation and giving the invigorating life-breath of the Holy Spirit to those who will continue Jesus’ work of forgiveness and reconciliation after he is gone.
Jesus says, “I am sending you on a mission to announce the gospel of forgiveness but not only to talk about it but to make forgiveness a part of your everyday life. It is through forgiveness that the Holy Spirit cleanses, makes new, restores relationships and give us the peace that only Jesus can give”. In other words, Jesus is passing on to us the ministry of sharing forgiveness; to deal with others with grace and mercy even though it’s hard work especially if we feel we are the people who have been wronged.
We live as if every day is Easter Day. Just as forgiveness was very much a part of Jesus’ Easter appearances likewise forgiveness is very much part of the life of the disciple as we live out the victory of Jesus’ death and resurrection every day.
Bruce Prewer tells this story. A friend of mine was touring in England. Among his delights was visiting not just cathedrals, but village churches which were steeped in generations of the joy and sorrow of ordinary Christians. Arriving in one village, he headed for the parish church, opened the door and stepped into its secluded beauty.
Near the back of the building, a man was kneeling and weeping. Without saying a word, my friend knelt a few paces away. When with a heavy sigh the villager sat up, the visitor put his hand gently on the man’s shoulder and said, “My friend, you seem to be doing it tough. Can I be of any assistance?” The stranger, recognising genuine compassion, blurted out his story. Ten years earlier when he was in his late teens, he had committed a crime, was arrested, tried and sentenced. He had been free for nine months. But he still felt terribly ashamed and came (not on Sunday with others) but alone during each week to pray for the Lord’s help.
The visitor said, “But God forgives you. Forgives you utterly. You know that, don’t you? You don’t need to pray alone, you should be here on Sunday with other Christians.”
The stranger commenced to sob again, and then whispered, “Yes, I know God forgives me, but the people in my church and village don’t. Until they do, I am trapped with a feeling of ongoing disgrace. I cannot face them on Sunday. That is why I come here alone to pray during the week.”
This is precisely what Jesus was saying to his disciples, “If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” This is where the rubber hits the road and this whole business of forgiveness becomes very challenging. Christ has commissioned us to offer forgiveness when relationships go wrong. And there is no doubt that friendships do go pear-shaped more often than we care to admit. We have a choice – either we make real the forgiveness of Christ in our lives and offer it to those who have offended us or we withhold our forgiveness and so tie everyone involved in the bonds of guilt.
We might say, “I don’t care if he/she feels guilty – it serves them right after what has been done to me”. But is that what Jesus is telling us in his Easter appearances? It’s easier to be unforgiving than to reach out with kindness and mercy and be reconciled with another person. That’s why Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” before he commissions his disciples to forgive people’s sins. It is only under the power of the Holy Spirit that this kind of forgiveness is possible.
To conclude, I’m sure that there are many amongst us here today who have had issues with people in the past and it seems that as much as we would like to do something about it, it is too late to be reconciled with that person. If that is the case, then we need to listen to Jesus as he speaks to his disciples. He knows our hearts and he knows our guilt and he says, “Peace be with you. Your sins are forgiven.”
© Pastor Vince Gerhardy