Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"The Holy Spirit and forgiveness"

Message preached May 19 , 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  John 20:19-23

Order of Worship

            News item: St. Lukeís Lutheran Church in Peru, IL, was rocked by scandal recently when the churchís pastor of 12 years "was arrested on suspicion of boring as many as 23 children within the congregation. ĎReverend Bob always seemed like the sweetest man," parishioner Vera Crandall said following the arrest. ĎWhen my son said he made him watch three 1975 filmstrips about the suffering of Job, I was shocked.í In the wake of the arrest seven former Sunday School students, dating back as far as 1989, have stepped forward with charges that the pastor subjected them to inappropriately tedious parables." (Christian Century, 5/8-15/02, vol. 119, #10, p. 6, quoting from 4/10/02 issue of online gag mag, The Onion)

            We laugh, though we know that revelations in other churches, of a more serious nature, are no laughing matter. As far as Iíve seen and heard, the Protestant portion of the Church of Jesus Christ has generally refrained from smugly commenting about the scandals currently wracking the Roman Catholic church in this country, as if it couldnít happen here. The truth is, child molesters and other abusers come in all sizes and shapes religiously.

            The good news amid the bad in the recent crisis, a fact not often reported, is that most of the cases coming to light occurred 15, 25, 30 or more years ago. In the last decade, especially, the church overall has become much more aware of problems that we once swept under the rug, and have since established procedures for dealing with abuse. I know that is true in our own denomination, as uncomfortable as it has been to talk about such things. Iíd rather deal with the problem of young people being bored in church (wouldnít you?), than with their possible abuse.

            Abuse, no matter what form it takes, leaves a huge legacy in a personís life. There are inner scars that will forever be there. The question that remains for each one who has experienced abuse concerns whether that inner injury will continue to be an open wound, always a source of pain, or whether it will somehow form the kind of "scar tissue" that gives evidence of healing. This territory, which is ground upon which I would like us to walk this morning, is called "forgiveness."

            When something bad happens to us, especially when it has been caused by the action or the inaction of someone else, we face a critical decision - each one of us. How will we respond? The basic truth is that we often donít have a choice in what happens to us. Of course, we sometimes make poor choices that put us into harmís way, especially when we donít have the experience to know some of the bad things that can happen to us when we do so. But we donít (usually) choose for these bad things to happen. Right?

            On the flip side, though, all of us have a choice in how we will respond to such bad things. Will we choose to nurse the wound in such a way that it continues to fester and bleed and eventually lead us to continue a cycle of abuse, or will we seek out the process of healing, such that scar tissue may form over the wound and new flesh eventually grow? This is where we have a choice in life. Will we allow ourselves to remain "victims," or will we choose another way?

            News item: A 13-year-old boy faces the possibility of 8 years in juvenile jail for shooting a spitball in gym class. Apparently this projectile hit and permanently damaged the eye of another boy. The attorney for the injured child said on national television last Friday that, as the victim here, his client "will never have full use of his eyes again, accident or not." The attorney for the other child said, "boys will be boys. It was just a spitball." (ABC News, 5/17/02)

            Of course, there is always more to a story than what is said. For all I know, this spitball-shooting kid could be a bully with a history of hurting others, an up-and-coming sociopath. What bothers me more, though, is the victimization of the other child who, it was said, will always bear this wound whenever he looks out that eye. Does he really have no other choice here but to push for his middle-school classmate to be prosecuted and put behind bars? Iím not privy to all the details here, folks. Maybe thatís what needs to happen. I donít know. But what about this "victim" and the wound which is not just on his eye, but on his spirit? I hope that somewhere along the line he will be helped to "see" (pardon the pun) that he has more than one choice in how he responds. I wonder, is anyone helping him move in the direction of forgiveness?

            I say that hesitantly, realizing that forgiveness is no quick fix. Itís a journey. Too often, in the past victims were instructed to forgive without justice being done. I think this is at the heart of the current scandal in the Catholic church. Abusers were put back into other parishes. Justice was not done, so as to prevent the cycle of abuse from happening yet again. Forgiveness is part of a bigger picture.

            As I said, I want us to focus more upon forgiveness, this morning, than upon abuse. I think we see forgiveness along the lines of "turning the other cheek, walking the second mile" (see Matthew 5:38-41), as something "passive." However, to the contrary, to "turn the other cheek," to walk "the second mile" - these were active responses to evil suggested by our Lord, choices we can make, alternatives to taking "an eye for an eye." The point not often said in relation to these words of Jesus is that we always have choices. We are not just "victims" when bad things happen to us. We are not powerless. We have choices in how we will respond.

            Now, strictly speaking, to "turn the other cheek," to "go the second mile" is not forgiveness. A person can do these things without forgiving someone, you know. And they can do so with a sense of passive helplessness. In Jesusí day, a Roman soldier could ask any common person to take his pack and carry it for a mile, and they had to do it. It was the law of the occupying empire. Beyond a mile, however, they did not. When Jesus spoke of going the second mile, he presented a choice. The first mile, there was no choice. The second mile there was. Carry it the second mile, he said, so that when you put the pack down, you can truly put it down, and it will have been by your choice, not the soldierís. This was an active, not a passive response.

            Forgiveness, likewise, is an active response. It moves a person from being helpless, without choices, to being someone who has choices. A forgiving person is a powerful person, they have the power to forgive. What that means is that they are able to let go of a heavy weight and walk without it being a burden on their shoulders. To forgive is to "let go" of an injustice, to "let go" of a pain, to "let go" of what someone else has piled upon your shoulders. Forgiveness is not the terrible burden some see it as being.

            The disciple Peter once asked Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" I think Peter was viewing forgiveness as a burden to bear. Jesus responded, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times" (Matthew 18:21-22). In answer to the question, did Jesus put a heavier burden on Peterís shoulder? Or did he open the door and let in some fresh air? I believe it was the latter. Peter asked, "Lord, do I have to forgive as many as seven times?" ... "Hmm, now that you ask, Peter, the door is wide open. You have the freedom to "let go" the grudge you bear, the wound you nurse, the hurt that is taking you over - not just seven times. For heavenís sake (literally), the sky is the limit."

            Forgiveness, brothers and sisters, is a choice. It is a power we have. We are not powerless, whether in response to little infractions - the day-to-day hurts, or to the major sins that may be committed against us in life. As I said, forgiveness involves a "letting go." When we hold on to the grudges, the wounds, the hurts - which, I must say, is also a choice - there are physical, mental, and emotional consequences. High blood pressure, depression, increased substance abuse, decreased immune system function, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis ... the list goes on and on of what the result of years of holding to things that we have the power to choose to "let go." Forgiveness is a "letting go." It is the power of choice.

            In this morningís scripture, Jesus came to his disciples on Easter Sunday. They were closed in their little room - afraid, angry, hurt, depressed, confused, maybe a little hopeful - over events that were beyond their control. They didnít have a choice in what happened to Jesus, and what might happen to them as his followers. Into that room he came, John the gospel storyteller said, in a passage some might call "Johnís Pentecost." Jesus didnít physically open any doors when he came, but thatís okay. What he did and said blew the shutters off that place with new possibilities.

            Pentecost is the coming of the Holy Spirit, which we can liken to Godís fire as a flame on each personís head, or to the pouring out Godís cool, refreshing water, or to God with a mighty wind blowing away the mold and mildew surrounding his people. In this passage from Johnís gospel, the Holy Spirit comes as the very breath of Christ. "Peace be with you," Jesus said to his disciples. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." And he breathed on them, saying "Receive the Holy Spirit" (20:21-22). What he said next must be very important, wouldnít you think? "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retain."

            Literally, it says, "if you let go of the sins of any..." Forgiveness is "letting go." As this scripture makes crystal clear, The Coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts. 2:1-12), by Soichi Watanabe, Japansuch "letting go" - the choice of forgiveness - is wrapped up in our receiving the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is also spoken of as a "dunamis," a "dynamite," a power we have in Christ. The Spirit strengthens us. Therefore, we have been given to power to forgive, to "let go." The disciples just then needed to hear that, otherwise they would have been so weighed down that they would never have left that room. They would never have ventured forth to share the good news with the very people against whom they had every reason to hold a grudge. Now, however - with the breath, the Spirit of Christ - they had a choice, and they chose to set the world on fire with his light and love...

            Through the Holy Spirit, we have the power to forgive, to "let go" of past hurts, wounds, and grudges. We have the power to heal. Will we choose to do the same as those first followers of Jesus?

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see John.

©2002 Peter L. Haynes

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